March 2, 2015 by Ibrahim Hamidi (Originally published in Al Hayat)
The party that from an early stage acted on the assumption that “the Syrian regime had fallen” wasn’t Washington or the “friends of the Syrian people,” and it wasn’t the Kremlin either. The US and Russia agreed in 2012 on a “transitional period” presided over by a governing body made up of opposition and pro-regime actors—this way, state institutions would be preserved and a re-run of the Iraq scenario prevented. The US and Russia didn’t think seriously about what was behind regime institutions. Moscow was using the Syrian crisis to make up for its losses in Iraq and Libya, and to improve its position internationally. Washington didn’t want complete chaos in what was left of Syria, and was applying pressure to force the regime into making big concessions: First, Damascus had to give up its chemical arsenal; later on, it had to allow the long term pursuit of jihadists (now fighting Hezbollah) on its territory. After all, the Syrian crisis was “contained within the borders.”
The Iranian project lay elsewhere, and Tehran’s strategy was following a separate path. After the “Arab Spring” began and its winds reached Damascus, Iran used all of its military, security, political and economic muscle to stop protests from reaching Syria—beginning with Homs’s “Clock Square” in the center of the country. But Tehran knew the regime was finished structurally, and that there would have to be a new regime, controlling a new demographic balance under a new social contract.
Iran had a clear vision and all the tools to implement it were available. Its allies in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon returned to their traditional role within the Iranian project: going in with the gloves off. Calmly, Iran set about establishing a “shadow regime” made up of numerous security, military, economic, social and political establishments. Perhaps one of the main tools in this project are the militias that lay far outside the sphere of central authority, as is the case in other countries. Following the Basij model, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) set up the National Defense Forces (NDF). The IRGC directly influenced the new militia by training it in Iran, providing it with funding and sending advisors to several parts of Syria. The number of fighters in the NDF is thought to be around 100,000.
Notably, most NDF members are marginalized and unemployed young Sunnis. Over a short period of time they became people of influence and authority with high wages, weapons and military uniforms. Their role is to control local communities by acting as a barrier against opposition fighters and eyes to spy on outlying areas.
In many cases, these individuals owe no allegiance to the central authorities in Damascus. Many stories tell of high-level “directives” being issued from the capital for the removal of checkpoints in the middle of the country, and the people in charge of the checkpoints refusing to carry out their orders. It has also been said that most negotiations to reach a permanent agreement on restoring calm in Homs’s Al-Waer district have collapsed because NDF officials in Shiite neighborhoods aren’t satisfied with the agreements reached. Other stories have circulated suggesting that local NDF commanders now owe more allegiance to their main source of money and weapons, NDF chief Fadi Saqr, than to the minister of defense or the government.
The NDF was established to compensate for the losses the army was suffering—sources say that according to Ministry of Defense records over 100,000 soldiers and officers have been killed. Additionally, the number of army recruits has dropped sharply to just a few thousand every six months from over 60,000 before 2011; a large number of defections have occurred in Sunni areas; and young men from the Alawite majority areas on the coast have fled overseas to avoid military service. All of the above has caused the number of recruits in the army to dwindle to around 100,000. The response has been to increase the use of reserves, prevent large numbers of young men from crossing the border and close maritime transport lines previously used by residents in coastal areas.
As well as establishing the NDF, Iran has sought to increase the amount of Syrian real estate it purchases, enlarge Shiite shrines in Damascus and Homs, and facilitate the emergence of a new class of businessmen, who have benefitted from the commissions produced by the evasion of US and European sanctions, especially in the oil and energy sector, and provision of foodstuffs. In addition to this new class of businessmen, “warlords” have set their sights on the reconstruction plans for demolished areas of the capital. They hope to combine recent financial gains with demographic changes that have taken place in the “poverty belt” formed around Damascus after the middle of the 20th century—an area which has played a prominent role over the past four years, both in the peaceful and militarized phases of the uprising.
It is no coincidence that demography has played a decisive role in defining the nature of ceasefire agreements in Damascus. We have seen “stability” between the pro-regime Ish al-Warwar and opposition Barzeh al-Balad neighborhoods in the north of the capital, and “instability” between the Al-Sumaria military base and the Moadamiyet al-Sham local council in the southwest. As Iran is well aware of Syrian demography and history, it has opened channels to increase the leverage of Sunni businessmen and religious figures by providing financial facilitations and measures of influence.
The latest step Iran has taken is to openly declare military leadership on the ground. Since the end of 2012, the fact that the IRGC, Hezbollah, and militias from Iraq and Asia are part of the conflict has been no secret, but now Tehran has decided to clearly announce their role in the fighting. This began with engagements north of Aleppo, and has continued in the “Battle for the South” in the Damascus-Daraa-Quneitra triangle—an area which borders Jordan (the gateway between Syria and the Gulf) and the occupied Golan Heights.
Iran is most likely trying to take over from the Syrian regime in Syria just like it did in Lebanon. The assassination of Rafiq Hariri in 2005 led to the enforced isolation of Damascus, and then to the departure of the Syrian army and security forces. This ended an era of Syrian presence in Lebanon, something that had been part of the “rules of the game” since the beginning of the Lebanese civil war and continued after the 1989 signing of the Taif Agreement. Syria intervened in the second half of the 1970s when the US and Russia gave Hafez al-Assad the green light to do so. After the Taif Agreement, Syria benefitted from the end of the cold war to move into a second phase in Lebanon through a regional understanding with Saudi Arabia. Assad also used the peace process he had entered with Israel and his involvement in Operation Desert Storm to eliminate General Michel Aoun and take control of Lebanon for more than two decades. Syria’s presence in Lebanon also included an understanding on “red lines” related to what kind of weapons were allowed to proliferate in the south after Israel’s withdrawal.
When Syria left Lebanon it lost the leading role it had played in running the country, and over the last two years Hezbollah and Iran have played the largest role in saving the regime in Damascus. Now Iran is trying to put forward a formula for Syria like the formula Syria put forward for Lebanon. It is trying to use the war on terror, the Arab-international campaign against the Islamic State (ISIS), and the nuclear talks to propose the following deal: the security of Israel and the Gulf in exchange for control of decision making in the Levant and Iraq. In other words, Iran would be allowed to direct political matters in a way that serves the interests of the West and the Gulf. By leading the “Battle for the South,” Tehran has regained negotiating power it lost after the 2006 Lebanon War when UN Security Council Resolution 1701 was issued. It has used this to present itself as three things:
1) A rational partner who knows the rules of the game in “useful Syria” (an alternative to the madness of the Al-Nusra Front and other opposition factions);
2) A guarantor of the continuation of the 1974 disengagement agreement between Syria and Israel, and the return of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF); and
3) An unbreachable barrier preventing ISIS advancing into Jordan and the Gulf.
This proposal does not worry the Obama administration; in fact, Washington is ready to negotiate. US support for the “moderate opposition” is part of its negotiation efforts—Washington is “wearing down” Tehran and bringing it to the debating table. However, Iran’s proposal does worry Vladimir Putin. Since the beginning of the crisis, Russia has been protecting the regime in the United Nations Security Council by using its right to veto with support from China. It has also been giving financial support to Syrian state institutions. Moscow sees its influence historically in the traditional institutions, especially the army and the security forces. Tehran sees its influence in non-governmental institutions. Russia believes in a “top-down” solution through its interpretation of the 2012 Geneva Communique and the idea of a transitional governing body. Iran believes in a “bottom-up” solution through UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura’s plan because it gives a larger role to local leaders and militias.
Signals coming from Moscow indicate that the Kremlin is worried about Iran’s intentions. Russia has sent more than one ambiguous message through adopting international decrees. These include UN Security Council Resolution 2118 for the elimination of Syria’s chemical arsenal, resolutions for humanitarian aid including “cross-border” assistance, and the decision by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to submit its report on use of chlorine gas to the UN Security Council. This came after Russia approved the Geneva Communique in and took part in the Geneva II conference at the beginning of last year. However, there are limits to the extent of US-Russian cooperation because of the renewed outbreak of the “cold war” in an even colder form, the acute crisis in the Ukraine, the subsequent Western sanctions against Moscow and Putin’s remarks about the West seeking “regime change” in Russia.
Those who meet with Russian officials know that Moscow is worried by the US-Iranian deal—it fears that Russia may be left out altogether. Another cause for Russian concern is the heavy involvement by the US in areas of Syria outside regime control, through raids by coalition warplanes, and the covert and public programs to train opposition fighters. Moscow is looking for a solution in “useful Syria” where it is the sponsor of the remaining state institutions and the guarantor of Israeli and Gulf security. It is no surprise that despite low expectations, Russia hosted recent Syrian-Syrian dialogue, and secretly contacted former Syrian officials in search of options.
Syria is “useful” in terms of strategy: In the south, Daraa Governorate and the Golan border Jordan and Israel respectively; in the center of the country, Homs Governorate borders Hezbollah’s areas of influence; and the coastal cities of Tartous and Latakia give Russia a foothold in the Mediterranean.
Russia is worried it may lose Syria to Tehran like it lost Iraq. There can be no doubt as to the existence of a Russo-Iranian struggle for what remains of “useful Syria.”
Washington, March 4, 2015 by Michael R. Gordon
The Syrian opposition on Wednesday began posting about 4,000 photographs of detainees who have died in President Bashar al-Assad’s prisons so that family members can try to identify the victims and potentially serve as plaintiffs in war crimes cases that could be filed in courts in Europe and possibly the United States.
Nearly 27,000 photos of Syrian detainees have been turned over to the F.B.I. for analysis, but the Syrian opposition is now taking the unusual step of publishing those in which the victims’ facial features have not been blurred or otherwise disguised, as they have been in the past because of privacy concerns. The pictures were smuggled out of Syria by a former Syrian police photographer and renowned defector, who uses the pseudonym Caesar.
Secretary of State John Kerry told a United Nations human rights body in Geneva on Monday that the photos Caesar provided show graphic evidence of torture at the hands of the Syrian government.
Many of the faces in the photos are emaciated. Some show signs of beatings. Some of the victims are women, and some are very young. Markings on their foreheads, which were applied by Syrian government officials, indicate the detention center where the prisoners were incarcerated and which security agency was responsible for them before they died.
By publishing photos of the victims, the opposition is trying to make it possible for relatives to pick them out and, more important for potential legal action, confirm their nationality. If some of the victims can be shown to have been dual citizens of Britain, Spain, Turkey, the United States or other countries, that would assist the effort to pursue charges for war crimes in courts in those nations, opponents of the Assad government say.
“It is essential that those responsible are brought before a court of law, whether that is The Hague, New York, London or Madrid,” said Toby Cadman, a London-based lawyer who is representing Caesar and his supporters.
The photos are being published on two opposition websites: a Facebook page maintained by Caesar’s supporters, and a site that focuses on the plight of political prisoners and missing Syrians.
“In order to be able to be effective in the pursuit of justice for the victims we must have witnesses and plaintiffs to begin the legal process in national courts where we are planning prosecutions against the Assad regime for war crimes,” said Mouaz Moustafa, who has served as a representative in Washington for Caesar. “It is also important to bring closure for families by helping them identify their missing loved ones.”
Caesar, who is now living in an undisclosed location in Europe, has played a central role in revealing human rights abuses at the hands of the Syrian government.
He did not start out as an activist. Caesar was photographing accident scenes for Syria’s military police when the conflict erupted and he was assigned to take pictures of bodies from detention centers, many of which displayed signs of torture. Concluding that he was documenting war crimes, Caesar downloaded copies of the photos and defected.
Obama administration officials believe that the photos are authentic and have praised him for revealing the abuses. In July, Caesar visited Washington, where, wearing a hood to hide his identity, he briefed a congressional panel. He also appeared at the Holocaust Memorial Museum, visited the White House and met with Samantha Power, the American ambassador to the United Nations.
“Anyone who has seen the images will never forget them,” Mr. Kerry said on Monday. “Maimed bodies, people with their eyes gouged out, emaciated prisoners. It defies anybody’s sense of humanity.”
But Caesar’s revelations have not led to concerted international action against the Assad government.
Russia’s veto power in the United Nations Security Council has posed an obstacle for referring war crimes allegations against Mr. Assad to the International Criminal Court. In providing the photos to the United States, Caesar and his supporters hoped that the Obama administration would help the legal efforts to hold the Assad government accountable.
In July, Caesar gave 26,948 of his photographs to the F.B.I., and the bureau was to evaluate their authenticity and provide assessments of its findings.
The painstaking work has been difficult, and there is no deadline for completing it, a senior American law enforcement official said in October.
To try to identify the victims, American officials have been using facial recognition software to compare the photos that Caesar provided with visa and passport photos in the State Department’s database and with photos in a separate terrorism database. But only a small number of possible identifications have been made, according to American lawmakers who were briefed on the results last year.
As a result, Caesar’s supporters decided to take matters into their own hands by posting thousands of the photos.
“Regrettably, the F.B.I. has not yet disclosed its findings,” said Mr. Cadman, the London-based lawyer. “That has prompted our team to make a very difficult decision to set up a process by which family members can go through a collection of images with a view to identifying missing loved ones that they believe were arbitrarily arrested, tortured and possibly murdered by the regime.”
If charges are pursued abroad or in the United States, Caesar may also testify, Mr. Moustafa, his representative, said.
Rebels from al-Qaida affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, also known as the Nusra Front, waving their brigade flag in 2013 Edlib News Network/AP/File View Caption
Reyhanli and Gazientep, Turkey — Gains by Jabhat al-Nusra, an Al Qaeda affiliate, have forced two major US-backed rebel groups to disband at a time when Washington needs solid partners to counter the influence of jihadists in Syria.
Al Nusra, the main jihadist rival to the self-declared Islamic State, delivered a deathblow over the weekend to Harakat Hazzm, seizing the moderate rebels’ headquarters in Aleppo Province. It also took its remaining weapons, including dozens of US-supplied TOW anti-tank missiles, according to images the group disseminated.
Hazzm’s defeat is a setback for Washington, which has struggled to create a coherent strategy that bolsters pro-Western groups among the opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. After careful vetting, the CIA had zeroed in on Hazzm as a movement worth arming and training in a covert program launched in 2014.
The moderate Hazzm, which once boasted 2,000 members, had regrouped in Aleppo Province after being routed from its base in Idlib Province by Al Nusra and its allies. It was one of the groups due to be trained by the US in Turkey under a recent agreement between Washington and Ankara.
“The full dissolution of Hazzm over the weekend is a pretty big success for Jabhat al-Nusra in its efforts to marginalize moderate rebels in northern Syria,” says Jennifer Cafarella of the Institute for the Study of War in Washington.
Al Nusra, says the analyst, wants to reduce the influence of moderate groups that could turn against it because of their dependence on the West. It also aspires to be the preeminent face of the revolution in Syria, a goal it has partially achieved by becoming a vital ally to most rebel groups fighting Assad.
Hazzm said it dissolved itself “to avoid bloodshed” and sent its surviving members to join Jabhat al-Shammiyya (Levant Front), a loose coalition of antigovernment forces in Aleppo.
The demise of Hazzm caps months of sparring that spanned two provinces along the border with Turkey. Activists in Aleppo City describe the mood as tense, with many expressing the fear that Al Nusra may turn its attention to other groups that are in the good graces of the United States, such as the Nureddine al-Zinki Brigades, one of the most important rebel factions in Aleppo.
“People fear there will be new fights,” says Aleppo-based activist Abu Amer. “Nusra, being Al Qaeda, has problems with anyone who sides with the US.”
Hazzm received no support
Al Nusra had previously knocked out the moderate Syrian Revolutionary Forces (SRF), the largest US-backed rebel faction, which it defeated in the fertile basin of Idlib in November. The US ally folded almost without a fight. Its leader, snubbed by locals and other rebel groups for corruption and smuggling, fled to Turkey.
“Al Qaeda aims to control the liberated areas of Syria and eliminate the Free Syrian Army so that it can establish an emirate,” said defeated SRF commander Jamal Maarouf in a December interview in the border town of Reyhanli.
Syrian activists issued a statement condemning the latest offensive against Hazzm, saying it distracted from the fight against the regime of President Assad and the extremist IS. They also accused Al Nusra of copying IS by using allegations of corruption as a pretext to attack rivals.
“This is the same pretext that Daesh [IS] used in its attacks against the rebels” in Raqqa, 135 signatories said.
In the end, however, none of the other Aleppo-based rebel groups were willing to stick their neck out for Hazzm. “Nusra has taken Base 46 and set up camp there. The situation is very tense at the moment. No one wants to interfere,” says Abdullah Baddawi, an activist in the city.
Base 46 is a strategic hilltop military base near the town of Atarab in Aleppo Province.
Al Nusra in search of an ‘emirate’
Both the Aleppo and Idlib clashes were the direct outcome of vendetta killings and kidnappings between the groups.
Rita Katz, founder of SITE Intelligence Group, suggests the pro-Western groups could have had their reasons to wage such a campaign of kidnappings and assassinations against Al Nusra, which is designated by the United States as a terrorist organization and has been targeted by US-led airstrikes.
“The more you observe the fighting across Syria, a complex web of alliances starts to emerge,” says Ms. Katz. “Al Nusra Front can be seen all across this web, maintaining strategic alliances with Islamist and secular groups alike.”
The two moderate groups, she adds, instigated the clashes with the Nusra Front “possibly by orders from the US,” which funded, trained, and equipped them with weapons. Hazzm was far too small to truly threaten Al Nusra, which has wide support across the country, she notes.
Both Katz and Ms. Cafarella concur that Al Nusra would not enter a fight that hurts the overall effort against the Assad regime. Their No. 1 priority, they say, is to nurture the support of the local population and lay the foundations of an “emirate,” a territory loyal to Al Qaeda in which Islamic law is enforced. That project is well underway in Idlib.
Different posture in the south
Personalities have also played a large role determining Al Nusra’s relationship to other rebels group. In the north, Al Nusra saw a low-risk opportunity to eliminate rivals who had affronted them. In the south, it maintains a collaborative relationship with others, including the Washington-endorsed Southern Front.
“Jabhat al-Nusra is very sensitive to anything related to the local population. They need their support. They know that. They are not ISIS,” says Katz. She predicts the group will mostly replicate the strategy of the Somali-based Al-Shabab militant Islamist group.
Cafarella ventures that there may be an “expansion of Jabhat al-Nusra action and aggression towards moderate” rebels in the areas of Rastan and Talbiseh, north of Homs City.
She says it is unlikely Al Nusra will pursue other groups in Aleppo given the strategic urgency of fighting the regime.
“There is a limit to how much Nusra can sideline other rebel groups,” she says. “That limit is the continued ability to defend against the regime.”
Beirut, March 4, 2015 by Mariam Karouny
Leaders of Syria’s Nusra Front are considering cutting their links with al Qaeda to form a new entity backed by some Gulf states trying to topple President Bashar al-Assad, sources said.
Sources within and close to Nusra said that Qatar, which enjoys good relations with the group, is encouraging the group to go ahead with the move, which would give Nusra a boost in funding.
The exercise could transform Nusra from a weakened militia group into a force capable of taking on Islamic State at a time when it is under pressure from bombing raids and advances by Kurdish and Iraqi military forces.
It could also boost the influence of Qatar and its allies in the campaign to oust Assad, in line with the Gulf state’s growing diplomatic ambitions in the region. Qatari officials were not available for comment.
While it awaits the final word from its decision-making Shoura council, Nusra is not wasting time. It has turned on small non-jihadi groups, seizing their territory and forcing them to disarm so as to consolidate Nusra’s power in northern Syria and pave the way for the new group.
Intelligence officials from Gulf states including Qatar have met the leader of Nusra, Abu Mohamad al-Golani, several times in the past few months to encourage him to abandon al Qaeda and to discuss what support they could provide, the sources said.
They promised funding once it happens.
"A new entity will see the light soon, which will include Nusra and Jaysh al Muhajereen wel Ansar and other small brigades," said Muzamjer al-Sham, a prominent jihadi figure who is close to Nusra and other Islamist groups in Syria.
"The name of Nusra will be abandoned. It will disengage from al Qaeda. But not all the Nusra emirs agree and that is why the announcement has been delayed," said Sham.
A source close to the foreign ministry confirmed that Qatar wanted Nusra to become a purely Syrian force not linked to al Qaeda.
"They are promising Nusra more support, i.e. money, supplies etc, once they let go of the Qaeda ties," the official said.
The Qatari-led bid to rebrand Nusra and to provide it with new support could further complicate the war in Syria as the United States prepares to arm and train non-jihadist rebels to fight Islamic State.
The Nusra Front is listed as a terrorist group by the United States and has been sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council. But for Qatar at least, rebranding Nusra would remove legal obstacles to supporting it.
FIGHTING ISLAMIC STATE
One of the goals of the new entity would be to fight Islamic State, Nusra’s main competitor in Syria. IS is led by Iraqi jihadi Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who helped create Nusra before falling out with Golani.
Once the most powerful group fighting Assad, Nusra was weakened when most of its commanders and fighters left with Baghdadi to form Islamic State. IS then killed many of Nusra’s remaining leaders, confiscated its weapons, forced its commanders to go underground and seized its territory.
But recently Islamic State has come under pressure from air strikes by a U.S.-led coalition. It has also lost ground to Kurdish fighters in Syria and to the Iraqi armed forces. But the group is far from collapse.
But if Nusra splits from al Qaeda, some hope that with proper funding, arming and training, fighters from the new group will be able to tackle Islamic State.
Jihadi sources said that Golani suggested to the group’s Shoura Council that it should merge with Jaysh al-Muhajereen wel Ansar, a smaller jihadi group composed of local and foreign fighters and led by a Chechen commander.
The announcement has been delayed due to objections from some of Nusra’s leaders who reject the idea of leaving al Qaeda. But this was seen as unlikely to stop Golani.
"He is going to do it, he does not have a choice. Those who are not happy can leave," said a Nusra source who backs the move.
It seems Golani is already establishing the ground.
Nusra wants to use northern Syria as base for the new group. It launched offensives against Western-backed groups who have been vetted by the U.S. to receive military support.
In the northern province of Idlib it seized territory from the Syria Revolutionaries’ Front led by Jamal Maarouf, forcing him to flee. Last week it went after another mainstream group, Harakat Hazzm in Aleppo province, forcing it to dissolve itself.
The U.S. State Department said the end of Harakat Hazzm would have an impact on the moderate opposition’s capabilities in the north.
But if Nusra is dissolved and it abandons al Qaeda, the ideology of the new entity is not expected to change. Golani fought with al Qaeda in Iraq. Some other leaders fought in Afghanistan and are close al Qaeda chief Ayman Zawahri.
"Nusra had to pledge loyalty to Sheikh Zawahri to avoid being forced to be loyal to Baghdadi but that was not a good idea, it is time that this is abandoned," said a Nusra source in Aleppo. "It did not help Nusra and now it is on the terrorist list," he said.
March 4, 2015
An attack on a Syrian intelligence headquarters in Aleppo killed at least 20 members of the regime’s security forces and 14 rebels, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Wednesday.
The attack, which began with a powerful bomb blast in a tunnel targeting air force intelligence offices in Aleppo, was aimed at seizing the building but failed,
Sporadic fighting was continuing in the area, it said, but heavy clashes had subsided.
Rebel sources and a combatant fighting on the government side confirmed that part of the building had been destroyed in
the attack on the western outskirts of Aleppo.
Air Force Intelligence is widely viewed as one of the most powerful arms of the Syrian security establishment.
In a statement circulated by Nusra Front supporters on Twitter, the group said “the Mujahideen destroyed Air Force
intelligence” and were fighting in the surrounding areas.
Rami Abdulrahman, who runs the Observatory, described it as a blow to the Syrian security establishment. “It’s very
important, it should have been better protected,” he said.
Abdulrahman said the dead included members of the Syrian intelligence apparatus, pro-government fighters, and some of the attackers.
Aleppo, around 50 km (30 miles) south of the border with Turkey, is divided between government forces and insurgent
groups fighting to topple President Bashar al-Assad in a four-year-old conflict estimated to have killed 200,000 people.
U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura is currently trying to broker a ceasefire between insurgent and government forces in Aleppo. His team headed there on Tuesday.
Government forces backed by allied militia launched a major offensive aiming to encircle the insurgent-held part of Aleppo late last month, but the offensive was repulsed.
[With Reuters, AFP]