What Can Be Done to Stitch Syria’s Communities Back Together?

August 28, 2014 by Karen Leigh

With the fabric of Syrian society badly damaged after three years of conflict, the first step is to pull the country back together at the community level – leading to a national dialogue that takes into consideration the needs of groups from Kurds to Christians to tribes.

Salman Shaikh, the director of the Brookings Doha Center, has been involved in creating the Syria Track II Dialogue initiative, whose goal is to target a core group of influential Syrians and design processes through which Syrian communities and constituencies can build relationships.

"We are bringing in a wide variety of voices from Syrian backgrounds, and involving them in the design," he says.

Here, Shaikh discusses what can be done to pull Syria back together again, starting at the local level; the “peace assets” available on the ground; and the major hurdles to building such relationships in divided communities.

Syria Deeply: What can be done to pull Syria back together at the community level? What are the “peace assets” on the ground?

Salman Shaikh: You have to focus on the social makeup of the societies and look to see how you can build a network of bridges that will change the situation at the local level. So far the center of that has been the Assad regime. It has, in the past, effectively built networks across tribes, the business and economic elite, the bourgeoisie and various [minority] communities. That encapsulates the Syrian mosaic, and it’s been held together by a combination of [regime-induced] support, financial largesse – and intimidation, fear and even force.

Now that [mosaic] seems to have come undone to some degree, even though we cant deny the government still enjoys a wide amount of support – especially with the emergence of extremists. But that support has also eroded over the course of this conflict. The rest of the country is being divided into smaller pieces. That’s the challenge we face – we’re looking at a highly-fragmented country, and that has affected all these communities.

Syria Deeply: What kind of local reconciliation can exist, in this climate? What are the biggest roadblocks you see? Warlords? Subnational identities?

Shaikh: People divide [the current landscape] between those in government-controlled areas and those in opposition areas, but if you’re going to put Syria back together, you have to see if you can [connect the two].

What we’ve seen with local ceasefires is that there is no trust and confidence being built between local government and opposition entities. Instead what we’ve seen are these tactical, short term measures imposed by the government and accepted by rebel-held communities because they have no other choice. The truces don’t apply across the board – like to liberated areas. We have to go back to working on how we can improve these [relationships].

You have local councils, you have activist groups, but you need an international framework that brings them together. You have to put communities in a national context. You need a political process that brings everyone forward – tribal leaders, Alawites, Kurds, Christians, the business elite – and puts them on a national stage. You need a process that’s legitimized at the international level, not just at the domestic level. It can’t just be the Assad government running this.

Syria Deeply: What “peace assets” are there on the ground? How would the local representatives to a national dialogue be selected?

Shaikh: When you design a national dialogue process, you have a measure of selection at the local level – maybe [it starts with] the local councils or some other body. You can’t have a process of self selection because the situation on the ground is much too fragmented. I believe that there are local constituencies that can forge ahead and work together at the local level – tribal and Kurdish elements working together, activists and local councils, and certain older elites like the business community. But in my view, that’s not going to translate to a more sustainable peace locally.

There needs to be a national process that’s legit by an international actor working alongside Syrians themselves. Syria is in pieces. So you can come to localized arrangements which can help bring about temporary truces and some greater access and safety for humanitarian relief – which can help in the establishment of a field hospital or a bakery – but they are still susceptible to the broader national fight and even the regional elements that drive this conflict.

Gunfight shows demise of moderates on Syria’s southern front

Syria: gunfight shows demise of moderates on southern front
Qais Al Qatahneh seen in a video grab from YouTube posted by the Omari brigades on March 19.

Amman, September 1, 2014 by Phil Sands and Suha Maayeh

The meeting was bad tempered from the start and quickly spiralled out of control. First, the two opponents of president Bashar Al Assad shouted at each other, then the shoving began, before weapons were drawn and shots fired.

Qais Al Qatahneh, a leading rebel commander, and Qaisar Habib, an opposition media activist, men ostensibly united in their desire to defeat the Syrian regime on the country’s crucial southern front, instead turned their guns on each other with fatal results.

Capt Al Qatahneh died from gunshot wounds on Thursday, while Mr Habib, hit by several bullets, remains seriously injured.

It was a small incident in a conflict that has killed more than 190,000 people but the fates of the two men involved highlights the complexities of Syria’s four years of uprising-turned-rebellion, and the rivalries that have hamstrung a fractured opposition.

The killing of Capt Al Qatahneh, who headed the Omari brigades in Deraa, part of the powerful Syrian Revolutionary Front (SRF), is also another blow to the more moderate rebels backed by governments in the West and the Arabian Gulf. Their influence has been steadily overshadowed by Jabhat Al Nusra, an Al Qaeda affiliate, and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, an even more radical group that has yet to gain serious direct influence in Deraa but which has taken over swathes of Syria and Iraq.

“Qatahneh is a symbol of the revolution,” said a moderate rebel commander in Deraa, the southern city where the uprising began in March 2011.

“If he was killed by the regime, we would have called it a slap in the face. But his death came as a shock to us. Nobody would have expected that Qatahneh would be killed at the hands of another member of the opposition.”

Capt Al Qatahneh, was among the first wave of military personnel to defect from the Assad regime in July 2011, four months after the peaceful uprising began.

He created a Free Syrian Army (FSA) battalion that included several other defectors and became an influential member of the SRF, a group set up in December under the FSA banner, as part of an effort to unite and better coordinate fractured, moderate rebel units.

The SRF played a prominent role in battles against the regime in Deraa, with the Omari brigades financed largely by Saudi Arabia, according to rebels and activists in southern Syria.

Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have pumped billions of dollars into the war effort aimed at toppling the Assad regime, significant amounts of which have been channelled into the southern front via Jordan.

Mr Habib, a name he took to disguise his real identity, is also symbolic of the frequently bewildering conflict.

He studied law at Aleppo university but never went into practice, instead taking up the challenge offered by the Arab Spring to pull down corrupt, autocratic regimes and replace them with something more accountable and representative of a new generation.

Instead of becoming a lawyer, he became a media activist — a local, grassroots journalist openly sympathetic with the rebel cause, reporting from rebel held territory — and was in regular contact with Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya satellite channels, according to opposition sources in Deraa.

In those reports and in comments posted to opposition Facebook pages, he was routinely critical of both the Syrian regime and rebels, including what he saw as military failures by opposition units, among them the Omari brigades.

That increasingly won him enemies within rebel factions, which, mirroring a regime that allows little freedom for the press, have grown ever more intolerant of media critics.

During Thursday’s meeting, Capt Al Qatahneh had demanded Mr Habib, a member of the Shammar tribe, which has strong clan connections in Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Jordan, ask for approval before publishing news and threatened to “split him in half if he refused”, said an opposition activist.

However, in recent months, Mr Habib was also said by his detractors to have become closer to the more radical Islamic side of the rebellion, including Jabhat Al Nusra. His journalism increasingly represented and espoused an extreme outlook and had become dangerous, said another Deraa-based activist.

An Omari brigade fighter went further and said his unit believed Mr Habib to be a full member of Al Nusra and that, before the shooting incident, there had been calls to arrest him for involvement in Al Nusra operations.

The exact circumstances surrounding Thursday’s shoot-out remain unclear, with activists and rebel fighters offering different explanations as to how it erupted.

What is not in dispute is the immediate outcome. Both men were shot and seriously wounded. Capt Al Qatahneh was whisked across the border to Jordan for medical treatment and died in hospital in Ramtha the same night. Mr Habib survived, but is in a critical condition with bullets in his abdomen and groin.

Tensions in Deraa have been high following the shootings, with new checkpoints set up by rebel units in parts of the province, including Tal Shehab, a district 12 kilometres north-west of Deraa city, to prevent clashes between members of the men’s tribes and supporting rebel factions.

“People are on edge here and we are expecting these tensions to increase,” said a rebel commander who travels often between Jordan and Syria. Fearing reprisals, the Jordanian authorities established a security cordon around Ramtha hospital while Cpt Al Qatahneh was receiving treatment.

“We don’t know the exact reasons for Qatahneh’s death. There were several stories regarding a dispute…but we fear this will result in more infighting,” said Abu Qais Al Hourani, an activist with the Yarmouk Division, another rebel group that operates mainly in eastern Deraa province.

“Qatahneh’s faction is well armed and he has relatives and officers in the SRF and because they are also Bedouins, they will not be quiet,” he said.

Extended family structures in Deraa remain strong, with cultural traditions of avenging the death of clan members if no satisfactory agreement can be reached to diffuse a situation.

The Omari brigades fighter said his faction had requested a local Islamic legal committee, which includes tribal elders and clerics, and which draws broad support among civilians and armed groups, to investigate the shooting and establish what punishment, if any, should be imposed.

“If the other side doesn’t agree to take this to the Islamic committee then we will attack Habib’s supporters,” the fighter said.

Even if the immediate standoff can be resolved, the shooting has placed further strain on already fraying rebel unity on the southern front.

In contrast to widespread rebel factionalism and infighting on the northern and eastern fronts, the southern region has provided a relatively well-coordinated and coherent opposition to Mr Al Assad’s forces.

That unity has, however, been under serious strain from the growing power of Al Nusra, once a minor element in the south but now a powerful enough player that, in May, it detained a well connected FSA officer, Col Ahmed Nehmeh, saying it would put him on trial for treason against the rebel cause.

Col Nehmeh’s fate remains unknown. His detention was widely seen as embarrassing for the western- and Gulf-backed rebel factions in the FSA and SRF, both allied to the detained officer but powerless to get him released.

Syrians adjust to life under ISIS rule

File - Fighters of al-Qaeda linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant carry their weapons during a parade at the Syrian town of Tel Abyad, near the border with Turkey January 2, 2014. REUTERS/Yaser Al-Khodor

Urfa, August 30, 2014 by Lauren Williams

On a dusty curb at the Akcakale border post between Turkey and Syria, two men sit waiting to cross back to their hometown of Tal Abyad, which, like many cities in northern Syria, is under the control of the now infamous ISIS.

The men detailed life under ISIS rule, and after having been dealt different fortunes as a result of the radical jihadist group’s takeover of their city, they had divergent opinions on the merits of life in areas controlled by a group now touting itself as the Islamic State.

ISIS is consolidating its newly announced caliphate using a combination of economic incentives and fear, as it continues its blood-soaked campaign to take and hold territory. Many desperate Syrians, impoverished and exhausted after nearly four years of war, are welcoming the new administration. But those that fall foul of the group question the long-term effect on Syrian society and whether the cost of this aid is too high.

The first of the two men, a cotton trader named Mohammad, smoked as he waited for the Turkish Gendarme to open the heavy white iron gate to enter Syria, along the road that leads to the ISIS headquarters in Raqqa and passes checkpoints manned by its fighters. To the side, men carefully inspect the results after dressing a woman, who had arrived earlier in jeans and a colorful headscarf, head to toe in the black, full length abaya and face-covering niqab as they prepare to enter Syria.

Meeting a foreign reporter, and an uncovered woman, Mohammad cracked a joke. “If they see you, this is what will happen,” he said, gesturing with a finger across his throat.

“But it’s no worse than what any good Muslim can tolerate,” he explained. “There are just three things to watch out for: no smoking cigarettes, wear the hijab and pray five times a day. If you do these things, there is nothing to worry about.”

The trader had recently experienced a reversal of fortunes. Now that ISIS controls the main checkpoints leading to the borders, the once impoverished refugee is making ends meet by smuggling the cotton, managed and distributed by ISIS, across the border to Turkey. He recently returned to live in Tal Abyad, along with his family, making the journey into Turkey about once a week.

“They are paying salaries now. It’s better than under [Syrian President Bashar] Assad. A municipality worker gets $600 a month. I can survive for six months inSyria on what I can survive on in one in Turkey,” he explained.

ISIS now controls about one-third of Syria, to the north and east along the Turkish and Iraqi borders. Flush with cash and arms acquired in their lightning summer offensive in Iraq, the group has extended its grip across Syria’s breadbasket, including oil and gas reserves and profitable agricultural land. It is administering the cities it controls as a state, providing civil service jobs in justice, infrastructure and policing, paying higher salaries than what Syrians say they ever received in the neglected east under Assad.

Bread and oil are being provided for cheap prices, well below the subsidized rates of pre-uprising days, sometimes even for free. Ramadan saw the group in the Raqqa distribute cash “gifts” at mosques. Roads are being rebuilt. Hospitals and schools, albeit only for boys and in Quranic studies, are being opened. Needs are being met.

“If you don’t have money, life under ISIS is still much better than here,” Mohammad says.

Joining his companion on the curb, Ahmad, a darting-eyed, well-built 28-year-old, his arms covered with deep scars and tattoos, scoffed as Mohammad praised the new regime.

Once the son of a wealthy agricultural land-owning family in Tal Abyad, Ahmad explained how ISIS had appropriated his family’s cotton plantations. After fighting alongside a rival rebel Islamist rebel group, Ahrar al-Sham, to maintain control of the profitable border trade, he now spends his days “hanging out” at the gate.

“There were huge amounts of aid, weapons and flour coming across the border,” he recalled, outlining a deal reached between ISIS and Ahrar al-Sham for control of the post.

“But Ahrar al-Sham got greedy. They tried to take control. ISIS offered to give us 50 percent of the takings from the border, but when they refused, they started to fight.”

Rolling up his trousers, he revealed at least six purple bullet wounds on his right leg.

“I’m from a wealthy agricultural family. Now all the land is lost to ISIS. They even harvest the wheat and sell it.”

“Early in the battles, ISIS were cutting off heads and catapulting them at the Free Syrian Army. Is this Islam?” he asked.

“These people are foreigners, they are not Syrians; they are not even Muslims. I would prefer a corrupt FSA to radical foreigners who cut off heads,” he said.

The strategy of ISIS to consolidate the caliphate, winning hearts and minds while terrifying opponents into submission, has seen young men recruited to the organization every day.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based, anti-regime monitoring group, ISIS recruited some 6,300 men in July alone.

“Much of the messaging that [ISIS] has been putting out in terms of social outreach has been going on since last year,” said Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a fellow at the Middle East Forum.

“Things like Quran recitations for children, gifts for Eid, electricity and bread. They have been working on these things from the beginning.”

Acknowledging that ISIS might have more work cut out for it in terms of winning hearts in Syria than in Iraq, where the organization capitalized on popular Sunni disgruntlement against the ruling regime of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, he said wherever it encountered resistance, it has responded with brutal force.

“In Syria there is more of an issue with popular support, because at first they were not welcomed. But wherever there have been signs of discontent, they have just been ruthless,” Tamimi explained.

“In Syria they had the workings of a state already.”

“They must have had some popular support already, but when consolidation comes about, they just rule by fear. It’s difficult to speak out [against them] much less take up arms.”

With the organization now taking on regime forces around strategic air bases in Raqqa and Deir al-Zor provinces, while trying to regain territory lost earlier in Aleppo province in the hope of reaching the provincial capital, the group appears to be accumulating new recruits from other Islamist organizations and even moderate Western backed groups like the Free Syrian Army as they seize control of new territory.

“The Free Syrian Army guys are just deserting or joining ISIS,” said Jeff White, defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Contemplating the future of his country under the new regime, Ahmad shook his head when asked what might stop the progress of ISIS.

“They control all the way from Iraq to Aleppo. It’s astonishing power. Perhaps America could stop them, but I’m not hopeful.”

Syrian army battles rebels as UN bids to free Golan monitors

Syrian soldiers take position during fighting against rebels near the Quneitra border crossing on September 1, 2014. (AFP PHOTO / MENAHEM KAHANA)

Syrian soldiers take position during fighting against rebels near the Quneitra border crossing on September 1, 2014. (AFP PHOTO / MENAHEM KAHANA)

Near the Quneitra crossing, September 1, 2014 by AFP

Syrian troops battled rebels hard by the armistice line with Israel on the Golan Heights on Monday as the United Nations pressed efforts to free 44 peacekeepers held by the insurgents.

Several mortar rounds struck close to the ceasefire line as the combatants exchanged rocket, mortar and tank fire near the Quneitra crossing, which the rebels seized last week, an AFP correspondent reported.

Israeli public radio reported that one stray round hit Israeli-occupied territory, without causing any casualties.

Al-Qaeda rebels stormed the Syrian side of the crossing on Wednesday and seized 44 Fijian peacekeepers, part of a UN mission that has monitored the ceasefire on the strategic plateau since 1974.

The United Nations said on Sunday that the Fijians  “continue to be detained by armed elements.”

"At this time, no additional information on their status or location has been established. The United Nations continues to actively seek their immediate and unconditional release," it said.

More than 70 Philippine peacekeepers who had been surrounded by the rebels escaped the hot zone over the weekend but the UN mission remained on high alert.

Peacekeepers were detained twice last year before being released safely.

The Philippines said before the latest incident that it will repatriate its 331-strong contingent for security reasons, mirroring previous moves by Australia, Croatia, and Japan.

The UN Disengagement Observer Force currently has 1,200 peacekeepers from the Philippines, Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal, and the Netherlands.

There has been repeated fire across the ceasefire line since the uprising in Syria erupted in March 2011, not all of it stray.

In June, Israeli warplanes attacked Syrian military headquarters and positions after an Israeli teenager was killed in what the Jewish state said was a cross-border attack by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Israel seized 1,200 square kilometers (460 square miles) of the Golan Heights during the Six-Day War of 1967, then annexed it in 1981 in a move never recognized by the international community.

Assad swears in government, urges reconstruction

Damascus, August 31, 2014 by AFP

Syria’s embattled President Bashar al-Assad swore in his new government on Sunday, saying security and reconstruction would be top priorities and urging ministers to tackle corruption.

The new government, appointed earlier this week after Assad’s June re-election, takes office as the death toll in the country’s conflict since March 2011 soars past 191,000.

The crippling violence has decimated the country’s economy and displaced approximately half its population, including three million Syrians who have taken refugee abroad.

Assad urged the new government to “provide a new vision,” state news agency SANA reported, and to avoid the “negatives of the previous stage.”

He said the government’s success would depend on “earning the trust of citizens through transparency and credibility,” SANA said.

He acknowledged that security remained the primary concern for the country, which has been torn apart by the violence that erupted after government crackdowns on anti-Assad protesters.

"This issue is being addressed by the Defense Ministry and the army… At the same time, it is important to continue with national reconciliation."

The new government includes 11 new ministers, with most of the changes involving finance and the economy.

Assad selected the new cabinet after being elected in the country’s first multi-candidate presidential vote earlier this year.

The vote was dismissed as a “farce” by much of the international community and the opposition and was held only in government-controlled territory.

Assad said Sunday that the country’s key economic challenge was reconstruction in areas “where security has been restored” but also urged ministers to combat price-fixing and profiteering as well as corruption.

The government “must be decisive in the fight against corruption and hold the corrupt accountable,” SANA quoted him as saying.

Syria’s conflict has plunged half the population into poverty, according to researchers, with some 20 percent living in “abject poverty.”

Unemployment stood at around 54 percent at the end of 2013, though it was as high as 65 percent in some places.

Dozens of children killed in string of Syria attacks

Damascus, August 31, 2014 by AFP

At least 37 children have been killed in government air strikes and shelling across Syria in the last 36 hours, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said Sunday.

The Britain-based Observatory said 20 children had been killed between midnight on Saturday and Sunday afternoon, with 17 more killed between Friday and Saturday night.

The deaths came in regime shelling and air strikes across the country, though most took place in the northern province of Aleppo and northwestern Idlib, Observatory director Rami Abdul Rahman said.

Many of the deaths came in raids involving the use of explosive-packed barrel-bombs, a weapon that has been criticized by rights groups as indiscriminate.

Among the dead on Sunday were at least five children killed along with five adults in a barrel bomb attack on the town of Hobait in Idlib province, said the monitor.

In northern Aleppo province, another five children and three adults were killed in an air raid in the west of the province, it added.

In the capital Damascus, meanwhile, regime planes continued to pound the eastern rebel-held district of Jubar, where the government began a fierce offensive earlier this week to wrest back control.

The Observatory said at least 15 air raids hit the district on Sunday, but there were no immediate details about casualties.

Jubar has been in insurgent hands for a year, and is considered strategic because it provides a gateway to the center of the capital and opens onto the key rebel stronghold of Eastern Ghouta.

In mid-August, the army took Mleiha some 10 kilometers southeast of Damascus, and capturing Jubar would allow a two-pronged advance on Eastern Ghouta.

Rebels arrayed around the capital regularly fire mortar and rockets into Damascus.

More than 190,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict began there in March 2011, according to the UN.

Obama Again Tips the Scales Toward Caution on Syria

August 29, 2014 by Mark Landler

When President Obama said on Thursday that he had no strategy yet for dealing with lethal Sunni militants in Syria, he seemed out of sync with his top military advisers and aides, who only days earlier had taken a more aggressive tone about military action.

That should not come as a surprise: Mr. Obama did the same thing a year ago this weekend. On the Friday before Labor Day, after Secretary of State John Kerry had condemned chemical weapons attacks by President Bashar al-Assad of Syria on his own people as a “moral obscenity” and warned of a harsh response, and after he himself had laid out a forceful case for military action, Mr. Obama stunned his staff by saying he was calling off a missile strike.

Now, as then, the president harbors profound doubts that American military action in Syria will do more good than harm. At every moment when it has appeared that he might be willing to shrug off his reluctance to act militarily in Syria, he has drawn back.

That reality is more important than whether Mr. Obama committed a gaffe at his news conference by saying that “we don’t have a strategy yet” in Syria. Despite White House attempts to clarify the statement after the fact, the criticism showed no signs of abating on Friday. Lawmakers and television commentators expressed bewilderment and alarm that Mr. Obama had no plan for dealing with a militant group in a war-torn country where the death toll is nearing 200,000.

But it is unlikely that a merciless drubbing from the news media and other critics is going to sway Mr. Obama. His decision to seek the approval of Congress for a strike on Syria, after saying that it had crossed his “red line” on the use of chemical weapons, also drew withering criticism — setting in place a narrative of feckless leadership that has dogged him for the last year.

Less noticed is that this decision led to one of his few foreign policy successes: Mr. Assad’s voluntary surrender of his chemical weapons stockpile — the result of a diplomatic proposal from Russia that Mr. Obama grabbed as an alternative to firing Tomahawk missiles when it became clear that Congress would never give its blessing for strikes.

Although Mr. Obama has gotten virtually no credit for that achievement, the lesson of the episode is hardly lost on him. On Thursday, asked about military action in Syria, he dwelled on the role of diplomacy in an effective strategy against the group, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

“The issue with respect to Syria is not simply a military issue, it’s also a political issue,” Mr. Obama said at the White House. “It’s also an issue that involves all the Sunni states in the region and Sunni leadership recognizing that this cancer that has developed is one that they have to be just as invested in defeating as we are.”

Some longtime critics of the president said they were encouraged by his restraint. His comments, they said, recognized that airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to defeat ISIS in Syria. It will require a ground component, which can succeed only if the United States and its allies strengthen the moderate opposition in Syria.

That, in turn, will require persuading Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and others to coordinate their support for the rebels. For now, the outside support goes to several groups, including radical ones, like the Nusra Front, which the State Department classifies as a terrorist organization.

Mr. Obama’s comments do not mean that he would refrain from striking ISIS leaders in Syria if the United States got intelligence on their whereabouts. He could give that order, administration officials said, even as his advisers draw up a broader strategy for dealing with Syria.

“When he says he doesn’t have a strategy yet, I take it at face value,” said Frederic C. Hof, a former State Department official who has criticized Mr. Obama’s strategy. “I’m actually a bit relieved that the president is looking at this to be addressed by means of an objectives-based strategy rather than as a strategic communications issue.”

But as a communications issue, Mr. Obama’s comments on Thursday show that at the very least, the administration’s message is not consistent. A week ago, the president’s deputy national security adviser, Benjamin J. Rhodes, told reporters on Martha’s Vineyard, “If you come after Americans, we’re going to come after you, wherever you are,” adding, “We’re not going to be restricted by borders.”

On Thursday, when Mr. Obama was speaking, Mr. Rhodes was out of town on vacation — the first time this summer he has not been at his boss’s right hand as he reacted to one in a cascade of foreign crises.

Mr. Hof said he was cautiously optimistic that Mr. Obama’s comments on Thursday suggested that the president was taking a “strong second look” at strengthening aid for the moderate opposition.

But the administration has sent these signals before. Last year, for example, it promised to bolster aid for the moderate opposition and began covertly supplying rebels with small arms and ammunition.

Since then, however, the flow of aid has been so tightly controlled that some rebel leaders have said it seemed intended less to turn the tide of the war than to keep them alive and lend the impression that the United States was helping.

How Entrenched Is ISIS in Syria?

August 31, 2014 by Karen Leigh (Syria Deeply)

As the U.S. strikes key targets held by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in northern Iraq, policymakers are considering a military campaign into the parts of eastern Syria also held by the Sunni militant group.

But while the strikes near Erbil, Iraq, have managed to help Kurdish forces beat back ISIS fighters – and to retake precarious hold of Iraq’s strategic Mosul Dam – they have not managed to expel ISIS from Iraq. Analysts say that moving the group out of its Syrian strongholds will prove even more difficult. The longer ISIS keeps control of Syrian territory from its de facto capital in Raqqa, they more entrenched they could become.

"We have to take into account that ISIS can begin to build foundations within the society and communities," says Abdullah Ali, a fellow at Chatham House studying Syria and its neighbors.

We asked Emile Hokayem, Middle East analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) and Haian Dukhan, a Syrian doctoral candidate and researcher studying Syrian tribes and communities at the University of St. Andrews, to weigh in on how ISIS has established itself at the local level – and how hard it will be to boot them out.

Syria Deeply: How well entrenched is ISIS in Syria right now?

Emile Hokayem: The levels of entrenchment vary considerably, depending on the region. There are areas where they clearly have the upper hand because they made a lot of local [business] deals. In other areas, especially in and around Deir Ezzor, their military victories have been overwhelming, and their ability to beat a few local tribes – in a bloody and public way – has really frightened and terrified ISIS’s potential defenders.

More to the north, going up towards [the border town of] Bab Hawa, residents still have not adjusted to ISIS – it’s only been there for six, eight months – and we are seeing quite a pushback from local communities.

Another dimension is that success begets success. Increasing numbers of Syrian rebels, including those who were fighting ISIS until recently, are now shifting sides, because they think the wind is blowing in ISIS’s way. This is slowly affecting the orientation of ISIS. With more Syrian rebels joining, ISIS is likely to shift its priorities and to devote more time and resources to the fight against Bashar al-Assad – even though this was not its original priority.

Coming up, ISIS’s revenue stream going to change – it’s going to be about exploitation, predation and racketeering. I suspect that ISIS not only has a decentralized organization, it also has a relatively decentralized financial and budgetary system. Its various groups are expected to raise resources locally. And so it’s going to be even more gang-like in newly conquered regions of northwest Syria, engraining it even further.

Haian Dukhan: The group is very well entrenched within local communities in Syria. They’re running schools and hospitals in ways that are similar to a state. They’re even paying salaries to the fighters, taking into consideration that a fighter might have kids to support. So a single fighter would get $400 per month, and then a fighter who’s a father would get an additional $100 per child, which attracts more fighters to join – it gives them a way to provide for their families back home, and makes it ok for them to leave those families behind.

Acting as a state like this really entrenches them at the local level, especially in the tribal communities. They have all of these oil reserves [in Raqqa and Deir Ezzor], which were for decades taken and monetized by the central government – leaving the people of these areas impoverished. And now ISIS is also making money off the oil, but it seems to be making an effort to spend some of these oil-given resources on the local people – they are at the very least providing food and basic necessities, like bread. So they’re becoming economically entrenched in various communities.

Since they arrived in Syria, they have also been working on “marriages of alliance” in the tribal communities. They have been trying to arrange marriages between ISIS fighters and girls from the tribes, which means that in the long run those fighters would have a familial connection to the tribes, making it difficult for any internationally led military camapign to sift them out. The local community and the fighters would, in certain areas, be one entity – making ISIS impossible to sift out.

One of the reasons they’ve been able to entrench themselves so well is because local populations in Syria and Iraq have seen them as a way to get rid of first the Assad regime, and more recently, Maliki.

Syria Deeply: Are they entrenched more deeply in Syria than in Iraq?

Dukhan: In Syria they are more entrenched than in Iraq, mainly because the local Sunni community in Iraq does not feel assured that if they start fighting against ISIS, which is Sunni, they will not then be arrested by the government in Baghdad. Or that if ISIS disappeared, they’d be left with a new, fair government, as opposed to the old ways.

Syria Deeply: How do the tribes factor in?

Dukhan: Syrian and Iraqi tribes would make an alliance with really anyone in order to get rid of the authoritarian regimes that oppress them. The tribes on both sides of the border belong to the same configuration, the same family of tribes.

ISIS’s extreme Salafist ideology is unwelcome by tribal communities in both Syria and Iraq. But when they are forced to choose between ISIS or Assad and Maliki, they’ll choose ISIS.

Syria Deeply: What’s the solution? At this point, is there any way to uproot ISIS entirely?

Dukhan: The solution in Syria, and in Iraq, is not only to fight ISIS to expand the political transition process. Sunnis need to be reassured that they will be part of whatever new government, and that they will have their share of their regions’ natural resources, and that they won’t be marginalized.

In Syria, it will be very difficult to get the local population to fight ISIS. They see hypocrisy, that the international community does not seem to care about the brutality wrought by the Syrian regime, but they do seem to care about the brutality wrought by ISIS.

Answers have been edited.

This article originally appeared on Syria Deeply.

Affiliate of Al Qaeda Confirms Capture of U.N. Peacekeepers in Syria

An Israeli soldier near the Quneitra crossing in the Golan Heights on Sunday in the area where the Syrian branch of Al Qaeda captured more than two dozen United Nations peacekeepers. CreditMenahem Kahana/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

August 31, 2014 by Ben Hubbard

The Syrian branch of Al Qaeda has acknowledged that it captured 45 United Nations peacekeepers in southern Syria, saying they were being held in retaliation for what the group called the United Nations’ failure to help the people of Syria during the country’s civil war.

The group, the Nusra Front, also accused the peacekeeping force, which has monitored the demarcation line between Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights since 1974, of protecting Israeli-controlled territory while doing nothing to stop the killing on the Syrian side.

The statement, released late Saturday, contained a group photo of the captured peacekeepers, who are from Fiji, as well as a photograph of their identification cards. The statement said they were being treated well and were given food and medical care, but it issued no demands for their release.

Although the Nusra Front said it was holding 45 peacekeepers, the United Nations had said 44 were being held, a discrepancy that could not immediately be explained.

The statement was the first confirmation from the Nusra Front, one of the many groups fighting the forces of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s civil war, that it was holding the peacekeepers. They were captured on Thursday, one day after rebels seized a crossing point on the demarcation line from Syrian forces.

Other rebels in the area had condemned the Nusra Front for capturing the peacekeepers and called for their release.

The statement followed attacks by rebels believed to be from the Nusra Front on two other bases used by 72 peacekeepers from the Philippines on Saturday. One group of 32 Philippine soldiers managed to flee to the Israeli side of the frontier after receiving backup from the peacekeeping mission’s “reaction force,” the United Nations said.

On Sunday, the United Nations said in a statement that the other group of 40 Philippine soldiers had left their post at night during a cease-fire between them and “the armed elements” and reached a safe location an hour later.

The United Nations did not mention the statement by the Nusra Front or give any new information on the captured Philippine soldiers.

In its statement, the Nusra Front accused the United Nations of failing to help Syrians during the civil war, which has killed more than 190,000 people over more than three years.

“Chemical attacks did not move its decisions, nor did the barrels of death that harvested thousands of innocent souls, nor photos of torture in the depths of prisons, nor tens of massacres against women and children,” the statement said. “Barrels of death” is a reference to barrels filled with explosives that Syrian government forces have dropped from helicopters on insurgent-held areas.

It said the United Nations had responded with “mere statements and empty words that completely ignored the crimes and massacres” committed by Mr. Assad’s forces.

The statement, referring to Israel, also said the peacekeepers worked “to guarantee security and protection for the borders of the Zionist entity, which has violated Muslim homes, while at the same time completely ignoring the blood of the Muslims that is shed daily on the other side of the border.”

The peacekeeping force in question, the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, is responsible only for monitoring the frontier between Israeli- and Syrian-controlled zones and has no mandate to intervene in Syria’s civil war.

While disagreements among permanent members of the United Nations Security Council have left it unable to agree on resolutions meant to hasten an end to the war, the body unanimously passed a resolution in July allowing for aid to be sent into Syria without the consent of Mr. Assad’s government. That resolution strengthened the provisions of an earlier resolution, and cross-border aid shipments began soon after.

Mr. Assad had objected to such aid, saying all assistance needed to be coordinated with his government. Critics accused him of manipulating humanitarian aid to ensure that it did not enter rebel areas.

Last year, the Security Council adopted a resolution to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, a process that the United States says has been completed.

The United Nations has also offered aid to the nearly three million Syrian refugees it has registered in neighboring countries.

The Nusra Front has remained loyal to Al Qaeda’s international leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, while the other major extremist group in Syria, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, has rejected Mr. Zawahri and gone its own way, declaring an Islamic caliphate in territory it has seized in Syria and Iraq.

So far, the Nusra Front has kept its efforts focused on fighting Mr. Assad’s government — leading at times to surprising developments. The Nusra Front’s seizure of the crossing last week put it directly on the edge of Israeli-controlled territory. But despite frequent calls over decades by Al Qaeda’s leadership, including Osama bin Laden, for attacks on Israel, the group is not known to have deliberately targeted Israeli soldiers.

In its statement on Sunday, the Nusra Front complained about being classified as a terrorist organization, portraying itself as a force that had come to aid Syria’s Sunni Muslims.

“Whoever defends the oppressed and the innocent is the criminal in their judgment,” the statement said.

Amid the heightened tensions along the Syrian-Israeli frontier, the Israeli military said Sunday that it had intercepted a remotely piloted drone from Syria that breached Israeli-controlled airspace above the 1974 demarcation line near Quneitra. The military said the drone had been shot down by a Patriot surface-to-air missile.

Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, a spokesman for the Israeli military, said the drone had appeared to be on a mission to gather intelligence for the Syrian Army or to prepare a counterattack against rebels on the Syrian side of the frontier. There was no indication that it had been on a mission to attack Israel.

Israel has repeatedly declared its intention of staying out of the fighting in Syria, but it has responded swiftly whenever the violence has spilled into the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, whether intentionally or as a result of errant fire.

Disappearances in Syria: The ghosts of the war

Peaceful activist Mohamed Bachir Arab has been missing since 2 November 2011.

Peaceful activist Mohamed Bachir Arab has been missing since 2 November 2011. © Private.

August 29, 2014 

The last time Rania (not her real name) spoke to her friendMohamed Bachir Arab, was on 1 November 2011. As a hard working doctor and committed political activist, Mohamed had been living in hiding for six months, trying to evade the ever present tentacles of the Syrian intelligence forces, who routinely detain peaceful activists like him.

The following day her worst fears were realized. A strap line on the evening news announced he had been arrested. None of his relatives knew where he had been taken.

Mohamed was a marked man. He had been a student leader at his university in the city of Aleppo, in north-west Syria. Over the years, he had organized a number of protests against government policies, which had landed him in trouble with the authorities. Between 2004 and 2005 he was detained for several months before being released.

But this time, his relatives and colleagues feared it was different. Since the crisis in Syria began in March 2011, the number of individuals who have been detained in secret by the state – or forcibly disappeared – has spiralled out of control.

“The Syrian authorities’ strategy to deal with dissent is brutal: speak against them once and they’ll arrest you; do it again and they will simply make you disappear,” said Philip Luther, Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International.

Many of those lucky enough to be released, after months sometimes years in detention, bear the scars of the brutal treatment they have been subjected to.

Most of them have spoken about passing through a number of the detention centres that make up the dark maze of abuse controlled by the Syrian security forces and intelligence agencies.

“When someone is arrested and detained in secret the likelihood is that they will be tortured to extract information from them or as a form of punishment. Syria’s sickening track record means there is a high risk such abuse will result in serious damage to the disappeared person’s health or even death,” said Philip Luther.

And for those left behind, the pain of not knowing is intolerable.

As soon Mohamed’s family learned about his arrest, they began trying to find clues about where he was being held.

Initially they drew a blank. But after a while news started to filter through. A number of men released from some of the country’s most infamous detention centres tipped them off that they had seen him at various locations.

Shortly after his arrest Mohamed had been spotted in the Air Force Intelligence branch in Aleppo and later in a hospital in the same city. The man said Mohamed was suffering from head injuries, reportedly as a result of being tortured or otherwise ill-treated.

Amnesty International has spoken to several people who were held in that detention centre. One of them, who now lives outside of Syria and asked for his name not to be revealed, said that life in the centre was so bad he often wished he were dead.

He described how detainees were often severely beaten, held in overcrowded cells, and that the lack of drinking water forced some to drink from the toilet. The extreme lack of hygiene caused the spread of diarrhoea and other infectious diseases, which contributed to the death of several detainees.

According to other released detainees, Mohamed was seen at other detention centres including the al-Ameerya branch of Air Force Intelligence in Damascus and the Qaboun branch of Military Intelligence.

But news of his whereabouts has been scant. Earlier this year, another man said he had seen Mohamed at Saydnaya Military Prison, where he may have been brought before a Military Field Court – but his fate is still unknown.

“The fact that almost three years after Mohamed was taken into custody no one knows where he is paints a scandalous picture of how the Syrian authorities’ dark network of detention centres functions. Brutal security forces hold detainees in secret and move them around the country without even thinking about the enormous distress to which they are subjecting their families,” said Philip Luther.

Mohamed is one of a long list of peaceful activists, lawyers, journalists and humanitarian workers perceived as opposed to the policies of the Syrian authorities who have been detained in secret by the security forces. Many of them are still missing.

Names include: Ali Mahmoud Othman, a citizen journalist, arrested in Homs in March 2012; Juwan Abd Rahman Khaled, a Kurdish activist, detained in Damascus in September 2012; Khalil Ma’touq, a human rights lawyer, last seen at a checkpoint near Damascus in October 2012; and Nasser Saber Bondek, a poet and humanitarian activist, taken from his home in Damascus in February 2014.

The list goes on. They are the ghosts of Syria’s war.

Speaking from her new home outside of Syria, Rania says she will continue to look for Mohamed: “I haven’t had any real news of Mohamed in eight months, but we will continue to look for him. He is a very peaceful person so I don’t know why he is in prison. Things need to change in Syria.”

  • RSS
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Tumblr