Jihadists organize tours in their Syria, Iraq “caliphate”

Beirut, July 23, 2014 by AFP

Known for kidnapping, public stonings, lashings and executions, the Islamic State (IS) is now expanding into tourism, taking jihadists on honeymoon and civilians to visit other parts of its “caliphate.”

Running twice-weekly tours from Syria’s Raqa to Iraq’s Anbar, IS’ buses fly the group’s black flag and play jihadist songs throughout the journey.

One of the first clients was Chechen jihadist Abu Abdel Rahman al-Shishani, aged 26, who took his new Syrian wife on honeymoon, according to activist Hadi Salameh.

"Just after they got married, he took her to Anbar. These jihadists are very romantic," Salameh joked.

But the two weren’t able to sit together, because “women sit in the back, and men at the front. The bus driver plays jihadist songs all through the ride, and the IS black flag flies over the bus.”

IS proclaimed a “caliphate” last month straddling Iraq and Syria. According to a rebel from eastern Syria, the tours started operating immediately afterwards.

It firmly controls large swathes of northern and eastern Syria, the Iraq-Syria border, and parts of northern and western Iraq.

The group is responsible for a number of atrocities, including mass kidnappings and killings, stonings and crucifixions.

Salameh said the group’s tour buses “start their journey in Tal Abyad [on Syria’s Turkish border] and end in Iraq’s Anbar. You can get off wherever you want, and you don’t need a passport to cross the border.”

The activist, who lives in Raqa and uses a pseudonym to avoid retribution from IS, told AFP via the Internet the company is for profit.

"Of course it’s not free. The price varies, depending on how far you go on the bus," Salameh said.

Syrian rebel Abu Quteiba al-Okaidi, who is from the border province of Deir Ezzor, said most of those who use the buses are foreign jihadists.

"Most of them are foreigners. They communicate in English, and wear the Afghan-style clothing preferred by jihadists," Okaidi told AFP by telephone.

"There is a translator on the bus, who explains to them where they are going. The men on the bus are not armed, but vehicles carrying armed escorts accompany the bus," he added.

IS has its roots in Iraq, but spread into Syria in late spring last year. It gradually took over Raqa city in northern Syria, and transformed it into its bastion.

In June, IS spearheaded a lightning offensive in Iraq that saw large swathes of the north and west of the country fall from Iraqi government hands.

Abu Ibrahim al-Raqawi, another activist living in Raqa city, said “tour buses run twice a week, on Wednesday and Sunday. It works like any bus company would, except that it treats areas under IS control in Iraq and Syria as one state.”

He also said the bus company is “popular” among those with relatives in Iraq.

"Many people living in this area [northern Syria through western Iraq] have tribal ties stretching across the border. So they use these buses to visit their families," said Abu Ibrahim.

Speaking to AFP via the Internet, Abu Ibrahim also said others take the bus “to do business, while some just want to take a break from the shelling in Syria.”

Syria’s war began as a peaceful movement for democratic change, but was transformed into a war after Damascus unleashed a brutal crackdown on dissent. Many months into the fighting, jihadists began streaming into Syria.

In a Syrian City, ISIS Puts Its Vision Into Practice

Raqqa, July 23, 2014 by employee of NY Times and Ben Hubbard

When his factory was bombed in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, the businessman considered two bleak options: to remain at home and risk dying in the next airstrike or flee like hundreds of thousands of others to a refugee camp in Turkey.

Instead, he took his remaining cash east and moved to a neighboring city, Raqqa, the de facto capital of the world’s fastest growing jihadist force. There he found a degree of order and security absent in other parts of Syria.

“The fighting in Syria will continue, so we have to live our lives,” said the businessman, who gave only a first name, Qadri, as he oversaw a dozen workers in his new children’s clothing factory in Raqqa.

Long before extremists rolled through Iraq and seized a large piece of territory, the group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria took over most of Raqqa Province, home to about a million people, and established a headquarters in its capital. Through strategic management and brute force, the group, which now calls itself simply the Islamic State, has begun imposing its vision of a state that blends its fundamentalist interpretation of Islam with the practicalities of governance.

In time, it has won the surprising respect of some war-weary citizens, like Qadri, who will accept any authority that can restore a semblance of normal life. Rebel-held areas of Aleppo, by comparison, remain racked with food shortages and crime. But there is a darker side to Islamic rule, with public executions and strict social codes that have left many in this once-tolerant community deeply worried about the future.

In Raqqa city, traffic police officers keep intersections clear, crime is rare and tax collectors issue receipts. But statues like the landmark lions in Al Rasheed Park have been destroyed because they were considered blasphemous. Public spaces like Al Amasy Square, where young men and women once hung out and flirted in the evenings, have been walled off with heavy metal fences topped with the black flags of ISIS. People accused of stealing have lost their hands in public amputations.

“What I see in Raqqa proves that the Islamic State has a clear vision to establish a state in the real meaning of the word,” said a retired teacher in the city of Raqqa. “It is not a joke.”

How ISIS rules in Raqqa offers insight into what it is trying to do as it moves to consolidate its grip in territories spanning the Syrian-Iraqi border. An employee of The New York Times recently spent six days in Raqqa and interviewed a dozen residents. The employee and those interviewed are not being identified in order to protect them from retaliation by the extremists who have hunted down and killed those perceived as opposing their project.

To those entering Raqqa, ISIS makes clear, immediately, who is in charge.

At the southern entrance to the city, visitors were once greeted by a towering mosaic of President Bashar al-Assad and Haroun al-Rasheed, the caliph who ruled the Islamic world from Raqqa in the ninth century. Now there is a towering black billboard that pays homage to ISIS and to the so-called martyrs who died fighting for its cause.

Raqqa’s City Hall houses the Islamic Services Commission. The former office of the Finance Ministry contains the sharia court and the criminal police. The traffic police are based in the First Shariah High School. Raqqa’s Credit Bank is now the tax authority, where employees collect $20 every two months from shop owners for electricity, water and security. Many said that they received official receipts stamped with the ISIS logo and that the fees were less than they used to pay in bribes to Mr. Assad’s government.

“I feel like I am dealing with a respected state, not thugs,” said a Raqqa goldsmith in his small shop as a woman shopped for gold pieces with cash sent from abroad by her husband.

Raqqa is a test case for ISIS, which imposed itself as the ultimate authority in this city on the Euphrates River early this year. The group has already proved its military prowess, routing other militias in Syria as well as the Iraqi military. But it is here in this agricultural hub that it has had the most time to turn its ideology into reality, a project that appears unlikely to end soon given the lack of a military force able to displace it.

To those entering Raqqa Province, home to about a million people, ISIS makes clear, immediately, who is in charge. Credit Reuters

An aid worker who travels to Raqqa said the ranks of ISIS were filled with volatile young men, many of them foreigners more interested in violence than governance. To keep things running, it has paid or threatened skilled workers to remain in their posts while putting loyalist supervisors over them to ensure compliance with Islamic rules.

“They can’t fire all the staff and bring new people to run a hospital, so they change the manager to someone who will enforce their rules and regulations,” the aid worker said, speaking the on condition of anonymity so as not to endanger his work.

Raqqa’s three churches, once home to an active Christian minority, have all been shuttered. After capturing the largest, the Armenian Catholic Martyrs Church, ISIS removed its crosses, hung black flags from its facade and converted it into anIslamic center that screens videos of battles and suicide operations to recruit new fighters.

The few Christians who remain pay a minority tax of a few dollars per month. When ISIS’s religious police officers patrol to make sure shops close during Muslim prayers, the Christians must obey, too.

The religious police have banned public smoking of cigarettes and water pipes – a move that has dampened the city’s social life, forcing cafes to close. They also make sure that women cover their hair and faces in public.

A university professor from Raqqa said ISIS gunmen recently stopped a bus heading to Damascus when they found one woman on board insufficiently covered. They held the bus up for an hour and a half until she went home and changed, the professor said.

More pragmatically, ISIS has managed to keep food in markets, and bakeries and gas stations functioning. But it has had more trouble with drinking water and electricity, which is out for as much as 20 hours a day.

Perhaps realizing that the young extremists most attracted to its sectarian violence lack professional skills, the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, asked in a recentaudio address for doctors and engineers to travel to places like Raqqa to help build his newly declared Islamic State. “Their migration is an obligation so that they can answer the dire need of the Muslims,” Mr. Baghdadi said.

Hints of this international mobilization are already apparent in Raqqa, where gunmen at checkpoints are often Saudi, Egyptian, Tunisian or Libyan. Raqqa’s emir of electricity is Sudanese, and one hospital is run by a Jordanian who reports to an Egyptian boss, according to Syrians who work under them.

After ISIS’s advance into Iraq last month, the Jordanian went to Mosul to help organize a hospital there before returning to Raqqa.

“He talked with an eager shine in his eyes, saying that the caliphate of the Islamic State that began in Raqqa would spread over the whole region,” one of his employees said.

Head of Syria opposition government sacked

Beirut, July 22, 2014 by AFP

The Qatar-backed head of the Syrian opposition’s interim government was sacked Tuesday, under pressure from Saudi Arabia, once again exposing the sharp divisions between the opposition’s main backers.

Since the National Coalition was created in late 2012, rivalries between Riyadh and Doha have consistently undermined the group, which acts as the main opposition body.

"The Coalition’s General Assembly has relieved Ahmad Tohme, head of the interim government, of his functions, after a dawn vote," said Samir Nashar, veteran dissident and Coalition member.

Sixty-six Coalition members voted for Tohme’s dismissal, while 35 voted for him to stay in his post. A replacement will be named in the coming weeks.

Tohme was named head of the opposition’s interim government 10 months ago.

The vote was held in Istanbul after a meeting that ran through Sunday and Monday.

Speaking to AFP by phone, Nashar said Tohme was sacked “for political reasons, but also because of his management” of the interim body.

Tohme is close to Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood, which has a strong influence in the opposition but is despised by Saudi Arabia.

Backed by Qatar, “the Muslim Brotherhood dominated the government… and Saudi Arabia let its allies [in the opposition] know that they needed to cut ties with the group”, said Nashar.

Voted in on July 9, Coalition chief Hadi al-Bahra is close to Saudi Arabia, as is his predecessor Ahmad Jarba.

"Tohme’s management [of the government] was poor. He tried to get support by handing political posts" to allies, Nashar said, adding that "some 10 to 15 people were handed jobs as consultants."

One of Tohme’s most unpopular moves, said Nashar, was his decision to dissolve the rebel Supreme Military Council. The decision was later revoked by Jarba.

The Coalition is recognized by scores of states and organizations as a legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

However, the exiled group has been accused by rebels and activists of being “disconnected” from reality on the ground, as well as of corruption and subservience to its backers in Riyadh and Doha.

Regime and jihadist advances in recent months have further weakened the Coalition, which has been unable to secure game-changing military support for rebels on the ground.

East Damascus hit by fiercest clashes in months

Jobar soldier. (AFP/Joseph Eid)

A Syrian army soldiers aims his gun through a hole in a building in Damascus’ Jobar area. (AFP/Joseph Eid)

Beirut, July 22, 2014 by AFP

Eastern Damascus was on Tuesday hit by its fiercest fighting in months between rebels and pro-regime forces, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The air force meanwhile pounded rebel areas of the eastern neighborhood of Jobar, as opposition fighters launched mortars into army-held parts of Damascus, wounding 18 people.

"Starting dawn Tuesday, Jobar saw the fiercest fighting in months, coupled with intense aerial bombardment," said Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman.

The air force carried out at least nine strikes on the neighborhood, he said, adding rebels were fighting troops backed by pro-regime paramilitary forces.

Jobar, on the eastern edge of Damascus, is important because it is located at the entrance to the besieged, rebel-held Eastern Ghouta area on the outskirts of the capital.

It also neighbors Abbasiyeen, one Damascus’ main squares where the army “deployed tanks… and shelled rebel areas of Jobar,” Abdel Rahman told AFP.

Fighting in the area has intensified after a relative lull for months, after rebels launched an offensive and took an army checkpoint in Jobar.

The army has since reclaimed the checkpoint.

Meanwhile, rebel fighters fired mortar rounds at regime-controlled areas of Damascus, wounding 18 people, state news agency SANA reported.

The air force also pounded the nearby rebel-held areas of Irbin and Hammuriyeh, killing a man and a child, said the Observatory.

President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has tried for more than a year to crush rebel positions near Damascus, and has deployed troops backed by Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah to fight in flashpoint areas.

Eastern Ghouta, used as a rear base by rebels, has been under army siege for more than a year, and was the scene of a massive chemical attack in August that killed hundreds.

In recent weeks, rebels in southern Damascus have also been fighting the jihadist Islamic State, after expelling it from four towns in Eastern Ghouta, according to the Observatory.

Syria’s war began as a peaceful movement for democratic change, but transformed into a civil war after the Assad regime unleashed a brutal crackdown on dissent.

The conflict has killed more than 170,000 people and forced nearly half the population to flee their homes.

Inside Assad’s Playbook: Time and Terror

A member loyal to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) waves an ISIL flag in Raqqa June 29, 2014. The offshoot of al Qaeda which has captured swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria has declared itself an Islamic “Caliphate” and called on factions worldwide to pledge their allegiance, a statement posted on jihadist websites said. (Photo: REUTERS)

July 23, 2014 by Bassam Barabandi and Tyler Jess Thompson

Early in my career as a Syrian diplomat, I learned to respect the strategic planning of the Assads. One clear memory is from 2007, during a visit from Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki. I remember sitting behind a two-way mirror in a room adjacent to the banquet hall at the Four Seasons Damascus. Deputy Vice President Mohammad Nasif and I huddled in the tiny room as we watched a reception featuring Syrian Ministers and their Iraqi counterparts. We took notes, monitored their interactions, and sent waiters and messengers to disrupt conversations and alter the room dynamics. As Nasif and I noted every piece of small talk, every passing gesture, I realized that no detail is too small for the Assad regime to overlook. There is always a plan, opportunities are never missed, and there are no accidents: the rise of ISIS is no exception to this rule. 

ISIS’s role in Syria fits into a plan that has worked for Assad on several occasions. When a crisis emerges, Assad pushes his opponents to spend as much time as possible in developing a response. While implementing such diplomatic stalls, he floods the crisis with distractions designed to divert attention away from Syrian government misdeeds. His favorite diversion is terrorism, because it establishes him as a necessary force to contain it. In the meantime, world events wash away international focus on the initial crisis. 

Assad used this approach to protect himself after the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. My colleagues took steps to appear cooperative while stalling investigations. When the tribunal requested documents, the government sent mountains of information. When tribunal staff planned a visit, the government sent countless clarifications on minute details, shifting plans last minute and obstructing the process. Meanwhile, Assad used his terrorist proxy in Hezbollah to foment sectarian tensions in Lebanon. He also continued to facilitate the flow of extremist Sunni fighters into Iraq. These steps shifted international attention to the stability of neighbors, and positioned Assad’s government as a problematic, yet stabilizing force in the region. Accountability for the Hariri plot faded from view.

Assad renewed a version of this approach after non-violent protestors took to the streets demanding freedom and reform in 2011. His closest advisors studied the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen to craft an approach that would protect the regime. This small group of political elites concluded that any meaningful concessions to non-violent protestors could precipitate the collapse of the regime. The advisors decided that it would enact no reforms that could weaken Assad’s hold on power. Assad learned from the Libyan case that a hasty resort to large massacres, or the threat thereof, could draw intervention from NATO forces. A slower increase in violence against opponents, however, would likely go unchecked. Assad needed to take steps that would pass time and prove himself as indispensable, both to the international community and to Syrians who fear retaliation from the Sunni majority. 

To achieve these aims, Assad first changed the narrative of the newborn Syrian revolution to one of sectarianism, not reform. He then fostered an extremist presence in Syria alongside the activists. Further, he facilitated the influx of foreign extremist fighters to threaten stability in the region. Finally, any efforts to kill time on the clock, such as the chemical weapons deal, its slow implementation, and the Geneva process, were enthusiastically exploited. The resulting international paralysis allowed Assad to present himself as an ally in the global war on terror, granting him license to crush civilians with impunity. The Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) emerged as one of those facts created to ensure Assad’s survival as he and his Iranian backers seek to frame this conflict as a regional sectarian issue, with a classical choice between military powers and Sunni extremists. 

Early in the uprising, I was stationed in Washington. The Assad regime’s public messaging sought to construct the narrative that the Syrian revolutionaries had aspirations to disenfranchise and eliminate non-Sunni minorities. Even as we received external reports that the government killed nearly 250 people in Daraa, Deputy Foreign Minister Fisal Mikdad called to assure the Ambassador and me that there had been no killing, only a sectarian misunderstanding that the government had resolved. Once the unrest shifted to an armed conflict, Assad’s choice of allies promoted sectarianism. Hezbollah and the Iranian Republican Guard, primarily Shiite forces, assisted in further highlighting Assad’s sectarian narrative. Today, the conflict has morphed into a sectarian regional proxy war. This is precisely how Assad envisioned it, and creates a dynamic that the internationals can dismiss as too complex or dissonant to Western interests.

The Assad plan also included allowing extremist Sunni groups to grow and travel freely in order to complicate any Western support for his opponents. The Assad regime and Iran have meticulously nurtured the rise of al-Qaeda, and then ISIS, in Syria. In his March 2011 speech addressing the protests, Assad claimed that an international terrorist conspiracy sought to topple his government. During this time, Assad released battle-hardened extremists from the infamous Sednaya prison; extremists with no association to the uprisings. These fighters would go on to lead militant groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nusra. 

In conjunction with the terrorist-release policy, Assad was sure to imprison diverse, non-violent, and pro-reform activists by the thousands, many of whom are still in government prisons. These efforts, coupled with relentless barrel bombing, torture, and chemical weapons campaigns, were designed to silence, kill, or displace civilians so that the influence of extremists would fill their absence. Assad was careful to never take any steps to attack ISIS as they grew in power and strength.

The announcement of ISIS’s caliphate is most helpful in draining time and distracting the world from Assad’s destruction of Syrian society. Now that ISIS has fully matured, the Assad regime and Iran offer themselves as partners to the United States. For the first time, Assad is striking ISIS in Raqqa and locations inside Iraq, in a perverse harvest of the terrorist seeds he planted to quash the civilian-led reform movement. Assad will continue to make himself appear helpful by offering intermittent air strikes, details of fighters released from prison, and intelligence.

The rise of ISIS in Iraq and events in Gaza and Ukraine have placed Assad’s war safely outside the headlines. Once again, the world is convinced it has higher priorities and may again conclude that Assad is a problematic, yet stabilizing dictator in a troubled region. Safe from public scrutiny, he can go back to his hidden room, manipulating various players. US coordination with Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, or the Assad government in the fight against ISIS will play directly into the Assad plan. It will prove to Assad that his manipulation of time and terror has once again worked.

UN in Syria vaccination drive against childhood killer

Amman, July 22, 2014 by AFP

The United Nations called for help Tuesday to vaccinate 765,000 Syrian toddlers against polio, in a bid to prevent a resurgence of the childhood killer across the restive Middle East.

"Inside Syria, 765,000 children under the age of five live in hard-to-reach areas where conflict and restriction make it extremely difficult to reach them with humanitarian assistance including regular access to vaccines," UN agencies said.

Polio is a crippling and potentially fatal viral disease that half a century ago killed or crippled hundreds of thousands of people, mainly children, most famously US president Franklin D. Roosevelt, terrifying generations of parents.

In 1988, the disease was endemic in 125 countries, and 350,000 cases were recorded worldwide, according to UN figures.

The UN agencies said polio had struck again in Syria after a 14-year absence because a three-year-old civil war had disrupted what had been routine childhood immunizations as millions have fled their homes.

Polio vaccination coverage in Syria has declined from an average of 99 percent to 52 percent, they said.

At least 60 percent of Syria’s hospitals have been destroyed or damaged, and less than a third of public ambulances are still functional. 

Vaccines, and the staff and equipment to deliver them, have been damaged, put permanently out of service or lost. 

"We got to a point where we had to work with very limited resources to defeat what had been a long forgotten enemy in this region", said World Health Organization polio specialist Chris Maher.

He warned that the disease was “one that does not know borders or checkpoints and can travel fast, infecting children not just in war-torn Syria but across the region.”

More than 6.5 million children are now in need of assistance, according to the UN agencies, which urged access for aid workers to children trapped in war zones inside Syria.

"Our job is far from over. In the coming months, we have to reach more and more children especially those who have not been reached because of the insecurity and violence," said Maria Calivis, Middle East director of the UN children’s agency UNICEF.

The UN agencies said they had completed the first phase of the biggest polio vaccination campaign they had ever undertaken in the Middle East, reaching 25 million children under the age of five.

Syria war causes $21.4 billion losses to oil industry

Damascus, July 22, 2014 by AFP

Syria’s oil and gas industries have suffered total losses of $21.4 billion since the outbreak of the country’s war three years ago, Oil Minister Suleiman Abbas said Tuesday.

"The circumstances the country is going through have caused considerable losses to the oil and gas sectors," said Abbas in a statement.

Abbas said the war had caused a $3.5 billion direct loss, in terms of stolen and wasted oil and gas, and damage or theft of infrastructure, pipelines and vehicles.

He added that indirect losses, or lost profits, accounted for $17.9 billion.

At the start of the revolt, Syria produced 385,000 barrels of oil a day. Production dropped to 17,000 barrels a day, while gas production has been halved.

In recent months, the jihadist Islamic State (IS) took control of all the main oil fields in resource-rich Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria. It is exporting oil through middlemen to Iraq and Turkey.

Meanwhile, since last Thursday, the Syrian regime army has been trying to expel IS from the gas field at Shaer, in Homs province, which the jihadists took over after killing 270 guards and employees, according to a monitoring group.

Despite the war, Abbas said the government was set to complete a gas project near the northern city of Tabaqa, which is under IS control.

The plant is scheduled to start operating in mid-August, and is expected to produce 1.22 million cubic meters a day to begin with, rising to 3.2 million by the end of the year.

Asked about the potential risks of opening a new plant near an IS-controlled area, the ministry said the site was “secure.”

EU expands sanctions on Syria

Brussels, July 22, 2014 by AFP

European Union foreign ministers agreed Tuesday to expand sanctions on Syria over the government’s “violent repression” of its civilian population.

The ministers added three people and nine entities to the current list of those subject to an asset freeze and a ban on entering the EU, a statement said.

They were targeted “due to their involvement in the violent repression of the civilian population or their support to the regime,” it added.

The names added to the list are expected to be published on Wednesday.

The decision brings the total number of people on the EU Syria sanctions list to 192, alongside 62 entities.

In May, Brussels extended existing sanctions against Syria for another year, including an oil embargo and asset freezes against allies of President Bashar al-Assad.

How Israel’s Ground Invasion of Gaza Could Impact Assad

July 22, 2014 by Karen Leigh

As the civilian death toll in the Gaza strip climbed past 500 on Monday, the global spotlight shifted from Syria to the Israeli ground offensive in Palestine. The reverberations are being felt in Syria, with which Israel shares a border – and a contentious history.

"Now that the Arab-Israeli conflict is back in the spotlight, [Bashar] Assad is back in his comfort zone. People around the world are paying attention to Gaza, and not what’s happening in Syria," says Nadim Shehadi, the former director of Oxford University’s Center for Lebanese Studies and now a fellow at Chatham House focusing on Syria and Palestine.

He adds, “Throughout the Arab world, you do find the insinuation that what’s happening in Gaza is a diversion from what’s happening in Syria and that Hamas is now playing Iran’s game. Hamas has Syrian and Iranian-made rockets, and those are the long range ones that are really affecting Israel – the ones that can reach Haifa, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.”

We asked Shehadi to weigh in on what he says is Assad’s history of using the Israeli conflict for political gain, and how the fresh round of violence in Gaza could impact Syria’s border:

Syria Deeply: How is Assad reacting to the Israeli ground invasion of Gaza City? With its biggest ally, Iran, involved in Gaza, what does this mean for the regime?

Nadim Shehadi: A regime like Assad’s is comfortable with and derives much of its legitimacy from the Arab-Israeli conflict and has none when it comes to facing the revolt that began in Syria in 2011. The regime has tried many times to revive or rekindle the old flame of the Arab-Israeli conflict since then as a means of diverting attention from its own internal conflict, and it has proved surprisingly unsuccessful. Those old tricks don’t work on the Syrian population anymore.

One example was on May 15, 2011, when there were two demonstrations: one that originated in Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp, near Damascus, and one from Saida, Lebanon. They were both diverted to the Israeli border and both were shot at by the Israelis resulting in casualties. What is relevant is that the anger of the population was directed at the regime – not just the Israelis – although there was of course anger towards the Israelis as well. At Yarmouk, there were slogans against the regime in the funerals of those who fell at the border. The perception was that the regime was trying to flare up the conflict with Israel in order to divert Syrian’s attention from the Syrian revolt.

Now, you often find that among the supporters of Assad, the narrative always includes the regime’s role in the resistance block against Israel; whereas Assad’s opponents mock it and refer to the regime’s lack of response to Israeli raids and to the fact that Syria had a peaceful border with Israel since the mid-1970s. Part of the underlying tension is a revolt against the regime’s resistance narrative. It’s a constant theme: the regime uses the Arab-Israeli conflict to legitimize itself, and the opposition ignores it and pushes for demands unrelated to it.

What’s happening in Gaza this week is a boost to the Assad regime and its main ally, Iran, for at least two reasons. First, it means that Hamas is now back on the resistance front after it has had a rift with the regime. In the past, Hamas was accused of helping the Syrian rebels to fight the regime and taught them techniques learned from Hezbollah, including techniques like tunnel digging. Having Hamas back on board carries enormous significance because the regime and Iran cannot credibly claim to lead the resistance bloc without it. Second, the war in Gaza has deflected attention from the events in Syria where the regime is still crushing the revolt and bombing its own civilians. It has helped bring back the Arab-Israeli conflict to the centre of the stage.

Syria Deeply: How are rebel groups reacting?

Shehadi: There’s definitely fallout for the rebels from the war in Gaza. They are in a situation where they feel totally abandoned and where there’s now Western talk about engagement with Assad and Iran, who the West might turn to to help resolve the ISIS issue. There is confusion in the West over whether Iran and Assad are the cause or solution to the problem. And it looks like Iran is one of the few players that has influence on Hamas and can be useful in resolving the conflict in Gaza. Iran and Assad have played this game of arsonist/firefighter for a very long time, and it’s been very successful. It goes back to the early 1980s where U.S. and European hostages would be kidnapped in Lebanon by Syrian and Iranian proxy groups, and then the hostages would be released to great fanfare in Damascus. Which makes Syria look like it’s solving the problem when in fact it’s helped create it.

Syria Deeply: Could events in Gaza lead to an escalation in the Golan Heights, the border area between Israel and Syria?

Shehadi: Everything’s possible from here. This would depend on how much escalation is needed to extract a deal. If necessary there will be an escalation on the Lebanese-Israeli border. It depends how quickly a cease-fire is achieved between Israel and Hamas. Hamas and the resistance front can already declare victory, because any concessions, like prisoner releases, it obtains through a cease-fire deal will demonstrate that results can be obtained by resistance, whereas negotiations have led nowhere.

Why Triumphant Jihadis In Iraq Will Help Assad Crush Opposition In Aleppo

Beirut, July 21, 2014 by Noah Bonsey

The world’s most feared jihadi group, the Islamic State (ISIS), is parlaying its dramatic gains in Iraq into Syria. Already flush with cash and weapons, ISIS stands to receive another, invaluable windfall in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city prior to the war. Regime forces there are on the verge of encircling opposition militants. Their success in doing so would benefit ISIS as much as it would Bashar al-Assad, throttling the more moderate rebel enemy both share.

ISIS’s recent victory in eastern Deir al-Zour province — where it defeated a rebel alliance including jihadi rival Jabhat al-Nusra, and where it now controls all major oil fields and most population centers — enables the group to turn its attention elsewhere. Having gained resources and freed up manpower, ISIS can move to retake ground lost to rebel factions in and around Aleppo in early 2014.

Rebels there, weakened by that battle and the regime’s simultaneous campaign that exploited it, lack the organization and resources to halt the regime’s progress in severing rebel supply lines. Should ISIS escalate against rebels in the northern countryside, as the regime attempts to besiege their allies inside the city, it could potentially deal a terminal blow to the rebellion in Aleppo. ISIS would likely regain valuable territory along the Turkish border, positioning itself to attack the pragmatic rebel factions that dominate Aleppo’s western countryside and much of Idlib province.


Given Aleppo’s importance in the war with the regime, the defeat of anti-ISIS rebels there would shatter the backbone of the mainstream armed opposition. In seeking the destruction of the mainstream opposition, as in so much else over the past year, regime and ISIS interests coincide.

For the former, it would render the possibility of an effective Western-rebel partnership even more remote, leaving the regime as the lone apparent alternative to ISIS rule. For the latter, it would create a vacuum in the anti-regime struggle that ISIS would seek to fill, hoping to eventually redeem its reputation among anti-Assad Syrians by emerging as their defender of last resort.

ISIS recently authored this very playbook in Iraq. There, in 2007, as in Syria in 2013, ISIS’s authoritarianism within opposition strongholds alienated civilians and turned rebel allies into foes. This fueled a backlash that eventually, with American help, drove the jihadis to the verge of defeat. Yet, in Iraq, ISIS — known then as the Islamic State of Iraq — laid the groundwork for its reemergence through lethal campaigns targeting the Sunnis who had turned against it.

It was helped by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose desire to monopolize power proved devastating to the cohesiveness, influence and credibility of any alternative Sunni leadership. The result, ultimately, is the current scene in Iraq: many who once fought ISIS now cheer it, or assist it by default, in their struggle against Shia-dominated forces that are viewed as corrupt occupiers by much of the Sunni population.


The potential for ISIS to engineer a similar resurgence in Syria is real. Should it succeed, ISIS would be well-positioned to present itself to Sunnis in the region at large as the only remaining force with the strength to oppose reviled regimes in Baghdad and Damascus.

The American role in supporting rebels may be the key variable here. Recent, modest shifts in the U.S. approach have helped improve coordination among the opposition’s main regional backers (Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey), resulting in a drop in support to leading Islamist factions. But efforts to increase assistance to more moderate rebels remain hamstrung by familiar problems: the limited capacity and geographic scope of groups meeting Washington’s criteria; the parsimonious support delivered to rebels on key fronts, including Aleppo; and the regime’s freedom to bomb indiscriminately from the sky.

Although the current U.S. approach seems to aim solely at keeping rebel forces alive, it is on the verge of failing to do so. The U.S. has consistently avoided tough decisions in Syria, preferring supposedly lower-risk options that in practice contribute to the jihadi ascent. It did the same in Iraq during the past several years. If the outcome there is any indication, the need for a coherent American policy in Syria today is truly urgent.

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