Disaster in the Levant: the Syrian Civil War in its fourth year

Fathom Magazine, 2/6  The Syrian Civil War is now grinding on into its fourth year. Over 150,000 people have died, and tens more are being killed every day in the ongoing fighting. Millions have lost their homes. Many will almost certainly never return to them. This is by far the greatest disaster to have hit the Levant in a generation. It has impacted not only Syria itself, but also its neighbours – with most profound implications for Iraq and Lebanon.

Syria today has in many ways ceased to exist as a coherent entity. Since mid-2012, the regime of Bashar Assad has ruled over only a minority of the territory of the country (about 40 per cent) and a bare majority of its population. No united successor regime has arisen in the area not controlled by the regime. Rather, a number of projects are under way.

Perhaps the most powerful and consequential of these is the Islamic proto-state controlled by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) organisation, stretching from Anbar and Ninawah provinces in western Iraq, up through eastern Syria to the Turkish border.

A Kurdish autonomous project has also emerged, ruling over three non-contiguous areas of majority Kurdish population in northern Syria. Elsewhere, a variety of rival Sunni Arab rebel groups have carved out fiefdoms of their own. The country today is a confusing patchwork of rival powers. The regime possesses a coherent entity stretching from the capital, Damascus and its environs, up to the western coastal area ­– the heartland of the Alawi sect to which the president belongs.

The regime has won a series of victories in recent months, first of all in the Qalamun mountains area, culminating in the capture of the town of Rankous. Regime forces followed this by clearing out the city of Homs, part of which had been held by the rebels since the first year of the uprising.

These achievements on the part of the regime were impressive. They led to it feeling sufficiently confident to announce presidential ‘elections’ in June. Assad also issued a statement predicting that military operations by his armed forces would conclude in 2014, leaving only the fight against terrorism.

Assad’s renewed confidence appears somewhat misplaced, however. The dictator, with the very determined and consequential aid of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and various Iranian regional allies and proxies, has succeeded in ending any immediate danger to the regime’s existence. This is a not inconsiderable achievement, when one considers that, at the end of 2012, the rebels appeared set to conquer Aleppo and begin a push for Damascus. In 2013 the regime succeeded in reversing this picture.

Yet as of now, at least, what this seems to mean is the consolidation of the lines that fragment Syria, and which render its borders increasingly fictional. Assad may have ring-fenced the capital and the west, but he is not even close to achieving the reunification of the country. The same weaknesses that caused the regime to abandon large swathes of Syria in the summer of 2012 remain relevant: the shortage of reliable manpower, and the inability to take and hold areas of rebel support.

Consequently, the foreseeable future for Syria appears to offer only fragmentation and continued war. To understand Syria today, it is important to understand that there is no longer a single ‘civil war’ taking place between a regime and a rebellion against it. Rather, there exists a variety of powerful entities in the country, each strong enough to prevent its destruction by any of the others.

The Assad regime in mid-2014

The Assad regime should not be seen as a single, unified structure. ‘Regime’ forces today constitute a network of interests, not all of which are under the direct command of Assad himself. Indeed, the most significant element of the forces engaged on behalf of the regime – namely, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Quds Force personnel and Hezbollah – do not take orders from the dictator.

Assad has from the outset enjoyed a very pronounced technical superiority over the rebels. He has maintained total control of the country’s skies. He possesses also a missile and artillery capability, a still existent chemical weapons capacity which he has continued to employ in recent weeks, and strong international backing – from Iran, Russia and Iraq – a level of support not enjoyed by the rebellion.

His problem from the outset, however, has been a lack of reliable manpower. While on paper, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) is large – approximately 295,000 regular soldiers – the great majority of these were Sunni Arab conscripts whom the regime could not trust once the rebellion began.

Assad could rely only on a number of select units – his special forces, the Republican Guard, and the 4th Armoured Division commanded by his brother Maher. These were augmented by the largely Alawi irregular forces known as the Shabiha.

In the course of 2013, the problem of a lack of reliable manpower was to an extent solved by the arrival of greater numbers of foreign fighters and, no less importantly, by the creation and training by the Quds Force and Hezbollah of a new militia force, the National Defence Forces, which operates as an auxiliary force for the regime. This force, established in the first months of 2013, numbers about 100,000 fighters.

The regime’s lack of numbers was also addressed by the entry of a larger number of Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon ( there are an estimated 7,000 fighters in the country at any one time). In addition, Iraqi Shia volunteers of Sadrist and other Shia Islamist loyalties have also entered Syria to operate on behalf of the regime.

So, in 2014, the ‘regime’ side looks like a coalition of pro-Iranian forces, of which the SAA forms only one element. But this reorganised pro-government side has enjoyed a series of successes over the last year, beginning with the reconquest of Qusayr in April 2013, continuing with the long offensive across the Qalamoun mountains area (which succeeded in closing rebel access to the Lebanese border) and, as of now, concluding with the expulsion of rebels from Homs and Rankous.

Politically, there are no indications of splits or fractures in the regime. Rather, Bashar Assad has succeeded throughout in preserving the core group around him, and since his fortunes have notably improved in the course of 2013, any internal fissures now look unlikely.

The international coalition behind him also remains solid. Recent reports detailing Iranian recruitment of Afghan Shia refugees to fight for the regime in Syria indicate not only the regime’s continued concerns over manpower, but also Iran’s continued commitment to Assad’s survival. The regime’s control over Damascus, the western coastal area and the roads linking them, and linking Damascus with Hama and Aleppo, are not currently under serious challenge.

The rebellion in mid-2014

The Syrian rebels have been stymied from the outset by two related factors: the absence of a united international coalition supporting them, and the absence of a single unified chain of command. Both these factors remain, yet it is noteworthy that the rebellion continues to command the loyalty of a large number of men willing to fight, and that despite its difficulties it does not appear to show signs of collapse.

The largest and most significant political-military grouping in the rebellion today is the Islamic Front (IF), consisting of approximately 60,000 fighters. This is a gathering of some of Syria’s most powerful Islamist militias, including the Tawhid Brigade from the Aleppo area, Liwa al-Islam from Damascus and Suqur al-Sham. It includes also the avowedly Salafi group Ahrar al-Sham. Formed on 22 November 2013, the IF dominates rebel military activity in the northern part of the country and has been responsible for the recent offensive into northern Latakia province.

In addition to this force, a number of smaller rebel units of more moderate outlook and a number of more extreme jihadi formations are also operating: the Syrian Revolutionaries Front in Idleb Province, the smaller Harakat Hazm group and the recently formed coalition known as the Southern Front are all militant elements associated with the Supreme Military Council (SMC) headed by General Abdullah al-Bashir.

The SMC, in turn, regards itself as the military wing of the Syrian National Coalition, headed by Ahmed Jarba. It is doubtful, however, whether the various elements are actually subordinated to the SMC in any clear command and control structure. Rather, they identify broadly with the aims of the Council and some among them are the beneficiaries of Western and Saudi aid.

Regarding the jihadis, two elements have emerged to prominence since mid-2013: the Jabhat al-Nusra group and ISIS.

Nusra is regarded by the Al-Qaeda core leadership as its franchise in Syria. The group has proved able to cooperate with other rebel organisations, and is one of the most militarily effective of rebel military groups.

ISIS, formed in April 2013, has followed a far more radical and confrontational path than Nusra. It emerged from the Iraqi branch of Al-Qaeda and is commanded by an Iraqi, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. ISIS controls a large swath of territory stretching deep into Anbar and Ninawah provinces in western Iraq, up through Deir a Zor and Raqqa provinces in Syria and to the Turkish border. This area includes the only provincial capital city to have fallen into rebel hands – Raqqa city.

In this area, ISIS has begun to build its version of an Islamic state. This has included punishments of astonishing brutality, including a number of cases of crucifixion, and the introduction of systematised discrimination against Christians in the area. Through its actions against other rebels, and adoption of these extreme means, ISIS has alienated itself from other rebel groups, who commonly maintain that the group is supported by the regime.

No conclusive proof of this has emerged, however. It is also important to note that ISIS remains among the most militarily effective of the Islamist and jihadi organisations active in northern Syria. Facing the threat of attack from other rebel groups in January 2014, ISIS carried out a redeployment, abandoning Idleb and Latakia provinces and retrenching further east. This was not a military defeat for the group, but rather a deliberate redeployment. As one ISIS fighter described to me: ‘If there are powers against me, I have to retreat and protect my back. And perhaps in the future I will return again.’

There is evidence that a ‘war economy’ has emerged among the rebels. Conversations with a number of sources suggest it has become the accepted practice for certain rebel commanders in the north of the country to allow regime garrisons besieged in isolated bases to bring in food, and even allow soldiers to enter and exit, in return for payment.

Similarly, in Aleppo city, possession of certain weapons systems and armoured vehicles by some rebel commanders has been turned into a source of income, with these men hiring the systems to other fighting groups in return for money. It is worth stressing that the groups suspected of engagement in this activity are not connected either to the IF or the jihadi groups. Rather, they are to be found among the ‘moderate’ formations.

The rebels on the ground remain severely disunited, but with some formidable elements among them, in no apparent danger of collapse.

In terms of their international backers, the situation is similarly confused. Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar took the lead in assisting the rebels in the first part of the rebellion. At the present time, Qatar remains active in support of the more Islamist and jihadi elements, while Saudi Arabia is cooperating more closely with the US in supporting more moderate groups. But while the US has been reported to have carried out training and assistance to selected rebel groups on a limited basis, this has had only a small impact on the battlefield.

The US remains justifiably concerned at the possibility that weapons it provides could find their way into the hands of extremist jihadis. A large shipment of weaponry, sent by the Saudis in early 2012, included items which found their way into the hands of extremist elements. Informed sources revealed to me that items from a smaller shipment of TOW anti-tank missiles, sent to rebels in the north in April 2014, have already ended up in the hands of Jabhat al-Nusra, despite supposed precautions taken by the US and the Saudis.


The Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the People’s Protection Units (commonly known as the YPG militia) have emerged as a ‘third force’ in the Syrian conflict. The party, the Syrian franchise of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), currently controls three non-contiguous land areas in northern Syria, to which it has given the collective name of ‘Rojava.’ The largest of these stretches from the Syrian-Iraqi border to the town of Ras al Ayin further west. The next, about 80 km further west, is an enclave surrounding the city of Kobani (Ayn al-Arab). A third enclave still further west surrounds the city of Afrin.

Within these areas, which the Kurds established after the withdrawal of regime forces from much of northern Syria in the summer of 2012, a governing authority dominated by the PYD and a number of allied parties has been established. While there have been allegations of heavy handedness by the Assad loyalist authorities against rival Kurdish groups, these areas constitute one of the most peaceful and effectively governed areas of northern Syria today. The YPG militia, roughly 50,000 strong, has also emerged as one of the most effective forces.

The Kurds regard themselves as pursuing a separate path to both the regime and the rebels, which has led to accusations by some rebel forces that the PYD is conspiring with the regime – despite the fact there have been instances of clashes between the regime forces and the YPG in Aleppo, Qamishli and elsewhere. For their part, the Kurds say they will defend their areas of control from all attackers, while not seeking to conquer further areas by force. The eastern and central Kurdish enclaves have been subject to ISIS assault, since they directly adjoin ISIS areas of control. But ISIS has not yet succeeded in conquering any part of the Kurdish-held areas.

Where next?

The balance of power and hence the stalemate between the combatant sides in the Syrian conflict shows no sign of being broken any time soon.  The regime’s recent gains in the west are significant, but only in so far as they serve to confirm that there is no immediate threat to the regime’s own future.  Assad is not currently in a position to begin to reconquer the main rebel-held areas, and he has not yet begun to do so.

A certain ‘normalisation’ of the war has set in, particularly in the north of the country. This has included the well-reported local ‘ceasefire’ agreements in a number of places, but also less known practices emerging in some areas where the war has become an avenue for personal power and enrichment.

There is no longer simply a ‘rebel’ and a ‘regime’ side in the war.  The regime has itself become a complex network of forces, some of whom are clearly not under the control or command of Bashar Assad.

In areas not controlled by the regime, meanwhile, two of the most powerful forces – ISIS and the Kurds – are engaged in war with one another and each are in their turn regarded with hostility by the Sunni Islamist IF, which is also fighting Assad.  To a degree, the IF, ISIS and the Kurdish governing authority may all be seen as embryonic, competing ‘successor authorities’ to the regime in the north of the country, which it departed in July 2012.

Given the military stalemate, the absence of any meaningful diplomatic process following the failed ‘Geneva 2’ conference and the  continued commitment of the various sides to their own victory, the war in Syria looks set to continue for the foreseeable future.  This is a tragedy for the people of Syria, over 150,000 of whom have already died, and for the region as a whole. The Syrian Civil War, the greatest disaster to hit the Levant for a generation, is still far from a conclusion.

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A most discreet intervention

Jerusalem Post, 30/5

Israel offering limited assistance to rebels in southern Syria

Since the outbreak of the civil war in Syria in 2011, Israeli officials have observed events to the north with caution and concern.  The concern has derived from the presence of anti-Israel paramilitary and terrorist elements on both sides of the fighting lines in Syria.

The caution, meanwhile, relates to the very deep aversion felt in the Israeli system toward the possibility of Israel’s being sucked in to the morass of the Syrian war.  Israel’s Lebanon experience has left a deep institutional memory warning against overly ambitious incursions into the affairs of neighboring states. 

Nevertheless, evidence is emerging of an increasing, though still modest Israeli involvement in events beyond the separation of forces line on the Golan Heights. 

The least ambiguous evidence of Israeli activity related to Syria is the series of air raids against weapons convoys headed for Lebanon.  These have been attributed by foreign media to Israel, and were carried out to prevent the transfer of certain weapons systems from Syria to Hizballah. 

However, the latest emerging indications relate not to activity deep within the skies above Syria. Rather, the contacts in question are happening, discreetly, very close to the ground, and very close to the border. 

Israeli officials have observed with concern the recent ebb and flow of the fighting in the Deraa and Quneitra provinces in southern Syria.  The rebel fighters in this area, as elsewhere, are a varied and disparate group.  The southern front is the focus of the limited western and Arab support offered the rebels. 

A western command center at which US, Jordanian, Saudi, British and French personnel are present has been established to coordinate aid to the rebels in the south. 

But the ‘moderate’ rebels of the Supreme Military Command and the related Syrian Revolutionaries Front, who benefit from the modest flow of western and Saudi aid, are not the only anti-Assad fighters in the south. 

Jabhat al-Nusra, the official Syrian franchise of al-Qaeda, is also playing a major role in the fighting in the south.  The Salafi Ahrar al-Sham group is also present in force among the southern rebels.  These groups operate in coordination with the western supported fighters.   

In recent weeks, forces led by al-Nusra have made major territorial advances.  In late April, these forces captured eastern Tel al-Akhmar (the red hill).  This hill is situated five kilometers from the Israeli border on the Golan Heights.  Western Tel al-Akhmar, which is just 2km from the first Israeli positions, was captured earlier in the month. 

Rebel forces hope to push on to Quneitra itself.  Their intention is to establish a contiguous strip of rebel-controlled territory in across western Deraa and Quneitra provinces – just 100km southwest of Damascus. 

For Israel, the possibility that al-Qaeda linked jihadis should establish themselves along one of its borderlines represents a nightmare scenario. In a video released after the capture of the hill, a Nusra spokesman was heard to praise Osama Bin-Laden as the ‘lion of Islam’, and to vow continued war on ‘Jews and crusaders.’ 

So the problem is clear. What is Israel doing to respond to it?

In addition to increasing drone surveillance and intelligence gathering across the border, the evidence suggests that Israel has established contact with non-jihadi, western supported rebel elements, with the intention of ensuring that the jihadis are prevented from establishing themselves along the ceasefire line on the Golan. 

The medical care afforded wounded Syrian fighters has served to facilitate this process. 1000 or so Syrian fighters have received this, with the more lightly wounded being treated at the IDF field hospital established close to the border, and others in hospitals in northern Israel. 

Colonel Abdullah al-Bashir, who commands the Supreme Military Council, a prominent western backed rebel element, was among the military personnel to be treated in Israel. 

In addition to the direct contacts with the rebels, Israel is also in contact with local leaders across the border, with the intention of offering them inducements to refuse shelter and medical care to the jihadi fighters. 

The Israeli contacts with the rebels are probably coordinated with the western backers of these forces.  According to one report, there are Israeli representatives at the western and Jordanian command center coordinating support for the rebels in northern Jordan. 

Israeli support for western-backed rebels in this arena is made yet more necessary by the fact that defeat for the rebellion in Deraa and Quneitra runs the risk of bringing not the status quo ante bellum, but rather Hizballah, to the border.

Fighters from the Shia Islamist movement are present among pro-regime forces battling in the south.  In early March, IDF troops fired at what they said was a Hizballah team trying to place a bomb in the border area. 

So is the southern border coming to resemble south Lebanon in the 1980s? Is Israel being sucked into another commitment across a northern border? 

Precisely because the lesson of Lebanon is so deeply etched on the collective memory of the Israeli system, it is likely that the Israeli footprint in southern Syria will remain discernible, but light.  There are no ideal options.  Nusra, according to one source, is stronger than it appears, since it has allowed pro-western forces to take credit for a number of operations.  It does this so as to keep western support flowing into the area, from which Nusra itself will then benefit.   So any strengthening of the rebels in the south carries with it the risk of assisting precisely the enemy that it is supposed to thwart.  But the alternative of passive acquiescence to either al-Qaeda or Hizballah assembling along the border is probably worse. 

A complicated political and military eco-system has emerged in southern Syria, just across the ceasefire line in the Golan Heights.  Israel will do its best to preserve its vital interests, while avoiding an overt presence in this arena.  Maintaining the balance is not simple.  As of now, it may be said that Israel is actively, if discreetly, engaged in southern Syria. 

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ISIS committing Atrocities against civilian population in northern Syria

PJmedia, 27/5.  Co-authored with Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi


Evidence is mounting that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is systematically committing atrocities in eastern and northern Syria, its areas of control.

While individual incidents of brutality have been well-documented, the near-impossibility of on-the-spot reporting in the area controlled by the organization has made it difficult to build a general description of the situation there. However, as more and more witnesses come forward, the picture is gradually becoming clearer.

Public executions are a regular weekly occurrence in Raqqa city, the provincial capital controlled by ISIS. In a number of verified cases, the bodies of executed people have been “crucified” — placed on crosses in public areas after execution by other means, supposedly to act as a deterrent to others. (Note: at least one crucifixion of a living victim by an Islamist group has occurred recently, in Yemen. Video here.)

ISIS invoked Qur’an 5:33 in a case of two people being crucified in Raqqa for supposedly carrying out an IED attack against ISIS. The Quran passage stipulates that, among a number of punishments, those who “wage war on God and His Messenger” may be crucified.

An earlier case in Raqqa in late March was also justified as the appropriate penalty for alleged stealing and murder, though it was not officially advertised by ISIS. The case seems to fall under the same framework of Quran 5:33, which also mentions “striving to cause corruption on Earth” as an offense that can warrant crucifixion.

Crucifixions are by no means the exclusive realm of ISIS: they can also be carried out in Saudi Arabia for crimes such as terrorism and highway robbery. The issue is that ISIS is defining itself as the one and only true Islamic state; in their view, waging war on ISIS thus constitutes waging war on “God and His Messenger.”

For ISIS, Raqqa — often described in ISIS circles as the “capital” of ISIS — is very much the prototype model Islamic city, where aspects of Islamic law are first introduced and are then spread to other areas of ISIS-held territory. (Their territory currently encompasses all major urban areas in Raqqa province, eastern Aleppo province, and most of southern and central Hasakah province). The crucifixions are a case-in-point: once implemented officially in Raqqa, the practice then spread to other ISIS strongholds, most notably the Aleppo provincial towns of Maskanah and Manbij.

As in Raqqa, those subjected to crucifixion are suspected of having had ties to rival underground rebel groups trying to undermine ISIS with clandestine attacks. In Maskanah, the crucifixion was presented as the “punishment for apostasy” for one of three alleged “shabiha” members.

By invoking apostasy, ISIS likely is referencing this hadith, where it is stipulated that one of the cases in which a Muslim’s blood may be lawfully shed is for fighting against God and His Messenger (similar to Qur’an 5:33). In this case, the punishment is crucifixion or exile. The crime in question has been interpreted to be apostasy.

Also in Raqqa, Christians have had the first dhimmi pact from ISIS imposed upon them.

Christians there are required to pay a special tax (jizya) to the ISIS authorities. Christians may not publicly wear crosses, pray in the presence of Muslims, or repair or renovate places of worship. As with the crucifixions, ISIS invoked Qur’anic justification for imposing the dhimmi pact: Qur’an 9:29. (This invocation was largely overlooked in prior media coverage of this development.) ISIS later announced that arrangements were underway for the imposition of the dhimmi pact on Christians in Hasakah province living under ISIS dominion.

Last month, a group of activists in Raqqa city formed a group called “Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently” with hopes of spreading information about the city’s current condition. The 20 members of the group were then sentenced to death by ISIS for “non-belief in Islam.” A large cash prize has been offered by ISIS for information leading to their capture.

The horror gets worse: the most shocking evidence of brutality comes from witnesses to the jails maintained by ISIS.

(WARNING: the following page contains graphic images.)

Perwer Janfrosh, a 25-year-old Syrian Kurd from the city of Kobani, was arrested by ISIS while attempting to cross the Syrian-Turkish border. He was held for five days in an ISIS jail in the town of Jarabulus in northern Syria.

Janfrosh claims to have witnessed the torture and killing of a Kurdish man for the “crime” of raising the flag of the Kurdish YPG militia in the town, and also the torture of Arab residents of the town who had been arrested for drinking alcohol.

Said al-Adlubi, a Syrian Arab refugee and former fighter with the Free Syrian Army, told the “Rescue Christians” organization that he witnessed the slaughter of kidnapped Christians in ISIS captivity who were killed because ransom had not been paid.

Adlubi also said he had seen a gruesome mortuary maintained by ISIS, where the corpses of slaughtered prisoners were hung on hooks. Rescue Christians spoke with a second witness — Kamil Toume, a Syrian Christian and former prisoner of ISIS — who confirmed Adlubi’s account of the “slaughterhouses.”

Janfrosh and Adlubi both spoke of being described as “apostates” by their ISIS captors. Apostasy is a crime punishable by death according to Sharia law.

The brutality of ISIS ultimately is no surprise: the group already considers itself a state (dawla), not a mere group or organization (jamaat, or tanzim). Those descriptors are considered insulting by ISIS. ISIS intends to establish itself for the long-run, and is not open to power-sharing, compromise, or accountability at the hands of arbitration by a third-party. Totalitarianism is thus the natural consequence, as is the wider infighting between ISIS and other rebel groups across many parts of Syria. Most notably, intense fighting has occurred with Syria’s official al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, as ISIS seeks to connect Anbar province in western Iraq with its territorial holdings in Syria.



One of three executed by ISIS in Maskanah, Aleppo province, as part of punishment for apostasy.


A person crucified by ISIS in Manbij, Aleppo province


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Turnaround: Is Saudi Arabia shifting course towards Iran?


 Jerusalem Post, 23/5

A number of recent Saudi moves and official statements have led to speculation regarding a possible shift on the kingdom’s stance toward Iran.

The Saudis appear to be moving at least on a declarative level away from a position according to which Iranian ambitions are a threat to be resisted, toward an attempt to accommodate Teheran.

The speculation regarding a changed Saudi stance rests largely on three recent public events.

The first was the meeting last month between newly-minted Saudi ambassador to Teheran Rahman al-Shehri and former Iranian President Ali Akbar Rafsanjani.

Al-Shehri demonstrably kissed Rafsanjani on the forehead during the meeting. In addition to demonstrating the depth of the ambassador’s patriotism, this act was held by some commentators to portend a renewed Saudi determination to set relations with Iran on a new footing.

The second was the Saudi announcement of an invitation to Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to visit the kingdom.

The third element that many analysts have pointed to in asserting a change in the direction of Saudi policy is the recent replacement of Prince Bandar Bin Sultan from his position as head of the Saudi intelligence services.

Bandar had been associated with a pro-active Saudi policy in Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain and other points of Saudi-Iranian tension. His replacement by Mohamed Bin Nayef was seen as portending a less activist regional policy.

This was accompanied by the replacement of Deputy Defense Minister Salman Bin Sultan. Bin Sultan is the half brother of Bandar, and like him was associated with a policy of activist resistance to Iran’s regional advance.

These Saudi gestures should be placed in a context of clear US pressure to their Gulf clients to get ‘on board’ with Washington’s regional diplomacy, close to the center of which appears to be a desire to ‘flip’ Iran from foe to friend.

According to a report on the Intelligence Online website, both President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel stressed this matter in their recent visit to the Gulf. President Obama reportedly raised the matter in his meeting with King Abdullah bin Aziz.

Hagel, meanwhile, urged greater Saudi ‘openness’ to Iran in meetings with Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Salman, deputy crown prince Muqrin and foreign minister Saud al Faisal.

As the nuclear negotiations with Teheran stumble on, and Iran’s clients hold their own or emerge victorious in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, the US remains apparently convinced of its strategy to normalize relations with Teheran through meeting it halfway.

Saudia Arabia, along with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, has hitherto remained similarly convinced that Iranian ambitions cannot be accommodated, without Saudi and western surrender of vital interests. It is for this reason that they have regarded the current US push for rapprochement with Teheran to be a fool’s errand.

Again according to Intelligence Online, General Khalifa bin Ahmed al-Khalifa, the Bahraini chief of staff, bluntly articulated the concerns of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries with regard to the Iranian threat and the current US response to it.

The Gulf countries, he said, were ‘profoundly concerned about Iran’s ambitions to destabilise the region, via its sponsorship of terrorism from the shores of the Mediterranean to the provinces of southern Yemen…Your (US) intelligence services have proof of this terrorism enterprise. What are you doing to halt its spread?”

General Khalifa went on to accuse the US of ‘backing down’ over Syria and letting Assad’s ‘chemical attacks go unpunished.’ 

Gulf concerns are not hard to understand. The goal of ending the presence of foreign (ie US) forces in the Gulf is a core Iranian strategic objective. Teheran regards its own domination of the Persian Gulf as a ‘natural’ state of affairs reflecting Iran’s greater demographic and societal strength compared with the fragile, energy-rich Arab monarchies on the other side of the Gulf.

Iran has also shown skill and determination in the pursuit of its goals further afield over the last turbulent decade in the region.

How then to explain the Saudis’ apparent about-face and attempt to get behind US policy?

The Saudis are aware that the US remains the main physical guarantor of Gulf security, whatever the problems with its current strategy. Other Gulf countries are aware of this too.

There are no indications that the current Administration has any intention of reducing the US military presence of 35,000 personnel in the Gulf, including the 5th Fleet and a number of advanced missile defense systems.

Indeed, Hagel went out of his way during his visit to the Gulf to stress the continued US commitment to this presence and to Gulf security, regardless of the differences over Iran policy.

It has also long been the contention of many of the most astute Gulf analysts that it would be mistaken to imagine that Saudi Arabia will constitute an unyielding bulwark to Iranian ambitions, if it becomes clear that the US and the west prefer to accommodate the Iranians. The Saudi kingdom is simply too fragile an entity to play such a role. Rather, if western weakness in the face of the Iranian advance becomes apparent, Riyadh is likely to accommodate itself to the new situation.

The Saudi shifting strategy in Syria – which over the last three years has gone from supporting Islamist and jihadi groups to seeking to offer limited support to the rebels largely within the definitions and dictates of US policy – may offer a window into the current broader direction of Saudi policy toward Teheran.

This runs along clear lines of basic disagreement toward the regional strategy being pursued by the Obama Administration, a pragmatic awareness of the need to appear to accommodate Washington’s declared direction, and energetic efforts to prepare as best Riyadh can to cope with the challenges of a Middle East in which a continued Iranian advance seems to be a given.  

Are these on the evidence available likely to produce a changed Saudi policy with regard to Iran? The answer is yes. Increased direct or mediated dialogue between the two at the very least is likely. It may also be that the shift will produce concrete policy results in specific regional ‘files’ of contention – such as Yemen, Lebanon or even Syria – as the Saudis seek to avoid confrontation with the advancing Iranian power.

The lesson of all this is that there is no simple regional substitute for US leadership in the effort to hold back the advance of Iran – both on the nuclear track and with regard to Teheran’s broader regional ambitions of which the nuclear drive constitutes a crucial component. The problem is that the current US Administration is embarked on a course which is producing Iranian victories. Saudi Arabia, because of perceived necessity, appears for now to be adjusting its own course to follow this path.





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At a front line position near Jarabulus, April, 2014

At a front line position near Jarabulus, April, 2014

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YPG fighters in action during an ISIS attack on Haj Ismail village, April, 2014

YPG fighters in action during an ISIS attack on Haj Ismail village, April, 2014

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Wars Within Wars

Weekly Standard, 16/5

With Syrian presidential elections scheduled for June, the incumbent and shoo-in for reelection, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, is campaigning on the promise that 2014 will be the year in which military operations in Syria end. However, the situation in northern Syria, exemplified by the conflict in the canton of Kobani, an area stretching from the Turkish border to south of Kobani city, and from Tell Abyad in the east to Jarabulus in the west, casts doubt on Assad’s optimism.

Kobani is under Kurdish control, but cuts into a larger section of territory controlled by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, a jihadist organization. ISIS aims to hold a clear, contiguous area stretching from Syria’s border with Turkey into western Iraq, where it controls territory in the provinces of Ninewah and Anbar. The existence of the Kurdish canton of Kobani interferes with this plan, and since March ISIS has launched daily attacks against positions held by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) at the edges of the enclave. The Kobani situation offers a window into the Syrian conflict, a fragmented reality where in large parts of the country the regime is little more than a memory, and well-organized rival militias representing starkly different political projects are clashing. Last month, I traveled to the Kobani enclave, entering from the Turkish border with Kurdish smugglers. The road was short but perilous—a sprint toward the border fence in the dark and a rapid, fumbling climb over it. 

Kobani was the first of three cantons established by the Kurdish Democratic Union party (PYD) since the Assad regime withdrew from much of northern Syria in the summer of 2012. There are two other such enclaves: the much larger Jazeera canton to the east, which stretches from the town of Ras al-Ain to the border with Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, and the smaller area around the city of Afrin further west. In all three of these areas, the PYD has set up a Kurdish-dominated autonomous administration. The intention of the Kurds is to consolidate their independent government and eventually to unite the three cantons. 

In the meantime, however, the stark reality of siege conditions in the Kobani canton was immediately apparent to me. The main electricity supply had been cut off, with only intermittent power from hastily rigged-up generators. The water supply, too, had been interrupted, and the local Kurdish authorities were busy digging wells in the hope of reaching natural springs located deep underground. 

Yet for all this, life in the city functions in a way closely resembling normality. The two hospitals in the city lack medical equipment and medicines, but they are open. “We are improvising, we are innovating, and we are not dying,” a doctor told me at Ayn al-Arab hospital
in Kobani city. The school system is functioning, too, and in northern Syria at present these are no small achievements. 

The Kurdish enclaves are almost certainly the most peaceful and best-governed areas in Syria. However, the Kurds are aware of the precariousness of their achievement. Ali, a member of the Kurdish Asayish paramilitary police, told me that “Assad doesn’t want to open another front now. But if he finishes with the radical groups, then he’ll come for us, inevitably.” In the meantime, as one PYD official said, “We take a third line, neither with the regime nor with the Free Syrian Army. We hope in the future to unite all the cantons. We accept a role for the Arabs, so we don’t see a problem with this. And right now, we have one goal—keeping out ISIS.” 

The PYD’s “democratic autonomy” project in northern Syria put it on a collision course with ISIS, which is trying to lay the basis for an Islamic state run according to its own floridly brutal interpretation of sharia law. The resulting conflict then is not simply about territory, or who will rule northern Syria; it is also about how this land will be ruled. 

Mahmoud Musa, a Syrian political analyst and a refugee from the town of Jisr al-Shughur, told me that “there are three serious and well-organized forces in Syria today—the Assad regime, ISIS, and the Kurds.” The last two regard themselves as at war with the regime. In reality, the rival mini-states they have carved out of a fragmented Syria are mainly in conflict with each other. 

 ISIS has emerged as one of the strangest and cruelest of the many political-military movements now active in Syria. I spoke with a young Kurdish man named Perwer who had spent a week in ISIS captivity. He was arrested at the Jarabulus border crossing, while returning to Syria from Istanbul. First detained by members of another Islamist unit, the Tawhid Brigade, he was then handed over to ISIS and kept for five days in one of the movement’s jails in Jarabulus town, just west of the Kobani enclave. 

Perwer related that a Kurdish man who had been caught raising the YPG flag in a village near the border with the Kurdish enclave was tortured to death. He also noted that among his fellow prisoners were Arab residents of Jarabulus held for drinking wine. They too were tortured. The Kurdish prisoners were regularly insulted and called apostates by the ISIS guards, who came from a variety of countries. Copies of the Koran were handed out to the Kurdish detainees, and the days in their crowded cell were broken up by prayer sessions, in which ISIS would seek to instruct their Muslim captives in what they regard as the correct method of Muslim prayer. 

ISIS’s mini-state reaches from the edges of Kobani to deep inside western Iraq. I visited the frontlines on the eastern edge of the Kobani enclave, where the positions of the YPG and ISIS push up against each other. In Tell Abyad, the two sides are camped in abandoned villages, where the ruined landscape has a slightly lunar quality. Eyewitnesses told me that ISIS forced the villagers to leave when the fighting began. Young fighters of the YPG moved carefully around their positions in the abandoned village, ever mindful of the presence of ISIS snipers. In places, the two sides are less than 500 meters apart. ISIS favors mortar fire by night and sniping by day. This has taken a toll on the male and female fighters of the YPG. Around 80 of them have died since the fighting erupted in March. Many more ISIS men, however, have been killed in their wild and uncoordinated attacks. 

In Jarabulus on the western side, the frontline villages are still inhabited. Some of the local Arab clans are backing ISIS. A sort of de facto mini-transfer of populations has taken place in the area, largely, though not solely, along ethnic lines. I met a couple of Sunni Arabs among the ranks of the YPG fighters. There are also Kurdish volunteers among the ISIS men, including some commanders. They hail mainly from the villages of Iraqi Kurdistan, in particular from the Halabja area. Yet these details aside, it is clear the main dynamic of the conflict in this area is ethnic and sectarian, with Kurds faced off against Sunni Arab Islamists. The attitude of the YPG fighters to their ISIS enemies combines a certain contempt for their military prowess, with a sort of fascinated horror at their savage practices. 

“They outnumber us, often. But they lack tactics,” said Surkhwi, a female fighter and the commander of the Kurdish fighters in the village of Abduqli. “We think many of them take drugs before entering combat, and they attack randomly, haphazardly. They desecrate bodies of our fighters, cutting off heads, cutting off hands. They don’t respect the laws of war,” Surkhwi told me. “We also know that ISIS look at us women fighters as something not serious, because of their Islamic ideology. They think that if they are killed by a woman, they won’t go to paradise.” 

The YPG fighters themselves, meanwhile, are clearly experienced and well trained. While interviewing one YPG commander, Nohalat Kobani, I had the chance to witness his troops in action. The position in the village of Haj Ismail where we were conducting the interview came under attack from small arms fire as we were talking. I followed the YPG fighters as they raced to their positions to return fire. The coordination and discipline were impressive. The YPG blasted back at the ISIS position, 500 meters away, with rifles and a medium-caliber machine gun. After a while, the shooting from the other side stopped. Nohalat Kobani, a large, corpulent man and a veteran PYD activist, was amused and unperturbed by the incident. We recommenced our interview as soon as the shooting stopped. 

I met two ISIS fighters in an apartment in Kilis in the south of Turkey, two days after the skirmish at Haj Ismail. It was strange to be sipping tea and smoking with men whose comrades had been shooting at me a short time earlier. It was also fascinating to gain an insight into the appeal that ISIS has managed to exercise over some Syrians, and the way that the movement views the situation in northern Syria. 

Both men were Syrians. Abu Muhammad was clean-shaven and wearing a black tracksuit. Abu Nur sported a short beard. I remarked to my contact afterwards that I would never have taken them for Islamists. He told me that ISIS men customarily shave their beards and adopt western dress when entering Turkey from Syria, so as to avoid the attention of the Turkish security services and police. 

Abu Nur outlined his reasons for joining the organization. He had been a member of the Northern Storm militia, a notoriously corrupt non-Islamist militia group that had controlled the Bab al-Salameh border crossing from Turkey. The incident that had compelled him to leave Northern Storm and join ISIS, he said, was Senator John McCain’s visit to Bab al-Salameh in the spring of 2013. Abu Nur explained that he is suspicious of foreign governments using Syrians for their own ends, so when fighting began between ISIS and Northern Storm in his hometown of Azaz, he joined ISIS, which laid waste to his former colleagues in the subsequent weeks. He had stayed with ISIS, he told me, because it “imposes sharia, acts against criminals and robbers, and has no contact with any foreign government.” 

When I asked Abu Muhammad about ISIS’s practice of cutting off hands and heads as lawful punishments, he told me that “the media have exaggerated this. In certain areas they cut hands off, in others not,” he said. “We have tried our best to apply sharia law. Of course there have been some mistakes.” 

ISIS has recently carried out a strategic retreat in parts of northern Syria, which in some ways resembles the earlier redeployment by the regime. In January of this year, under pressure from other rebel brigades, ISIS began to withdraw its fighters from Idleb and much of Aleppo provinces, concentrating them in its Raqqa stronghold and further east. Abu Mohammed explained the reasons for ISIS’s redeployment. “If there are powers against me, I have to retreat and protect my back. And perhaps in the future I will return again.”

ISIS rules over large swaths of western Iraq’s Anbar and Ninewah provinces, where its fighters are engaged in an insurgency against the government of Nuri al-Maliki, who has been employing sectarian tactics against the Sunnis. So there is a strategic logic to ISIS contracting its forces and drawing down in northwest Syria. The problem for the Kurds is that the Kobani enclave falls within the area that ISIS still seeks to dominate. 

Abu Muhammad expressed the matter clearly: “The YPG wants to establish a Kurdish state. This is completely unacceptable. We want the caliphate, something old and new, from the time of Mohammed. The Europeans created false borders. We want to break these borders.”

Still, ISIS’s plan to destroy the Kobani canton is unlikely to succeed. The Kurdish administration and its militia are capable and well organized, and will continue to defend the enclave’s borders with weapons and supplies smuggled from across the Turkish border. There are veterans of the Kurdistan Workers’ party war against Turkey advising the PYD on both civil and military matters. They appear more than able to stave off ISIS, and to continue to develop the institutions of their autonomy. 

Bashar al-Assad may please himself with the farce of elections, but the wars within wars, competing worldviews, and irreconcilable projects, in northern Syria are testimony to the fact of the country’s fragmentation. They reflect also the rapid change still underway in the Middle East, as old ideas and regimes contract and fade, and new contenders for power make war among the ruins. 


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