Thursday, 1 September 2016

Syria’s Thermopylae: Daraya’s retreating rebels could tip balance in battle for Aleppo

 'Around 700 rebel fighters from Liwa Shuhada al-Islam, packed into dozens of coaches usually reserved for tourists, rolled into the opposition stronghold of Idlib early on Sunday morning. From the besieged Damascene suburb of Daraya, the fighters were provided safe passage by the regime of Bashar al-Assad after they signed an instrument of surrender. 
The deal included the lifting of the siege of Daraya and safe passage for its residents, on the condition of a rebel surrender. Rebels were also forced to give up heavy weaponry and artillery, but were allowed to keep their small arms.
 Despite this, they were greeted as heroes; the mere fact that they, and the other rebel groups in Daraya, have even survived is a victory in itself. Abo Jamal, the leader of Shuhada Al-Islam, was lifted onto the shoulders of opposition fighters and proclaimed that the revolution would continue until “Aleppo, the coast [Latakia], and Idlib have united to liberate Damascus”.
 The suburb of Daraya had been besieged for four years prior to last week’s deal. So intense was the siege that residents were forced to survive on grass and soup, and there are even tales of children relishing their first taste of fresh fruit and vegetables after leaving Daraya.
 With such isolation imposed on them, Shuhada Al-Islam found it particularly difficult to establish a foothold. Weapons were difficult to come by, and even after being vetted by the CIA-supervised operations room in Amman and receiving a very small number of TOW anti-tank missiles, the question of a reliable supply route into the suburb lingered.
 The nature of urban warfare also played a critical role in the development of Daraya’s resistance. The enclave was besieged by the Syrian Arab Army’s elite Fourth Armoured Division, an Alawite-majority division that is regarded as one of the best trained and equipped units at the regime’s disposal. It is also headed by Maher Al-Assad, younger brother of the president. Videos posted by Shuhada al-Islam show capable urban fighters – a skill unique in Syria, and one that is likely to be of use as the battle to liberate the rest of Aleppo from regime control intensifies.
 Jamal’s status, and Shuhada al-Islam’s more broadly, is now cemented as legendary amongst Syria’s opposition for their military heroics. He is modern Syria’s Leonidas I, and his men the equivalent of the 7,000 Greeks who famously held off the 100,000 strong Persian army for seven days. Prior to the revolution he was a talented officer who worked in the elite military academy of Aleppo, and his skills as a military tactician were a critical factor in Daraya’s resistance.
 When asked whether or not Shuhada al-Islam were likely to merge with one of the larger rebels groups active in Syria, a senior figure within the group replied “my friend, I am sure Shuhada al-Islam will continue. None of us want to leave this unit. We are going to continue fighting the regime, and come back to Daraya, and topple the regime."
 But if "resistance" is the mot-de-jour from Daraya, then "merger" is surely the term for northern Syria. A significant merger of rebels groups is widely believed to lurk around the corner. The rebranding of Jabhat Al-Nusra as Jabhat Fatah Al-Sham (JFS) and ostensible disaffiliation from Al-Qaeda has set the stage for this merger. Should such a merger include JFS, Ahrar Al-Sham and Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki, as rumours have suggested it will, it could potentially boast upwards of 40,000 fighters unified under a single command structure.
 Further to this, any sort of merger would require serious ideological concession from Shuhada Al-Islam. The group’s roots lie in what Thomas Pierret, a senior lecturer in contemporary islam at the University of Edinburgh, terms “local Islam” – a non-Salafi form of Islam that was popular within Syria’s middle class before the uprising.
 Formerly part of the Free Syrian Army, their outlook is “distinctly national – as opposed to Salafi-jihadism’s transnational approach”. Their presence in Daraya was notable for their obedience to the town’s civil governance apparatus, which is to say it was a group at the service of the people, something described by Syrian civil rights activist Razan Zaitouneh as an “exemplary model for the future of Syria”.
 There is also immense anger at the Free Syrian Army-aligned Southern Front (SF) in Daraa. Many hold their idleness against the government forces as the primary factor in freeing up regime forces to tighten the siege on Daraya to breaking point. As Pierret says: “Given their ideological orientation, they should normally be attracted to FSA affiliates or mildly Islamist groups rather than to Salafi and Jihadi factions, but: they were clearly let down by their own FSA alliance (The Southern Front), which by freezing operations in Daraa and Quneitra for months, allowed the regime to withdraw manpower from the south and use it against Daraya”. This is an episode that will not be forgotten any time soon, and even has the potential to push them into the arms of the Salafists of northern Syria.
 Perhaps an indicator of things to come was the presence of Sheikh Abdallah Muhammad al-Muhaysini, the Saudi cleric who is hugely influential amongst Syria’s Salafists to the extent that one observer has described him as being treated “like a rock star”. True to rock star form, as Daraya’s rebels touched down in Idlib, he was there to greet them – and even to pose for selfies. He is undeniably pro-al-Qaeda, but his status as a cult opposition cleric in the battle for freedom in Syria saw him warmly embraced by Daraya’s rebels.
Islamist leaders in northern Syria know it would be especially foolish to pick a quarrel with Daraya’s heroes, but with relatively few fighters it is highly likely that actors in the liberated areas of Aleppo and Idlib will attempt to co-opt a group whose urban combat capabilities might help to tip the balance in the battle for Aleppo. The question remains whether Shuhada al-Islam will remain true to their revolutionary instincts or material needs will force them into ideological concessions.'

Painting the revolution in Daraya

 'Over the past three yearsAbu Malek al-Shami’s canvas has been the besieged rebel city of Daraya. Splashed across the fields of destruction, a cityscape laid waste by four years of relentless bombing, are 32 of his murals. They crop up randomly, like wildflowers, adorning the ruins of what once were homes, schools and hospitals. 

 It was back in January 2013 that Shami left his home and struck out from the city towards the sounds of shelling that had rolled like thunder over the hills from Daraya since the FSA took up positions there a few months earlier. As part of a large family of political activists, Shami had begun marching in demonstrations in Damascus two years earlier, while still a high school student. But the government’s continuously heavy-handed and bloody response towards the civilian demonstrators convinced him that protests alone were not enough to prevail and he left to seek training with the FSA. 

 The murals span a range of political topics, invoking the hopes, fears, and dark humour born of years living under siege. Strategically angled so as to be seen from both “above and below”, the work is directed at the people of Daraya but also the world beyond its walls. Motivated by a deep commitment to the principles of democratic governance and pluralism that launched the Syrian uprising of March 2011, his work has stood as evidence of Daraya’s resistance while also being a cry for help.
In the light of the rebel defeat in this Damascus suburb, his message to the Syrian opposition has taken on a more urgent and dire dimension.
 “There was a danger of people forgetting,” says Shami. “Forgetting about the struggle and forgetting the values that brought us here. There was a need to remind people exactly what they were fighting for, what this revolution meant.”
 It is not hard to see why the government prioritised breaking the resistance here. Until last week, Daraya stood alone as the last secular rebel stronghold in Syria, which residents and fighters proudly declared free of militants. With its democratic culture of local councils, communal farming arrangements, and fierce, grassroots resistance movements, the suburb was romantically called the “Idol of the Revolution” by opposition supporters.
 The Assad government, however, has ruthlessly pursued a strategy of eliminating credible rivals that could join it at a future negotiating table, reducing the war to a brutal choice between dictatorship and bloodthirsty militants. Daraya was as a lingering obstacle to that goal, clinging on in a state of a crushing siege since early 2014.
 Now, in the wake of the ultimate defeat of the rebellion in Daraya, the future of its fighters and inhabitants is hard to predict. Shami and his fellow rebels have begun the hard task of disengaging and making the long journey to Idlib.
 However, their struggle to spread the values of freedom and democracy has been immortalised in Daraya’s remarkable four-year-old resistance. Shami hopes his murals can educate Syrians about what they are capable of and will stand as a testament to the self-determination that initially inspired Shami to leave his home for a life of struggle.
 “When we started this uprising, it was for freedom and dignity,” he says. “We never wanted a fight. The need to carry a weapon was thrust upon us by the regime. I want to show that there are many like us left in Syria, whose goals are pure and who continue to fight for those same values the uprising started with.” '

Wednesday, 31 August 2016



 'The government’s fighting force today consists of a dizzying array of hyper-local militias aligned with various factions, domestic and foreign sponsors, and local warlords. Aymenn al-Tamimi’s profiles of loyalist militias provide some insight into their diverse backgrounds. Among these groups, only a handful are still capable of anything close to offensive action. Much more so than sectarian or demographic limitations, this fragmentation is the direct result of the interaction between national and local economic and governance pressures. As the once totalitarian Syrian central state atrophies, its constituent parts — be they sectarian, rentierist, or simple brutes — have gained a stunning degree of political and economic independence from Damascus. Contrary to what others have claimed, Assad’s regime has not struck some grand bargain with a large section the Syria’s urban Sunni population. Instead, he has elevated to power the most brutish elements of the country and doubled down on the sectarian, tribal, and thuggish inclinations of its base. In much of the country, loyalist security forces function like a grand racketeering scheme: simultaneously a cause and consequence of state collapse at the local level.

 As an introduction to the Tiger Forces, we can turn to Robert Fisk’s fawning account of his “audience with […] Bashar al-Assad’s favorite soldier,” Suheil Hassan, who leads the Tiger Forces. Hassan is an officer of the regime’s feared Air Force Intelligence Directorate. Besides leading what is said to be the government’s most elite fighting force, he is also thought to be one of the architects of Assad’s scorched earth and barrel-bombing campaign. Hassan enjoys almostcult-like popularity among regime supporters.

 The real story of the Tiger Forces is far less glamourous, yet far more instructive to those trying to understand the regime. During the early days of the uprising against Assad, Hassan coordinated the suppression of protests in Hama, an effort that relied on a collection of ordinary thugs, air force officers, and area tribal leaders. His effectiveness was found in his ability to rally local support rather than depending on the already crumbling state institutions. In due time, this early network of enforcers would evolve into the so-called Tiger Forces. While the unit has since developed a more stable core of permanent quasi-soldiers, Tiger loyalists today still hail from a vast web of militias, criminals, and smugglers stretching across Syria’s central and arguably most strategic province of Hama. Many of his direct subordinates have become notorious throughout the country for brigandage, smuggling activity, and general lawlessness. Earlier this year, Ali Shelly, a powerful thug from the town of Tell Salhab who is directly responsible to Hassan, pushed his abuses to the point where the regime finally had him arrested and thrown in jail. However, within days, Shelly was released and returned to the frontline. Such incidents should be seen as more than mere bureaucratic infighting over corruption. According to interviews I’ve conducted, Hassan loyalist warlords are widely known to smuggle guns, people, and oil to ISIL and opposition territory, directly undermining the regime’s war effort. But the central government has little choice but to look on helplessly.

 This summer, Islamic State militants blew up the last major gas facility still operating in the country, exacerbating the already tenuous situation in the country. Syria’s ever accelerating economic and fiscal tailspin has not only wiped out savings, diminished wages, and thus thrown millions into poverty, but also precipitated a dramatic currency collapse as I have seen from my own collection of black market exchange rates across Syria. Whereas the effect of inflation on military recruitment has been widely documented, currency depreciation has other secondary effects: At current rates, imports of basic goods have become prohibitively expensive. Meanwhile, the government price controls and producer monopolies have driven local producers into idleness and raised the incentive for smugglers to traffic what few goods enter the country right back across the border. The resulting price hikes, shortages, and rationing had a debilitating effect across the country, while making some men with the necessary know-how and muscle tremendously wealthy.

 The Desert Hawks were founded by the brothers Mohamed and Aymen Jaber, who personify the rise of smugglers to power. The two had made their first big money as ordinary criminals in the Iraqi oil-for-food smugglingbonanza of the late 1990s and then prudently invested their newfound wealth into state-granted monopolies on the Syrian coast during Bashar’s first privatization wave. In August 2013, under pressure from outside sanctions and rebel advances, Assad signed a decree allowing private businessmen to raise their own militias in defense of their capital assets. With the stroke of a pen, the regime thus armed its own kleptocrats. During the much publicized Palmyra offensive in March, tensions between the Desert Hawks and other loyalists came to a head, after Jaber accused the Tiger Forces of deliberately firing onto one of his positions, killing nine and wounding two dozen more. According to multiple sources, including since deleted social media accounts, the militiamen were said to have drawn their guns at Hassan’s men and threatened to depart. In the end, Damascus dispatched a high-ranking delegation to reconcile the warlords and bring the offensive back on track. The units have not shared a frontline since.

 Rather than attempt to capture resource monopolies, certain armed groups have taken to making a profit by exploiting the suffering population directly. Consider the town of al-Tall, just north of the capital Damascus. Technically under a truce agreement with the regime, this small opposition community now houses hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people who have fled there from around the capital. Despite guarantees by the government, local loyalist militias tasked with manning the checkpoints in the area have recently begun leveraging a tax of 100 Syrian Pounds per kilogram on all incoming food products. Even a conservative estimate would put the monthly revenue of such a levy into the millions of U.S. dollars.

 Assad’s men have long begun feeding off the land and the civilian population. Today, the larger part of loyalist fighting formations no longer rely on the regime for the majority of their income, equipment, or recruits. While strategically valuable to Assad, it is by no means certain that the regime is fully in control of upholding a number of sieges, especially in rural Damascus, Homs, and the Qalamoun mountains. A local source who moves regularly between Damascus and Ghouta by way of smuggling tunnels, told me of local rebel battalions run by Syrian Arab Army officers. As the country’s economy and governance institutions continue to falter, these “ghosts,” as Syrians colloquially refer to regime-aligned criminals, have come back to haunt those in power. Despite what color-coded “control” maps show, Bashar al-Assad retains very little meaningful authority over much of the territory he is said to rule. As the war progresses, these dynamics will inevitably lead to divergence of interests among local fighters and the regime, as well as Damascus and its foreign backers.

 This April’s parliamentary “elections” further indicated the structural transformation of the regime from a centralized state to a loose hodgepodge of warlord. A number of long-serving Ba’athist rubberstamp bureaucrats and local dignitaries, pillars of the regime’s traditional rentier system, lost their seats in favor of upstart smugglers, militia leaders, and tribal chiefs. The old guard took note: After results were announced, the supplanted agents of the regime in Hama dispatched an urgent delegation to the capital to warn Assad’s inner circle of the character and disposition of the men they had chosen to elevate. But for lack of alternative, Assad needs to keep these men close by.

 Assad’s kleptocratic maternal cousins, the brothers Makhlouf, have built a militia network of their own through their Al-Bustan Association, a private foundation, created before the war that funds both humanitarian relief efforts as well as armed groups. This spans the width and breadth of regime-held territory and is carefully kept outside of state control. At the same time, the Ba’ath party’s earliest political nemesis, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), has reemerged on the scene and already made tremendous inroads among the country’s Orthodox Christian and Druze communities, recruiting for their own growing military wing. Considering the historical role the Makhlouf family played in the SSNP, many in Damascus have cause to worry about centrifugal forces tearing the regime apart even further.

 Assad’s foreign sponsors are not much help either. Iran appears perfectly content with the muddled situation on the ground, having put great resources into developing its own client network across the country. Russia meanwhile, the country arguably most concerned with regime stability, appears to be oblivious to the entire situation. Its officers and soldiers are regularly photographed fighting and fraternizing alongside a wide range of tribal and sectarian militias.

 Over the past three years, despite foreign military aid and support, the regime under Assad has continued to atrophy at an ever increasing pace. If these trends continue, the Syrian president will soon find himself little more than a primus inter pares, a symbolic common denominator around which a loose coalition of thieves and fiefdoms can rally. Thus, with the slow decay of the once powerful state, military, and party establishment, the person of Bashar al-Assad himself has increasingly come to embody the last remaining pillar not of a state but of “the regime” and its brutal war against its own citizens.

 The great majority of forces in Syria today, particularly among the regime’s minority supporters, fight an increasingly localized war for the protection of their particular communities. It is only through the continued existence of the regime — personified in Assad — that these defensive goals have been tied to an aggressive, national vision which we know to be unacceptable to a great majority of Syrians, disastrous to its supporters, and militarily unrealistic. While removing the tyrant may spark in-fighting among the surviving warlords, it would likely not mean a collapse of their forces and the slaughter of their villages. Latakia is being protected not by Assad’s largely imaginary “4th Corps” of the Syrian Arab Army, but by Mohamed Jaber and his merry men of the Desert Hawks. If indeed there is no strong bureaucratic and military class left that could salvage and revive the state and if loyalist militants have developed an increasing degree of self-reliance, then the situation is not as Western policymakers assume. Syria’s president has become not only perfectly expendable as guarantor of the state, but ought to be considered the last remaining obstacle to a peace process based on local ceasefires and return to displaced peoples to their home communities.

 This makes those calls heard in Western capitals, as well as Moscow, that Syria’s state institutions must be preserved ring hollow. All this suffering — to preserve what precisely?

 It is the fiction of a national regime upheld by Assad that drives the worst abuses of this war, that obliges Alawite kids from the coastal mountains and the plains of Hama to fight their own countrymen in distant corners of a country long fractured into smaller fiefdoms beyond the reach of the state. The United States should not be complicit in this pretension. The Syrian state is gone for good. At this point, a quick decapitation might be preferable to a drawn-out implosion.

 When Syrians first rose up, they demanded not just the downfall of Bashar al-Assad, but of the “nizam.” Commonly translated as “regime”, it more closely means “system”. Humanitarian suffering, state failure and — yes — terrorism in Syria are not competing concerns that need to be balanced, but symptoms of a singular disease: The mis-rule of Bashar al-Assad and his clients, cronies, and the petty criminals it has elevated to power.'

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Rebels capture strategic town in Syria's northern Hama province

Smoke billows from Atshan after pro-regime forces captured the village as part of their offensive across central Hama province, on October 11, 2015

 'Syrian rebels captured the strategic town of Halfaya in northern Hama province in an overnight offensive that overran several army and pro-government checkpoints. "We are now cleansing the town after liberating it from the regime and will have more surprises in store," said Abu Kinan, a commander in Jaish al Ezza, a rebel group that fought in the town.'

 'Fighters meet up with their relatives again after the liberation of Helfaya.' []

'1000s of civilians fleeing from Helfaia to rebel areas further north, fearing Russian & Assad airstrikes.'