Saturday, 19 November 2016

Foreign Backers and the Marginalization of the Free Syrian Army

 'During the summer of 2016, the Syrian regime scored two strategic victories over opposition forces: it took control of Daraya, a suburb of Damascus, and imposed a siege on Aleppo. On both these fronts, major factions of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) were conspicuous by their absence. Since mid-2015, most non-jihadist rebel factions have been marginalized in the fight against the regime, not so much because the FSA no longer exists, as sometimes claimed, but because their backers ask them to deescalate the fight against Assad forces to be able to focus on other enemies instead. This marginalization has two consequences. First, it has made Assad and his allies confident enough in their capacity to militarily defeat the rebellion that they felt no need to seriously take part in political negotiations or abide by negotiated truces. Second, it has left the jihadist and Salafist factions of the rebellion practically alone on the battlefields, granting them near monopoly over the revolutionary discourse.

 The FSA is a collection of brigades, usually organized locally without a centralized chain of command. These brigades are sometimes part of larger coalitions comprising several thousand fighters. Their political orientation varies from secular nationalism to Muslim-brotherhood-style Islamism, with a clear majority of them being non-ideological. Most are military defectors and former civilians motivated to overthrow the regime. “FSA factions” can simply be defined as those who claim to be part of the FSA, without referring to any leadership on a national level, as opposed to “Islamist factions” who do not claim to be part of the FSA and tend to be aligned with some national or international leadership. Taken as a whole, the FSAaligned brigades make up the majority of the rebel forces. However, their inability to define a common agenda or strategy is their main weakness. This has made them particularly exposed to pressure to serve foreign interests rather than their own, particularly those of Turkey, Jordan and the United States, each of which has priorities other than to fight the Assad regime or to confront Russia.

 The example of Harakat Hazm is particularly telling of the USA’s goal of turning effective rebel forces into mere proxies. Harakat Hazm was created in early 2014 by various rebel groups, many of which had played a central role in expelling ISIS from northwest Syria in the winter 2013-14 and had advanced combat experience against the regime. Harakat Hazm have always had bad relations with Jabhat al-Nusra (which, unlike ISIS, is supposedly allied to the FSA), and the two groups often clashed. Hazm was long considered to be one of the USA’s favoured groups in northern Syria,5 but it was left without support when, at the end of 2014, it came under attack and was eventually destroyed by Jabhat al-Nusra. When the author asked a former member of Harakat Hazm why the USA didn’t support them when they were attacked, he explained that “by September 2014 the United States started to pressure us to leave the battle field against Assad and to send all our forces to fight ISIS. We had no problem to go fight ISIS, but wouldn’t agree to stop fighting Assad. From then on, our relations with the Americans went from bad to worse and eventually they stopped backing us. When Jabhat al-Nusra attacked us, we had already lost all foreign support. We lost because we dared to disobey the Americans.”

 While the strategy of selecting factions to pull away from the battlefield so that they could fight jihadists had proved to be a failure, the alternative strategy was to impose nationwide truces with the regime. On two occasions, a Russian-American deal was reached to impose a truce on belligerent forces. While the truce of February-March 2016 led to a reduction of fighting for over a month, the one in September 2016 was never effectively implemented. The Assad regime and Russia clearly had no intention of respecting their engagements and saw the truces simply as a way to gain time and to test the determination of the rebellion and its supposed allies. For the regime, truces are not a first step towards a political negotiation but rather a step towards the complete surrender of rebels, as was the case for local truces in Damascus and Homs.

 While almost all of the opposition forces rallied to the principle of a political solution and de-escalation with the regime, Jabhat al-Nusra/Fateh al-Sham reclaims the revolutionary discourse and presents itself as the only force striving for the definitive fall of the Assad regime. Those accepting compromise with Assad were called defeatists, if not traitors. The failure of the truces proved the jihadists right. The regime had no intention to respect them and diplomacy has not could not save Aleppo. Only the military action led by Jabhat Fateh al-Sham in August was successful in breaking the siege. During the regime’s major offensive in Aleppo since April 2016, Jabhat al-Nusra/Fateh al-Sham seems to be the only force capable of facing Assad forces. Within FSA factions, morale was at its lowest. During the so-called truce of spring 2016, Jabhat al-Nusra recruited fighters by the hundreds, mainly among die-hard FSA fighters who were convinced not by the ideology of the group but rather by its will to fight. 

 In southern Syria, the rebellion managed to keep a rather nationalist identity and limit the influence of Salafist and jihadist factions. FSA groups are deeply rooted within their local community and largely dominated by military defectors. The “Southern-Front” operation room gathered over 50 factions and 15,000 to 30,000 fighters. It could have served as a counter-model to the jihadist-dominated Jeish al-Fateh coalition which is dominant in the north, but the “Southern-Front” factions have achieved little in the last year. The “Southern-Front” was seen as the opportunity to build an organized army that was independent of jihadist influence and could break the siege of the southern suburbs of Damascus, seriously challenging Assad in the capital and forcing him to make concessions and enter real negotiations. Instead, the policy of the MOC (Military Operations Centres) was to de-escalate the fight against the regime and to have the factions that it supports focus on clearing and securing the Jordanian border. The factions of the “Southern-Front” have also been extremely weakened by the inconstancy and irregularity of the support provided by the MOC. Thus, these factions have had very little autonomy and nearly no leverage on the strategy decided in the MOC and imposed upon them. The MOC exerts its control over the factions using a carrot and stick policy. When it is decided that a front should be opened, munitions, weapons, salaries and access to Jordanian hospitals are provided. When the MOC decides that a battle should stop, military support is cut, and access to Jordanian hospitals is closed. Jordan publicly cooperates with Russia on the Syrian file, and there is a serious fear among southern factions and civilians that a refusal to cooperate with Jordanian authorities would cause the Russians to step up and strike the south with the same intensity as it strikes the north.

 Daraya is a town in the suburbs of Damascus which served as a model for the Syrian revolutionary movement. Despite years of siege and intense shelling, it kept strong social and civil activities, and was a rare case where the local council maintained control over the armed groups. This model of political-military cooperation with locally rooted factions is still serving as an example to revolutionary forces striving for autonomy from Islamist factions and foreign agendas.  The Battle of Daraya continued until the end of August when the regime’s Republican Guards finally forced the last rebels and civilians out of the town. In the meantime, the tens of thousands of fighters from the “Southern-Front” were not allowed by their backers to attack the regime, even though they stand only 30km away from Daraya. Even months after the end of the truce, the MOC-backed factions were not allowed to engage battle with the regime and had to concentrate on clearing the Jordanian borders of small ISIS-affiliated factions.

 In the north of Syria, a similar situation is happening, as rebels are used to clear Turkey’s border and fight its enemies instead of fighting Assad. Turkey had until now held one of the most hawkish anti-Assad positions in the international community, but eventually its other priorities began to overcome those of the Syrian opposition. While Assad forces were consolidating their positions in Aleppo, besieging nearly 300,000 people, Turkey pushed thousands of FSA fighters into the battle of Jarablous against ISIS and against the Kurdish dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The ultimate goal of this operation is to cut the SDF’s progress along the border and prevent the Kurds from unifying the territories that they held. Once again, as in the south, significant manpower and firepower are used to secure the borders and serve the direct interest of a foreign actor. The consequence of this is the marginalization of FSA brigades as they concentrate nearly all their forces on a secondary battle at a time when Aleppo is about to fall back under the regime’s control. The Turkish-backed “Euphrates Shield” operation is ultimately leaving the space wide open for the regime and the jihadists to fight the central battles in Idlib, Hama and Aleppo.

 The marginalization of the FSA from the central battles has provoked strong reactions within the revolutionary movement. By June 2016, a statement called “The Hauran call for help” was signed by 50 of the most prominent figures of the revolution, including military leaders, clerics, activists and intellectuals. Symbolically, the first signatory was Abo Jamal, the FSA leader of the armed resistance in Daraya. The statement called on revolutionaries in the south to start the fight again. All through the summer, as the regime was progressing in Daraya and Aleppo, leaders of the “Southern-Front” were compared to traitors, cowards and contrasted with Islamists in the north who were continuing the battle. In July, a fatwa issued by 54 clerics, including some close to Al-Qaeda such as Abdullah al-Muhseiny of Jeish al-Fateh, declared it illegal (haram) to be a member of a faction that is not fighting the regime. In the meantime, Ahrar al-sham’s spokesman called on people to overthrow the leaders of the “Southern-Front”.

 In 2016, two coups by FSA fighters against their own leaders took place in two of the most important factions in the south: Liwa Shabab alSunna in August and Jabhat Thuwar Souriya in September. In early August, Ahmad alAuda, the leader of Liwa Shabab al-Sunna in Bosra al-Sham, was deposed by fighters of the brigade and some civilians. A few days later, the MOC quickly reacted and had factions of the “Southern-Front” attack the group’s headquarters in Bosra al-Sham to put Ahmad al-Auda back in his position.18 An FSA fighter told the author that “everyone hates Ahmad al-Auda, but the MOC wants him there. He is not a revolutionary. He is the slave of the MOC”.

 In the north, criticisms of “Euphrates Shield” operations are rising. The FSA is trying to convince itself that a second phase of these operations consists of taking back Aleppo from Assad. But they are under fierce criticism from other factions, mainly jihadists, who are excluded from the Turkish-backed operation, and who feel left alone on the fronts of Aleppo and Hama. Despite the successes of the operation against ISIS and Kurdish forces, many rebels are wondering whether it is really a priority to take Tel Rifaat or al-Bab, when Aleppo is besieged. An FSA faction from Idlib withdrew from the “Euphrates Shield” operation, according to their statement, because of the situation on the fronts against the regime.22 Several FSA fighters who took part in the first days of the operation went back to their local brigades to protect their community from the regime.

 The Syrian war has become an internationalized conflict in which local actors struggle to have some leverage on the course of the events. Fighting without outside support has become impossible. However, what is important is for all actors in Syria to be allies of foreign backers instead of mere proxies.'

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

With Donald Trump's victory, Assad has been given free rein in Syria

Syrian airport

 'The same day Americans elected Donald Trump for president — a man who has dismissed the shattered, starved, gassed and barrel-bombed refugees of Syria's civil war as "definitely in many cases ISIS-aligned" — Syrian government forces fought their way into a strategic neighbourhood on the southwestern outskirts of Aleppo.
 The two events are linked. Aleppo, once one of Syria's most glorious cities, has been pulverized by fighting between rival forces, as well as by airstrikes carried out by the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad and his Russian allies. The nihilistic head-hackers of ISIS, the so-called Islamic State, prowl beyond the city, mostly untouched by Russian or Syrian bombs.

 Assad and his allies, which include Russia, Iran and the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, are by far the most prolific mass murderers in Syria. ISIS has seized headlines with its videotaped gore. But most of Syria's dead are dead because of Assad and indeed, most Syrian refugees have fled because of Assad. Unlike ISIS, Assad's forces don't publicize their bloodlust. But anyone who doubts its existence need only consult the photographs of thousands of torture-scarred corpses smuggled out of Syria by "Caesar," a former Syrian government forensic photographer who once worked at two Syrian military hospitals in Damascus.

 And now Assad has been given free rein. He knows he has nothing to fear from America. American support for Syria's opposition —"we don't know who the rebels are," Trump says — will dry up. Trump will try to forge some sort of cooperation with Russia against ISIS, reinforcing Putin's growing strength and influence in the Middle East. And Syria's opposition and civilian victims will find themselves as alone and isolated as they have ever been.

 To be sure, America's support for Syria's opposition and its will to confront Assad was always tepid. President Barack Obama said the use of chemical weapons in Syria was a "red line" for him, but then withered when Assad's forces used sarin-filled shells to kill some 1,400 Syrians men, women and children in 2013. America has armed and trained Syrian rebels, but only in small numbers. It never bombed Assad's forces their behalf, or established a no-fly zone where Syrian civilians might be safe from Syrian and Russian airstrikes. Some Syrians hoped a Clinton presidency might bring some relief from their greatest tormentor. It now seems certain Assad will endure.

 "That S.O.B. we have in Damascus is the luckiest bastard in the world," says Faisal Alazem, Montreal director of the Syrian Canadian Council. "He had eight years of Obama, where red line after red line was crossed with no consequences. And now he gets Trump, probably the Western leader that is going to be the closest to Vladimir Putin."

 Five years ago, Alazem says, he was the most optimistic person in the world. He believed the interests of Syrian democrats and Western governments were aligned, and together they would force Assad from power. Now, Alazem, who also runs a charity that operates a school for Syrian refugees in Turkey, has concluded that no one outside Syria will help its people. But he still doesn't believe the Syrian revolution is dead.

 "As long as there is one person on the streets defying all this violence around him, whether it's ISIS or these barrel bombs falling on their heads, it's not [over]. Because it's a miracle. No normal human being can sustain and resist so much violence, and people still are. But it's not the spring we were dreaming about five years ago. And the price Syrians have to pay is just incredible." '

Sunday, 13 November 2016

No to detention and no to dictatorships

 'My name is Miream Salameh. I am from a Christian family. I never needed to say that here or in my country because Muslims and Christians always live together in harmony and peace, but I say this today because I need to explain that my family and I escaped from the Syrian regime violence before ISIS even existed in my country. The Assad regime claims that it protects minorities like us from extremist groups. That is not true. The regime protects itself by using minorities as a playing card to tell Western societies that it is the only source of protection for us.

 In early 2011, a peaceful revolution for freedom and democracy started. Syrian people took to the streets to get rid of the dictatorial regime. But from the very beginning, the regime responded by arresting and killing anyone who opposed it. During the revolution, I was an activist. I recorded videos to document Assad’s abuses, and my friend and I established a magazine. We had to stop publishing it after only six months because the regime twice attacked the place we were meeting in and committed horrific massacres there. In one instance, this included killing 20 young men and arresting 150 people, among them women who were stripped naked in public. Later, I started to receive many arrest, rape and death threats from Syrian security. I was forced to leave my home, my memories and all my life to go to Lebanon. I had no choice but to flee.

 At this time my art teacher and the closest person to my heart, Wael Kasstoun, was arrested by Syrian intelligence and tortured to death. His only crime was refusing to draw a painting that supported the regime. His body was found by accident in a military hospital among 200 bodies. Syrian security was preparing to bury them in a mass grave without letting their families know where they were or what happened to them. The Syrian people carry on living while death is only seconds away. There is no choice but to flee to bordering countries, to live in camps which lack the basic necessities of life, and where there is no future, no protection and no prospect. This is especially true for children, who are being forced to work in appalling conditions to help their families – a whole generation that has lost its childhood and its most basic rights.

 As refugees, we have all fled from the same horrific situation. I feel very sad when I hear that Christians are prioritised. As a refugee, I call on the Australian government to bring in people according to their horrific situation, according to the risks that threaten their life and their children’s lives, and not distinguish between us. This is the only way to protect justice and fairness for all. I feel very lucky that this beautiful country has welcomed me and my family and has treated us in the best way I ever imagined, and gave us all the opportunity to rebuild ourselves and start a new safe life.

 But my heart is always with our people who every day face death by all kinds of weapons. The Assad regime and its allies committed and are still committing massacres against the Syrian people. They are bombing schools, bakeries, markets, hospitals and civilian neighbourhoods using internationally banned weapons. They use sieges and starvation as a weapon to give the people in the besieged areas two options – leave their land or die in it. The Syrian people just want to live in safety, in freedom and in dignity. They just want to hear their children laughing, not screaming and crying. To hear them talking about their dreams, not about death and destruction.

 After nearly six years of suffering, the number of refugees has now reached 8 million. We have more than 300,000 detainees and over 500,000 martyrs. Six years on, the international community has not taken a single serious step to stop these war crimes against a people who just ask to live a free and dignified life in a civil democratic state. Six years on and the world is watching us in complete silence. But we will continue our revolution and we believe that the Assad regime, and its right arm ISIS, fear our revolution, because they know when we will win there will not be any existence for them.

 If we really want to stop the refugee crisis, we have to get to its roots. Turning back the boats is cruel, and is not the solution. Putting asylum seekers indefinitely in detention centres in very bad conditions, destroying years of their lives for no reason, is not the solution. Taking only people who have sponsors in Australia and ignoring those who have been stuck in refugee camps for years is not the solution. Deporting asylum seekers is not the solution. Closing borders and preventing refugees from entering Europe is not the solution. These strategies are all complicit in the crimes being committed against people who only want to live a safe life. Part of the solution is to secure a safe passage to refugees and open borders and close the detention centres. But this alone is not enough. The only real solution is to stop the war crimes of all dictatorships and the self-serving policies of the great powers. This is the root of the Syrian refugee crisis and the refugee crisis around the world. This will be its end.'

Activist insists Assad and ISIS aren’t the only choices for Syria

Activist insists Assad and ISIS aren’t the only choices for Syria

 'Abdul Karim Rihawi is a Syrian businessman, whose livelihood once upon a time came from manufacturing and selling clothing - believe it or not, he owned a lingerie shop in downtown Damascus - until a chance experience in the 1990s brought him up close and personal with the brutality of the Syrian regime under then-President Hafez al-Assad.

 Basically, Rihawi lost his wallet, including his Syrian ID card, and had to go to a local police station to make a report. He was detained, beaten and harassed, with a police official accusing him of having sold the ID on the black market to an enemy of the state.

 Eventually released after family and friends intervened on his behalf, he began wondering about the health of a country that would allow its police and security services to behave in such a way with essentially no accountability or recourse.

 Rihawi began reaching out to some lawyers and activists, and launched a journey that led to the founding of the Syrian Human Rights League, which has become one of the leading expressions of civil society in the country, documenting abuses on all sides of the conflict and striving to build a moderate, pro-democracy alternative to the status quo.

 Over the years, his leadership and reputation for integrity have put Rihawi in some fairly surreal positions. For instance, ISIS kidnapped a group of roughly 200,000 Assyrian Christians, and reached out to Rihawi to see if he could broker ransom payments for their return.

 One of the things that surprised him most, Rihawi said, was how well-educated and disciplined the ISIS commander seemed, making him believe that he had high-level training and support. Also striking, he said, was the sense of moral purpose they projected.

 “They see themselves as the good guys in this story,” he said. “He was firmly convinced that what they’re doing is right, and that God will reward them.”

 Eventually the Christians were returned, Rihawi said, after paying roughly $50 million in ransom collected from the Assyrian community over the arc of several months’ time.

 Yet ISIS, to hear Rihawi tell the story, is hardly the only threat to peace and security in the country, because he also sees the regime of Bashar al-Assad, the heir to his father, as deeply flawed.

 When Rihawi says he’s worried about the estimated 300,000 perceived enemies of the state currently languishing in Syrian jails, for him that’s no abstract sentiment. He’s been arrested dozens of times for his criticism of the regime, including a two-week stint in jail in 2011 during which he was tortured and repeatedly beaten.

 The pièce de résistance of that experience, he said, came when he was hanging by his arms in a jail cell after one beating that left him with several broken ribs, and a general from another security service who’d long been after him came into the room.

 “He ordered the guard to put me on the floor and use my body to clean it up, like a mop,” Rihawi recalled. “Then he shoved his boot into my mouth until I lost consciousness.”

 Rihawi eventually fled to Egypt, where he worked with pro-democracy forces during the Arab Spring, and is now seeking temporary political asylum in Germany. His desire, however, is to return to Syria and be part of a peaceful, moderate revolution.

 “I told my case officer I won’t spend one more minute in Germany than I have to,” he said. “I belong in Syria.”

 At a distance, the perception one often has of Syria’s minority communities, including the roughly ten percent of the population that’s Christian, is that they tend to be strongly pro-Assad because they see him as the only realistic alternative to the Islamic State.

 Rihawi has a message for Christians tempted to think that way, and for anybody else who may be willing to listen - including, pointedly, the U.S. government. In essence, it’s that phrasing the situation as an alternative between Assad and ISIS is a false choice.

 “Assad wants you to believe that,” he said. “Assad is actually supporting ISIS … they basically have a deal.”

 In reality, he insists, there is a groundswell inside Syria for something different, a dramatic break with the past that would take the country in a moderate, democratic, and stable direction.

 “Syrians are not radicals,” he said. “They hate ISIS, but they also don’t support the regime. They want real change, and if given a chance, there are all kinds of people on the ground there who would lead it.”

 Shoring up Assad as an alternative to ISIS, he believes, is simply prolonging the country’s agony.

 “If Assad were to be replaced by a moderate government with the people’s support, ISIS would be gone within three months,” he said. “I guarantee it.” '