Saturday, 3 June 2017

No New Parties in “Liberated” Idlib

No New Parties in “Liberated” Idlib

 'Saadeddin Al-Khatib (52) felt free for the first time in his life in 2011. The Syrian revolution had sparked on March 15, and he was among the first peaceful demonstrators to call for freedom and the overthrow of the Asad dictatorship, which had ruled the country for over four decades.

 Al-Khatib is a local of Kafranbel, Idlib. One of hundreds of members of the formerly banned Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, he has been detained and tortured for several years in the notorious Tadmur Prison.

 It has been two years since Idlib governorate fell entirely outside of regime control. However, due to the prevailing state of war and the multitude of jihadist organizations on the ground, new political parties have yet to take shape here. Apart from the Muslim Brotherhood, which resumed its activities through political conferences and relief efforts, party-based political life is nearly non-existent.

 Al-Khatib, who now works in the Brotherhood’s relief sector, explained to SyriaUntold: “Most members of the party live in exile. Despite not being on the ground, they nonetheless provide us with material relief assistance, whether or not we are affiliated with the party. Their support has also benefited the displaced, the poor, and those in need, as well as some military factions.” Al-Khatib declined to name these factions, but there has been ample evidence of Brotherhood support for the Shields of the Revolution Council (2013-14), in addition to other militant groups engaged in the ongoing conflict.

 Al-Khatib pointed out that the Islamist group occasionally holds party meetings, and has established many associations to connect the Brotherhood members abroad with those inside Syria. Such associations include the Wafa Association, Ensar Mazlumlar, and the Free Tadmur Prisoner Association.

 These associations are concerned with handling Brotherhood affairs at home, as well as providing humanitarian aid and implementing developmental and service projects in opposition-controlled areas.

 The Brotherhood strives to recruit new members, but according to Al-Khatib it follows certain criteria, notably having engaged in either intellectual, revolutionary, civil or media activity, in an emphasis on those who can be effective contributors. Nabih Othman (69), the executive director of Ensar Mazlumlar, said the door is also open to all former Tadmur prisoners.

 As for the Brotherhood’s political role during the Syrian revolution, the party has been a major bloc in the Syrian National Council, which remained the most important opposition group in exile until November 2012, when it joined the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.

 However, the Muslim Brotherhood remains a single party in the midst of numerous Syrian political movements. It is true that it is a disciplined and effective political actor, but it lacks manpower inside Syria. Power has become monopolized by other Islamist militant factions with whom the Brotherhood avoids confrontation. This is not a battle the party wishes to engage in for the time being, says Al-Khatib, as the priority is rather to “overthrow the regime.”

 As for leftist and nationalist currents, where are they in Idlib today?

 Istanbul-based journalist Manhal Barish (37), who hails from Saraqib and was a member of the dissenting leftist Syrian Democratic People’s Party, suggests an answer. “Basically there are no currents in the political sense. There are only individuals and small groups who have failed to create a broad social base in Syria. We are talking about political opponents, not an opposition.

 “This is the case of hundreds, if not thousands, of people who found no united platform to join, except for the Damascus Declaration [which did include nationalists and leftists]. This platform was nonetheless neutralized by the regime by way of detaining and exiling its members, which ultimately resulted in its dissolution.”

 In short, Barish adds, in the context of an armed conflict, a mixture of sectarian strife and a “regime’s war against its people,” not to mention the complex geopolitical dynamics, there is little chance for a leftist movement to be effective in the foreseeable future. Political activity, even the sort bound by democratic principles, is still subject to repression and persecution in areas the regime has forgone, to no lesser extent than in regime-controlled areas.

 As for the People’s Party, Barish believes that it has distinguished itself from other parties in the vast political ecosystem in which it operates. That is, it has included intellectuals, veteran political dissidents and young activists. However, the party fell short of garnering significance presence in Idlib, which is also the case of the Nasserite current (the Democratic Arab Socialist Union). Furthermore, Barish emphasizes that, as far as the Syrian rebellion’s support base is concerned, the majority of political figures operate on a local rather than national level.

 Concerning the lack of political parties in Idlib today, Ahmad Jalal (38), a member of the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus in Kafranbel, suggests that political parties emerge as a result of a transition of power. However, due to the war, governance in rebel-held areas is exercised by militant factions in a manner similar to the “emergency law” mandate. This, Jalal argues, is an environment “unsuitable for the emergence of any political parties, especially with the polarization which has impacted most segments of the population, dividing them into supporters and opponents of this or that faction. This polarization led to the rise of belligerent movements competing over power.” Consequently, no political parties have been formed in the opposition-held north for fear of confrontations with rebel armed groups or jihadist organizations.

 “The Syrian north, especially Idlib and its countryside, is rife with multiple affiliations that have even divided households,” said Abu Amjad (40), a member of the Kafranbel Local Council. On the fragmentation, he explained that “there remain loyalists and supporters of both Daesh [a derogative Arabic acronym for the self-declared Islamic State, IS] and the Asad regime, even if they do not express their political views.”

 Abu Amjad attributed the affiliation of young people with the factions to their need for material support, their inclination towards jihad, or their conviction that their factions fight for freedom and overthrowing the regime. He also added that the human capital flight towards asylum countries contributed to the absence of political parties, despite the total withdrawal of regime forces from Idlib governorate in 2015.

 Amran Al-Hamawi (28) has been a fighter with Jabhat Fath al-Sham (JFS, formerly known as Al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat Al-Nusra) for two years. He is fully convinced that the organization is “the most honest and diligent, with no political or material ambitions. Its only goal is to defend oppressed and persecuted Syrians,” as he explained to SyriaUntold.

 On the other hand, Said Habash (56), who is also from Kafranbel, voiced his grievances about the confiscation of his house by JFS, on the grounds that his son is still serving in the regime’s military. “What are we guilty of, to be punished for our children’s decisions?” he wondered. “The children parted ways according to the ruling powers on the ground, without our consent, and without even consulting us.”

 For its part, according to Al-Hamawi, JFS considers that “confiscating the houses of those people is normal, so that they know that, by maintaining loyalty to the Asad regime and assisting it in killing their countrymen, they are expelling their parents and themselves from the liberated areas.”

 This demonstrates the dominion of these factions over people’s lives, as well as their reckless retribution against their ‘political adversaries’ which is quite indicative of the rocky terrain ahead for political action under such circumstances.

 Given the fragmentation and the multiplicity of powers on the ground, the likelihood that new political parties will emerge remains low. Furthermore, the Muslim Brotherhood, which is the only one that is still operating, is far from being the dominant power it is said to be. However, it is thanks to its political aptitude, as well as its proven track record of resilience, that this party might continue to play an active role in Syrian politics for years to come.'

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Short of allies, Syria’s rebels are down but not out

In this March 18, 2017 photo, Syrian Lt. Col. Ahmed al-Saoud, center, commander of the U.S.-backed Division 13 uses his mobile phone in a Syrian restaurant surrounded by aides and bodyguards, in Iskenderun, southern Turkey. Al-Saoud, a defector from the Syrian military, has been living almost permanently in Turkey since an al-Qaida’s affiliate attacked him and his group in Syria last year. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

 ' “We have become political dwarfs, fragmented groups which hardly have control over the closest checkpoint, let alone each other,” said Tarek Muharram, who quit his banking job in the Gulf to return home and join the rebellion in 2011.

 Over the years he fought alongside several different rebel groups, including ones backed by the United States. Now he has joined the alliance led by the al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.

 Nothing blurs Muharram’s vision and determination to fight Assad. Not the loss of his beloved Aleppo. Not the hours he and his comrades now spend in a small apartment in the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep, watching TV and smoking, waiting for the next battle.

 The fall of Aleppo was a watershed moment. It cost the rebels there their strongest base, their resources, their homes. Uprooted, they needed new allies.

 “We had reached a dead end,” said the 39-year-old Muharram. So he and his group, Noureddine el-Zinki, which was once backed by the U.S., joined al-Qaida’s alliance.

 The move caused many of his group to break away. But for Muharram, anything else would have required too many concessions. Turning to Turkey or US would mean becoming “a mercenary fighting whomever the sponsor wants, whatever the dollar dictates.” He would have had to take part in Russian-backed negotiations, “giving up the revolution’s principles ... and accepting Assad for a longer period,” he said.

 Muharram said he has his personal differences with al-Qaida. He pointed out that he doesn’t always pray, for example, and he smokes. He sports a wolf-head tattoo on his arm, something militants frown on.

 But he said the al-Qaida-led alliance has kept its weapons pointed in the right direction, against Assad. He and the 50 men he commands would drop their guns rather than be pushed to fight it.

 The alliance has financial clout and can provide services in its territory. It has the resources of Idlib’s and neighboring rural parts of Aleppo province to sustain the fight without relying on outsiders — farmland, water wells, supplies of fuel and weapons. Its fighters are mainly locals and well-disciplined, and the few foreign fighters including Afghans and Chinese don’t interfere in residents’ affairs, unlike the foreign jihadis of IS.

 Both Turkey and the Kurds so far avoid a fight with al-Qaida-linked militants. But if Turkey is tempted to move against the alliance, Muharram said, it has pressure cards, including a border crossing with Turkey and territory near a Kurdish enclave, a potential thorn in Ankara’s side.

 The fight to remove Assad is far from over, he said.

 “The revolution will end with a ballot box. There is no legitimacy for a new Syria without elections.”

 Saeed al-Nokrashi defended his hometown of Daraya outside Damascus for years under a bloody, destructive siege by Assad’s troops. But finally resistance collapsed, and last summer he and his fellow fighters were forcibly displaced north to Idlib.

 It was a humiliating and disorienting move for Capt. al-Nokrashi and the 700 men in his faction, Shuhada al-Islam, part of the U.S-backed Free Syrian Army umbrella.

 Idlib was strange territory, and dangerous — not because of Assad’s forces or airstrikes, but because of Idlib’s overlords, the al-Qaida-linked group.

 The militants immediately kidnapped some of his best fighters.

 “This was to pressure us to join them, and if we do, they will protect us,” al-Nokrashi said, speaking at his home in the southern Turkish town of Reyhanli and holding his 6-year-old son, born during the Daraya fighting.

 The fighters were eventually freed. But the incident highlighted the more complicated world they were in.

 “Our confrontation was only with the regime. Now the choices are many.”

 The threats are, too. The Islamic State group is a concern, as are the Syrian Kurdish forces, who he said are trying to “create a separate state in the north.” Then there are pro-Assad Iran and Shiite militias.

 Al-Nokrashi’s fighters are languishing in Idlib. They struggle to make ends meet and are focused on their families, reunited after long separations during the siege. Some have opened food shops, bringing the Damascus area’s cuisine to Idlib.

 A few of his fighters joined al-Qaida-linked group. The others have to deal with its pervasive security agencies that monitor all factions closely — “just like the regime’s security agencies,” said al-Nokrashi, a former Syrian army officer.

 Al-Nokrashi tried turning to diplomacy. He attended one session of the Russia-backed talks in the Kazakhstan capital Astana, where rebel commanders were received with much fanfare and sat briefly in the same room as the government delegation. He became disillusioned and boycotted the following meeting.

 But he may have found his refuge. In recent weeks, the U.S., Turkey and Western and Gulf countries backed a new attempt at a coalition against Assad known as the Northern Front Operation Room. So far, 17 factions have joined but there has been no battles yet, al-Nokrashi said.


 Lt. Col. Ahmed al-Saoud, drives around the Turkish seaside city of Iskenderun with another car of Syrian bodyguards and aides behind, fearing attack even here.

 The commander of the U.S.-backed Division 13, he has been living almost permanently in Turkey since al-Qaida’s affiliate attacked him and his group in Syria last year. When he tried to return home in April, an ambush by the group’s fighters was waiting for him. He survived, but one of his commanders was killed.

 Al-Saoud’s claim to fame has been his relentless fight against the radical group, which has tried to gain a foothold in his hometown, Maaret Numan, in Idlib. His anti-extremist stance got him arrested by IS in 2013, until protests forced the militants to release him — a sign of his support base in the area.

 Al-Saoud, a defector from Assad’s military, has received Western aid from the start. He feels let down that the U.S. is throwing its weight behind Kurdish militias.

 “We can’t be temporary allies for a certain stage and then they drop or back me as they please,” al-Saoud said.

 What particularly miffed him, he said, is when U.S. troops deployed to create a buffer between Kurdish fighters and Turkish troops in northern Syria. “Aren’t we worthy of defending?” he said.

 He fears U.S. support will only deepen the Kurds’ determination for self-rule, leading to the division of Syria, in the process boosting support among Sunni Arabs for al-Qaida.

 During a recent AP visit to his home in Turkey, al-Saoud was constantly on the phone with his commanders back home, who in his absence are trying to understand shifting alliances and battlegrounds.

 Al-Saoud also has joined the Northern Front Operation Room. But he is skeptical.

 It is led by Islamist factions, minimizing the role of more secular groups like his. He fears the coalition will cost him his direct contact with the Americans and his independence, pull him from the fight against al-Qaida and diminish his prestige — his “charisma,” as he puts it.

 “My aim is a Syria free of Assad and of terrorism,” he said. “We will remain the popular face of this fight.” '

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Syrians roll back extremism in Idlib without military intervention

Syrian women protest extremists in Idlib City

 'The U.S. airstrikes in response to the chemical weapons attack in Idlib province last month triggered calls for greater outside military force against the Assad regime by some of the Syrian opposition. Yet, in a country exhausted by armed struggle and the presence of extremist groups, local civil initiatives have proven to be more effective at building peace than increased military involvement. In Idlib City, ordinary citizens have shown that they are capable of managing their civil affairs, alleviating suffering at the local level and rolling back extremism by themselves.

 On March 3, 2015, an umbrella group of Islamic armed factions called Jeish al-Fateh expelled the Syrian government from Idlib City, sparking an ongoing struggle by citizens and civil resistance groups to gain control of the city’s administration. After it took control of the city, Jeish al-Fateh — which includes Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formally known as al-Nusra Front, a group affiliated with al-Qaeda — formed a Shura Council to manage the city’s military and civil affairs. The armed group appointed its members and loyalists to administer the city without paying attention to qualifications or proper recruitment procedures. A state of repression was imposed, and there were continuous violations of basic human rights and freedoms under the pretext of applying proper Islamic Sharia law.

 This brought activists and civil organizations into direct confrontation with the armed group, which assumed the administration of all public services, including education, health, security and justice. In response, residents and civil resistance groups have been working to establish a local council of qualified civilians to prevent military factions from interfering in civil affairs and protect peoples’ rights and freedom.

 “We wanted to prove our commitment to our initial goal of revolting against all type of corruption and injustice,” said Sakhr Baath, a lawyer and member of Idlib Youth Group, which was established by activists at the early stages of the Syrian uprising in 2011 to galvanize citizens against the regime and now the inhuman practices of Jeish al-Fateh’s leadership. The group also initiated relief and humanitarian projects, including the rehabilitation of schools and the formation of volunteer teams to direct traffic and crowds. “These activities helped them [the civil organizations] gain a great reputation and the community’s support,” Baath added.

 Idlib City was one of the first cities after the uprising began to show open and organized civil resistance, even in the presence of the government. The city’s professionals established the National Opposition for Idlib Intellectuals in August 2011 to find solutions to sectarian divisions that plague Syrian society. According to Baath, the group used to host meetings and invite government figures and supporters to discuss their views with the community. At that time, activists — with the support of Syrian expatriates — began to self-manage areas outside of the government’s control, provide humanitarian assistance, guard the city at night and control traffic.

 Established six months after Jeish al-Fateh took control of the city, Al-Idlibi House became the largest civil organization in Idlib, with more than 400 activists and members. They met every Thursday to discuss the city’s affairs and decide on the best tactics to pressure armed factions to hand over civil administration to the community. They organized media campaigns, public demonstrations and sit-ins to demand civil rights and express their opposition to the control of the city by extremist groups.

 “We established Al-Idlibi House to unite the voices of the people and have a body to negotiate with the Shura Council on behalf of the community,” said Abd al-Latif Rahabi, the head of Al-Idlibi House management.

 The security forces of Jeish al-Fateh worked hard to disperse demonstrations and damage their reputation by calling them secular or anti-Islam. “However, as the number of protesters increased and reached the main squares of the city,” Baath explained, “it was impossible for them [Jeish al-Fateh] to control public frustration or ignore their demands.”

 Women were also active in this struggle and established many groups and humanitarian organizations, including Women’s Fingerprints, Glimmer of Hope, and the Association of Educated Women. These organizations raised awareness of women’s role in building society, and provided educational and vocational courses. They also established orphanages and care centers for people with special needs, and initiated projects involving sewing and producing homemade food for women who could not leave their homes.

 Women also challenged female preachers recruited by armed factions to impose strict Sharia law, which prohibits women from walking outside without men or showing their faces. “Last year, when a preacher harassed my cousin for wearing makeup and not covering her face, more than 200 men gathered in less than 20 minutes and began protesting against the preacher and armed factions’ oppression,” said Shadi Zidani, a member of Idlib Local Council. “Repeated incidents like this and women’s resistance have always triggered demonstrations and by the end of last year, we were able to expel all female preachers from the community.”

 Female preachers were also reaching out to poor and vulnerable women to convince them to comply with Sharia law. “We formed volunteer groups of female psychologists and sociologists to visit vulnerable women and raise their awareness of basic rights and freedoms to counter the extremists’ views,” Zidani said.

 Local civil efforts persisted for about a year and a half, using all possible means and tactics. In August 2016, Al-Idlibi House, with the support of other civil organizations, formed a committee to represent the community in their negotiation with Jeish al-Fateh. “With our continuous pressure, they [Jeish al-Fateh] had to give in to the public’s demand that they elect a local council.”

 According to Rahabi, Al-Idlibi House’s committee nominated a group of lawyers and judges to establish rules and regulations to manage the electoral process, protect the right of voters to freely choose their representatives, and ensure candidates’ rights to monitor the election. Al-Idlibi House, with the support of the community’s members, established and equipped an electoral center with ballot boxes and private rooms for those wishing to vote secretly. On January 17, about 900 people voted, including 43 women. Eighty-four people were nominated for 25 spots on the council. All stages of the electoral process on election day were filmed and documented — by the media, community activists, and groups of lawyers and judges — to ensure that the process was legitimate, Zidani said.

 Those organizing civil activities faced many challenges, including regime airstrikes on the city, continuous fighting between armed factions and regime forces, and pressure from Islamists who tried to disrupt and discredit their efforts. “Despite all of the hardships, we continued with our regular meetings, demonstrations, sit-ins and media campaigns until we got what we wanted,” Zidani said.

 Three month after its establishment, the local council is managing most services, including water, electricity, bakeries, civil defense, firefighting, and the directorates of transportation, communications, agriculture and environment. With their vibrant activities, women’s organizations are participating in the council’s activities, voicing their concerns and suggesting solutions.

 The tale of civil resistance in Idlib has not ended. “Our next goal is to pressure armed factions to abandon the courts and security services and hand them over to civil entities, along with the rest of the directorates, including the civil and private land registries,” Rahabi said. “We are working on uniting all local groups and organizations under one body to make our voice even stronger.”

 While many international organizations and donors refuse to work in places under the control of Islamic armed factions — fearing that funds could end up in the hands of extremists — one of the most important tactics to fight extremism is to support civil organizations and initiatives. As evidenced by these civilian efforts, such initiatives are effective, and they are bringing peaceful and constructive changes into their communities.'

Protester carries sign in Idlib for people's revolution.