This Front Line documentary — “Iraq Uncovered‘ — on Iraqi Sunni tribes & the revenge that is being meted out on them by Shia militias that follow behind US and Iraqi regular military is a cautionary tail for Syria. The same thing is likely to take place in Syria at the hands of both the YPG (Kurds) and Syrian Arab Army. For all that the US claims to be trying to contain Iran, it is clear that the US military strategy in Iraq is works in tandem, even if only tacitly, with Iran. Iran and the Shia militias are playing clean up and extending their influence in the region thanks to superior US military might and spending. The US may have little choice in doing this because it has prioritized the destruction of ISIS. Allowing Shiite sectarian troops is the quickest way to fight Sunni extremism. I cannot help but believe that this is the “Great Sorting Out” unfolding in all its horribleness.
Why the U.S. Should Team Up with the Kurds & Not Turkey to Take Raqqa and Destroy the Islamic State
By Joshua Landis
For Syria Comment – March 18, 2017
The problem with letting the Turks take Raqqa and presumably the entire Euphrates Valley that is now held by ISIS is that the Turks are endeavoring to hem in the Kurds. To do this, Turkey hopes to establish its Arab proxies in a new “Euphrates state” in eastern Syria. This would partition Syria into three states: a western Asad-ruled state; an eastern Turkish and Sunni Arab rebel-ruled state, and a northern Kurdish state.
Asad’s army has already taken a large swath of territory east of Aleppo, which cuts off Turkey’s access to Raqqa from al-Bab. Turkey has proposed taking Raqqa from the north at Tel Abyad. This approach would penetrate the Kurdish region at its middle and cut it in two. This objective of splitting the autonomous Kurdish region in two is the main reason Turkey offered to take Raqqa.
If the United States helps or allows Turkey to attack the Kurds at Tel Abyad, it will have no Kurdish allies to attack Raqqa or any other part of ISIS territory.
Why are the Kurds willing to take Raqqa even though they do not have territorial interests in and around Raqqa? They are investing in their relationship with the United States. They assume that it will serve them well over the long run when it comes to their political aspirations. They will get a lot of good training; they will get a dollop of heavy weaponry from the United States, which I doubt it can reclaim after the fight; they are building a command and control network for their force. By the time this operation is over, one can guess that the Kurds of Syria will have four reasonably well trained, well organized, and well armed brigades that they did not have before. One also suspects that there will be some military loot in Raqqa, which will fall their way.*
The second problem with having Turkey take this region is that its Arab rebel allies include Ahrar al-Sham (a deeply Salafist force, think the Taliban, which adamantly opposed to the US), the dominant militia in its panoply of Arab militias. Ahrar recently split in two, one half joining al-Qaida in Idlib and the other half joining the Turkish coalition of rebel groups, where it is dominant. If Turkey-Ahrar establish rebel rule over the Euphrates, it will become a haven for Salafists and possibly al-Qaida and the coalition of rebel forces now dominating Idlib province; the US has been bombing the al-Qaida leaders there. Turkey has worked with al-Qaida’s forces in Syria throughout the last five years. It allowed them to mass inside Turkey in 2013 when they spearheaded an invasion from Turkish territory into Kassab, north of Latakia. This region is known for its Armenian villages, the last traditional Armenian villages that were not ethnically cleansed by Turkey during WWI. All the Armenians of these villages fled in front of the rebel militias led by Nusra (al-Qaida’s wing in Syria). The churches were ransacked, old frescoes defaced, and crosses destroyed. Turkey does not mind Salafists being part of its Arab forces. Turkey is using these forces as proxies to thwart Kurdish ambitions.
The Turks are pitching their interest in liberating ISIS territory as a “local-Arabs-must-rule” campaign, but the Arabs whom it will be marshaling for its force are largely from Idlib and Aleppo provinces. These are agricultural regions quite different from the desert and tribal Euphrates. The accent and customs of both are different. It is not certain that Raqqans will embrace these new rulers as being among “their own” or as an exercise in self-rule. Of course, they are all Sunni Arabs. In all likelihood, they will risk being dominated by anti-American Salafist elements that will assert themselves and reintegrate al-Qaida members and possibly ISIS defectors back into their state. After all, much of the Euphrates valley was ruled by al-Qaida’s Nusra militia before ISIS split off from it and kicked out Nusra. These elements emerged from the local people. They will reemerge if Turkey tries to administer the region with a light touch, allowing local Arab proxies to take power. If Turkey were to decide to use “extreme vetting” of its Arab proxies to eliminate Salafists, it could do so, but the US should not count on it. Turkey has refused to do this in the past. Salafists are the best fighters and most organized and disciplined of the militias.
These, I believe, are the reasons that American generals do not want to work with Turkey. They don’t trust it, both because it wants to attack our Kurdish allies and because it is soft on al-Qaida-like rebel groups.
What is more, Iran, Russia, Asad, Iraq, and the Kurds will escalate against it. They will not allow the United States to sponsor a Sunni rebel enclave in the middle of their new “sphere of influence.” They will view it as an irredentist provocation bankrolled by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and America to fire up Sunni resistance to Asad rule in Syria, Abadi’s rule in Iraq, and Kurdish rule in Rojava. The US would be expected to side with Turkey and the Sunni rebels in a long and escalating war against the Shiites. I think this is a swamp waiting to suck the United States into its malodorous depths.
Russia and Iran want to divide ISIS territory between the Kurds and the Syrian government that is led by Asad. The United States should allow this to happen if it wants an exit strategy. Such a strategy, of course, delivers the Euphrates basin back to Asad’s dictatorial rule and into the hands of authoritarian Kurdish rule. It will not be democratic. Asad will seek vengeance against those who rose up against him. This strategy does not promote the sort of representative democracy or human rights outcome the US is pledged to support. All the same, it will be the fastest way to bring stability, restore government services, and rebuild the region. The Syrian government will police against ISIS and Nusra as the Iraqi government does in Iraq. This is the best way to defeat ISIS and deny its territory to some Salafist redux.
To get Turkey to accept the Russian/American plan, Turkey will have to be reassured that Syrian Kurdistan will not be used as a staging ground for PKK forces to attack Turkey. Erdogan will need guarantees that Turkey’s Kurds will not be incited to break away and take eastern Anatolia with them. Restraining Syria’s Kurds is in the interest of the US, Russia, and Asad. If Syrian Kurds can be persuaded to limit their ambitions, as Iraqi Kurds have been, Turkey’s national integrity will not be threatened. This strategy is a gamble, but gambling on the Kurds to limit their ambitions to Rojava (Western Kurdistan) is less risky than gambling on Turkey to spearhead an invasion of Syria through Kurdistan and build a well-governed and peaceable Sunni state that limits its ambitions to the Euphrates valley.
This is why the United States should team up with the Kurds to destroy the Islamic State.
*I would like to thank Barry Posen and Charlie Kupchan for sharpening some of these arguments.
Three Points Regarding Syrian Refugees and President Trump’s Travel Ban
By Sam Farah
For Syria Comment – March 16, 2017
The Travel Ban of Syrian Refugees Fleeing the War in Syria is Inhumane
The situation in Syria is “the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era.” That’s according to António Guterres, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Syrian civilians are caught in a regional and geopolitical war involving super powers including Russia, the U.S., China, France, and Britain, as well as regional countries including Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, all of whom support different rebel and military factions fighting in Syria; many have military personnel directly involved in the war. According to the World Food Program, before the conflict, Syria was a middle-income country; today 4/5 of Syrians live in poverty and struggle to put food on the table. Millions have fled the conflict and become refugees in search of safety shelter and food.
The Ban on Syrian Refugees Does not Help Protect America from Terrorism
None of the terrorists implicated in the September 11 attack in NYC were from Syria and not one Syrian has been implicated or involved in any terrorist attacks in the U.S. or in Europe since then.
Almost 30,000 foreign fighters are believed to be in Syria and Iraq, according to the head of the United Nation’s counter terrorism committee. Around 3,000 are from Europe including places like France, Belgium, England, Germany and Sweden, and another 10,000 from Arab Countries like Tunisia, and Saudi Arabia. The foreign fighters joining the terrorist groups fighting in Syria are from at least 86 countries including sereval thousands Uighurs from the province of Xinjiang in China. None of those terrorists carry a Syrian Passport and none will be subject to President Trump’s travel ban.
Syrian Americans are Part of the American Fabric
Syrians have been emigrating to the U.S. since the late 1800s. Steve Job’s father was a Syrian immigrant, as was Jerry Seinfeld’s maternal grandmother. They are actors like Terri Hatcher, and F Murray Abraham, professional athletes like Johnny Manziel, and presidents of universities such as Mitch Daniels, the current president of Purdue University. Lower Manhattan was home to Little Syria, a vibrant neighborhood that was established in the late 1800s and was finally erased to make room to build the Holland tunnel. According to Wikipedia: “Syrian Americans, including the earliest immigrants, have always placed a high premium on education. Like many other Americans, Syrian Americans view education as a necessity. Generally, Syrian and other Arab Americans are more highly educated than the average American. In the 2000 census it was reported that the proportion of Syrian Americans to achieve a bachelor’s degree or higher is one and a half times that of the total American population.”
Posted by Aymenn Al-Tamimi on Wednesday, March 8th, 2017
By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi
Emblem of Liwa al-Mukhtar al-Thiqfi. Flanked by the flags of Syria and Iran, the top reads: “Fawj Qamr Bani Hashim.” The centre consists of a flag with the inscription: “Labbayk ya Hussein.” At the bottom is the name Liwa al-Mukhtar al-Thiqfi.
Much more obscure, however, are Syrian militias openly claiming a direct affiliation with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Liwa al-Mukhtar al-Thiqfi (“The Mukhtar Thiqfi Brigade”) is one such group. The name al-Mukhtar al-Thiqfi is derived from a person by the same name, who led a revolt against the Umayyads in an attempt to avenge the death of Imam al-Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad killed at the Battle of Karbala. The name Fawj Qamr Bani Hashim (“The Moon of Banu Hashim Regiment”) featured on the militia’s emblem is just an alternative name for the group. One should compare with additional use of the names Kata’ib al-Imam Ali (“The Imam Ali Battalions”) and Fawj al-Nabi al-Akram (“The Most Noble Prophet Regiment”) by the Syrian Hezbollah group Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi. The “Moon of Banu Hashim” refers to Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas, the son of Imam Ali, who was the first Shi’i Imam. Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas was also killed at the Battle of Karbala.
“Liwa al-Mukhtar al-Thiqfi is a brigade affiliated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard [IRGC], under the leadership of al-Hajj Ali, who has the nickname of al-Hajj Mukhtar. The brigade is located in the Latakia area. The brigade’s task is assault: special assignments.”
Another photo featuring al-Hajj Mukhtar.
I spoke with al-Hajj Mukhtar regarding his group. According to al-Hajj Mukhtar (who, on a side note, mentioned that he is close to al-Hajj Waleed, who leads Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi), Liwa al-Mukhtar al-Thiqfi was set up around a year ago. Asked about the reason behind the formation of the group when there are already multiple militias operating on the Latakia front, al-Hajj Mukhtar stated: “By God, a formation like any military formation working under the command of the Syrian Arab Army.” He himself is in fact not from Latakia but rather “another province” (which he did not name). He also confirmed the IRGC affiliation and origin of the group’s name: “The support of the Revolutionary Guard is necessary. The naming of Liwa al-Mukhtar al-Thiqfi means in a qualitative sense the fact that I am the leader of the brigade, and it emphasizes my admiration for the leader al-Mukhtar al-Thiqfi, the student of Imam Ali (peace be upon him) and the avenging hero for Imam al-Hussein (peace be upon him).”
In addition, al-Hajj Mukhtar stressed that the militia’s members are only Syrians, trying to highlight a supposed multi-sectarian composition: “Syrians from the Shi’i sect and the Sunni and Alawite sects. Iraqis are present but not in the brigade with us.” Of course, it is not entirely impossible that Liwa al-Mukhtar al-Thiqfi has members of other sects, who may adopt the group’s Shi’i slogans, banners and may even participate in some Shi’i traditions without formal affiliation/conversion. Like many other militias trying to deal with manpower problems on the regime side caused by desertion and draft avoidance for service in the Syrian army, Liwa al-Mukhtar al-Thiqfi has offered taswiyat al-wad‘ (“sorting out of affairs”) for some military personnel in a bid to recruit members. As al-Hajj Mukhtar explained: “Taswiya for military personnel only, meaning for misdemeanours, meaning the soldier delaying over his duty hours, and the soldier refraining from obligatory service: i.e. simple matters only.” The salary offered for members amounts to 57,000 Syrian pounds per month, which is equivalent to slightly more than $100 per month.
In total, al-Hajj Mukhtar claimed that there are approximately 4500 fighters in his formation, though such a number is likely an exaggeration. As far as ‘martyrs’ go, he claims only 14 ‘martyrs’ in number till now. At least one of these ‘martyrs’ can be identified using publicly available information, as per below.
Badi’ Muhammad Hasawi, said to have been from the Hama town of Morek by origin. He was announced to have been killed fighting on the Latakia countryside front at the end of November 2016.
Members of Liwa al-Mukhtar al-Thiqfi, wearing headbands with the inscription “Ya Qamr Bani Hashim” (cf. here).
A member of Liwa al-Mukhtar al-Thiqfi with 313 insignia. The number 313 has been used in reference to this group as Fawj Qamr Bani Hashim. For the significance of 313, see this article I wrote on Saraya al-Areen.
Wall graffiti: “The strike force. The martyr Hassan Kamal al-Halabi group: 313.” Hassan Kamal al-Halabi, who was killed in a bombing in Homs in February 2016, is commemorated by Liwa al-Mukhtar al-Thiqfi.
Member of Liwa al-Mukhtar al-Thiqfi in front of a poster featuring Bashar al-Assad, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamene’i, and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.
Overall, Liwa al-Mukhtar al-Thiqfi is a rather small formation, but the group is an interesting case of a Syrian militia presenting itself as directly affiliated with the IRGC, rather than simply ‘Hezbollah in Syria’ or ‘Syrian Hezbollah’. It will be interesting to see if other militias along these lines emerge in the future.
(Update 9 March 2017): A reader inquired as to the death of Badi’ Muhammad Hasawi and the attribution to him of a military rank in a tweet from the time of the announcement of his death. There is in fact no inherent contradiction between that attribution and membership of Liwa al-Mukhtar al-Thiqfi. It is rather a case-in-point of multiple affiliations and evolution in roles over time. Primary source posts in Arabic on social media point to Hasawi’s position within the Hama military intelligence (al-amn al-askari) and that he had led his own fighting contingents in Hama province. Such a record would undoubtedly serve as a basis for a military command role in Liwa al-Mukhtar al-Thiqfi. For comparison, note the post from November 2016 linked to in the main article that attributes to him a military rank- naqib– and says that he is the leader of the group’s military operations in the Latakia countryside.
Posted by Aymenn Al-Tamimi on Saturday, March 4th, 2017
By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi
The formation of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (‘Liberation of al-Sham Commission’- HTS) has understandably provoked fear of a total jihadist/al-Qa’ida takeover of Syria’s rebel-held northwest, centred around Idlib province. HTS was announced on 28 January amid wider rebel infighting in Idlib that saw multiple groups merge under Ahrar al-Sham in a bid to protect themselves from Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS), the rebranded Jabhat al-Nusra that had ostensibly dropped links to al-Qa’ida in July 2016. The largest single component of HTS is undoubtedly JFS, whose leader Abu Muhammad al-Jowlani was recently confirmed in a video release to be the overall military commander of HTS, even as the overall leader Hashim al-Sheikh was originally in Ahrar al-Sham and had been pushing for his group to merge with JFS.
At present, there is still a substantial presence of Ahrar al-Sham in northwest Syria, but it is evident that the recent turns of events have severely diminished the influence of rebel factions in the area that are vetted and supported by the MOM operations room in Turkey. A merger with Ahrar al-Sham means an end to vetted status, while rebel factions more widely are being pressured by Turkey and other external backers to take a firmer line against HTS. Yet the prospect of a full-blown confrontation and all-out war with HTS could be fatal to the entire insurgency in the northwest as the regime and its allies would likely exploit the opportunity to secure major territorial gains.
Rebel factions (including Ahrar al-Sham) can of course opt for a closer relationship with Turkey, bolstering the Euphrates Shield operation in north Aleppo countryside that recently took al-Bab from the Islamic State. But this option means drawing more resources and manpower away from Idlib province and the wider northwest, which allows HTS to increase its influence. Whatever way one looks at it, the best that the rebel factions can hope for in the northwest is keeping HTS in check somehow: that is, maintaining some kind of stalemate in the balance of power. Even so, it is apparent that HTS is taking an ever more assertive line on the ground, not only in its drive to absorb more and more factions but also in its relations with civil society structures where non-HTS actors might hope to maintain some influence.
The area of Jabal al-Summaq in north Idlib province is a notable case-in-point. Of Druze origin, the area’s original inhabitants have been forced to renounce their faith and convert to Sunni Islam twice. The first time was under pressure from what was then the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham as it expanded its influence across northwest Syria through 2013. The second time was under Jabhat al-Nusra, which gained control over the area in late 2014 after the expulsion of the Syrian Revolutionaries Front from Idlib province. Jabhat al-Nusra and its successors have remained in control of the area since that time.
The existence of a services wing established under Jabhat al-Nusra has long been known: the General Administration for Services (al-Idarat al-Aama lil-Khidimat). However, its presence and functioning have not always correlated with the existence of strongholds under Jabhat al-Nusra and its successors. In some areas, such as Khan Sheikhoun in south Idlib province but coming under the Hama division of the General Administration for Services, we find that this services department for what is now HTS has been competing alongside the local council. Local councils- which are supposed to be civilian bodies embodying local governance in ‘liberated’ areas-are considered to be among the main pillars of civil society in insurgent-held territory. In the case of Khan Sheikhoun, the local council is affiliated with the Idlib provincial council, which is in turn backed by the opposition-in-exile/the interim government.
In Jabal al-Summaq, despite the dominance of Jabhat al-Nusra and its successors since the end of 2014, there has not until now been a functioning branch for the General Administration for Services. Instead, services have been managed by local councils that share the same chain of affiliation and support as that of the Khan Sheikhoun local council. For example, in the village of Kaftin, one of the larger villages of Jabal al-Summaq in which a substantial proportion if not the majority of the original inhabitants has remained (also true for Ma’arat al-Ikhwan, whereas other villages like Duwair are completely depopulated of their original inhabitants). Displacement has occurred for a variety of reasons: some prefer to work in regime-held areas, others did not want to live under forced conversion to Sunni Islam, a combination of these factors etc.
The local council of Kaftin was set up three years ago and is led by an administrative office consisting of nine people.
Emblem of the local council for the village of Kaftin. On bottom: “We work for your sake.”
Perhaps the most notable service the local council in Kaftin has undertaken is management of an oven that makes and distributed bread for locals. According to a post by the Idlib provincial council in December 2016, this oven in Kaftin serves around 5000 families, translating to approximately 25,000 individuals, in three localities. Based on other information, the other two localities besides Kaftin are Birat Kaftin and Ma’arat al-Ikhwan (both villages also in Jabal al-Summaq, the former having seen more displacement of its original inhabitants than the latter). This oven was opened in November 2016 and the Kaftin local council had announced a recruitment campaign for personnel to operate the oven at the time.
The Kaftin oven. Note the symbol of the Kaftin local council on the banner, which reads: “Our bread is among the treasures of our land.”
Bread packs with the marking of the Kaftin local council.
The local council in Kaftin also plays a role in education for the youth. Kaftin has four schools, but they teach according to the education programs of the regime. These programs are considered better than those offered by the opposition, and so people from neighbouring villages have sought to have their youth study in the schools of Kaftin. That said, there are regulations in place regarding certain subjects, notably the removal of nationalist ideology, modification to the teaching of history and removal of art subjects (i.e. art and music). There is of course also religious education in line with HTS’ rules (i.e. only teaching Sunni Islam). One should compare with regulations put in place in late 2014 by the Dar al-Qada– the judicial branch for what was then Jabhat al-Nusra- in the Idlib locality of Darkush, a stronghold for the group. Some specifications on education were also noted on the second imposition of Sunni Islam on the original inhabitants of Jabal al-Summaq, requiring Islamic teaching for the youth in designated places of prayer- which amounts to standard da’wa practice- and a prohibition on gender mixing in schools.
Many of the teachers and education personnel continue to receive salaries from the regime in Hama province: a key example of how the regime tries to maintain some leverage in rebel-held areas, ultimately seeking to regain them (another case-in-point is that the regime pays salaries of retired state employees in those areas). Yet there are also some teachers who are working on a voluntary basis or have defected from the regime. Their salaries are paid by the local council in Kaftin, which also provides for the needs of the schools (e.g. fuel).
Other services of note include public cleaning, agricultural land auction for the purposes of grazing, working with the Syria Immunization Group to implement vaccine programs, and working on land telephone lines.
Like many other local councils, the local council in Kaftin works with international aid programs and organizations to provide some services. For example, in May 2016, the council advertised distribution of emergency aid to displaced people. The aid was provided by the World Food Program and Human Appeal.
At the head of the Kaftin council is Abd al-Majid Sharif, an anti-regime political thinker and activist originally from Kaftin and presently residing there. Some readers may recall that the outlet Syria Direct interviewed him in March 2015 regarding the situation in Jabal al-Summaq, in which he outlined the reality of the forced conversions and the failure of Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt’s supposed mediation. According to Sharif, the council does not have elections, whether internally done within the council or externally through popular elections for positions. Sharif clarified further: “I want to abandon [my position in the local council] to have time for theoretical work, but no one wants to undertake the job and the other members are threatening me with resignation if I resign.”
“In the province of Idlib and the north of Aleppo, whereby HTS control has arisen without contests and the rest of the factions and formations have gone into seclusion, or even many of their members handed over their weapons to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham or joined it, the commission [HTS] is currently forming a civil administration in the name of the General Services Administration, and is directing for the previous administration represented in the local councils to become affiliated with this General Administration. The cadres of Fatah al-Sham say that the council that will not accept this affiliation to it will be dissolved and a replacement will be formed for it.
But the problem is also with the cadres of the councils who fear the commission’s [HTS’] revenge if the cadre rejects working with it. The second problem concerns the possessions of the councils that will be automatically transferred to the new councils affiliated with the General Administration. The third is that this will annul the work of the provincial council and the interim government. The fourth and most important is that the commission is classified worldwide with terrorism legally speaking since Fatah al-Sham forms its main body, and so also the countries and organizations will reject working with it and we will be turned to a form of siege even if there are no bombing and destruction of the installations that these countries and organizations had previously offered to the local councils.
We are in a true dilemma, I do not know how we can get out from it. But it should be noted that the new General Administration has covered or deceived the entire area with aid, especially free bread and semi-free bread. This aid is being offered by Turkish organizations: it is as though Turkey is trying to pressure the international community through its support to obtain something in return. I do not believe this will last long if something must be sorted out with Turkey and this aid stops.
I asked one of the members of the provincial council: What is your opinion? And where are things headed? He replied: To the precipice.”
Though Sharif told me on 27 February that he had only heard of this services branch for HTS twenty days ago, the reality is that it is not a new institution but reflects the General Administration for Services discussed earlier in this article. The difference now is that HTS is simply being more assertive in trying to ensure services provision comes under the affiliation of this services branch in areas of its control. In Jabal al-Summaq, though the idea of services oversight by what was then Jabhat al-Nusra had been mentioned in the second imposition of Sunni Islam, it does not seem to have been realized. As for what Sharif writes about aid of Turkish origin, it is slightly to make out his exact meaning, but one can only suppose that if the Turkish state is involved in mass aid provision here, the idea is actually to try to undermine HTS, considering that Turkey wants the broader opposition and insurgency to take a firmer stance against HTS. If the aid is being appropriated by HTS though, it only reflects the problem of supply lines into Idlib province being controlled by HTS.
So far in Jabal al-Summaq, according to Sharif, HTS has only set up its own local services administration in the village of Qalb Lawze, which has seen more than half of its original population displaced as well as settlement of Uyghurs, in addition to being the site of an infamous massacre in June 2015. In response, some members of the local council in Qalb Lawze withdrew, while others have remained and overhauled the local council, thus choosing to work under HTS’ services administration. Sharif said that in Kaftin, the ultimatum had not yet come, but he indicated that he does not see an interest in working with an HTS services administration. As Sharif also put it, “I prefer that we administer our affairs ourselves.”
In short, these developments reflect how the declaration of HTS represents an ever bolder assertion of jihadist influence and power, not only in terms of relations with the more ‘mainstream’ insurgency but also wider civil society. The options for these non-jihadist actors in Idlib province in particular in the face of HTS’ ascendancy seem ever more constrained. Undoubtedly, a significant reason for this quagmire is that the growth of HTS’ main predecessors in the northwest and Syria more generally was allowed to fester for too long. Now the broader insurgency and opposition must live with the consequences of that.
Akram al-Hawrani: Syria’s left-wing populist and the United Arab Republic
By Christopher Solomon
For Syria Comment – February 15, 2017
Gamal Abdul Nasser (left) with Akram al-Hawrani (center) and Egypt’s Abdul Latif al-Baghdadi (right).
As the pro-Assad forces recaptured the last sections of rebel-held Aleppo in December, they excitedly declared that these areas now had “green eyes” (eyoon khadara) in reference to the twin green stars found on the national flag. Now heavily associated with President Bashar Al-Assad’s Baathist government, the flag’s origins can be traced to the United Arab Republic (UAR), which was founded in February 1958 and last until September 1961. The green stars represented Syria and Egypt’s unification and the tricolor served as inspiration for several other Arab countries with Pan-Arab ideological foundations. For the Baath Party, this union was the long-awaited realization of their key political tenant which would propel the Arab World towards unity.
The UAR flag that flew over Syria from 1958 to 1961 and now currently in use since 1980
Recently, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi has slowly begun to depart from the stance of the rest of the Sunni Arab bloc and rebuild ties with Assad’s government. There has been a noted emphasis by
Egypt on the need for enhancing bilateral security and military cooperation. What this means for Syria in the remaining years of the conflict and, eventually the post-conflict era, is not yet clear. The history of Egyptian-Syrian relations is long, at the center, looms the UAR. In order to understand Syria’s place in the UAR, its importance for the Baath Party’s history, and its impact in the social and political direction of the country, one should look to Akram al-Hawrani, now a relatively obscure personality in more recent Middle Eastern history, as an important and revolutionary Syrian political figure of this bygone era.
Early Life in Hama
Hama in the 1950s
Hasan Akram al-Hawrani was born in 1911 to a respected Sunni family which followed a Sufi religious order that emphasized helping the poor and disadvantaged. His father, Rashid al-Hawrani, was a textile weaver and upon entering local politics, won a seat on the Hama City Council. Hawrani’s childhood had seen his family’s wealth squandered and he subsequently grew up loathing the land owning elite that dominated the countryside. Hawrani’s life in politics began in the city of Hama as a social leader and agitator. The center of his focus were the elite Hama area families – the Azms, the Kaylanis, and the Barazis – who ruled over the region with ruthless and unchecked power. They controlled over 100 villages and had their own private armies to enforce their will. It was Hawrani’s tireless quest during the backdrop of this extreme class divide to fight and to obtain social justice for Syria’s rural peasants that won him vast popularity with Syria’s poor and impoverished. In his home city, Hawrani would build his populist movement into a force to be reckoned with that radically influenced and changed Syria’s society and politics. Hawrani had taken the reigns of leadership over the Youth Party of Hama that had been founded by his cousin, Uthman al-Hawrani. Violent battles between Hawrani’s movement and the landowning families were frequent. His early victories against the Landowner’s paid thugs won him widespread praise. Likening him to knights of old, common people wore badges with his picture and hung his photo in their homes.
Onset of Nationalism
Aside from social justice, Hawrani had strong nationalist sentiments as well. His childhood memories recalled the 1920 French’s victory which destroyed the short-lived Arab Kingdom of Syria that had been established after World War I by Faisal bin Hussein. When the 1941 Rashid Ali revolt broke out in neighboring Iraq, Hawrani used his connections in the Syrian army to recruit officers to join him in the fight against the British. When the revolt failed, he was captured by the French upon crossing the border and was detained at their desolate military base in Deir el-Zor for a short period of time. Among his cellmates were two other figures who would later become central leaders in the formation of the UAR, the Baathist thinker Dr. Jamal al-Atasi and the leftist army officer Afif al-Bizri.
Flag of the Arab Kingdom of Syria, from which the Pan-Arab colors are derived, lasted only a few months, from March to July of 1920.
Hawrani also was known to have used his early affiliation with the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) which he viewed primarily as an opportunity to cement his anti-Imperialist credentials and to bolster his movement. It was the party’s militant nature that appealed to Hawrani along with its desire to end foreign domination in the Levant, to eradicate feudalism, and to establish a secular and socially progressive state.
To cover up his activities with the SSNP, he established the Arab Socialist Movement. In reality, Hawrani’s ties to the Pan-Syrian party were relatively thin. Ultimately, he felt that the SSNP was too intellectual and cumbersome to grow into an effective mass political organization. It would be his army connections and the ideology of Arab nationalism that ultimately determined his fate in Syria’s political future.
In 1943, Hawrani secured a seat in Syria’s national parliament where he first met Michel Aflaq and Salal al-Din Bitar. Aflaq was an urban intellectual who had founded his Baath movement (Baath translates to renaissance or resurgence) in the late 1940’s in Syria’s cities, schools, and universities. Though Hawrani did not join their Pan-Arab party at this stage, he became friends with the two men and frequented the party’s headquarters in Damascus. Along with the Baath, Hawrani built ties with the Communist Party and the Muslim Brotherhood. It was in Damascus where Hawrani established a reputation as an ardent champion of freedom of speech and as a fighter, sometimes quite literally, with fist fights breaking out on the floor of Syrian parliament between him and supporters of President Shukri Quwatli’s old guard.
Being primarily active in Hama, Hawrani’s proximity to the Homs military academy made it possible to link his movement to the support of army officers nearby. He also joined his friend and military figure Adib al-Shishakli (also an early member of the SSNP) in attacking the local French garrison in Hama. These violent actions were so successful that he was instructed by Syrian independence leaders to stop since these facilities would eventually fall into Syrian hands after the anticipated departure of the French. Hawrani’s network within the army was also further extended with his participation in campaigns on the frontlines of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. The full extent and endurance of Hawrani’s power base would be tested during Syria’s era of military coups.
Hawrani during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War
Hawrani and Syria’s military coups
Although Hawrani did not directly plan and implement Syria’s first coup headed by General Husni Ziam, he supported them politically. In his view, it was an opportunity to implement his land reform schemes. Hawrani was later able to land a spot as the general’s advisor with the help of the nationalist officers in the army. He had also channeled members of his youth movement towards careers in the military. However, it wasn’t long before a rift grew between Hawrani and Ziam. This was due to Ziam’s close ties with Hawrani’s archenemies from the old landowning clans in Hama. After Colonel Sami Hinnawi overthrew Ziam, Hawrani become the Minister of Agriculture in the new regime.
The Baath, for their part, had grown in size and popularity due to their criticism of the government’s defeat in the Arab-Israeli War. Consequently, the party was repeatedly repressed during the periods of military rule. Aflaq spent a couple spells in Mezzeh Prison in Damascus. This practice of authoritarianism was something the Baath learned from and would eventually come to utilize themselves.
It wasn’t until Hawrani’s friend Shishakli seized control that he was able to finally introduce his land reform program with the backing of the national government. Order Number 96 restricted the expansion and ability of landowners to obtain unregistered land, which was reallocated to peasants.
Hawrani (left page, bottom right panel) dreams of a gun to carry out a coup in this Arabic political cartoon from 1955.
During the Shishakli period, Hawrani gave a speech in 1951 before a crowd of 10,000 in Aleppo, “My friends! We are weak when we are alone, but stronger than iron and fire when united! With the blood of our ancestors flowing through our hearts, we can rebel against tyranny and injustice!”
The growing use of the automobile brought about the ability to shuttle peasants on buses from the countryside to the cities to attend political demonstrations and thus project a show of force. It also served to add new members to his party. The Arab Socialist Party grew by merging the rural peasants with the urban industrial workers. In the countryside, Hawrani’s “This Land Belongs to the Peasants” campaign took a violent turn with villagers taking up firearms against the wealthy landowners.
When Shishakli began to assert his crack down on political opposition (which was largely in response to several plots against him that were uncovered) the Arab Socialist Party, along with the Baath Party, was banned. In January of 1953 Hawrani, Bitar, and Aflaq went into exile where they began to plan Shishakli’s downfall. With the support of friendly officers in the army, Hawrani, Bitar, and Aflaq were able to create a coalition (in large part with help from the military) that opposed Shishakli’s rule from exile and force him to resign. The trio returned to Syria where the country experienced a brief revival of democracy.
In the years that followed his overthrow, Shishakli traveled to Beirut to discuss the potential coup with the SSNP against the Syrian regime, his old friend and associate, Hawrani, was allegedly one of the names compiled on the hit list for the SSNP’s assassination squads. However, Shishakli’s coup plans with the SSNP never materialized.
Hawrani (left) with Salah al-Din Bitar (center) and Michel Aflaq (right) in exile in Rome during the Shishakli period In 1952, while in exile in Lebanon, Hawrani had reached an agreement with Aflaq to merge the Arab Socialist Party with the Baath Party, thus becoming the Arab Socialist Baath Party, the name by which it is known today. The marriage of rural peasants and poor laborers to the student and urban intellectuals turned the party into the mass popular movement it had to become in order to secure and sustain power. This merger was officially blessed during the Baath Party’s 2nd Congress in 1954 that followed the overthrow of Shishakli.
A Baath Party Logo showing the Arab World united
United Arab Republic
Hawrani seated next to Abdel Nasser during a meeting with Lebanese leaders on the Syrian-Lebanon border following the 1958 Lebanon crisis. Note the appearance of the two starred flag of the UAR.
Following the Suez War of 1956, there was a renewed push within Syria to move ahead with the proposed union with Egypt. Dr. Jamal al-Atasi touted the pro-Nasserist line through the party newspaper. Afif al-Bizri, with his strong leftist leanings, was now chief of staff in the army. He was instrumental in packing the army with pro-Nasser officers. Furthermore, Bizri led purges against politicians with anti-Nasser sentiments. Bizri’s supposed communist ties generated much fear in the West that Syria was quickly becoming a Soviet satellite state. The purges led to a moment of heightened tension in the Cold War which subsequently saw Egyptian troops land in Syria in order to check the mobilization of Turkish troops along Syria’s northern border.
Syrian women of the Popular Resistance Committees during the Suez War shows Hawrani’s wife, Naziha al-Homsi (center) in 1956
Syrian Communist Party leader Khaled Bakdash (second on the right) and his wife, Wisal Farha Bakdash, with a Chinese delegation in 1957
Meanwhile, the competition between the Baath and the Communists was increasing dramatically. Each side had their own views on how to implement a union with Egypt and Khalid Bakdash, the head of the Syrian Communist Party (SCP), personally disliked Nasser due to his frequent imprisonment of Egypt’s communists. The challenges from the SCP brought about pressure from the Baath’s own left flank which caused the party to struggle with internal divisions. A critical turning point for the Baath Party and Hawrani’s political future was his decision as Speaker to cancel the Baath’s participation in the November 1957 elections. Hawrani used his position as the Speaker of Parliament to forge ahead with the formation of the UAR, becoming the Vice-President in Nasser’s UAR government.
Stamp with the date February 1, 1958 showing a bridge linking Syria and Egypt with the inscription reading al-Jumhuriyah al-Arabiyah al-Muttahidah (United Arab Republic)
For his part, Nasser had preached for Arab unity but was quietly skeptical since he was personally opposed to the practice of political pluralism. In order to achieve their goal of Arab unity, the Baath Party made the hard decision to suspend all party activity as demanded by Nasser. For Bakdash, the decision to disband the SCP was an ideological anathema. His continued protests during the UAR years brought about a crackdown against the communists which in turn led Bakdash to leave Syria for safety in the Soviet Union.
Though many Syrians had long waited for a union with Egypt, the new life in the UAR was not what many had expected. Syrians found Nasser’s rule to be far more politically repressive than anything they had experienced under Shishakli. With the help of Nasser’s Syrian ally, Colonel Abdul Hamid Sarraj, their country had essentially become a police state under the domination of Egypt. In addition, Nasser’s heavy-handed rule brought about much disenchantment with the union and his extreme nationalization policies alienated many former supporters in the business community and the army.
Although Hawrani had been instrumental in the creation of the UAR, he began to fall out with Nasser who had eventually turned his sights on the Baath. Disillusioned with the UAR project, Hawrani made the fateful decision to add his name to the document in circulation that would bring about Syria’s succession and lead to the dissolution of the UAR. For the Baath, this move would dramatically change the face of the party. In 1961 the Syrian army implemented a successful coup which forced the Egyptians out of Syria. Egypt returned the favor by expelling the nearly one thousand Syrians working in various government or military positions in Cairo back to Syria. One of these men was a young Alawite air force officer named Hafez al-Assad.
For the Baath Party this was a painful period where the long awaited dream of forming an Arab federation was now dashed. For many party members, especially the young military officers, they still held strong pro-Nasser sentiments and soon aligned themselves with the remaining Nasserist elements in Syria. This brought about the 1963 Neo-Baathist coup that overturned the secessionist government. The small and tentative steps towards returning democratic practices to Syria were destroyed.
Akram al-Hawrani in exile in his later years with a friend in Strasbourg, France in 1972
Hawrani’s personal support within the Baath was destroyed as well. His name had been attached to the secessionist movement and he was never able to recover from this stigma. Hawrani reestablished his Arab Socialist Party but, as the Neo-Baathist commenced their purges, he left Syria again for good, living his remaining years in exile until his death in 1996. However, the Neo-Baathists were ultimately unable to reignite the UAR project. Syria would soon divert its focus from Pan-Arabism to objectives closer to home, eventually aligning the Baath’s emerging geopolitical interests in Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel with the SSNP.
Many historians have argued that Hawrani was within a hair of becoming the Syrian Fidel Castro. For Hawrani’s ideology was not built on the direct influence of Marxist thought but rather through his own values and interpretation of Arab culture and religion, along with his political experience which was formed during his time with the SSNP. The Pan-Syrian party had regarded feudalism as a foreign invention that would forever keep the Arab World in a socially regressive state.
Hawrani’s war on feudalism forever changed Syrian society and politics. Hawrani’s speeches mobilized thousands of disadvantaged minority sects into influential positions in the military (Hafez al-Assad, being a poor rural Alawite, was one of the people who answered Hawrani’s call) and took on the foundations of Syria’s stuffy, old Sunni merchant elite. He transformed the Baath Party into a populist party that was able to capture the imagination of masses and establish a political union that was once unthinkable.
Now, once again Syria and Egypt are taking tentative steps to build a relationship in a time of rapid change and political uncertainty. As the Syrian government continues to battle the remaining Islamist factions and confront Kurdish aspirations, Egypt will continue to step into the picture, lending its political and military support.
The UAR and its flag only lasted a few years before the Baathist Pan-Arab dream ended, and with it, much of its original ideological composition. The party soon became an organizational tool for Assad’s governing structure. It may have been the Neo-Baathist under Hafez al-Assad that would later resurrect the UAR flag by hoisting it as Syria’s official flag in the 1980’s, however, it was Hawrani and his time in Syria’s echelons of power that set about the political trajectory for the country. For now, the flag of the United Arab Republic survives, unlike the union it once herald into existence, and will likely to continue fluttering over Syria, along with an unknown future for the government it now represents.
*Christopher Solomon is an analyst with Global Risk Insights. Chris traveled to Lebanon and Syria in 2004 with the CONNECT program at the University of Balamand. He earned his MA from the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA) at the University of Pittsburgh. He also interned at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter @Solomon_Chris
Posted by Aymenn Al-Tamimi on Monday, February 13th, 2017
By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi
In his reply to my comments on his recent piece for The Nation, Roy Gutman takes exception to my supposed challenge to his “professional integrity.” I should thus begin by emphasizing that I did not intend my piece to be calling professional integrity into doubt: opinions and definitions may differ, but for me doubts about professional integrity would only be an issue if I were accusing him of outright invention, deliberate and malicious manipulation of evidence or something similar. It is not my contention that he engages in any of these things, and such accusations must always be carefully considered before being put forward. Rather, a bias for a particular side, while problematic, need not have malevolent intent behind it. Bias can arise innocently and unconsciously. It can be driven, for example, by honest empathy and anger about the sufferings of civilians at the hands of a particular group or side.
Gutman proceeds to complain that my assertions regarding his bias read like an attempt to “discredit the entire content” of his article. Such a reading of my response fails to take into account my prefatory point that Gutman raises some valid points for discussion. The fact that I talked about these points on a general level- e.g. in noting there are serious issues to be raised about displacement of Arab populations by the YPG- is not the same as not engaging with them at all. I even provided a link to a report by a human rights monitor to give examples of specific cases.
On the broader issue regarding the inference that I am supposedly attempting to discredit the entire content of the article, I should also add a clarification regarding the Seymour Hersh comparison: the point is not to claim that Gutman and Hersh are exactly equivalent (for one thing, as Gutman correctly points out, Hersh based his claims about the 2013 chemical weapons attack on anonymous former intelligence officials): rather, the point is that winning a Pulitzer Prize does not make one’s reporting impervious to questioning. As it happens I don’t believe Hersh is maliciously motivated in his biases either. But again, the idea is not to say that none of Gutman’s claims merits being taken seriously.
So, in response to Gutman’s questions about whether abuses and war crimes have been committed by the YPG, the answer is yes, and that should not come as a surprise to anyone. There is regrettably little or no accountability on the ground in Syria for abuses and war crimes committed by all sides, and a comprehensive reckoning is unlikely to occur for the foreseeable future.
Thus, I do not have a problem with whether Gutman reports on bad aspects of the YPG, and the PYD party with which it is affiliated. I was taking specific issue with uncritical relaying of more dubious narratives that reflect lines promoted by Turkey and the Syrian opposition. In the case of his article for The Nation, I was touching in particular on the supposed IS-YPG collusion pattern.
In this context, I should note that Gutman is upset about my reference to a 2012 article he wrote for McClatchy on the testimony of a claimed PKK defector, yet he does not address the specific problem I raised. It is certainly true that “obtaining the debriefing was an example of journalistic enterprise,” as Gutman says. But journalists cannot simply relay debriefings and intelligence reports without appropriate critical scrutiny, as we have seen happen all too often in recent times with cases like U.S. intelligence reports in the run-up to the Iraq War, and even more recently the raw intelligence dossier on the alleged Trump-Russia connections and supposed dirt the Russians have on Trump that can be used to blackmail him.
In a similar vein, the debriefing Gutman reported on has sensational allegations regarding PKK approaches towards religion. As I have already pointed out, the association of Zoroastrianism with fire worship is a calumny against the Zoroastrian religion. To relay the allegations without critical comment is irresponsible, considering the historical persecutions of Zoroastrians by Muslims and that a common Islamist militant talking point against the PKK and “Kurdish militias” is that they are heretics and apostates. Undoubtedly there are some PKK and YPG members who could not care for religious belief and/or are completely secular, but what evidence is there besides the testimony of this debriefing that the PKK and its sister affiliates promote Zoroastrianism and teach fire worship?* It was the fact that these claims were relayed by Gutman without appropriate consideration that made me see a reflection of bias at work (again, I should stress, not necessarily malicious in intent).
Turning more specifically to the contents of his article for The Nation, Gutman takes issue with my account of the fighting over the Tel Hamis area. In his response, he offers an account from a certain Abu Ahmad who says the YPG waited three days before entering without firing a bullet. Again, there is no problem in offering this account per se, but it also has to have the caveat analytical note that it is ultimately second hand, and an effort should be made to try to obtain other accounts for comparison (e.g. testimonies of YPG fighters, open source data from the time).
As for what I wrote about Tel Hamis, on a technical note, I will begin by pointing out that Gutman is off the mark regarding some of the death notices I initially cited. Two of the death notices are for fighters killed in February 2015 prior to the 27th of that month: the Australian , and if he reads the original posts more closely, Hussein Masoud’s brother. Regarding my own wording, by ‘extended campaigns,’ I meant bouts of fighting that took place over multiple months in the wider area. One can criticise me for geographic imprecision, but it is important to remember in speaking of Tel Hamis that we mean not just the town/village by that name but also the wider area (cf. references in Arabic to mantaqat Tel Hamis and rif Tel Hamis). Of course, not every day meant intense clashes and battles. Indeed, in the Syrian civil war, much of what goes on in terms of engagements between various sides can appropriately be described as ribat (frontline maintenance etc.). On a given day there might be no fighting at all: a mere gunshot or two and/or firing mortar rounds. Then a flare up may occur. In relation to the Tel Hamis area, one example of a flare up occurred in September 2014, as the YPG launched an offensive that claimed the capture of multiple villages. During this flare up multiple YPG fighters were pronounced to be ‘martyrs’ . Here is another example of clashes reported in late December 2014 in the Tel Hamis area, with at least four YPG fighters reported to have been killed at that time.
It may well be that when Tel Hamis as a town/village finally fell to the YPG in February 2015, there was no grand or major battle to accompany it. However, to overlook all that happened in the time between IS solely becoming responsible for that wider frontline against the YPG after it destroyed the rebel factions in Hasakah province and the YPG capture in February 2015 is painting a highly misleading picture. It is also highly misleading to overlook the prior rebel-IS cooperation against the YPG on that front, which resulted in many YPG fighters being killed in late 2013/early 2014. Thus it can be seen how the fighting between IS and the YPG in the Tel Hamis area reflects continuity. Likewise we must note the reports of fighting and casualties in the wider area that occurred following February 2015. I thus stand by my original ‘travesty of the truth’ comment, having elaborated more fully here what I meant.
A somewhat similar case for what would constitute a misleading picture would be to note that the village of Dabiq fell out of IS hands without a grand final battle despite the village’s symbolic importance to IS, while overlooking the long war of attrition that occurred between the rebels and IS prior to that, also featuring episodes of ribat and calm juxtaposed with flare ups. Or again, note the case of Jarabulus I mentioned in my previous piece.
Can casualty figures and losses be exaggerated in reports? Of course. Yet the narrative of Gutman’s sources paints a very implausible picture that is designed to promote a line of some kind of IS-YPG collusion. To buy into it would mean supposing all those clashes etc. that occurred in the wider area over multiple months were a mere farce/fabrication. Thus, here we have an encapsulation of the job of journalists and analysts: weigh up the contrary accounts and try to come to a judgement that accounts for the various lines of evidence available. In the specific case of the Tel Hamis area village of Husseiniya mentioned by Gutman, who also points out that Amnesty International cited residents as saying that no clashes occurred in the withdrawal from that village, it is perfectly possible to accept that testimony, and the subsequent destruction of property by the YPG, without supposing a conspiracy of some kind as pushed by Gutman’s sources.
To bolster the collusion narrative, Gutman had cited in his original piece a certain Mudar al-Assad as saying that there are hundreds of examples of the YPG-IS pattern of the latter taking a village from rebels and then turning it over to the YPG without a fight. It would be interesting to see specific naming of those hundreds of cases, if that is really the case.
I draw the line here in this discussion. I stand by my initial assessment while reaffirming that I am not questioning Gutman’s professional integrity. Similarly I reject notions of supposed anti-Kurdish prejudice on Gutman’s part and other personal attacks on him. However, a serious debate about the YPG and its relationship with the U.S. must be based on reasoned consideration of the evidence, taking into account the benefits the partnership has brought in blunting IS while also noting the human rights abuses and the PKK connections and understanding why there are Turkish concerns. Looking forward, seemingly intractable land disputes similar to those we observe in Iraq between the Kurdish and Arab actors will mar the Syrian landscape for a long time even if IS were completely removed. There will be no easy resolution.
*- (Appendix note: PKK and Zoroastrianism): While it is important to note the lack of evidence for the PKK promoting the Kurds’ religion as Zoroastrianism and teaching fire worship, there is an interesting strand of thought within Abdullah Ocalan’s writings that idealizes Zoroaster as a figure who promoted equality and care for nature, thus trying to link him to Kurdish ethnic and cultural heritage. This contrasts with a depiction of Islam as a vehicle of Arabism. On the other hand, Ocalan also wants to praise certain aspects of Islam, equating the rise of the religion historically with bringing about feudal system that constitutes an improvement over the supposed ancient slave civilization, while presenting Muhammad as a figure embodying revolution that becomes corrupted. These arguments, as Matthew Barber points out to me, partly reflect Ocalan’s views of history according to his Marxist ideology and political worldview as well as a desire not to be too offensive to the pious sensibilities of fellow Kurds.
In any event though, Ocalan is ultimately an atheist, and does not promote the idea that Kurds should practise the Zoroastrian religion and formally identify as Zoroastrians, let alone engage in fire worship, though some Kurds who do identify as Zoroastrians seem to be partly influenced by Ocalan’s idealization of Zoroaster. The kinds of nuances in Ocalan’s views and their impacts are obscured by silly polemic as conveyed by that supposed PKK defector.
Roy Gutman Responds to Aymenn al-Tamimi on “Have the Syrian Kurds Committed War Crimes?”
By Roy Gutman – @Roy_Gutman
For Syria Comment – February 12, 2017
Any journalist covering a controversial topic like alleged war crimes can expect a hostile response from the subject of the story, but it’s extremely rare in my experience for a specialist in the field to respond to a major journalistic investigation by challenging the reporter’s professional integrity.
The report I wrote for the Nation on Feb. 7, the first of two parts, details the pattern of mass expulsions and political suppression by the ruling People’s Protection Units or YPG that has led to the flight of an enormous number of Arabs and Kurds from the region.
Mr Tamimi’s statements that the “author’s bias for the Syrian opposition and Turkey has been evident for years” and that he “uncritically relays dubious testimony that a far-minded journalist would have subjected to appropriate scrutiny” reads like an attempt to discredit the entire content of my story.
It calls for evidence.
The only previous article Mr Tamimi cites is my report from October 2012 about a defector from the Kurdistan Workers Party or PKK and his debriefing by Turkish security services. The story reveals where the volunteer had served and why he defected, and provides a first person account of the rigors of life in the PKK.
I was the only foreign journalist to report from Semdinli the previous summer. I first heard about the defection from the governor, so I had no reason to doubt that it had occurred. Obtaining the debriefing was an example of journalistic enterprise. I am sure the PKK was embarrassed. But that doesn’t discredit the 2012 story. It certainly doesn’t discredit this latest one.
Likewise, in May 2013, at the start of a cease-fire with the PKK, I trekked into the no-man’s-land in southern Turkey and interviewed PKK fighters who were withdrawing from Turkey, but very slowly. I was once again the only reporter who ventured into the wilderness area to find the departing forces.
Of the 50 plus articles I wrote for McClatchy about the PKK, why does Mr Tamimi pick one from 2012, that anyone else would say is good journalism?
Mr Tamimi also lumps my reportage together with that of Sy Hersh, whose April 2014 report on the chemical weapons attack outside Damascus was based on unnamed former intelligence officials. Yet my sources are named, their statements can be verified and they can be checked out. This disparaging reference by Mr Tamimi also reads like is an attempt to discredit the entire story in The Nation.
My biggest single objection to his posting is that while Mr Tamimi says my article “does raise some valid points for discussion,” he doesn’t discuss them.
So here they are:
Tens, possibly hundreds, of thousands, of Arabs were forced from their homes by the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, the People’s Protection Units or YPG.
Well over 500,000 Kurds fled rather than submit to YPG rule and abuses.
The expulsion of the Arabs was carried out in close cooperation with the Assad regime, which sought to rid the region of political dissenters and joined the YPG in destroying villages.
Brutal expulsions continued through mid 2016.
The YPG and its political organization, the Democratic Union Party, don’t acknowledge any of this, haven’t investigated haven’t punished anyone.
Iran played a major role in the setting up of YPG role in northern Syria.
The U.S. has been all but silent about the human rights abuses and possible war crimes.
Did these alleged abuses and war crimes occur? Should the YPG acknowledge, investigate and punish them? Mr Tamimi doesn’t say.
Instead of dealing with the content of the story as presented, he focuses on a few details. He questions the assertion that in Tel Hamis and Husseiniya in Hasakah province, the YPG burned houses and expelled residents after taking the towns without a fight. Amnesty International verified in 2015 that the destruction of Husseiniya occurred after it was captured without a fight. But my assertion that Tel Hamis was yielded without a fight in 2015 “can only be described as a travesty of the truth,” he says.
Once again, Mr. Tamami can’t produce the evidence. He writes there were “abundant martyrdom’ commemorations” in the “extended campaign” to take the town. But surely he must be aware that one of the five death notices he links to, one was for a death in 2013, and the other four, including one for an underage fighter, were spread through March 2015. But ISIS abandoned Tel Hamis on Feb. 27. So the death notices don’t prove there was a major battle, or a battle at all. They certainly don’t support his claim there had been an “extended campaign.”
According to Abu Ahmed, a commander of the Free Syrian Army’s Falcan Brigade, which ISIS had earlier ousted from Tel Hamis, the YPG waited three days before entering Tel Hamis and did so “without shooting a bullet.” Abu Ahmed, who no longer lives in the area, said he assembled his narrative from former brigade members who stayed in the area. He asked that his real name not be used.
But I suppose Mr. Tamimi will discount that testimony as it came from the rebel side and that it hasn’t been “subjected to appropriate scrutiny.” But has he subjected his sources, whoever they may be, to “appropriate scrutiny?”
Posted by Aymenn Al-Tamimi on Saturday, February 11th, 2017
By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi
A recent article in The Nation by Roy Gutman has generated considerable controversy, as the article attempts to highlight what it portrays as the more unsavoury and neglected aspects of the Democratic Union Party (PYD)- the main Kurdish faction operating in Syria and linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)- and its armed wing the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which constitute the majority of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) coalition.
The article does raise some valid points for discussion. In general, there is a tendency to romanticise Kurdish forces in both Iraq and Syria- a trend exemplified in a piece by Michael Totten, in which he urges Trump to “back the Kurds to the hilt and give them the green light to declare independence.” Such a simplistic assertion overlooks complications like the sharp political division between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq led by Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party and the PYD-administered areas in Syria, the financial crisis afflicting the KRG and its inability to become economically independent, and the lack of a vision for real independence in the PYD’s approach to governance that is heavily influenced by the thinking of PKK luminary Abdullah Ocalan. Besides, there are real problems concerning the behaviour of Kurdish forces towards Arab populations in both Iraq and Syria, with cases of destruction of homes and villages documented by human rights monitors (cf. here). Political authoritarianism in the Kurdish entities should also be a major concern: Masoud Barzani still clings to the KRG presidency despite the fact that his mandate expired long ago, and the PYD’s harsh behaviour towards its political opponents cannot be ignored.
However, acknowledging these issues should not blind the reader to the clear problem with Gutman’s work: namely, the author’s biases for the Syrian opposition and Turkey that have been evident for years. As such, he uncritically relays dubious testimony that a serious and fair-minded journalist would have subjected to appropriate scrutiny. This fault becomes most apparent in Gutman’s claim that the YPG and the Islamic State (IS) “have often worked in tandem against moderate rebel groups,” which I will focus on in particular here. Elaborating on this claim, Gutman asserts that “again and again, in towns where the YPG lacked the manpower or weapons to dislodge the rebels, IS forces arrived unexpectedly with their corps of suicide bombers, seized the territory and later handed it over to the YPG without a fight.”
Gutman attempts to support this narrative with cases such as Tel Hamis and Husseiniya in Hasakah province. What he completely omits is that on numerous occasions in 2013 and January 2014, rebel groups worked with what was then called the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) against the YPG. For example, Ahrar al-Sham, ISIS and other rebel militias worked together to expel the YPG from the important northern border town of Tel Abyad in August 2013, only for ISIS to take over the area in January 2014. It is rather strange that Gutman cites Tel Hamis and Husseiniya in a bid to support his narrative, since video evidence that explicitly mentions ISIS-Ahrar al-Sham coordination against the “PKK dogs” in Husseiniya can be found from early January 2014. The coordination eventually fell apart later that month as ISIS proceeded to subjugate all other rebel groups in Hasakah province amid wider infighting with rebel forces across northern and eastern Syria. As for the notion that Tel Hamis was yielded to the YPG without a fight, that claim can only be described as a travesty of the truth. The YPG lost numerous fighters in the extended campaigns to take Tel Hamis, with abundant ‘martyrdom’ commemorations to be found on social media.
The notion that the YPG and IS are in collusion with the latter supposedly yielding territory to the former without a fight is a recurring trope. For instance, it is repeated on multiple occasions in Anne Speckhard and Ahmet Yayla’s book that consists of interviews with IS defectors. The fact that this notion is repeated so many times does not make it any more true. The biases of the sources making these claims as well as the wider tendencies in the region towards conspiracy theories have not been sufficiently taken into account. On the wider level, even when we do suppose or note a withdrawal without a real fight, there are simpler and more logical explanations that need not entail a conspiracy, such as manpower issues, the assessment of a particular location’s strategic importance or lack thereof, and the like. For example, IS yielded the border town of Jarabulus to the Syrian rebels backed by Turkish forces in August 2016 without a real fight: the reason for this withdrawal is that IS probably determined that the town was not worth defending and that better defensive positions needed to be taken up further south within Aleppo province. As it so happens, the recent fight for the IS stronghold of al-Bab has proven to be protracted and difficult for the rebels participating in Turkey’s “Euphrates Shield” operation. In a similar vein, the YPG’s relatively swift capture of Tel Abyad in 2015 was not the result of a joint YPG-IS conspiracy against the rebels: rather IS’ fighting lines in the area had largely collapsed on account of devoting so much manpower and resources to the fight for Kobani in a wasteful attempt to show defiance in the face of so many coalition airstrikes.
The question of the U.S. relationship with the SDF going forward is an important one as the issue of who takes the key IS-held areas in Syria of Raqqa city and Deir az-Zor continues to be discussed. American attempts to deny SDF links with the PKK are not only absurd but also harmful in handling relations with Turkey. However, debates need to be held on serious grounds rooted in facts and credible evidence. Gutman’s work here has fallen far short of those standards. Unfortunately, similar problems in his reporting with regards to the PKK can be traced in his earlier work. In an October 2012 article for McClatchy purporting to offer an inside account of the PKK, Gutman relayed in an almost entirely uncritical manner the testimony of a supposed PKK defector to Turkish authorities, including claims that the PKK prohibits Islamic practices like daily prayers for its fighters and tells them that the Kurds’ religion is Zoroastrianism and that they should worship fire. The latter two claims are particularly absurd because the association of Zoroastrianism with fire worship is in fact a calumny against the Zoroastrian religion.
The rise and fall of a CIA-backed rebel commander in Syria: Former ‘fixer’ for anti-Assad forces comes to terms with failed US policy
By Erica Solomon
There was a time when “Abu Ahmad”, a bulky man with a heavy limp, held court in the smoke-filled cafés of southern Turkey. Fellow Syrian opposition leaders looked to him for help; foreign intelligence officers sought his opinion. When he crossed into Syria, he brought bags filled with hundred-dollar bills to hand out to rebel fighters. His comrades received US-approved anti-tank missiles, discreetly delivered at the border.
Some rebels called him the CIA’s man in Syria. Now, he struggles to get his calls returned. “We used to joke, ‘If you want something from Barack Obama, call Abu Ahmad,’” another CIA-backed rebel commander recalls. “If someone in the opposition wanted to meet the Americans, they went to him. Now, guys like us, we’re headed to the rubbish bin of history.”
After two years as the CIA’s “fixer”, distributing arms and planning military operations in Syria, Abu Ahmad was thrown into prison. On his release, he was temporarily forced into hiding, then fell into ignominy in the eyes of fellow rebels.
The story of his rise and fall offers a rare insight into how the CIA operated within the confines of President Obama’s halfhearted Syria policy. It reveals how the rivalries between US bureaucracies — and, even more importantly, the growing divergence between Washington and its Nato ally Turkey — exacerbated Syria’s mayhem.
…..A determination not to be dragged into Syria’s war, alongside a recognition of its regional significance, left Washington with one foot in and one foot out — a situation that may prove as problematic in the long run as full-fledged intervention.
Syrians such as Abu Ahmad embody the consequences of this dilemma. In 2013 he joined a covert CIA programme established to channel arms and cash to moderate rebels. He — along with several other commanders — bet that hitching himself to the US would eventually yield the kind of support that helped Libyan rebels topple Muammer Gaddafi in 2011. He lost the gamble badly.
“I used to think America was the ruler of the universe. If you ask me whether I was wrong? Yes, I was wrong,” he tells me over raucous Turkish pop music and gurgling water pipes at a café near his home.
“What I cared about was having a good relationship with the Americans. They gave me weapons, I brought them to Syria. The fact that Turkey didn’t like the Americans or the Americans didn’t like the Turks — none of that mattered to me. I didn’t have anything to do with it. Unfortunately, things don’t work like that.”
The [Aleppo] victory for Assad and his patron Russia was not only a human tragedy for the civilians bombarded and expelled from their homes, it was a potent symbol of waning US influence in the region. Diplomatic efforts to end the war led by Moscow and Ankara have sidelined Washington.
Obama and his aides defended their Middle East stance as a break with America’s costly legacy of bungled interventions — particularly George W Bush’s invasion of Iraq. But Abu Ahmad’s story shows that even limited interventions can be bungled too — with local allies often paying the highest price.
Rebels and regional diplomats alike share that irritation. “People have this perception the Americans weren’t very involved [in Syria]. But that’s not true — they were, and to a minuscule level of detail for a while in places like Aleppo when [the CIA programme] started,” a regional diplomat says. “The problem with American policy in Syria was in some ways the same as it always was: all tactics, no strategy . . . It was a mess.”
Despite a cheery air and a hearty laugh, the circles ringing Abu Ahmad’s eyes are as dark as the shrapnel scars on his legs. During our meetings, he wore the same T-shirt two days in a row and popped about 1600mg of Ibuprofen to keep himself going each day.
It’s easy to see why American officials were once drawn to him. In contrast to the increasing religiosity of some dispirited rebels and their deep-rooted wariness of US interventions, Abu Ahmad relishes banter with his “foreign friends”. He portrays himself as a straight shooter, intolerant of corruption and suspicious of Islamists — or, as he puts it, “anything with a beard”. Other rebels interviewed to corroborate his story jokingly call him a “secular extremist”.
“If you had a question about a battle rebels wanted to do, Abu Ahmad would immediately say this is how many bullets you’d need, how many fighters are actually there, which way they should approach it,” the diplomat says. “The Americans ate it up.”
When Syrian protesters took to the streets in 2011 to demonstrate against four decades of Assad family rule, Abu Ahmad had a comfortable job as an army officer in central Syria. Then security forces started firing on the demonstrators. Farmers, army defectors and local merchants banded themselves into armed units to fight back, and a full-tilt insurgency erupted.
While other commanders hoarded weaponry, Abu Ahmad says he calibrated his usage based on assessments of his men and the Assad forces’ likely avenue of attack. “It was like playing chess for me. I love chess,” he says, holding up his phone, on which he was playing the game during our interview.
In 2012, Abu Ahmad was wounded in an air strike and knocked unconscious for 10 days. He woke up in hospital with a metal rod in his leg. His wife, Um Ahmad, a slender woman with perfectly applied make-up, remembers sitting with him day and night, struggling to get him to sit up, eat or speak. “Then, when some of the fighters came to visit him he sat right up, talked and laughed,” she says. “That’s when I realised that from now on, there would be three of us in this relationship: me, him and the revolution.”
Abu Ahmad returned a few months later to a drastically changed battleground. The motley crew of the Free Syrian Army had failed to become anything like the force their name aspired to. Corruption had infected many groups. Islamist groups had risen to the fore with the backing of US allies such as Qatar and Turkey, who saw them as more organised and trustworthy clients than their less ideologically driven counterparts.
That climate, along with Turkey’s loose border policy, fostered a rise in jihadis bolstered by foreign fighters. Al-Qaeda’s local affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, and a splinter group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis), leveraged superior military capacity and a developed ideological programme to rise to dominance. (Nusra has since rebranded itself twice, most recently as the Sham Liberation Front, and says it has cut ties with al-Qaeda, although few see the move as genuine.)
“We were so dumb. I was so dumb,” Abu Ahmad says, shaking his head. “What was I thinking? I thought the regime would fall, and we’d go back to where we started. When I came back, I found Jabhat al-Nusra and Isis spreading, and they had all these plans. That’s when I knew we’d eventually need to have a counter-operation against these guys too.”
Some Islamist leaders began questioning Abu Ahmad over rumours he didn’t pray. Fellow rebel commanders, worried about his safety, sent him across the border to help the effort from Turkey. In this newly bustling border region, where once-sleepy towns such as Gaziantep, Kilis and Antakya brimmed with humanitarian workers, refugees and activists, Abu Ahmad met a Saudi intelligence officer looking to co-ordinate a rebel pushback against Isis.
By late 2013, the jihadi group was menacing opposition-held territories in Syria and steadily expanding in neighbouring Iraq. Abu Ahmad co-ordinated between the Saudis and rebels, who managed to push Isis out of the northwestern Idlib province in early 2014.
It was then that he got a call from members of a covert CIA programme based in the Turkish coastal city of Adana. Three men met him at a restaurant. “They were really nice,” he recalls. “They knew everything about me already.”
The CIA declined to comment on Abu Ahmad’s story, but a Washington-based source in the intelligence community confirmed Abu Ahmad had worked with the agency. But he downplayed the significance, saying he was “just a Syrian fixer”. Other elements of Abu Ahmad’s story and details of his relationship with the CIA were corroborated by rebels, activists and diplomats — all of whom declined to be named.
The Americans invited Abu Ahmad to join a covert operations room they were forming with allies including Britain, France, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to support moderate rebels. Known as the Müşterek Operasyon Merkezi (MOM), it was modelled on a joint operations centre set up in Jordan a year earlier.
The CIA knew about the corruption, of course, everyone in the programme did. It was the price of doing business
From the beginning, the operation faced major obstacles. Turkey’s 800km border with Syria was difficult to control. Furthermore, by 2014, the role of jihadis and the relationships between foreign backers and local clients were deeply entrenched, making it almost impossible to manage the flow of weapons.
“Throughout this [programme] there have been major disagreements between countries and even within governments,” says Noah Bonsey, of the International Crisis Group, an NGO. “Have the rebels failed tremendously? Absolutely. Have the supporting states been just as factious as the rebels? Absolutely.”
Many rebels considered MOM little more than a foreign intelligence foothold within the opposition. But some, like Abu Ahmad, hoped it could at least solidify the rebel hold on northern Syria and ensure a stronger position in peace negotiations.
The operation was based in a nondescript villa in southern Turkey, where rebel commanders met intelligence officers around a long, oval table to propose battle plans and lobby for weapons.
Rebels approved as ideological “moderates” received a monthly salary of about $150 for a fighter and $300 for a commander. “They never told us where we were going,” Abu Ahmad recalls. “ They would put us in a car with the blinds closed. It was like a spy movie, but it was a bit of joke, because we learnt the route over time.”
At first the atmosphere was convivial. The Turks let the commanders sleep at the building, which had a kitchen and a cook, so they could finish late-night sessions poring over maps and plans. Soon, however, MOM bureaucracy became a problem for the rebels: battles could turn in hours while it sometimes took weeks for foreign representatives to agree on plans and get approval to deliver supplies such as ammunition, medicine and boots. Rebels turned to the media with tales of MOM’s stinginess.
Some opposition figures and diplomats, however, argue the problem was just the opposite. “MOM became a vehicle for corrupting the Free Syrian Army, not because they gave them too little but because they gave them too much,” says an opposition figure close to MOM-backed commanders.
He says commanders regularly inflated their forces’ numbers to pocket extra salaries, and some jacked up weapons requests to hoard or sell on the black market. Inevitably, much of that ended up in Isis hands. Other groups cut in Jabhat al-Nusra on deals to keep it from attacking them. “The CIA knew about this, of course, everyone in MOM did. It was the price of doing business.”
Abu Ahmad openly accused fellow commanders of such activities, which he says impressed the Americans. “I would say, ‘That guy claims he has 300 fighters, but he has 50. And this guy was doing that’ . . . I would embarrass everyone,” he recalls. “The Syrians were frustrated and saying, ‘He’s a US agent, an informant — how is he talking about us like that?’ But my thinking was that they were stealing from our revolution.”
It’s hard to verify whether Abu Ahmad was as clean as he claims, but his current status is in contrast to that of many rebel commanders, who have large apartments in Turkey, drive new cars and own the latest iPhones.
Abu Ahmad, his wife and their two children share a small flat with his parents and his brother’s family. He sometimes indulges in a bitter fantasy about how his life would be if he’d conspired with other commanders to get a cut for himself. “I wouldn’t have been a ‘traitor’. The people would have held up my picture. I would have had the best cars,” he says. “I could have done it that way, but I didn’t. Instead, I was humiliated.”
But perhaps more damaging than the corruption were the growing rivalries between MOM’s foreign backers. As divides opened, each power moved to bolster its favoured commanders.
“A toddler could enter the MOM room and be able to tell which guy the US was pushing for, who the Turks wanted, or who the Saudis were pushing,” says Abu Omar, a friend of Abu Ahmad and a fellow US-backed rebel commander (not his real name). “MOM became the legal face to cover all the extra support they were giving these groups behind each other’s backs.”
The worst split was between the US and Turkey. Tensions rose after Isis seized Iraq’s second city, Mosul, in June 2014 and blitzed across Iraq and Syria. Washington began a Pentagon-led air campaign against Isis but support for ground forces went to a Syrian Kurdish militia known as the YPG, rather than the rebels.
The Pentagon found the YPG attractive partners because they didn’t have to worry about Islamist infiltration — and, unlike the rebels, they were not fighting Assad. But Ankara was infuriated: it has fought a four-decade war with the YPG’s parent organisation, the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK), over Kurdish ambitions for self-rule in south-eastern Turkey, and saw their growing enclave across the border as a threat.
‘America was pressuring us with its control of aid, Turkey with its control of border access. They’re not allies, they’re liars’
“I’ve been struck by how sincere US and Turkish officials seem in their misunderstanding of each other. Sometimes US officials seem to genuinely not understand why YPG backing is such a big deal to Turkey,” says Bonsey, of the International Crisis Group.
“By the same token, Turkish officials didn’t seem to understand how upset US officials were with their lack of an effort to weaken the facilities of jihadi groups using their border. They were talking past each other.”
US-backed rebels felt caught in the middle, suddenly seen as traitors by their Turkish hosts and the Islamist groups they supported. Abu Ahmad started to hate visiting MOM. “I was stuck between squabbling parents,” he jokes.
He recalls a meeting where a Turkish official pointedly asked him, in front of his US counterparts, why the US strikes were helping the Kurds but not rebels like him. The CIA officials sat quietly before jumping in to say the strikes were conducted by the Pentagon, a separate entity.
The vagaries of US policy became harder to explain to outraged fighters, already growing more sympathetic to the Islamists, says Abu Omar, especially after US-backed YPG forces seized several rebel-held towns near his base in north-western Syria in the winter of 2016.
“I had 57 fighters who died on the frontline, and twice as many who lost their limbs,” he says. “How can I explain to them that the YPG means Pentagon support? And that MOM means CIA support? These are Syrian country boys — they don’t understand this stuff.”
CIA-linked commanders such as Abu Ahmad and Abu Omar also found it harder to work in Turkey. Abu Omar struggled to get his residency permit renewed and was informed he had been put on a security watch list. When he asked the Americans to raise the issue with Turkish officials, they told him the matter was out of their control.
Abu Ahmad’s dilemmas bordered on farcical. In MOM’s early days, he says, Turkish officials escorted him over the border for meetings. Then, after the spat with the Americans, they said they could no longer help. He started paying smugglers to get to Turkey for the international meetings.
He recalls arriving one day at the border in time to see one of Turkey’s favoured commanders jump into a car bound for a meeting. “He waved at me and said, ‘Bye!’ I just stood there staring,” Abu Ahmad says. When he complained to the Americans, they laughed but again said they could do nothing.
It was at this time that rebels, seeking to organise their factious forces, formed a new alliance called Jabha Shamiya. They hoped it would lessen the tug of war between Washington and Ankara. Instead it grew worse, and the alliance was forced out of the covert programme.
“America was pressuring us with its control of MOM aid. Turkey was trying to pressure us with its control over border access,” says another rebel leader from Aleppo, who asked not to be named. “They’re not allies, they’re liars. When you have allies like Syrians have, you don’t need enemies.”
Abu Ahmad resigned rather than join Jabha Shamiya but soon the Americans asked him to be their consultant, handing him about $1,000 a month. He became known among Syrians as someone who could arrange meetings. His critics insisted he was helping the CIA plot failed assassination attempts on Nusra leaders and undermine Turkish-backed groups. Abu Ahmad denies any plots, but admits he worked to lure groups back into MOM.
In the summer of 2015, the US launched the Pentagon’s “Train and Equip” programme for select rebel fighters. It cost $500m, and went horribly wrong. “I was shocked,” Abu Ahmad says. “The Pentagon came and started to meet with people in Gaziantep, and picked people both the CIA and MOM saw as failures.”
After the first group of T & E fighters was kidnapped by Nusra, he suspected the American departments were not sharing information. Then a second group, under a newly dispatched commander, surrendered to Nusra.
“This is when I realised the Americans were working in two different directions,” he says. He started asking western diplomats to explain the US political system. They told him about Congress, the White House and different intelligence and military branches. “If Obama is going this way, and people in Congress that way, and the people working on the ground are saying, ‘No, this works, that doesn’t’, is a decision actually made?” he laughs. “Maybe this is a case of too much democracy.”
‘I used to think America was the ruler of the universe. If you ask me whether I was wrong? Yes, I was wrong’
Meanwhile, the US-Turkey dispute was deepening as they debated a potential no-fly zone in northern Syria. One of the failed plan’s many points of contention was over who in Syria should be their point person. The CIA wanted Abu Ahmad, according to several commanders. The Turks wanted someone closer to them.
A day before a contentious MOM meeting to discuss the issue, Abu Ahmad says a Turkish police car pulled up outside his home. Alarmed, he stuffed all his cash in his pockets as the officers knocked on his door.
With that, a Nato ally had arrested one of Washington’s local allies. Abu Ahmad was shuttled between different security headquarters for hours. “They asked me to tell them what I was arrested for,” he says. “I told them, ‘I don’t know either. You’re the ones who brought me here, you’re supposed to tell me the charge.’”
Eventually he was thrown into a nearby prison, where he waited for days while his wife and friends made frantic calls to US officials. The CIA was unable to secure his release. “They did try to help him get freed,” says the Washington-based intelligence source, “but it is unlikely it went up very high, given that he was helping with a supposedly secret CIA operation.”
Abu Ahmad soon realised the only way to get out was to agree to be deported to Syria — essentially a death sentence, given how much Islamists despised him. But he signed the paperwork and was dropped at the border. “I used the money I had and paid a smuggler to sneak right back in to Turkey.”
He hid in a house on the border for more than a month. Eventually, the Turks promised to leave him alone, as long as he stopped working with the Americans and the rebels. He was heartbroken but accepted the terms, and has since lived on the margins of Syrian society in Turkey, relying on friends such as Abu Omar to lend him money.
One summer evening, Abu Ahmad drove us to Abu Omar’s home on the Turkish coast for “some good reminiscing about the revolution”. Abu Omar looked trim, with short hair, a polo shirt and a brand new iPhone. He took us out for a platter of fish and immediately launched into lamentations.
His group has lost territory and popularity to Nusra, he says, and no one seems to care any more about working with the Americans. “The Turks treat me as though I’m an American. Jabhat al-Nusra treats me like I’m a traitor. No one treats me like I sit with the Americans because I’m a Syrian who wants to do the best he can for his cause,” he says. “I wonder how the Americans see me. Do they see me as a patriot? Do they see me as a mercenary?”
The Turkish-American relationship has remained fraught, despite President Trump’s renewed discussion of a no-fly zone and Washington’s tacit approval of Turkey’s intervention in northern Syria to clear Isis and the YPG from along its border. “There’s been a 1,000 per cent increase in the improvement of relations — and it’s still terrible,” says analyst Aaron Stein, at the Atlantic Council in Washington.
For Abu Ahmad, the psychological strain has become physical. His wife calls on the drive home, fretting. Over the past few months, she says, he has pulled the car over three times, worried he was having a heart attack. “Nothing is ever wrong,” she says. “The doctors say it was a panic attack.”
On some days, Abu Ahmad thinks of leaving the region behind altogether. But that isn’t easy. Germany rejected him over his past ties to a rebel group that has since been accused of war crimes.
Last year, he says, he asked some American officials to help him move to the US. They told him to register first with the UN as a refugee. He never heard back, and Trump’s recent executive order makes it increasingly unlikely that he would now be accepted into the US.
He called up his old CIA contacts to see who could help. “They told me, ‘We’re sorry, that is a State Department issue,’” he says. “‘These are separate departments.’”
Erika Solomon is the FT’s Middle East correspondent
Photographs: Ivor Prickett / Panos Pictures; AFP/Getty; Tristan Vickers / Panos Pictures; Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty