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Abdallah al-Muhaysini, a Pivotal Figure in the Islamist Insurgency in Syria,” by Waleed Rikab

Abdallah al-Muhaysini, a Pivotal Figure in the Islamist Insurgency in Syria
by Waleed Rikab
for Syria Comment – 7 October 2015

Abdallah al-Muhaysini came to Syria in 2013 to partake in the uprising against Bashar al-Assad. He presents a unique case of the outsized role a single person can play in the lawless world of the Syrian rebellion.  He has positioned himself at the center of radical jihadist politics, fund raising, and legal opinion.

Al-Muhaysini with a captured Syrian pilot. Jabhat al-Nusra’s flag, which also includes the al-Qaeda insignia, can be seen in the background

Al-Muhaysini hails from the al-Qassim region in Saudi Arabia. Prior to his arrival to Syria, he completed his MA and PhD studies in Islamic Jurisprudence in the Imam Muhammad ibn Saud Islamic University in Riyadh, with a dissertation on “The Treatment of Prisoners of War in Islamic Jurisprudence.” A self-professed Salafi jihadist scholar, al-Muhaysini is often seen on the battlefields of northern Syria together with various Islamist factions, prominent among whom are Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), in addition to other factions affiliated with the Jaish al-Fateh coalition. He has set up institutions that provide military and financial aid to jihadist groups, and runs a proselytization (Dawah) center (named “The Jihad’s Callers Center“) in Idlib Province.

Al-Mushaysini holds the title General Judge of Jaish al-Fateh. He is highly revered in the jihadi-Salafi landscape (notwithstanding Islamic State adherents), embracing a leading role in the warfare – most recently in the Jabha al-Nusra takeover, together with the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) of the Abu al-Dhuhur Air Base and in the Jaish al-Fatah battles for control over al-Fuah this month (September 2015). During clashes in the last year, he was documented delivering inflammatory speeches to the troops and bestowing religious blessing upon suicide bombers before embarking on their missions.


Al-Muhaysini gives his blessing to a suicide bomber in al-Fuah

A picture of his activities since arriving to Syria two years ago reveals a person immersed in all aspects of the effort to establish Islamist rule in Syria, currently developed mainly in the Idlib Province, but also spreading to other regions (as demonstrated in the creation of Jaish al-Fateh – Qalamoun and Jaish al-Fateh – the southern region). His main activities are:

  • The highly successful Jahed bi-Malak (wage jihad with your money) enterprise that operates with the declared aim of collecting donations to arm mujahedeen groups in Syria. In May 2015, he claimed that the Idlib campaign needed US$ 5 million that the rebels were able to secure.
  • The aforementioned Jihad’s Callers Center that has been steadily developing in Idlib Province and now boasts branches in many towns and villages.
  • Active participation in all major military campaigns in northern Syria in the last year, such as the takeover of Idlib city and Jisr al-Sughour in March-April 2015, and Wadi al-Dief in December 2014. During the Idlib city campaign, al-Muhaisni was documented surviving a rocket attack. Al-Muhaysini is also involved in the sanctioning and enlisting of recruits for martyrdom operations.


Al-Muhaysini with Syrian Army captives at Abu-Dhuhur Air Base

The 56 captives following their execution

A glimpse into the ideology espoused by al-Muhaysini was revealed through his role in the reported summary execution of Syrian Army soldiers and officers following JN’s capture of Abu al-Dhuhur Air Base. Al-Muhaysini gave a speech while standing alongside the blindfolded captives: “These are only some of the prisoners that were captured by the Mujahideen…they claim to be Sunnah. I don’t like to call them Sunnah. They were once Sunnah but became murtadin (apostatized) once they enlisted in the Nusairi (a derogatory term for Alawites) regime…Oh mothers of (Syrian Army) soldiers, either you see your sons like this and then you see them killed, or you force them to desert this army…the battle is between the Sunnah and the Nusairis and Rafida (derogatory term for Shiites) so why would you involve your sons in this carnage?…No doubt, whomsoever sheds blood, his blood shall also be shed.”


Al-Muhaysini in TIP footage from Abu al-Dhuhur Air Base

Indeed, validating al-Muhaysini’s words, several days later it was reported that JN had executed 65 soldiers and officers at the air base, with images being circulated on social media of the captives standing on the tarmac before their execution.


Photos confirming the mass killings surfaced on social media, but were not officially published by JN. The fact that there was no formal documentation of the aftermath of the mass killing, at odds with the large volume of JN and TIP publications regarding the capture of the air base, may stem from JN media strategy, which tries to distance itself from the negative image of the Islamic State and its affinity for gore. It is also in line with guidelines given by al-Qaeda (AQ) leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who instructed the group not to alienate the local population. On a separate note, these guidelines also explain the successful cooperation between JN and other Islamist factions, as opposed to the Islamic State.

Jabhat al-Nusra’s operation at Abu al-Dhuhur Air Base, the overall success of the Idlib campaign, the co-optation with the TIP and the recent pledge of allegiance by Jaish al-Muhajiroun wal Ansar, are all signs that JN continues to enjoy momentum in Syria. It is able to generate the appeal and success needed to further consolidate its hold over regions in Syria that are all but an unprecedented base of operations for AQ since Afghanistan before the September 11 attacks.


Arms training for children at the Jihad’s Callers Center

Al-Muhaysini propagates hardline Salafist concepts through the Dawah initiatives of the Jihad’s Callers Center in areas held by Islamist rebels in northern Syria. This enterprise promotes a militant worldview among residents of Idlib Province, and is expected to provide an inventory of future recruits to Islamist groups, as is already demonstrated in this video, where al-Muhaysini personally trains children on his version of jihad. The maintenance and expansion of these Dawah centers requires substantial funding, apparently provided by al-Muhaysini. Furthermore, an article by Jordanian cleric Eyad Qunibi that appeared in a magazine published by the center titled Jihadi Reflections leaves no doubt as to the goal of the Dawah activities conducted by the center in Syria – to shape a state of affairs in which a Sharia-ruled Syria will be perceived as the only option by the Syrian population, without democratic elections.

Al-Muhaysini’s activities are crucial to ascertain the degree to which Ahrar al-Sham (and Jaish al-Fateh in general) and JN differ in their orientation and plans for Syria. Al-Muhaysini seems to play a crucial role in aiding both, providing financial aid and religious guise to their operations. Furthermore, his presence in both JN and Jaish al-Fateh operations, and his official role in Jaish al-Fateh, are proof of the persisting links between the two fighting forces.

The Jaish al-Fateh push toward the Alawite heartlands on the coast may be one reason why Russia jump into Syria to support its ally. If unchecked, al-Muhaysini will continue to help entrench Islamist groups in Syria and radicalize Sunni rebels. Finally, if al-Muhaysini’s plans to win the hearts and minds of the Syrian population succeed, it will surely complicate U.S. efforts to promote a democratic post-Assad Syria, due to his rejection of democracy in favor of Sharia governance.

Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk: History and Analysis

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Establishment and Beginnings (2012-2013)

Initial emblem of Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk

Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk (The Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade) was formed in the summer of 2012 initially using the name Katiba Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk and based primarily in southwest Deraa province. The group first came to prominence with the capture of UN peacekeeping troops in March 2013 in the Jamla area near the UN patrolled portion of the Golan Heights. In the initial statement on the hostage taking, Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk justified its actions as follows:

“At a time in which the UN is silent about the crimes of the regime against the Syrian people, here are the UN forces providing aid to the criminal regime forces besieged for days by the heroes of the Free Army [FSA] on frontline duty in the area defending our people there from the barbarity of the regime and its shabiha…at a time in which the Yarmouk Valley area is witnessing artillery and rocket bombing as well as continual Assad war plane bombing raids that have led to the destruction of a great number of homes and the killing of unarmed civilians without mercy, as well as displacement of families.

Why is this aid not offered to the unarmed civilians instead of the criminal gangs? Therefore we have decided to detain and keep hold of the aid together with its UN personnel until Assad’s forces pull out their forces from the area and the Assad bombing and war plane raids stop. And these personnel will remain safe, and when the bombing stops and Assad’s forces pull out their forces from the area entirely and the UN fulfils its humanitarian and international obligation for which it is present in the area, we will immediately release them.

Long live Free Syria and down with the criminal Assad regime.”

However, Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk very quickly retracted this hostile statement, claiming it was actually protecting the UN personnel from the “barbaric bombing that Assad’s criminal gangs are launching against the western villages of Deraa province and all of Syria.” The group then called on the UN to hold a secure meeting to hand over the personnel. Eventually, the incident was resolved. Another kidnapping incident took place in May involving 4 Filipino  UN peacekeepers , though they were also released. At the time, Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk seemed keen to assure outsiders of its supposedly good intentions, even telling the Times of Israel that the group’s quarrel was only with Assad regime and praising Israeli medical treatment for refugees.

Through 2013, Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk gained prominence as a player on the battlefield, acquiring some new local affiliates. In late March, the group coordinated with Jabhat al-Nusra in an assault on the 38th division air defence base. In May- at a time when Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk was participating in the “Yarmouk al-Karama” battle focused on localities to the south of Nawa town like Ain Dhikr– the Omar al-Mukhtar battalion for the Nawa area was announced, employing nationalist rhetoric typical of what one would associate with the FSA brand: “I swear by God the Great to defend my religion, my homeland [watani] and my honour, and expend what is dear and precious in liberating all the soil of the homeland from the claws of the criminal Assad occupation.”

In July, Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk announced participation in the “Umm al-Ma’arak” (“Mother of Battles”) to capture Nawa from regime forces, though that operation was ultimately unsuccessful. At this point, Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk’s nationalist rebel affiliations were still apparent, and in October the group joined a coalition of 50 southern formations embodied in the “Revolution Leadership Council- Southern Region.” In a show of military strength, a video emerged in November 2013 of a large military parade held by Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk.  At the time, Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk’s leader Ali al-Baridi (nickname: al-Khal) claimed that the group’s control of territory extended from the area of Tel Shehab (near the border with Jordan) to the occupied Golan.

All that said, the group was not without its critics in 2013: for example, one page entitled “Secrets and Revelations of Shabiha and Thieves of the Free Army in Deraa” in September accused Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk of laziness under the leadership of al-Khal and his deputy Abu Abdullah al-Ja’ouni, asserting: “There is an abundance of arms yet it has stopped operating on many fronts like the Sheikh Sa’ad front in waiting for additional support…and today we have heard calls to provide relief from Sheikh Sa’ad so what will Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk and the other brigades sleeping in Tafis and the majority of the western areas?”

Developments in 2014

Moving into 2014, Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk continued to participate in rebel operations, being one of the declared participants alongside Jabhat al-Nusra and other brigades in the “Hold fast to God’s rope entirely and don’t separate” battle announced in late February to capture strategic positions between Deraa and Quneitra. In that same month, Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk was also one of the declared components of the ‘Southern Front’ initiative backed by the West and Gulf states. At the end of April, the brigade along with some other groups announced a new offensive to take Tel al-Jumu’ and other areas to the south of Nawa, though that came to nothing as an identical initiative with more participants including Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk was announced in June.

Even at this point, Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk’s public affiliations were ostensibly clear in its appearance as a signatory to a statement signed by 54 southern groups affirming respect for human rights and democracy: as per the third clause, “We fight so that Syrian men and women may choose a free and democratic system that establishes a prosperous state respecting the aspirations of Syrians in the freedom and dignity for which they have fought.”

It is in July 2014 that some signs of tension emerge between Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk and other factions, beginning with an apparent clash with Harakat al-Muthanna al-Islamiya, a Salafi group primarily operating in Deraa province. One may also argue that in this clash lies the first hint of links with the Islamic State [IS], as there is an echo of IS discourse in pronouncing takfir on the group with whom one clashes. Thus from a Facebook page in support of Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk at the time:

“Harakat al-Muthanna- which calls itself ‘Islamic’ but it has no connection to Islam- launches an attack on the al-‘Alan checkpoint at which the heroes of Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk are based, blows it up and arrests the members of the checkpoint affiliated with Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk, exploiting the fact that most of the heroes of Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk are present in the town of Sheikh Sa’ad to liberate it from Assad’s gangs and shabiha. And while the brigade was moving Mahmoud Suleiman al-Baridi, one of the most important field commanders in Deraa province, who was wounded during the liberation of Sheikh Sa’ad, they got in the way and held him back, which led to the aggravation of his condition…So, a question that suggests itself, Harakat al-Muthanna, which calls itself Islamic, is it Islamic in deed or….?”

In a follow-up statement, Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk’s leader mentioned that the Syrian Revolutionaries Front and the al-Hamza Division had participated alongside Harakat al-Muthanna al-Islamiya in the attack, and had allegedly accused Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk of “apostasy and disbelief.” Al-Khal gave an extended account in which he claimed that after the capture of Tel al-Jumu’ it had been agreed that Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk would participate on the Sheikh Sa’ad front but then members had been approached by a convoy of cars that also claimed to be participating on that front. Approval was granted for joint participation by the leadership, but soon after that, Harakat al-Muhthanna al-Islamiya, the Syrian Revolutionaries Front and the al-Hamza Division began the attack on Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk. Eventually, Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk’s media office released a statement simply clarifying on which fronts it would continue to operate: Nawa town, Atman and Kharbat Ghazala.

By summer 2014, Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk had adopted a more Islamic-style emblem (variant featuring a white flag).

Even so, Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk continued to identify with the Southern Front operations, participating in the Imam Nawawi offensive to take Nawa from regime forces. The group also participated in the wider fighting over Shaykh al-Maskin, Nawa and other parts of Deraa in November 2014 that eventually culminated in disaster for regime forces, with the total loss of Nawa and other holdings such as Liwa 112 base, in which Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk advertised its presence after the routing of regime forces.

The following month came a major conflict with Jabhat al-Nusra, from which point onwards Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk’s pro-IS affiliations have become so obvious that it does not really make sense now to speak of the group as secretly pro-IS. Jabhat al-Nusra’s fight with Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk in the Yarmouk basin was rooted in its perception of the latter as an IS cell, an allegation that Southern Front commanders apparently rejected at the time. Though the exact sequence of events remains somewhat unclear, the Dar al-‘Adl (House of Justice), a southern rebel judicial body, initially called for a ceasefire and its own judicial investigation (15 December) with the backing of multiple factions, including the Al-Hamza Division, Ahrar al-Sham and Harakat al-Muthanna al-Islamiya. As in July of that year though, when Harakat al-Muthanna al-Islamiya had already clashed with Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk, it appears the group had also been involved on the side of Jabhat al-Nusra in the initial clashes with Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk. Eventually, Harakat al-Muthanna al-Islamiya proposed its own ceasefire and the Dar al-‘Adl issued a new statement on 23 December, requiring the warring sides to return to frontline posts against the regime and for the Dar al-‘Adl to receive the checkpoints set up within the Yarmouk basin.

Leaving behind the Southern Front: Moving overtly towards IS

Since the December clashes, multiple lines of evidence point to Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk’s IS affinities that build a very clear case when taken together. To begin with, the group’s current emblem featuring IS’ flag:


Further, a key figure involved in the December 2014 clashes was Jabhat al-Nusra’s Abu Mariya al-Qahtani, widely perceived as one of the most pragmatic members of the al-Qa’ida affiliate, though he has since been sidelined. He has been the subject of verbal attack from Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk using discourse identical to IS, namely in referring to him as ‘al-Harari’ (H/T: @AbuJamajem). For example, in a statement entitled “To our people in the town of Nawa,” Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk says it released two people on verifying they had no link to Jabhat al-Nusra, while warning “our people in Nawa…to be careful of the conspiracy in which al-Harari is trying to embroil them, whereby he makes from among them cannon fodder for his ambitions that his agenda, which is not hidden from anyone, imposes upon him. This already happened in reality when he embroiled some of the sons of Nawa, deceiving them, in the attempt to commit treachery against Saraya al-Jihad…and it was established to all that Saraya al-Jihad was in a state of defending itself.” Saraya al-Jihad is a jihadi group in Quneitra that became part of the coalition Jaysh al-Jihad, also suspected of being an IS cell: its name appears to be used interchangeably with Jaysh al-Jihad here.

In this context, one should then note an interview uploaded on 1 May 2015 with the deputy leader of Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk, in which he denies that Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk has links with Jaysh al-Jihad but says Jabhat al-Nusra committed aggression against them. When asked as a follow-up whether Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk has allegiance to IS, he avoids giving a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer to the question. This interview followed on from a lengthy statement by the Dar al-‘Adl on 30 April, which condemned Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk for violating terms imposed upon them. Though the brigade handed over leaders of sub-groups who had pledged allegiance to IS for questioning and verification as stipulated, the Dar al-‘Adl claims that those handed over actually affirmed that the leadership of the brigade had also pledged allegiance and received financial support from IS.

According to the Dar al-‘Adl, other violations on the part of Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk include re-opening an alternative court in violation of the agreement, declaring takfir on the Dar al-‘Adl, kidnapping and torturing civilians and leaders of rival brigades (e.g. the leader of Liwa Buruj al-Islam affiliated with the First Legion), and running a cell to assassinate rivals in the town of Nawa. These patterns of behaviour are very similar to IS conduct in 2013 and in Fallujah in early 2014 (back when it was just ISIS), whereby an alternative proto-administration was set up (most often in the form of a da’wa office and/or Islamic court), combining an approach of outreach and subversion. Criticism of the Dar al-‘Adl as a judiciary body was also the subject of an official IS Damascus province video.

Over the course of this year, Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk has further developed its administration along the IS model in the Yarmouk basin, with its own da’wa office, Islamic court, Islamic police force and apparently a Diwan al-Hisba, as per below.

Da’wa office of Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk. Here is a video of a sample da’wa meeting held by Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk: note the use of the Islamic State song “The Shari’a of Our Lord.”

Da’wa pamphlet cover from Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk.

Establishment of the Islamic court dated 11 Shawwal 1436 AH (27-28 July 2015): “Striving on our part to realize the religion and the ruling of God’s law…over the land, supporting those who are wronged and standing in the face of wrongdoers and those who sow corruption, we announce the formation of the Shari’a court. This court is to be considered the sole legitimate place from which judicial rulings are to be taken in the Yarmouk basin area according to the Book of God and the Sunna of His Prophet Muhammad (SAWS) on the understanding of the just predecessors, may God be pleased with them. And we ask our people to be an aid to us in this court and that to restore rights to its people.”

“The Shari’a court in the Yarmouk basis announces its desire to appoint Islamic judges affiliated with the court and working in it. Thus we ask all whom God has cultivated with Shari’i knowledge to be kind enough to undertake judicial work in the court. Appointment of the judges for work will be completed within the cadre of the Shari’a court according to specialities and suitability. To apply: base of the Shari’a court in al-Shajra everyday from 9-11 a.m. beginning from the issuing of this statement- 11 Shawwal 1436 AH.” The al-Shajra court was mentioned earlier in the year by the Dar al-‘Adl as something reopened by Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk contrary to its wishes.

Announcement by Shari’a court for the recruitment of Islamic police to be affiliated with the court (not military matters).

From a Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk account on Twitter: Diwan al-Hisba organizing distribution of niqabs to locals.

In this vein, recent Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk photo releases mimic IS propaganda, portraying scenes of normality in the Yarmouk basin area it controls, as well as distributions of da’wa pamphlets and revelling in the destruction of its enemies, who have generally failed to dislodge it from its strongholds. For comparison, note that another group that eventually pledged allegiance to IS- Boko Haram- also had its own media outlet- al-Urwat al-Wuthqa- that imitated IS photo releases.

Football match in the Yarmouk basin area

Distribution of da’wa pamphlets

“Corpses of the slain of ‘Jaysh al-Fatah’ [in the south, comprising Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham et al.] who tried to assault the areas controlled by Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk.”

Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk member Ahmad al-Baridi featuring a quotation from IS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani on his Twitter account.

Purported areas of control of Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk (in green) vs. rebel rivals (in red) as of early August 2015.

Given the numerous lines of evidence for the IS affinities of Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk, one may ask why IS has not already announced a new ‘wilaya’ (province), in this case a Wilayat Deraa, which would from a propaganda viewpoint mark a significant ‘expansion’ in that even its predecessor ISIS, which was much more widely (and thinly) spread across Syria, never had a foothold in the province on account of the loyalty of Jabhat al-Nusra affiliates to Jowlani. One answer may be that the problem for IS is that the territory currently controlled by Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk is not contiguous with the rest of its holdings in Syria and Iraq, or it may be the announcement is only a matter of time.

In any case, the growth of Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk poses a significant problem for the rebels, and the Dar al-‘Adl continues to be targeted in sabotage operations, with the assassination of its deputy head most recently, but it seems no one has the strength to dismantle Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk’s presence. This is particularly telling with regards to the relative strength of Jaysh al-Fatah in the south (which seems most keen to destroy Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk) as opposed to its much more successful counterpart in the north. More generally, southern rebel efforts have stalled with the faltering offensive on Deraa city despite the regime’s thin line of control through the province.

Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa: History, Analysis & Interview

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

History and Analysis

Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa (the Raqqa Revolutionaries Brigade) was initially formed in September 2012 as a merger of several local rebel groups in Raqqa province following on from the Assad regime’s loss of the northern border town of Tel Abyad, at a time when the regime was forced to pull back from large swathes of northern Syrian border areas to focus on defending more vital areas- in particular the provincial capitals. Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa declared its loyalty to a “Revolutionary Military Council” in Raqqa province, a loose umbrella similar to other early nationalist rebel structures like the FSA Military Council of Col. Oqaidi in Aleppo province. Some declared components of Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa at the time included [Kata’ib] al-Jihad fi Sabil Allah, al-Nasir Salah al-Din, al-Haq,  Shuhada’ al-Raqqa, Saraya al-Furat and Ahrar al-Furat.

Over the subsequent months, some new local formations were announced and added to Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa’s ranks. Thus, in December 2012, the Katiba al-Risala of the village of al-Sheikh Hassan in the north Raqqa countryside, the Katiba Suqur al-Jazira operating in the western Raqqa countryside, and the Katiba Usud al-Tawheed operating in Raqqa city area were announced as affiliates of Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa. The rhetorical focus in these videos is on driving the Assad regime presence out of Raqqa province, rather than laying out an ideological vision for a post-Assad Syria. This is so despite its original emblem that ostensibly conveyed a distinctly Islamist orientation.

Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa’s first emblem. On top: “Allahu Akbar.” Beneath that: “There is no deity but God, and Muhammad is the Messenger of God.”

Also in December 2012, Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa joined the Raqqa Liberation Front coalition, alongside similarly aligned groups including the familiar Ahfad al-Rasul (a brand of Western-backed brigades that went into sharp decline in 2013, including expulsion from Raqqa city by ISIS in August of that year), Liwa al-Muntasir bi-Allah and Liwa Isar al-Shamal (both of which, like Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa, identified as part of the same Revolutionary Military Council) and Liwa Rayat al-Nasr (which eventually joined the Salafi grouping Ahrar al-Sham). As has often been the case in the Syrian civil war with the various coalitions announced and dissolved, the Raqqa Liberation Front coalition never led to a real merger of these groups.

Raqqa city fell in March 2013 to a combination of these brigades, Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra. The following month, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the creation of ISIS, demanding the subsuming of Jabhat al-Nusra under this structure. Most of the Jabhat al-Nusra contingents in Raqqa province accepted Baghdadi’s argument and defected, though a group under Abu Sa’ad al-Hadhrami broke away from ISIS in Raqqa city and temporarily took refuge in the city of Tabqa to the west of Raqqa city in mid-summer of 2013. Meanwhile, Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa continued to operate as part of the rebels’ wider bid to take the remaining regime bases in Raqqa province- Division 17, Brigade 93 and Tabqa military airport.

Thus on 20 June, Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa’s leader Abu Eisa denied claims he had been killed by regime forces. It is also notable that Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa appeared to adapt somewhat to the ISIS presence in Raqqa, not only by adding the definite adjective ‘al-Islami’ (Islamic) to its name but also by using the same flag as ISIS in at least one video, as per below from July 2013, in which the group claims coordination with a number of formations, including ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, Liwa Ahfad al-Rasul and Liwa al-Muntasir bi-Allah, in attacking a convoy that came from Brigade 93.


Despite the apparent military cooperation, tensions became increasingly apparent in a number of ways. As ISIS’ presence in Raqqa city grew with its da’wa office that set up numerous billboards throughout the city, it began detaining members of other groups, such as the leader of Liwa Amana’ al-Raqqa (another of the independent, nationalist brigades), and moved decisively to expel Ahfad al-Rasul in August, despite cooperating with the same group on the Latakia front where an offensive had been launched to push towards Assad’s ancestral village of al-Qardaha. This does not mean tensions solely revolved around disputes between ISIS on one side versus the rest of the factions on the other. There were also tensions between Liwa al-Nasir Salah al-Din (another independent group at this point) and Ahrar al-Sham as they arrested each other’s members, and Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa reportedly had its own disputes with Ahrar al-Sham as well. Even so, all-out warfare between the various factions had not yet broken out, and the civilian local council continued to operate.

In September 2013, Jabhat al-Nusra announced its ‘return’ to Raqqa city. Some of the smaller brigades saw in Jabhat al-Nusra the chance to protect themselves from the growth of ISIS, and accordingly pledged allegiance in some form. This included Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa, though the exact terms of the allegiance are disputed. It appears Jabhat al-Nusra had hoped to integrate Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa through Shari’a sessions, but regardless of whether or not this was actually agreed upon, it is therefore clear that Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa was not properly integrated into Jabhat al-Nusra’s ranks. This may have hindered the fight against ISIS when wider infighting broke out in January 2014.  Components of other actors saw a stronger horse in ISIS (which detained and eventually killed Abu Sa’ad al-Hadhrami) and thus joined its ranks, a case-in-point being part of the Liwa al-Nasir Salah al-Din.

As infighting spread between rebel forces and ISIS, Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa appears to have taken the lead in fighting ISIS inside Raqqa city in January 2014, at which point it had broken off from Jabhat al-Nusra. However, ISIS did not suffer the same problem as elsewhere (e.g. in Idlib province) of being thinly spread out and was able to consolidate control of Raqqa city, expelling Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa etc. It would appear that the rebel side conversely suffered from problems of poor coordination in their efforts. Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa then withdrew into the Raqqa countryside up to the Kobani enclave, seeking refuge with the Kurdish YPG. As the Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa break-off from Jabhat al-Nusra had not been officially announced at the time, this was the origin of the ISIS narrative that Jabhat al-Nusra had entered into an alliance with the YPG. In April 2014 came Jabhat al-Nusra’s announcement of the break between itself and Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa.

As the months continued, Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa claimed occasional low-scale sabotage attacks and clashes with ISIS in Raqqa province, usually in coordination with another brigade that also took refuge in the Kobani canton: Liwa al-Jihad fi Sabil Allah, aligned with the opposition-in-exile. Thus on 9 June 2014, the two groups claimed to have attacked an ISIS bridge and checkpoint installation near Raqqa city. They also sent a message of solidarity to the rebels in Deir az-Zor province as ISIS continued its advance and threatened to overrun the entire province. Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa also claimed a prisoner exchange with ISIS, in which the former released 3 ISIS operatives in exchange for 13 prisoners held by ISIS.

In September 2014, Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa along with a number of rebel groups in the Kobani area joined the Burkan al-Furat (‘Euphrates Volcano’) coalition led by the YPG, and participated in the battle of Kobani as well as the subsequent push eastwards following the failure of the Islamic State to take the city. Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa appears to have been the main rebel auxiliary force alongside the Kata’ib Shams al-Shamal formation of the Dawn of Freedom Brigades, which unlike Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa draws its membership mainly from rebel groups (e.g. Liwa al-Tawheed) that existed in north-eastern Aleppo province localities such as Manbij.

As the Islamic State was driven back towards Tel Abyad, a clarification was broadcast that only Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa would be allowed to enter Arab localities. In an interview with Orient News, it was affirmed that “the door of repentance is open. God is forgiving, merciful.” This ostensibly parallels one of the Islamic State’s own methods of securing control over a new area it takes: offering the chance for repentance. However, it was also made clear that the hand of mercy would only be extended to those whose hands were not stained “with the blood of Syrians. As for those whose hands are stained with the blood of Syrians, there is no mercy for them except killing, by God’s permission.” Abu Eisa also denied allegations that Burkan al-Furat had engaged in ethnic cleansing of Arabs in areas retaken from the Islamic State. Reflecting its political agenda more clearly, Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa uses this logo now:

“Free Syrian Army: Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa”, with the familiar FSA emblem.

At the present time, Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa appears to be the primary rebel actor responsible for outreach to the Arab tribes in northern Raqqa province (e.g. photo below), also claiming administration over the Ain Issa area to the south of Tel Abyad.


The group is hoping to push further south to Raqqa city, though the prospects of such an assault being successful are slim now and for the near future at least, as the Islamic State has deployed its special Jaysh al-Khilafa division to solidify the defence of Raqqa city. In the long-run, the alliance with the YPG in the Burkan al-Furat coalition seems problematic, as Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa and the YPG/PYD have different political visions. Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa is committed, like most rebel forces, to the concept of a unified Syria that suspects any Kurdish autonomous administration projects as working towards taqsim Souriya (‘division of Syria’). Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa has already alluded to these issues somewhat obliquely in a recent statement denying rumours that Tel Abyad would be subsumed administratively to the PYD’s Kobani canton:

“The Tel Abyad area will wholly remain administratively with Raqqa governorate and we do not accept modification of the administrative borders for Raqqa governorate and changing the affiliation of any area under the name of any entity. What is being circulated in suggestion about the affiliation of the Tel Abyad area in administration is not within the special powers of the local council or any other council or committee. This matter requires a law and legislative committee to decide on that. And we are in an exceptional state of affairs. It is not possible to adopt any decision to change the administrative borders or affiliation of any area.”

One should also note the reference to a ‘local council’ here: on 26 August, Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa issued an invitation for participation in a conference for the election of the local council for Raqqa province, particularly calling on members of the nominal electoral committee to participate. This conference was supposed to take place on 28 August in the Turkish city of Urfa, but as the Arabic outlet al-Aan notes, it failed to lead to the election of a local council. Out of 107 members of the electoral committee, only 4 showed up alongside representatives of the opposition-in-exile government. It would appear that the majority of those from Raqqa province in exile do not see it as worthwhile to elect a local council to provide civilian support to Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa, recognizing that the Islamic State still controls most of the province and the PYD is the true administrator of the important town of Tel Abyad, for which the PYD has already formed its own local and seniors councils.

This is why, as I have emphasized before, it is highly misleading to go by Thomas van Linge’s maps that portray Tel Abyad and similar areas as somehow jointly controlled by the YPG and the ‘FSA’, driven as Thomas van Linge is by an ideological agenda to hype supposed Kurdish-rebel unity. Yes, it may be that the PYD takes into account for the time being local Arab and Turkmen objections to incorporating Tel Abyad into Kobani, and certainly it has little interest in pushing further south to Raqqa city and thus delegates an area like Ain Issa to Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa. Yet the playing up of ‘YPG-FSA’ cooperation tends to ignore the fact that the YPG has done the bulk of the fighting, sustained the bulk of the casualties, and as a result its political wing the PYD has come to be the administrator of the vast majority of localities retaken from the Islamic State.

Corroborating this point for the Tel Abyad area in particular is an order from the PYD’s Asayish police division forbidding travel between Tel Abyad and Raqqa, as well as importation of various goods from Raqqa to Tel Abyad, including building materials, fuels and electrical and manufacturing apparatuses. While these decisions are understandable in that the PYD worries that bombs may be smuggled in amid the imported goods and wants to cut off as many revenue sources as possible for the Islamic State in so far as the continued cash flow between non-Islamic State and Islamic State-held areas is key for Islamic State revenue via taxation, it is clear there was no consultation here with the rebel groups in Burkan al-Furat.

To sum up, we have traced the evolution of the rise, fall and re-emergence of Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa from 2012 to the present day, first as one of a number of indigenous, nationalist rebel groups in Raqqa province, to a non-ideological Jabhat al-Nusra affiliate, and finally to an uneasy, junior partner of the YPG. To shed further light on these issues, below is an interview I conducted recently with the director of Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa’s media office.


Q: Where was Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa established and from where are most of the members of Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa (i.e. Raqqa, Ayn Issa)?

A: It was in the north Raqqa countryside in the border town of Tel Abyad. Most members are from Raqqa, some from Raqqa, others from the countryside.

Q: Jabhat al-Nusra says you gave bay’a [allegiance] but you deny you gave bay’a to them? You mean it was just a military alliance?

A: Yes an alliance to expel the Dawla organization from Raqqa.

Q: And when did the alliance end?

A: It ended because of their lack of support for us during our battle with Da’esh and they withdrew from Raqqa without informing us of that.

Q: In their statement on the end of the alliance they say that you had agreed on Shari’a sessions. True or not?

A: No, not true.

Q: After Raqqa fell to Da’esh’s hand, did most of their [Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa] members go to Kobani?

A: Yes.

Q: How many martyrs do you have from the battles in Kobani, Tel Abyad and Ain Issa?

A: I am not sure but approximately 30.

Q: Many of the factions say the PYD wants taqsim Souria [division of Syria]. Do you agree?

A: Yes. They had a plan of division but amid our opposition to the matter of joining Tel Abyad to Kobani [canton] our opinion was taken into account.

Q: Is Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa administering any areas?

A: Currently only the locality of Ain Issa.

Q: I heard that you are trying to establish relations with the tribes in the north Raqqa countryside. What are the names of these tribes?

A: Many names: al-Mashhura, Albu Assaf, Albu Khamees, Jais, Albu Shamis, Albu Jarad, Albu Issa

Q: Do you want a civil or Islamic state?

A: Civil democratic state.

Q: With regards to the other battalions in Burkan al-Furat are they administering liberated areas or do they only have a military presence? That is, if I understand correctly, Kata’ib Shams al-Shamal for example wants to recover Jarabulus and Manbij?

A: Yes, they want to recover Jarabulus and Manbij and administer them.

Q: When do you expect that you will try to recover Raqqa city?

A: When we are given sufficient support we will recover Raqqa city soon, but if things remain as they are the time to liberate it will be delayed a lot.

Q: Do you have relations with the Syrian opposition in Turkey or are you independent?

A: No, we are independent.

Abu Yahia al-Hamawi, Ahrar al-Sham’s New Leader

by Aron Lund, editor of Syria in Crisis

or, Mohannad al-Masri

Abu Yahia al-Hamawi Source: @ALAMAWI

The Syrian Islamist group known as Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement, which is one of the biggest armed groups in the country, has elected a new leader: Abu Yahia al-Hamawi.

Founded in 2011, Ahrar al-Sham was first led by Hassane Abboud, who also used the alias Abu Abdullah al-Hamawi. Like most of the group’s leaders, he was a former inmate of the ”Islamist wing” of the Syrian government’s main political prison in Seidnaia, north of Damascus. According to one piece of not-necessarily-accurate information, Abboud was held in jail—not necessarily in Seidnaia all of the time—between 2004 and 2011 on charges of having links to salafi-jihadi groups; other sources say 2007-2011.

Many of these Islamist prisoners were released early on in the uprising by presidential amnesty, a hotly debated decision. The amnestied prisoners formed several different armed groups in 2011 and began connecting with relatives, older Islamist sleeper cells from inside or outside prison, a number of exiles who fled the anti-Islamist crackdown of the 1980s, as well as foreign Islamists and jihadi figures, in order to create a Syria-wide armed movement.

The resulting  faction, known then as the Ahrar al-Sham Battalions, took shape in the Idleb-Hama region of northwestern Syria, where many of its leaders were born and where the group remains strongest today. Abboud, for example, reportedly hailed from Khirbet Naqous in the Ghab Plains area, which juts up from western Hama into Idleb. The group then grew step by step, by gobbling up smaller factions looking for protection and leadership, as well as by reconnecting with old Seidnaia cellmates who had independently set up their own movements in other provinces (such as the Aleppo-based Fajr al-Islam faction created by Abu Hamza and Abu Yazen, both of whom died in 2014). Having expanded its network to most of Syria, albeit still weak in the east and south, the group took its current name after a major series of mergers in spring 2013.

On September 9, 2014, most of Ahrar al-Sham’s first generation of leaders were killed in an explosion in an underground site near Ras Hamdan in the Idleb Province, where they had gathered for a top-level meeting. The causes of the explosion remain unknown. There have been suggestions of it being set off by accident (since the Ras Hamdan site reportedly also contained a bomb factory), or by a suicide bomber, or by internal treachery on behalf of a foreign government, the so called Islamic State, or even al-Qaeda, but it is all speculation. Ahrar al-Sham leaders interviewed about the event have refused to comment except by saying that an investigation is in progress.

Abu Jaber and the 2014 Leadership

Abboud and most of his lieutenants were among the dead and many, me included, expected the group to be dramatically weakened and perhaps to split. But it somehow defied expectations and bounced back impressively.

Immediately after the explosion, surviving members of the Ahrar al-Sham Shoura Council gathered to quickly elect a new team of leaders leaders, including a number of formerly second-tier commanders and recent affiliates.

As their new head—Ahrar al-Sham prefers the term “general leader,” or qaid ‘amm, over “emir”—the Shoura Council appointed Hashem al-Sheikh. Also known by the alises Abu Jaber al-Maskani and Abu Jaber al-Sheikh, he was not from either Idleb or Hama. Rather, he came from the currently Islamic State-occupied town of Maskanah, east of Aleppo, where he had run a small group known as the Moussaab bin Omeir Battalion until it was absorbed into Ahrar al-Sham in 2013. Abu Jaber, too, was a former Seidnaia prisoner, held by the regime from 2005 to 2011, allegedly for helping to transfer foreign fighters to the Islamist insurgents in Iraq.

Abu Jaber and the new leadership held the group together over the following year and—thanks in large part, it would appear, to increased support from Turkey and Qatar—even managed to expand its influence.

Meanwhile, the group continued to try to moderate its political position, stepping back from the hardline, jihadi-inflected salafism that had colored its rhetoric from the first public statements in 2012 until early 2014. The change in tune (whether it is also a change in actual content is a matter of some dispute) began already in spring 2014, before the death of the old leadership. It seems to have been triggered by the onset of two crises at once:

First, Qatar reportedly stopped much of its support for the group after U.S. pressures and as part of attempts to reorganize the rebellion via a new Military Operations Center in Turkey. This wreaked havoc with Ahrar al-Sham finances and left it in a weak negotiating position vis-à-vis foreign sponsors.

Second, Ahrar al-Sham (and other groups) entered into battle against the Islamic State, thereby forcing it to grapple seriously with the problem of jihadi ultra-extremism and to redefine Ahrar al-Sham’s own identity in opposition to it. Some, such as the above-mentioned Abu Yazen al-Shami, who was an influential ideologue until his death in the September 2014 explosion, even began to publicly apologize and distance themselves from their past as salafi-jihadi hardliners.

The ensuing series of ideological revisions, some seemingly heartfelt but others surely opportunistic, are still ongoing today. The cooptation of less hardline Islamist factions in the autumn and winter of 2014 may further have strengthened the ”doves” within Ahrar al-Sham, but with the group’s internal politics so secretive that no one can really claim to know for sure.

At any rate, Ahrar al-Sham’s public rhetoric has continued to move in the direction of the pragmatics, with anti-Islamic State editorials aiming to appease the West recently published in the Washington Post and the Daily Telegraph by its new foreign-relations official Labib Nahhas (Abu Ezzeddine al-Ansari, from Homs, whose Haqq Brigade faction joined Ahrar al-Sham only in December 2014). Ahrar al-Sham also, to the consternation of some more hardline members, also welcomed the Turkish intervention in northern Syria.

Some now claim that the group’s internal tensions have taken on an institutional character, with hardliners stronger in the Military and Sharia Offices elected in 2014 (headed by Abu Saleh Tahhan, from Idleb, and the Syrian-Kurdish salafi scholar Abu Mohammed al-Sadeq, respectively) while the Political Office (led at first, after the 2014 explosion, by the Islamist intellectual Jaber al-Halloul, who later resigned and was replaced by Sheikh Abu Abderrahman—not to be confused with Abu Abderrahman al-Souri alias Mohammed Talal Bazerbashi, who is another prominent leader of the group—and, yes, this is an unacceptably long parenthesis) has promoted a program of ideological pragmatism and collaboration with Western-backed rebels.

Abu Jaber al-Maskani Steps Down

Abu Jaber’s appointment as Ahrar al-Sham leader was only set to last for one year. He could have opted to run for reelection, but he declined, said the Ahrar al-Sham spokesperson Ahmed Qara Ali when I contacted him earlier today: ”As his term ended, brother Hashem al-Sheikh refused to extend his term, since he wanted to allow for new blood to be pumped into the leadership.”

Internal campaigning to succeed Abu Jaber has been going on for a while and it has apparently been quite fierce, at least partly due to the ideological tensions within the group.

According to a source close to Ahrar al-Sham, the victorious Abu Yahia al-Hamawi had squared off in a fierce internal debate against other contenders—most prominently Abu Ali al-Sahel, but there were others, too, including, apparently, an Abu Amer, of whom I know nothing more. Charles Lister also names Abu Azzam al-Ansari, head of the former Liwa al-Haqq contingent from Homs, Abu Abderrahman al-Shami, and Abu [Ammar?] Taftanaz.

However, according to Ahmed Qara Ali, Abu Yahia was elected ”by consensus.” When I ask about other contenders, he insists that ”the Shoura Council session was a closed meeting and brother Abu Yahia was elected by consensus, as has been publicly announced.”

My other source—who says he is not a member of the group and whose information I cannot confirm—insists that there was ”kind of a vote, but only inside the Shoura Council.” He says that there has been a longstanding factional debate inside the group, and since it was inconclusive, the Shoura Council initially tried to convince Abu Jaber to extend his mandate. When that failed, ”finally, they chose this person, as he is not a strong man, so he does not represent either side.”

The New Leader: A Preliminary Biography

Abu Yahia al-Hamawi is the alias of Mohannad al-Masri, a Syrian citizen born in 1981. (He has also been called Abu Yahia al-Ghab and presumably a number of other things.) He is a civil engineer by training, who studied at Tishreen University in Latakia City before the uprising. At Tishreen, as it happens, he became friends with Hadi al-Abdullah, who would after 2011 emerge as one of the most famous media activists in the Syrian opposition.

Qalaat al-Madiq in 2005 - Photo: Aron Lund

Qalaat al-Madiq in 2005 – Photo: Aron Lund

Like Abboud and so many other early Ahrar leaders, Abu Yahia is also a son of the Ghab Plains. According to the senior Ahrar al-Sham leader Khaled Abu Anas—who is himself from Saraqeb in the Idleb area—Abu Yahia hails from Qalaat al-Madiq. This Sunni Arab community of some 80,000-100,000 inhabitants (before the war) lies next to the famous Roman ruins of Apamea, a major tourist destination (also before the war…). It is currently in an area fought over by Bashar al-Assad’s government and rebel forces, prominently including Ahrar al-Sham, following the fall of Idleb and Jisr al-Shughour in March, and the town has been badly shelled and bombed.

Abu Yahia is also, unsurprisingly, a former Seidnaia prisoner, first arrested on August 2, 2007. One online source claims he was part of a group of Islamist activists arrested at the same time, which also included ”Abu Abdullah al-Hamawi and Abu Talha,” the former being the nom de guerre of Ahrar al-Sham’s founding leader Hassane Abboud and the latter presumably a reference to Abu Talha al-Makhzoumi, the Ahrar al-Sham military leader who was killed in 2014. Both of them were from nearby villages in the Ghab Plains.

At any rate, Abu Yahia was held in Seidnaia until his release in mid-Arab Spring on March 16, 2011, coinciding almost to the day with the start of the Syrian uprising. At first, he participated in peaceful demonstrations but he soon switched track to help pioneer Syria’s armed uprising and to create Ahrar al-Sham. Hassane Abboud has claimed that the group’s first real armed operations began in the Idleb-Hama area—which is another way of saying the Ghab Plains—around May-June 2011, thus predating the July 2011 announcement of the Free Syrian Army in Turkey.

Along with his associates, then, Abu Yahia began to organize armed ambushes for the government. He became the leader of the Osama bin Zeid Company, a small armed group based in and around his hometown of Qalaat al-Madiq. According to Ahmed Qara Ali, this was the first armed group working under the Ahrar al-Sham banner.

Abu Yahia then moved on to command the Osama bin Zeid Company’s parent group, the Omar ibn al-Khattab Battalion. As the conflict grew, he became the head of an even larger structure, called the Khattab Brigade. (He is seen speaking to Khattab Brigade fighters here, in a January 2014 video release from Ahrar al-Sham.) While in this role, Abu Yahia was appointed to serve as Ahrar al-Sham’s head of operations in rural Hama, which includes the Ghab Plains and is clearly a very important front for the group. He was finally appointed deputy leader under Abu Jaber in 2014—reportedly with special responsibility for security—and has served in this role until now. The Ahrar al-Sham media activist Abul-Yazid Taftanaz also claims that Abu Yahia heads the Central Force that Ahrar al-Sham is establishing in an attempt to reorganize its armed forces, following its merger with the Suqour al-Sham faction earlier in 2015.

Be that as it may, Abu Yahia’s family roots and longstanding leadership role in the Ghab region may well have played a role in his election, since this is currently one of the hottest fronts of the Syrian war. Ahrar al-Sham plays a leading role in the Fath Army coalition that dominates these battles, taking place in and around the hometowns of Ahrar al-Sham’s founders.

A Rebel Group with Real Institutions

Syrians and others will now look for signs of a shift in Ahrar al-Sham’s political line. So what do we know about his politics? Almost nothing.

A Twitter account that Abu Yahia started in 2013 (it hasn’t been active since April this year) mostly contains retweets of sayings and statements by senior Ahrar al-Sham figures or independent Islamists such as Abdulaziz al-Tareifi, an influential salafi scholar in Saudi Arabia. But there are also some 140-character quips by Abu Yahia himself, such as this one: ”If our project is a project of the Umma, then our jihad must by necessity also be a jihad of the Umma; an Umma whose jihad is led by an elite that will not restrict the jihad to the elite alone.” (For context, see the bottom of this post.)

More information is likely to filter out in the coming weeks, but according to Charles Lister, who regularly meets with Ahrar al-Sham leaders and has excellent insights into the group, Abu Yahia “played a lead role in developing the group’s new political ‘discourse’ of reaching out to West, including the US.”

As for my above-cited anonymous source—the one close to but not inside Ahrar al-Sham—Abu Yahia’s political priorities are not likely to be significantly different from those of Abu Jaber. And perhaps it would not matter anyway. According to this source, ”the problem with Ahrar’s structure is that the leader has limited authority. It’s the exact opposite of the Islam Army, where Zahran has the ultimate say, even though both have a Shoura Council.”

While this might indeed be a problem for Ahrar al-Sham, for example by slowing-down its command structure and policymaking, the level of institutionalization achieved by the group is also a major asset. Diplomats and others who are in contact with its leadership report that Ahrar al-Sham seems well structured, even at times disturbingly bureaucratic, to the extent that it is capable of pulling out a file on every past meeting with notes on exactly who was there and what was said by whom. Most of the Free Syrian Army militias in Syria could only dream of that level of organization. It is surely also what kept Ahrar al-Sham alive after the loss of most of its top-ranking leadership in September 2014, a blow so serious that few other groups could have survived it.

Abu Jaber seems to have bowed out gracefully. He has announced his resignation and the appointment of Abu Yahia on his personal Twitter account, commenting that ”the soldiers of Ahrar al-Sham are brought up to cling to the project rather than clinging to personalities. Whether moving from soldier to leader or from leader to soldier, all work under the same ceiling, which is obedience to God.” He is now being roundly praised by Ahrar al-Sham activists and supporters online for not clinging to office, as is the norm in Syrian rebel groups.

So far, then, the leadership change—Ahrar’s second in one year—seems to have gone very smoothly. Whether it will help solve the group’s internal contradictions remains to be seen. In terms of both ideology and alliances, Ahrar al-Sham still has one foot among the foreign-backed militias that depend on the largesse of Gulf Arab or Turkish sponsors, and must therefore do their bidding, and another in the hardline salafist camp that refuses to take instructions and gravitates towards al-Qaeda.

While the focus is now on the public replacement of Abu Jaber, and on the new leader Abu Yahia, the group’s rank and file is likely remain torn between these contradictory instincts. Ahmed Qara Ali says there are no new elections planned at the moment—for the political, military, media, organizational, etc, sub-offices—but at some point, Ahrar al-Sham will have to come down on one side or the other of the political gulf that it has tried to straddle since 2011.

— Aron Lund, editor of Syria in Crisis

The Plight of Syria’s Druze Minority and U.S. Options

Waleed Rikab 1by Waleed Rikab

With the ethnic cleansing of the Yazidis in recent hindsight, how can the U.S. help prepare for a similar existential threat to Sweida’s Druze?

The Druze minority in Syria has been in the news quite a bit recently. In July, al-Qaeda’s affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) executed over twenty Druze villagers in Idlib. Just this month (Sept. 2015), Sheikh Waheed Balous was assassinated in Sweida, the mountainous “capital” of Syria’s Druze. Balous was critical of Bashar al-Assad’s regime for its corruption and for failing to protect the Druze from extremists.

Most Druze in Syria live in the province of Sweida which has traditionally been a regime stronghold but is now surrounded by rebel militias. A smaller number of the adherents of this religion also reside in Idlib province, where they have been forcibly converted to Sunni Islam under JN rule.

Following the assassination of Sheikh Balous, open resentment toward the regime has engulfed Sweida. All the same, the Druze are unlikely to join the rebels or break their alliance with the Assad regime. They do not want to see an evacuation of regime forces from the province.

The province is not within what Assad views as his heartland, although it is important for the protection of Damascus. Assad may redeploy forces away from the province if pressured in the capital or on the coastal region. His forces have suffered a number of recent defeats, and with ongoing attrition, many speculate that he will eventually have to pull out of the Sweida region. Such a pattern has been repeatedly witnessed in eastern, northern, and southern Syria. Today, most regime and allied forces have been pulled back to the areas where most Syrians live—the major western cities and the coast—defending smaller but strategic portions of what used to be the Syrian Arab Republic.

On the other hand, in the calculus of rebel factions, the geography of the mountainous Sweida region and its proximity to the capital may prove crucial to threatening Bashar’s grip over the capital.

These scenarios, which in the end will lead to battles for control of Sweida with or without a regime presence, should be the real issue, regardless of the immediate consequences of the assassination, calling into question the prospects of the Druze minority, which seems marked by strategic inferiority compared to potential rivals, mainly due to low military capabilities in the form of its newly established local militias. These militias were formed as an attempt to protect the Druze population amid a background of several attacks by JN and ISIS in the Sweida area.

An image of Druze men from the 10th issue of IS' Dabiq magazine, with a caption disparaging them

An image of Druze men from the 10th issue of IS’ Dabiq magazine, with a caption disparaging them: “The wretched Druze, an apostate sect under the protection of the Jawlani front”

The tenants of the Druze faith, for example the transmigration of souls, worship of saints, and the rejection of the pillars of Islamic orthopraxy, will make any peaceful life under hardline Sunni rule all but impossible. In this regard, JN and the Islamic State appear to only disagree over tactics, and not the essence of their ideology.

A recent issue of IS’s mouthpiece, Dabiq magazine, had this to say on the way Druze should be treated, quoting the medieval Islamic scholar Ibn Tamiyyah (issue 10, p. 9):

“They are not at the level of Ahlul-Kitāb (people of the book, meaning Jews and Christians) nor the mushrikīn (apostates). Rather, they are from the most deviant kuffār (infidels)… Their women can be taken as slaves and their property can be seized. They are apostate heretics whose repentance cannot be accepted. Rather they are to be killed wherever they are found and cursed as they were described… It is obligatory to kill their scholars and religious figures so that they do not misguide others.

These statements obviously echo the IS treatment of the Yazidi minority in Iraq, which has suffered the full brunt of the Islamic State’s dark ideology and remains dispersed and shattered to this day.

Both faiths are considered beyond heretical by IS and it uses the same justification for its intended annihilation of the Yazidis and Druze. For instance, an earlier issue of Dabiq justified the atrocities against the Yazidis, including the reintroduction of slavery, saying:

“The Islamic State dealt with this group as the majority of fuqahā’ (scholars) have indicated how mushrikīn should be dealt with. Unlike the Jews and Christians, there was no room for jizyah payment. Also, their women could be enslaved unlike female apostates who the majority of the fuqahā’ say cannot be enslaved and can only be given an ultimatum to repent or face the sword. After capture, the Yazidi women and children were then divided according to the Sharī’ah amongst the fighters of the Islamic State who participated in the Sinjar operations, after one fifth of the slaves were transferred to the Islamic State’s authority…”

JN, on the other hand, will suffice itself with coerced conversions to Sunni Islam and the desecration of places of worship, which has been already been witnessed in Idlib and was clearly stated in JN leader al-Jolani’s interview with Al-Jazeera in May 2015, on the occasion of JN’s and Ahrar al-Sham’s gains in northern Syria.

The contradicting military efforts of the regime, JN, IS, Ahrar al-Sham, and the Southern Front are bound to reach Sweida province sooner or later, with each faction trying to deny the others any gains. Bashar will most likely abandon the province, given the current trajectory of the conflict and his distress in Damascus and the areas adjacent to coastal regions and the border with Lebanon. Such a scenario may allow the entry of forces from the relatively moderate and Jordan-backed Southern Front, but will also enable the entrance of JN and IS. However, even if the Southern Front enters the province, a settling of old accounts with Bashar’s supporters is to be expected, owing to the high numbers of regime-aligned parties in Sweida. Such control is also likely to be severely contested by the Islamist factions. Regrettably, the Druze minority’s entry into the turmoil of armed conflict and possible atrocities is just a matter of time.

How the U.S. Can Prepare

Syrian Druze preserve a unique and rich religious cultural heritage; the same cultural heritage that IS is systematically destroying in Iraq and Syria. Men, women, children, and beautiful places of worship, cannot be brought back once they fall into the hands of the chauvinistic ideology of IS and JN.  The U.S. is currently waging a campaign aimed at containing and disrupting Islamic State and al-Qaeda expansion in Iraq and Syria. It attempted to assist the Yazidis when their lands where attacked, albeit too late to prevent mass killings and enslavement. A quick reaction force or a U.S. contingency plan might possibly have saved thousands of lives.

Together with allies in the region, Jordan for example, the U.S. should now start working on local coordination with elements in the Druze community, applying lessons learned from the successful coordination of military tactics and aid with the YPG in northern Syria – the only model that has proven capable of protecting territories in the Iraqi and Syrian theaters – before it is too late. Such engagement would likely also deprive the Assad regime the support of the Druze community, which seems reluctant to openly disavow him only for lack of better options and out of a need for self-preservation.

Waleed Rikab, a former intelligence officer, heads the Strategic Research Department at Terrogence, a privately-owned counter-terrorism and risk assessment company

The Doha Congress: Negotiating a Return of the Iraqi Baath Party?

by Aron Lund, editor of Syria in Crisis

Although little noticed in the international media, Iraqi politics have been unusally stormy these past days, ever since it was revealed that Qatar would host a conference for ”Iraqi reconciliation.” With all involved well attuned to the dog-whistle rhetoric of Iraqi politics, this was universally understood to mean ”Sunni Arab Iraqi reconciliation.”

Much of the Shia press and political landscape in Iraq reacted with outrage. These voices grew even angrier as speculation intensified about who would attend. When the meetings began in Doha on September 2, Iraqi debate collapsed in a roaring pandemonium of threats and accusations against those Sunni politicians who had dared travel to Qatar.

While details remain scarce, it seems clear that the Doha Congress was directly backed by the Qatari government. This was quite enough to anger Iraqi Shia politicians, many of whom subscribe to the idea that no foreign state should ever be allowed to interfere in Iraqi politics unless it fulfills the stringent requirement of also having a four-letter name that begins with I-R-A. To make matters worse, the attendees weren’t just the usual mix of Gulf-friendly Sunni tribal figures, party leaders, and elected officials. This time, the meeting included a generous sprinkling of wanted fugitives and others with links to banned militant groups that have waged war on the Iraqi government for more than a decade.

According to the Qatar-funded newspaper al-Arabi al-Jadid, the three main factions invited were (1) elected Sunni Arab officials from Iraq, (2) people linked to the formerly powerful Islamist insurgent faction known as the Islamic Army, and (3) the Iraqi Baath Party. Which is probably where the real controversy starts.

Unrepentant Insurgents

Specifically, this is about the Baath Party wing led by Saddam Hussein’s former deputy Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri—the “King of Clubs,” if you still recall that silly-but-effective American propaganda stunt from 2003. Having operated underground since 2003, he has repeatedly been declared dead, only to pop right back up like a murderous Jack-in-the-Box and continue the war. Most recently, he died in April 2015.

With the Baath Party having gone underground to turn itself into a guerrilla group in 2003, Douri is nowadays better known as the driving force behind the so called Naqshbandi Army, a Baathist front organization that has been killing Iraqi soldiers for years. The Naqshbandi Army was an active participant in the wave of violence that engulfed most of Iraq’s Sunni areas in 2014—a wave unleashed partly in response, it must be said, to years of sectarian discrimination and misrule by the Iran-backed Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. While the Baathists were never formally allied with the Islamic State, there certainly existed a measure of tacit cooperation against their common enemies—the governments of Iraq, Iran, the USA, the Kurdistan Regional Government, etc. Izzat al-Douri only broke ranks with the Islamic State after the latter had solidified control across Sunni Iraq and began purging, torturing, and killing all fellow travelers who would not submit to its ”caliphate”. At that point, the rather few remaining Naqshbandi/Baath fighters found themselves forced to adjust their rhetoric in search of international sponsorship. (Judging by their effusive praise for Qatar these days, they seem to have found it.)

Of course, any dealings with the Baath Party is a criminal offense in Iraq and this creates serious risks for Sunni officials interested in meeting its representatives. When it turned out that the Iraqi Speaker of Parliament and Muslim Brotherhood member Salim al-Jabbouri was going to be in Doha on September 2, all hell broke lose. Shia politicians of all stripes, but particularly some of the more unhinged sectarians close to Iran, unleashed a firestorm of condemnation. Claims of high treason were among the milder charges leveled at Jabbouri and his group.

Former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki thundered that the Doha Congress was part of a plan to ”split Iraq along sectarian lines.” Maliki’s ally Khalaf Abdessamad—who is parliamentary whip of the Islamic Daawa Party, members of which have headed the Iraqi cabinet for ten years straight—fumed with loquacious rage: ”the enemies of Iraq are once again, with the support of the nursers of sedition and the funders of terror and extremism, organizing their meeting in Qatar, which has shown that it is an enemy of the Iraqi people.” He then demanded that all participants in the Doha Congress should be fired from their jobs and kicked out of parliament and said that the Islamic Daawa Party is canvassing parliamentarians to make that happen. (One claimed on September 3 that more than one hundred parliamentary signatures calling for the ouster of Jabbouri have already been gathered.)

Jabbouri and other politicians who were actually or allegedly en route to Qatar quickly began to backpedal, fumbling forth all manners of unlikely explanations for why they had found it so important to fly off on a quick jaunt to Doha on that particular date. Jabbouri’s group deplored that certain not-to-be-named irresponsible politicians were trying to confuse Iraqis about the purpose of their trip, which was simply to meet Qatar’s prime minister and talk about, um, uh, things. Jabbouri insisted that his group had not been in any meetings with other Iraqis while in the country.

Perhaps to defuse tension or to prod supposed partners into action, Qatar also let it be known that the conference had been coordinated with the office of the prime minister in Baghdad, Haider al-Abadi. This didn’t particularly help. Since the eruption of major popular protest in Iraq this summer, Abadi is locked in struggle with a number of other political currents, prime among them the pro-Iranian militia radicals and his predecessor Nouri al-Maliki. Once these groups spotted an opportunity to portray the prime minister as a Baathist-lover, they had all the more reason to ramp up their anti-Doha rhetoric. Whether out of compulsion or conviction, Abadi finally broke his silence to condemn the Doha Congress as a breach of Iraqi sovereignty.

Baathists, Gulf Ambassadors, and the United Nations

On September 5, the Baathist website Dhi Qarr issued a statement from Khodeir al-Morshidi, a (rare) Shia member of the Baath who has acted as its spokesperson. Morshidi explained that the party had indeed sent a formal delegation to ”brotherly Qatar in response to its generous invitation.”

Accounts in al-Arabi al-Jadid had been circumspect about the exact nature of the ”Gulf cover and international patronage” that enabled the conference, but the Baath Party—or Morshidi at any rate—emptied a bucketful of names on the table for all to see. By his account, the meeting was held as a discussion between two delegations, Iraqis and foreigners:

On the one hand, there was a delegation from the Baath Arab Socialist Party in Iraq along with a number of national Iraqi personalities who are opposed to the political process and the Iranian intervention and influence. On the other hand, there was the Qatari foreign minister and ambassadors of several states in the Gulf Cooperation Council—including the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait—as well as the Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary General in Iraq and his deputy.

True? Apparently. U.N. Special Representative Ján Kubiš was present in Doha at the right dates, hanging out with Iraqi Sunni leaders at

a significant meeting that took place on 2 September in the Qatari capital, Doha, between many different Iraqi Sunni groups. The meeting was opened by the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Qatar, Mr. Khalid bin Mohammad al-Attiyah. Official representatives of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates were also in attendance.

To have a delegation from Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party sitting in a room with the Gulf States and the United Nations is progress to some Iraqis, but it is outrageous to others. When something like this was last tried, in Amman in 2014, Baghdad was livid with anger and the United States seemed similarly distressed.

Khodeir al-Morshidi claims the Baath now wants a non-sectarian Iraq and a multiparty democracy, but even if this represented a genuine change of heart—of course it doesn’t—most of Iraq’s Shia Arabs and Kurds would hardly be moved to embrace their former oppressor. In the 1980s and 1990s, Izzat al-Douri and Saddam’s other lieutenants slaughtered tens of thousands of Iraqis and the wounds of that era have never healed. The mass graves continue to be unearthed today, even as the Islamic State is busily digging new ones.

As if that’s not enough, Iranian state media is fanning the flames. Iran lost tens of thousands of its own citizens to Saddam Hussein’s army, missiles strikes, and nerve gas attacks during the 1980-1988 war. For Iran, it is also a straightforward national security issue, irrespective of painful memories and sectarian calculations: Tehran has worked hard to set up a pro-Iranian order in Baghdad since 2003. It is naturally unwilling to accept a resurgence of anti-Iranian forces with or without the Baathists, especially one backed by its arch-enemies on the Arabian Peninsula.

Insurgents vs. Politicians

But Iraqi and Iranian Shia outrage is just part of the story. The Doha Congress in fact sparked two different controversies, the other one among the Sunni attendees.

While many Iraqi Sunnis, such as Jabbouri, have accepted to work in post-2003 politics despite feeling that the system is rigged against them, others have refused to accept that the current government is in any way legitimate. For many of the rebels who are still fighting thirteen years after the American invasion, Sunnis who have allowed themselves to be elected to parliament are at best weak and corrupt but more likely traitors. This is exactly the problem that the Doha Congress was intended to overcome, or start overcoming, but it seems easier said than done.

Even as Jabbouri is at pains to deny meeting with any active insurgents in Doha, those insurgents are just as sensitive to the accusation of having met with him. Their constituency isn’t just Sunni Arabs in general: it is the hardliners who fight, fund, and favor armed struggle against the current political system, a system of which Jabbouri is a prominent member.

Thus, Khodeir al-Morshidi had no problem acknowledging that the Baath delegation met with Gulf Arab ambassadors (”in an atmosphere of brotherhood and mutual understanding,” etc) or the United Nations. But when it came to Jabbouri and others working in legal Iraqi politics, he reverted to the insult-laden rhetorical drone so dear to Baathists everywhere:

We must confirm, contrary to the malicious fabrications and calculated dissimulations put out by certain actors and media organizations, that the meeting was not attended by any of the participants in the political process or the Green Zone government, as they claim. The Party exempted itself from any [separate] meeting with those of them that happened to be present in brotherly Qatar at the time, and neither did the Party seek to attend any meeting with any representative or participant in the political process—those whom the people have rejected and for whose downfall it calls while asking for the trial of the corrupt, thieving, and treacherous among them.

Once you have waved away the smoke puff of angry denials, what remains is the fact that a Baath Party delegation met with the Qatari leadership, which in turn met with Jabbouri, for the purpose of unifying Sunni ranks in Iraq. Whether or not they were ever in the same room is almost beside the point.

Both sides have very good reasons to downplay this. Morshidi and the Baath (assuming he truly speaks for the organization) do not want to give anyone the impression that they’re going soft or that they are about to extend any sort of legitimacy to the Iraqi government. Because of course they would never do that and, besides, they would want something in return.

For his part, Jabbouri is clearly in hot enough water as it is. If he and the Baath both emphasize that he never sat down with what Iraqi law says is a terrorist movement, it could well save him a trial or two in Baghdad. Not that he was going back home just yet. He had one more stop on his trip after non-attending the Doha Congress—and it was, intriguingly enough, Tehran.

Unifying Sunni Ranks

What this all seems to amount to is a regionally-backed attempt to unify all those Iraqi Sunni Arab forces that remain opposed to the Islamic State and get them to endorse a few common demands, thereby paving the way for reconciliation talks with Baghdad. The Doha Congress obviously enjoyed the backing of Qatar, but if these reports are anything to go by, other Gulf states states were also involved, as well as the United Nations. And if we believe that, we must assume that the Doha Congress—Baathists and all—enjoyed at least the tacit acceptance of the United States.

It makes perfect sense, in theory at least. The confusion, the defections, and the contradictory statements that poured out from the Doha Congress, and the virulent reaction from Shia politicians in Iraq, hints that it could perhaps have been a little better prepared, or a lot. But the idea of trying to cultivate some basic unity among Iraq’s Sunni leaders, up to and including those linked to non-Islamic State insurgent factions, is a sound one. Without unity you can wage neither war nor peace, as anyone watching the tragedy unfold in neighboring Syria will have noticed.

What is preventing the defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq is ultimately not a lack of firepower, but rather the dizorganized nature of the coalition fighting the jihadis and—most of all—its inability to produce a Sunni Arab force that could challenge the Islamic State on its home turf. For the war on the Islamic State to succeed, other Iraqi Sunni rejectionists need to be cajoled back into the political game and Iraq’s Sunni Arab leadership as a whole must be empowered to draw opportunistic support away from the extremists. It need not be a very explicit or formal process and it must not involve either side publicly declaring defeat or bowing to the other, but it will involve painful compromises for all involved.

There are a number of problems with such an approach, of course, one being that Iraq’s Sunni leaders all seem to hate each other. But the ferocity of reactions in Baghdad show the other side of the problem. What prevents intra-Sunni reconciliation isn’t only the criminality of the Baath Party leadership or the intransigence of various Islamist guerrillas. It is also the blanket refusal of the Shia Islamist parties ruling Baghdad to countenance the rise of a Sunni Arab bloc that could challenge their hegemony—particularly one that includes ”terrorists.”

In the long run, that is a self-destructive attitude. It is true that Iraq’s official Sunni political groups are lamentably weak and divided—because Sunni elites were first smashed into submission by Saddam Hussein, then weakened and fractured by the United States, then pressured by Shia persecution, then undercut by the rise of the Islamic State. It is also true that those Sunni leaders who are closer to the militants and can sway communities on the ground will often be linked to the former regime or to radical sectarian groups. Some of them are soaked in blood, before and after the 2003 invasion. But this is also true: the Islamic State will not go away until there is a credible alternative for Iraqi Sunni Arabs to rally behind. And in producing that alternative, like it or not, this is what there is to work with.

The Iraqi Sunni leaders that can establish an Islamic State-free order in their own home towns will not be invented by Haider al-Abadi in Baghdad and they aren’t waiting in the wings in Washington, Doha, Riyadh, Amman, Erbil, or Tehran. They will need to come at least in part from the ranks of ex-insurgents and politicians now shunned and persecuted as outlaws for their Baathist, jihadi, or foreign ties—but this is precisely what the current Iraqi regime will not allow.

It is a hellishly difficult equation to solve, perhaps an unsolveable one, where all sides glory in their own victimhood and all are truly victims. But one step in the right direction is surely to try to address the disorganized state of Iraqi Sunni politics. Nothing can be achieved for as long as the Islamic State remains the only game in town for Sunnis in places like Mosul and Falluja, and even in places it hasn’t occupied yet. Overcoming the Baghdad government’s resistance to some form—any form—of compromise with Sunni rejectionists will almost certainly require the intervention of independent Shia leaders like Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani as well as the kingmaker in Iraqi Shia politics, Iran. But with the Islamic State lining up Shia civilians for video-taped slaughter week after week, and with proxy conflict still raging across the Persian Gulf and in Lebanon and Syria, hardliners are likely to keep the upper hand.

Aron Lund
Editor of Syria in Crisis

The Assassination of Sheikh Abu Fahad al-Bal’ous: Context and Analysis

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Last month at this site I profiled the main new Druze militia factions that have emerged in Suwayda province and how they are competing for influence: on the one hand, the clearly pro-Assad Dir’ al-Watan led primarily by Sheikh Jerbo and Nayef al-Aqil, and on the other hand Sheikh Abu Fahad Waheed al-Bal’ous’ faction Rijal al-Karama, whose aim could be characterized in short as critical of the regime but not desiring to overthrow it, seeking instead islah (‘reform’) of the system. Until now, both sides have continued to court locals in various parts of the province in a bid to build support, with Dir’ al-Watan working alongside already existing pro-regime factions in Suwayda such as the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP). The main backers of Rijal al-Karama have been Druze living in Israel and the Golan, though connections with the state of Israel are denied. Neither Rijal al-Karama nor Dir’ al-Watan appears to have given any credibility to Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who has continued to urge the Druze to join the uprising against the regime.

One of the last known media releases featuring Bal’ous (from 1 September), with members of pro-Bal’ous militia Bayraq al-Basha.

On 4 September, a bomb attack in Suwayda assassinated Bal’ous and a number of others, killing more than 25 people. Identifiable names and persons thus far are given below:

1. Sheikh Waheed al-Bal’ous
2. Sheikh Fadi Nu’aim
3. Ali Mas’ud
4. Talal Hassan
5. Anwar al-Warhani
6. Ghazi Zaidan
7. Ahmad Shahoud
8. Badi’ Abu Marra
9. Nizar Khadaj
10. Abir Khadaj
11. Samir Nu’aim
12. Wa’el al-Quntar
13. Jamil Nu’aim
14. Rasha Nu’aim
15. Deyaa’ Nu’aim
16. Muhannad Delal
17. Basil Shaqrani
18. Saher Yunis
19. Nasif Abu Ras
20. Fadi Zain al-Din
21. Fadi Nu’aim’s wife and children
22. Hussein al-Shariti’s wife, her daughter and grandson.
23. Tha’ir Nu’aim

The immediate question raised by the bombings is the identity of the perpetrators. One suspect is clearly the regime and its supporters in Suwayda, many of whom undoubtedly resented Bal’ous and the noticeable growth in his influence over the past few months, as an increasing number of Druze militia groups congregated under his personality and banner, such as Bayraq al-Basha, Bayraq Al Nu’aim (Bayraq al-Nidal) and Bayraq al-Haq. As far as names of the victims go, there can be no doubt the targets were political: that is, aimed at Bal’ous and some of his key followers in the province. Note for instance how many of the names are from the Nu’aim family. Sheikh Fadi Nu’aim in particular is to be noted for his role in Bayraq al-Nidal/Bayraq Al Nu’aim (‘Banner of al-Nidal/the Family of Nu’aim).

Fadi Nu’aim: in my previous article, note his appearance in the photos featuring rallies of Bayraq Al Nu’aim and similar militias.

Fadi Nu’aim in front of his militia’s banner.

However, at the present time, no significant pro-regime personalities in Suwayda are celebrating the bombing, but rather condemning it as a terrorist attack- a clear attempt to cool tensions and prevent fallout. Thus, Sheikh Hamoud al-Hanawi, who is also an important figure involved in Dir’ al-Watan, issued a condemnation, affirming that “the targeting of peaceful innocents comes from the nature of black terrorism that has no homeland and religion and has no affiliation with state and human principles and laws, except the culture of killing and destruction.”

Prior to the bomb attacks, Suwayda has most recently witnessed anti-corruption protests, with anger directed at the governor of Suwayda Atef al-Nadaf, including chants like “The people want the downfall of the governor.” For example, one popular grievance in Suwayda involves corruption in the smuggling of oil and other related products, as well as poor provision of basic commodities and public services like bread and electricity.

From the protests, featuring a placard complaining of bread and electricity provision.

Though none of the protests could be interpreted as truly revolutionary in the sense of wanting to overthrow the regime system itself in Suwayda, the province experienced an Internet blackout that reportedly lasted more than 2 days and a cut-off of electricity for more than 10 hours. This provoked resentment even among some pro-regime Suwayda media outlets, such as ‘Suwayda Pulse’, which wrote on 3 September in a message to government officials and the Suwayda governor:


“What are the reasons for the cutting off of the Internet from Suwayda province for more than 2 days and the cutting off electricity for more than 10 continuous hours after citizens came out in peaceful demonstrations raising the Syrian Arab flag, and their slogan in the sit-in: the bearing of any types of weapons is forbidden?


Were it not for Suwayda, Syria would have been a French colony. Were it not for Suwayda, Syria would have been Da’eshi [i.e. wholly taken over by the Islamic State]. We are with the homeland and with the Syrian Arab Army and under the Syrian Arab flag possessing green eyes. So don’t test the patience of Suwayda because the people of this province are a people of nobility, manhood and hospitality who do not accept humiliation or bowing down to any person, whoever he is. We request that no order be implemented to enrage the citizens and the street in Suwayda because the citizen body has reached the end of its patience and has not been able to re-secure the most basic of things for daily life and livelihood. Was the Internet cut off out of desire to prevent the arrival of photos and the events that happen in the sit-in for expats of the sons of Suwayda province or social media sites? We hope this problem will be resolved as soon as possible with as few losses as possible if God wills.”

Other pro-regime pages whose raison d’etre has been opposition to Bal’ous accused Bal’ous and his followers of orchestrating the demonstrations as part of a prior agreed plan to destroy the regime in Suwayda through collusion with foreign intelligence and Jabhat al-Nusra, as per below (though the page in question, entitled “All of us together against Bal’ous” has since been deleted following on from his assassination). Amusingly, a rather excited professor from King’s College London proclaimed to me in July how the King of Jordan was privately boasting of plans somewhat similar to what this page claims against Bal’ous: that Druze sheikhs had reached an agreement via Jordanian mediation to overthrow regime authority in Suwayda and allow the opposition to take control, which would allow the King to send Syrian refugees in Jordan to Suwayda.


So what next? To begin with, it should be noted that Rijal al-Karama vows to continue operating on the ground. In a statement from the main page representing the faction, the following message was written today:


“The Rijal al-Karama continue. The existence of Rijal al-Karama will not end with the martyrdom of Sheikh Abu Fahad but on the contrary the martyrdom of Abu Fahad will be a more powerful motive for us to continue the route on the path that he outlined for us. And let all know that there are leaders and men who were the strongest support for Sheikh Abu Fahad in his life and they are continuing after him. We ask you not to be rash, to keep Suwayda safe and that we remain under the opinion of the our mashayakh and learned ones in the province. #TheRijalalKaramaRemaining.”

This is to be contrasted with more excited calls and pronouncements from opposition supporters that the ‘revolution’ has somehow come to Suwayda. The groupings aligned with Rijal al-Karama are known by name and so far there is no reliable indicator of calls from Rijal al-Karama and its constituents to overthrow the regime in Suwayda. The foremost problem with envisioning such a goal is that the clearly pro-regime factions in Suwayda are still present and cannot be done away with overnight. Were calls for escalation to come about, it could lead to the worst case scenario of a full-blown, bloody intra-civil war in Suwayda province, leaving the region even more vulnerable to encroachments of the rebels from the west and the Islamic State from the east and north. The situation remains tense, and the regime may be forced to concede even further autonomy to Suwayda province, but one needs to consider what a call to taking up arms and ‘revolution’ would actually mean in this context.

Overview of some pro-Assad Militias

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

At this site I have previously profiled several pro-Assad militias, such as the Muqawama Suriya, the Coastal Shield Brigade and Dir’ al-Watan. Below are profiles of five more pro-Assad militias.

Liwa Suqur al-Quneitra


Emblem of Liwa Suqur al-Quneitra: ‘Quwat Dir’ al-Watan’ (Homeland Shield Forces).

Translating to ‘Quneitra Falcons Brigade’, this formation appears to comprise local pro-Assad militias to support the Syrian army in the remaining regime-held parts of Quneitra governorate, such as al-Ba’ath city. The existence of this force is acknowledged in pro-regime media outlets like Sama TV, issuing reports on the continued defence of al-Ba’ath city against the rebels. The origins of Liwa Suqur al-Quneitra trace back to its most famous ‘martyr’: Fadi al-Haj, also known as Abu Sakhr, depicted in the graphic below.


The pro-regime site ‘Damascus News Network’ gives a profile of him, his two main associates (also deceased), and his Liwa Suqur al-Quneitra in an article published on 21 April 2015:

“Yesterday Fadi al-Haj, his brother Ali, and his comrade Rabi’ al-Khabi departed. They departed after an honourable undertaking of defending the land and honour. Indeed they are martyrs of Popular Defence, Quwat Dir’ al-Watan, Liwa Suqur al-Quneitra […]

In the beginning

They are sons of Quneitra who bore arms since the beginning of the war in Syria and their arms were against all who wanted to enter their villages from all sides, even the state, but then the terrorist threat to the area intensified and terrorist factions entered, supported by Israel. They rejected coordinating and cooperating with them, and asked the Popular Defence leadership to incorporate them into their forces to defend Quneitra.

They participated in all the battles and were at the head of the lance up to the fence of the occupied Golan. They formed Liwa Suqur al-Quneitra and called on the youth of the area to enlist and train to fight. And indeed hundreds joined among fighters and supporters. The Syrian Arab Army leadership armed them with different types of weapons- light and heavy- including anti-tank missiles and rocket launch systems.

Deeds of Liwa Suqur al-Quneitra

The Quneitra Falcons have participated in the war against terrorism in Quneitra governorate. And since they are sons of the land, they have managed to carry out military penetrations within the ranks of the terrorists, and have infiltrated to the hearts of their areas and carried out precise operations.

They have formed a well-fortified fortress around al-Ba’ath city, Khan Arbaneh and the secure zones in Quneitra, and among their military successes:

– Resisting the terrorists’ attack on Tel al-Qab’a from the side of the locality of Ufania.
– Participating in the liberation of the locality of Deir al-Ads in the Quneitra countryside.
– Blowing up and dismantling a number of terrorist sites and bases through intermittent stages in time, according to their expertise in the nature of the land of the battle in all that is the surrounding of the village of Umm Batina, Mashara and Tel Karum- Jaba.
– Destroying the dangerous terrorist Abdo al-Qarfa’i who led a terrorist cell in Kafr Nasij.
– Targeting the terrorist groups on a daily basis in the village of Mashara, the village of al-Hurriya, the village of Shabta, and al-Hamidiya.
– Assaulting the village of al-Ajraf, dismantling and blowing up the terrorists’ dens.
– Resisting the terrorist groups’ attack and destroying their vehicles in al-Hamidiya.
– Seizing weapons’ caches and ammo including American-made anti-tank missiles.
– Seizing the village of Rasm al-Baghal in the Quneitra countryside.
– And yesterday they resisted a great terrorist attack on al-Ba’ath city, routed and caught the attackers in a counter-attack on their dens in the locality of al-Samdaniya al-Gharbiya, aided by all of artillery, missiles and tanks.”

In this Liwa Suqur al-Quneitra video, the group’s insignia can be seen on the vehicle.


The above photo is of Muhammad Haymoud, announced as a ‘martyr’ for Liwa Suqur al-Quneitra on 31 July 2015. The story of his death according to Liwa Suqur al-Quneitra in a post dated 2 August 2015 is most interesting: “He was killed at the hand of an armed group from the Ba’ath Brigades [another pro-Assad militia] as the group set up a treacherous ambush while he was moving from Khan Arnabeh to al-Ba’ath city when the group struck his car with two RPG rounds and after that light gunfire on his car in front of the eyes of the people. Although a number of people tried to provide first aid to the martyr, it was not long before he stammered that live gunfire was unleashed on these people, forcing them to move away. And the leader of the group is called Jaber al-Khalid and his brothers. This is the truth of the assassination of the heroic martyr.”

The fighting in Quneitra province remains at an overall stalemate as rebel forces including Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham fail to take any more regime-held areas, including most notably the staunchly pro-Assad Druze village of Hadr. Local support for the regime arguably remains the most crucial factor in holding back the rebels. At the same time, the regime lacks offensive capability here even when backed by foreign forces, as was the case with the failed Deraa-Quneitra offensive earlier this year that featured heavy involvement from Iranian-backed militias including the Afghan Shi’a Liwa al-Fatemiyoun and the Iraqi Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada’.

Liwa al-Quds


Liwa al-Quds Emblem

Liwa al-Quds- ‘The Jerusalem Brigade’- is a Palestinian Syrian pro-regime militia operating in the Aleppo area. The pro-regime site al-Hadath News explains in a profile from March 2015:

“A new organization has appeared alongside the Syrian army in Aleppo fighting the armed takfiris, for after the entry of Hezbollah onto the line of  battle and the appearance of ‘Quwat al-Ridha‘, which is considered the core of Syrian Hezbollah, in addition to the National Defence Forces and the Iraqi military formations, a Palestinian faction has appeared fighting under the banner of the Syrian state.

Information indicates that the new formation adopted the name of the Palestinian capital al-Quds as its banner, while it is formed of Palestinian fighters who have lived and live in Syria, having expressed their support for the Syrian state and its army.

The formation, which was established in October 2013 by the engineer ‘Muhammad al-Sa’id’ who is considered its real leader, held the bond of silence and thus its activities were not advertised in media, until the recent battles of north Aleppo countryside where an important military role for them became apparent. This is also clear on the ‘al-Nayrab’ camp front where through frontline duty the formation’s fighters face the takfiri fighters who are besieging the Palestinian camp.

The formation’s fighters who call themselves the ‘Syrian Arab Army Fedayeen’ are distributed on the periphery of the camp and south of al-Nayrab military and civil airport. They are also present in Aziza village, Sheikh Latfi, and around the Air Intelligence building and the Greatest Messenger mosque. They are also greatly active as a strong force on the first al-Rashadeen front ablaze in west Aleppo. This front is considered among the most dangerous and difficult fronts, with protection of this front entrusted entirely to Liwa al-Quds.

In addition to these fronts, the brigade is present in the village of Haylan, and west of Aleppo central prison, around Handarat camp, and in a number of areas south and east of Aleppo, as well as in Jama’ia al-Jud south of the two besieged villages of Nubl and Zahara.

The brigade is composed of three main battalions, which are: Lions of al-Quds Battalion, which operates in al-Nayrab camp and its surrounding as well as in southern and eastern countryside; the Deterrence Battalion, which operates in the north Aleppo countryside south of the villages of Nubl and Zahara; and the Lions of al-Shahba’ Battalion, which operates on the fighting fronts inside Aleppo city.

According to information, among the brigade’s successes are protecting al-Nayrab camp, ‘the only camp that has not been penetrated’, protecting the civilian and military airport, as well as the missiles base south of the camp. And on the walls of the camp the victories of ‘Liwa al-Tawheed’ have been broken and its defeat has begun.

A commander in the brigade estimates the number of wounded since the beginning of the events at more than 400, and the number of martyrs at more than 200, the majority of whom have fallen on the blazing fighting fronts, which are considered to be the air intelligence building front as the most prominent. Meanwhile he estimates the number of battles Liwa al-Quds members have waged alongside the Syrian Arab Army since its establishment until now at more than 140 battles.”

To be sure, pro-regime militia activity in the al-Nayrab camp was not unknown before the formation of Liwa al-Quds. Already the familiar Popular Committees had taken root there, with the first ‘martyr’ reportedly being Hussein al-Masri, who was killed on 26 September 2012. In any case, a number of ‘martyrs’ have been advertised officially by Liwa al-Quds, as per the photos below.

Omar Qarmazi, whose death was announced in August 2015. He died of his wounds from fighting in the Zahara’ area.

Kamal Yusuf As’ad, originally of the al-Raml camp in Latakia: his death was announced in June 2015. Before dying in Mahambal in Idlib province, he most notably fought on the Handarat front.

Muhammad Nadhir al-Junaid, who died on 29 May 2015 apparently from drowning in tidal waves in Latakia, where he had been dispatched on assignment by the leader of Liwa al-Quds. He had previously fought on the first al-Rashadeen front.

Nu’aim Muhammad Dib bin Taha, who died fighting on the Zahara front. Two of his brothers (Muhammad and Basil) died fighting for the Syrian army in the Aleppo area.

Ahmad Khalid Dirbas: killed in July 2015. Note his Liwa al-Quds insignia.

Besides military operations, Liwa al-Quds also engages in social outreach and offers military training sessions. On the former, from May 2015, note the invitation below to attend the final of a soccer tournament in the Nayrab camp.

“In relation to Martyrs Day on 6 May, under the supervision of Liwa al-Quds, we invite you to the final round of the al-Nayrab Camp Youth Heroes Soccer Cup : Liwa al-Quds vs. Palestine Stars. And that will take place in the Youth stadium (al-Nabhan) on Monday 25 May, at 6 p.m. General Invitation. The Media Office.”

As for military training, note the advertisement below put out by Liwa al-Quds in April 2015.

“The Liwa al-Quds leadership announces the opening of a military session: physical fitness, military tactics, martial arts and self-defence, blitz. The length of the training session is 30 days. All who wish to register from age 15 and above should head to the Liwa al-Quds base in the al-Nayrab camp and register from 6 p.m. till 9 p.m., beginning from Wednesday 24 April. All who are subjected to the session of the blitz teacher should head to the Liwa al-Quds base.”

Jaysh al-Tahrir al-Falastini

Emblem of Jaysh al-Tahrir al-Falastini. On top: “Martyrdom or Victory.”

Jaysh al-Tahrir al-Falastini is the ‘Palestinian Liberation Army.’ This militia in Syria is led by one Muhammad Tariq al-Khadra’, who characterizes the civil war in Syria as follows: “The vicious barbaric international conspiracy against Syria and the Arab nation aims to redivide and repartition this nation to form weak madhhabist, sectarian and racist entities in conflict with each other, to justify the establishment of the racist entity on the Jewish foundations of the Zionist state, dominating over the Arab nation.”

Jaysh al-Tahrir al-Falastini has fought in a variety of engagements over the years, such as in Adra in the Damascus area and more recently (April 2015) in northern Suwayda province, where the group lost 13 fighters. Other recent battles include Darayya in the Damascus area, Tel al-Sawan on the peripheries of Douma in the Damascus area, the siege of Moadhamiya al-Sham, and perhaps most controversially, the ongoing assault on rebel-held Zabadani, as per the screenshot from the video below.

“From the heart of Zabadani: the road of al-Quds. The Men of Jaysh al-Tahrir al-Falastini.”

Indeed, Jaysh al-Tahrir al-Falastini claimed last month a ‘martyr’ in the Zabadani battles: Muhammad Ali Saba’i, originally of the Handarat refugee camp of Aleppo province. In total, according to the same report, an opposition advocacy group for Palestinians in Syria has documented 142 Jaysh al-Tahrir al-Falastini ‘martyrs’ in Syria.

Nusur al-Zawba’a

Emblem of Nusur al-Zawba’a

Nusur al-Zawba’a translates as ‘The Whirlwind’s Eagles’, referring to the whirlwind/vortex logo of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP). Of all the militias documented here, Nusur al-Zawba’a seems to have fought in the largest number of engagements, spanning the range of western Syria. The SSNP’s involvement in the Syrian civil war has already been documented to a considerable extent before. For instance, the SSNP has built noteworthy support bases in Homs’ Old City, the Christian villages of Wadi al-Nasara area and Latakia. It also works alongside other pro-regime factions in Suwayda province. This is so even as strictly speaking, the SSNP’s Greater Syrian nationalism is not compatible with Ba’athist Arab nationalism. Sometimes, there is overlap between the SSNP and the regular Syrian armed forces. This entry on Nusur al-Zawba’a explores some sample ‘martyrdoms’ and the manner of characterization.

An invitation from the SSNP, the family of the ‘martyr’ Nasri Estefan Injil and others to attend departure prayers for the ‘martyr’ at 11 a.m. on 29 August 2015 in the Mar Yohanna al-Ma’amadan church in the Wadi al-Nasara locality of al-Qalatiya, with further condolences to be offered from 30 August-1 September 2015. The opening quotation at the top is from the Gospel According to John (11:25): “Whoever believes in me, even though he dies, shall live.” The SSNP has made particular shows of solidarity with Christians, so its appeal should not be surprising, particularly in western Syria where it seems to offer the only alternative to Arabism, whereas in the northeast of Syria non-Arab Christian-specific identities- most notably Assyrian and Syriac- have established a much stronger foothold.

Raymun Suleiman Sam’an, of the Christian village of Rabla near Qusayr. According to the poster above, he died fighting in Slanfeh in Latakia on 23 August 2015. Account of funeral proceedings here.

From the funeral proceedings.

The Nusur al-Zawba’a announcement of Raymun’s ‘martyrdom’ differs slightly in putting the date of his death on 24 August 2015 in Jabb al-Ahmar, Latakia. As this graphic puts it: “He was martyred in the battles of heroism and resistance in confrontation with the internal Jews.” The phrase “internal Jews” (yahud al-dakhil) deserves comment here. As my friend and colleague Carl Yonker notes, this language is tied to SSNP founder Antun Sa’adeh’s argument that the Jews could not constitute a part of the Greater Syrian nation, as Zionism posits an independent Jewish state in the Israel-Palestine area, while SSNP Greater Syrian nationalism requires these lands to be part of Greater Syria.

Ala’ Khayrat al-Khatyar, who according to this Nusur al-Zawba’a announcement also died fighting the “internal Jews” in Jabb al-Ahmar, on 23 August 2015. His biography states that he was born in 1988 in Bayt al-Haj, Tartous. He joined Nusur al-Zawba’a in 2012, and participated in a number of battles, “from Kassab [Latakia province], to Homs, al-Zara [Homs province], Sadad [Homs province], Mork [Hama province], Taldara [Hama province], Sahl al-Ghab [Hama province], Tallat Khattab [Idlib province] and others besides these.”

Tha’ir Ahmad Bala, who according to this Nusur al-Zawba’a announcement died on 18 August 2015 in Zabadani. According to his biography, he was born in Latakia in 1978 and joined the SSNP in 2003. His most notable engagements include Kassab, Sadad, al-Zara, Quneitra, Saidnaya [Damascus province], Ma’loula [Damascus province], Mork and finally Zabadani.

Abd al-Aziz Muhammad al-Hilal, declared to have been killed in Jisr al-Shughur on 31 May 2015. His biography states that he was born in 1993 in Kharufia Kabir, which is in the Manbij area of Aleppo province currently controlled by the Islamic State. His most notable engagements include Kessab, Mork, Hisn [Homs province], al-Nabk [Damascus province], Sadad, al-Zara & finally Jisr al-Shughur.

Katibat al-Jabal

Emblem of Katibat al-Jabal: “National Defence: Latakia: Nabi Yunis Summit.”

Katibat al-Jabal means “The Mountain Battalion” and a division of the National Defence Forces in eastern Latakia province. Nabi Yunis lies to the north of Slanfeh. As its affiliation suggests, its role is defensive in nature, to prevent further rebel and jihadist pushes into Latakia province- a prospect that increasingly looms large with the regime losses in Idlib province.

Members of Katibat al-Jabal pose in front of a mural of Bashar and Hafez al-Assad, which bears the inscription “Katibat al-Jabal”. Alongside this uploaded photo, Katibat al-Jabal offered a message of solidarity to Jabal al-Arab [Jabal al-Druze in Suwayda province] in June 2015, as both Suwayda and Latakia provinces faced the threat of rebel and jihadist encroachments.

Poster from 2014 dedicated to the ‘martyrs’ of Katibat al-Jabal.

Photo released by Katibat al-Jabal during Ramadan 2015. The picture of Imam Ali on the wall and the inscriptions of “Ya Ali” (Oh Ali) should make clear the group’s Alawite membership.

ISIS: A Caliphate of Torture and Rape

Laila Khoudeidaby Laila Khoudeida

Originally from Sinjar, Iraq, Laila Khoudeida is a social worker and mental health specialist, currently serving on the board of Yazda, an organization she helped found in 2014 that responds to the needs of Yazidi victims of IS ethnic cleansing.


I recorded this Sinjar survivor account in my notebook as it was related to me by “FA,” a Yazidi woman who managed to escape ISIS captivity late last year. She wanted to share her story with the world but chose not to share her name.

Originally from a town called Tel Ezer in the Sinjar region, FA is a 23-year-old Yazidi woman from a very large family. Her neighborhood was home to thirteen other families who were closely related to her—grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and close friends. On Aug. 3, 2014, when FA heard the news about ISIS entering nearby Yazidi towns, she did not realize how quickly she would be forced to become the slave of one ISIS militant after another. After learning the frightening news, she and her family members gathered themselves so that they could head for the mountains.

Notebook with account of Yazidi survivor

My notes of FA’s story. Photo: Syria Comment

But they were too late. The ISIS militia had already beheaded countless Yazidi men and destroyed many nearby towns. She became very scared and held tightly to her mother and sisters as the gunshots continued. When ISIS reached her house, she was pulled by the hair with a gun pointed at her head as she along with her family were herded along to join other Yazidis who were gathered into groups.  There, she witnessed her father and four uncles collapse to the ground as each was shot in the head. She said:

“I wanted to die; I wanted to be the next one to be shot in the head, because I did not want to see any more of what was to come.”

She would live to witness much more cruelty.

Another 200 men were shot and the survivors, including her, were taken to Seba Shekh Kheder, a town located south of Sinjar. There, they separated women and put them in different groups according to their age and beauty. This was the last time she would see her mother. The children, including infants, were forcibly taken from their mothers to be raised by ISIS, where they are now being taught the Caliphate’s religion so they can grow up to become future jihadis.

FA said that while in Seba Shekh Kheder:

“I wanted to know where my mother was taken and if I would ever see her again. I kept looking around but I did not see anyone her age, there were only women close to my age and younger, including 9-year-olds.”

They were ordered to walk single file to Baaj. She said, “At this point, I did not understand where they were taking us, but I noticed that we were moving farther away from my town.”  After arriving in Baaj, she noticed the ISIS militants changing their minds; it seemed they did not feel safe having all of the captives there. She said:

“I was exhausted and could not cry because I felt numb; I felt like this was a nightmare that I would soon wake up from.”

They sat on the ground where the little girls clung to the older ones and one of them whispered to FA, “I am thirsty.” FA said, “That’s when my heart ached and I started crying.” They could not ask for water because the last one to do so, a 70-year-old woman, was struck across the face with a weapon.

FA said that around 12 pm they were ordered to start walking again, towards Mosul.

“We walked from 12 pm to 3 am and throughout our journey we walked over dead bodies and past destroyed homes. We would see vehicles pass by with black flags hanging out and men with long beards saying “Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar!” as they passed us (meaning “god is the greatest”).”

The ISIS men never addressed each other by their first names, intent on keeping the captives from learning their true identities. Once moved to Mosul, they remained there for 11 days, and during this period, she was forced to “marry” one of the men.

“I resisted and was beat in the stomach and head until I became unconscious. When I woke up, I watched other women, including my sisters, go through the same experience.”

Her face was so bruised up that she no longer drew the men’s attention, as they sought out good-looking women.

“I watched my sister bang her head on the wall as one of the militants dragged her to his car.”

FA later learned that her sister was sold off to someone in Syria and was taken to live with his family. The family didn’t believe that a Yazidi woman should live in a Muslim household, so they took her to the local shari’a court (perhaps to have her officially convert). The people saw her as an infidel who should be punished. That was the last she knew of her sister.

FA was again grouped with about one hundred other women and they were ordered to walk back to Baaj.  This time they stayed in Baaj for 8 days, at which point she was sold for about 10 dollars to someone in Tel Banat.

“He did to me what he desired, then sold me to someone in Tel Qasab after two days.”

In Tel Qasab, FA was tortured badly, raped multiple times a day, and beaten after each instance of rape. She was made to cook for the militant and clean his house, but since she did not look good enough for him after staying with him for two days, he brought her back to where the other women were being held.

FA added that they were very exhausted and many of the girls did not care whether they lived or died because they saw how they were being used as sex objects and at any point could be killed, if they were to resist the militants’ sexual demands.

“At three in the morning I felt a splash of cold water hit me in the face; I felt the pain of the wounds on my cheeks and head and could barely open my eyes.”

When she woke up, she saw that some women were being ordered to stand up in a line and take their scarves off.

“I felt a wire hit me hard in the back and I slowly stood up.

I did not know where my scarf had fallen off, but they were looking for women who satisfied their taste in looks.”

FA’s brother’s wife and cousin were two of many who met this desire and were taken. They were screaming and trying to find a way to escape, but they could not. Her brother’s wife still had her son with her and he looked very ill—her nephew looked dead.

“My sister wanted to come and give me a hug because she knew that that would be the last time we would see each other. But she was dragged to the vehicle.”

Her brother’s wife is still held in Mosul today, but she doesn’t know much about her sister, or whether her nephew is still alive.

The next day in the evening two women hung themselves from the ceiling fan in the building; one of them was the wife of her neighbor, a very young and beautiful woman. She had told FA that she would kill herself before they touched her, and she did so.

“I wanted to do the same, but I was too weak, and I felt the little girls needed someone to be with them. So I resisted every time they would come to sell me, and I managed to stay with the girls. Because they had found out that I could cook, one of them, their leader, bought me for a thousand dollars from the previous person who still claimed that I was his wife.

The leader ordered me to cook and bake for them and the Yazidis who had been forced to convert.

I cleaned the girls so they could be sold for better prices, and I would tell them…. ‘just do what they tell you until we find a way out of here.’

One of the girls did not follow orders when she was called to meet the man who had come to choose a girl (sabya) to be his wife,  so to punish us, they mixed gas with water and forced us to wash ourselves with it.”

Continuing her tragedy, FA said that one day a 9-year-old girl was called to go into the leader’s room. The girl was so terrified, she started vomiting.

“So I fixed the 9-year-old child’s hair, and she was sent to the leader’s room. Soon after she was in there, I heard the loudest scream a nine-year-old can make.”

After about half hour, she came back out. He had raped her. Waiting outside was another man to whom she was sold before he returned to Syria.

She would not be the last. The leader would keep them until he had raped them, then they would be sold. “There were so many of us that it was very easy for him to get another girl to rape.”

FA said that one by one all the little girls that she had taken care of had been sold except for three. One of these was a 13-year-old and the other two had already been sold to ISIS fighters and were therefore considered “married” and were waiting for the ISIS men to come back from a mission in Mosul. They did not have the courage to try to run away.

“One day, the guard who was watching over us came to the kitchen and started touching me in different areas, but I pushed him each time… He pulled out a piece of paper, it was a marriage certificate.”

This man had made FA his wife in the shari’a court without informing her; he told her that he would send her off to Saudi Arabia if she didn’t comply.

“I was very scared, and the next day, I went to the leader and told him about the situation with the guard.”

FA by this time had become a prized commodity because she cooked and baked for all of them, so the leader put the ISIS guard in jail for one day before he was released. She said this man wanted to kill her, but he couldn’t because he was afraid of the leader.

The next day, the guard told his friend that he wanted him to take her in a vehicle and send her off to Saudi Arabia and kill her there. When FA heard this, she knew she had to find a way to escape.

That night, airstrikes targeting one of the ISIS bases prompted the militant leader to abruptly get in his vehicle and drive off.

“I looked to see if the guard was around, and when I didn’t see him, I told the girls that this was our chance to run away. The two who had been sold were too scared to come because the last time one of us tried to run, she was brought back, and her legs were cut off.”

The two girls did not want to go through the same experience, but FA was determined to run that night because she did not want to end up in Saudi Arabia.

The 13-year-old girl agreed to go with FA, and they started heading toward the mountain. On the run for three days without food or water, they hid behind buildings and bushes during the day and moved at night. By the time they came close to the road near the mountain, the 13-year-old girl couldn’t walk, so FA began to carry her. Because they were so dehydrated, she picked up two small rocks and gave one to the girl to place in her mouth to help with the thirst, and placed the other in her own mouth.

Once they had passed the danger zone and drawn close to the mountain, Yazidi fighters spotted them and ran to them with water. Qasim Shesho, a Yazidi leader, told his men to drive them to Kurdistan.

This woman is one of thousands of Yazidi women who have been enslaved since summer of last year. She now lives in a tent in a refugee camp that houses many other Yazidis with similar stories.


See this video for amazing interview footage with Yazidis in the camps of Dohuk, obtained by Dr. Hawar Moradi.

Recent articles on the Yazidi crisis:

ISIS Enshrines a Theology of Rape – NYT – Rukmini Callimachi

Kidnapping and Sex Slavery: Covering ISIS’ Religious Justification for Rape – NYT – Erika Allen

Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi repeatedly raped US hostage Kayla Mueller and turned Yazidi girls into personal sex slaves – Independent – Judit Neurink

The dramatic escape of Yazidi women from ISIL ahead of being sorted into ‘pretty’ and ‘not pretty’ – Richard Spencer – Aug. 17, 2015

The Fight To Document The ISIS Massacre Of The Yazidis – World Post interview with Christoph Wilcke

Meet the woman who quit her job, paused her studies and left Sweden to help Yazidi women and children fleeing Isis – Independent

Kayla e le 3000 yazide: schiave del Califfo – Corriere della Sera – (Italian)

One Year on From the Sinjar Massacre, Yazidis Blast Lack of Action Over Hostages – Newsweek

Berlin subway honors Sinjar on first anniversary of Aug 3 genocide

The Berlin subway honors Sinjar (“Shingal” in Kurdish) on the first anniversary of the Aug. 3 genocide

How to Understand Those 60 Trainees

by Joel Veldkamp


“I can look out at your faces and see you had the same reaction I do, which is that that’s an awfully small number.”

So said American Defense Secretary Ash Carter in testimony before an incredulous Senate Armed Services Committee on July 7, explaining that the $500 million American project, announced over a year ago, to train and arm a new Syrian rebel army to bring the Islamic State to its knees and force a political settlement on the Syrian regime simultaneously has, to date, trained just 60 fighters.

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee on behalf of the Iranian nuclear deal recently brokered by the Obama Administration in Washington, D.C., July 29, 2015. Carter was joined by Secretary of State John Kerry, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey, U.S. treasury Secretary Jack Lew and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz. DoD Photo: Glenn Fawcett (Released)

Photo: Glenn Fawcett (Released)

It’s been 53 months since the Syrian uprising started, 48 months since President Obama called for regime change in Syria, 29 months since the Islamic State took over northeast Syria, 14 months since they took over northwest Iraq, and 11 months since Obama promised to destroy them, and the entirety of the U.S.’ publicly-announced ground strategy to dislodge the Islamic State from Syria and end the war there is embodied in five dozen “trained” Syrians in Turkey somewhere.

The weeks following Carter’s testimony would bring no more reassurance. On July 29, reports emerged that Jabhat al-Nusra, al Qaeda’s Syria affiliate, had captured a group of fighters from Division 30, a rebel group U.S. officials had earlier claimed was among those participating in the train-and-equip program. What would happen when the U.S.’ chief nemesis crossed the U.S.’ handpicked fighters? Division 30 responded by issuing a statement asking its “brothers” in JAN to release the fighters for the sake of the opposition’s “unity” and refused to fight JAN. The extent of the Pentagon’s response was to vigorously deny that any of the captured Division 30 fighters were themselves recipients of U.S. training.

It’s easy to understand the consternation of the senators at the Carter hearing. How could the U.S. foreign policy establishment possibly be so incompetent?

To move beyond incredulity and consternation, we need to put this training project in context. Over four brutal years of civil war, the U.S. has announced a succession of programs to aid “moderate” anti-government fighters in Syria – all similarly modest, even embarrassingly so. But U.S. rhetoric about these programs has been jumbled and self-contradictory, and has had only the most tenuous connection to events on the ground – and to the true scale of U.S. involvement in Syria. The wide gulf between rhetoric and reality evinces a deliberate public information strategy to conceal the nature of that involvement.

The U.S. and Syria’s Rebels – Rhetoric

Starting in March 2012, a year into the conflict, officials at the White House and the State Department began claiming that the U.S. was directly aiding the Syrian armed opposition with “nonlethal aid,” such as communications gear and medical supplies.

A year later, after the outgoing Pentagon and State Department chiefs Leon Panetta and Hillary Clinton embarrassed the administration by making internal disagreements over Syria public, the incoming Secretary of State John Kerry announced that President Obama was going to begin “direct assistance” to the Syrian armed opposition, “though nonlethal,” including “food and medical supplies.” The Associated Press hailed this non-announcement as “a significant policy shift.”

Four months later, in June 2013, responding to mounting reports of regime chemical weapons use and the fall of the strategic city of Qusayr to regime forces, American officials told the New York Times that “the Obama administration…has decided to begin supplying the rebels for the first time with small arms and ammunition.” White House Advisor Ben Rhodes, however, would only speak of “direct military support” to the opposition: “He would not specify whether the support would include lethal aid, such as weapons.” Since this was the third time direct nonlethal support for the armed Syrian opposition had been announced “for the first time,” we can sympathize with the journalist who complained at the next day’s State Department press briefing, “I have to say – I hope I’m not alone in this – there is still quite a lot of confusion.”

The amounts of “nonlethal” aid that the opposition was said to receive were always small. By May 2014, it totaled just $80 million, and included “552,000 MREs, 1,500 medical kits, vehicles, communications equipment, generators, and over three tons of surgical and triage medical supplies.” Spread out over two years and a battlefield the size of Syria’s, these figures are only marginally more impressive than Carter’s 60 trained fighters.

Occasionally – usually at moments of pressure to “do something” – American officials let it be known that the U.S. was actually sending “lethal” aid to the rebels as well. In September 2013, after President Obama was forced to back down from his threat to bomb Syria after the Damascus countryside chemical weapons massacre, the Washington Post reported that, “according to U.S. officials,” arms shipments from the CIA, “limited to light weapons and other munitions that can be tracked” had begun “arriving in Syria.” The Post described this as “a major escalation of the U.S. role in Syria’s civil war.”

In April 2014, after the breakdown of peace talks in Geneva and several months of regime successes in retaking lost ground, U.S. government officials leaked the news that the U.S. had provided rebels in Syria with twelve 20-year-old antitank missile launchers – news that was given exhaustive coverage by the Post, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Brookings Institute and the Foundation for the Defense of the Democracies, among others.

Mostly, however, U.S. officials maintained the line of “nonlethal aid” in public. In December 2012, a “senior administration official” told reporters, “until we understand how these arms promote a political solution, we do not see how provision of arms is a good idea.” In April 2013, Acting Assistant Secretary of State Elizabeth Jones reaffirmed, “We do not believe that it is in the United States or the Syrian people’s best interest to provide lethal support to the Syrian opposition.” Asked about the possibility of sending arms in February 2014, a senior U.S. official told the BBC, “We already, as you know, provide non-lethal aid.”

Three days before Mosul fell to the Islamic State, National Security Advisor Susan Rice stated publicly, for the first time, that the U.S. “is providing lethal and non-lethal support” to the “moderate, vetted opposition” in Syria. In reporting this statement, the staff of the Israeli daily Haartez noted, “Rice gave more details than are usually provided by Obama administration officials.”

With so much contradictory information, it is little wonder that confusion reigned on this point, not only among the general public, but among American media organs and policymakers. Thus, after the fall of Mosul, the New York Times claimed that the city’s fall had increased “scrutiny” on “the decision by the Obama administration not to arm moderate Syrian rebels at the outset,” and Hillary Clinton was quick to note that she “pushed very hard” for arming moderate rebels. This past June, outgoing Daily Show host Jon Stewart ruthlessly mocked various Republican figures for proposing arming rebels in Syria, and implicitly praised Obama for not doing so. In criticizing the current nuclear deal with Iran, the Wall Street Journal recently editorialized, “The U.S. could have armed the Free Syrian Army to defeat Iran’s allied Assad regime in Damascus” to get a better deal.

These statements reveal the widely-held assumption that the U.S. has avoided engagement in the Syria conflict, but these statements can only exist in blissful denial of publicly-available information about the reality of the U.S.’ role in Syria since 2011.

The U.S. and Syria’s Rebels – Reality

Among the publicly-reported details of that role:

  • January 2012: According to the New York Times, three and a half months before the administration first announced “nonlethal aid” to the opposition, a secret CIA-assisted airlift of arms to the rebels began, which by March 2013 would comprise 160 flights and “an estimated 3,500 tons of military equipment.” The CIA helped “Arab governments shop for weapons,” and “vetted rebel commanders and groups to determine who should receive the weapons as they arrive.”
  • June 2012: The New York Times reported that the CIA was in Turkey helping U.S. allies in the region decide which Syrian rebel groups should receive “automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, ammunition and some antitank weapons,” which were “being funneled mostly across the Turkish border by way of a shadowy network of intermediaries including Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood and paid for by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.”
  • August 2012: Reuters reported that the CIA was helping to “direct vital military and communications support to Assad’s opponents” from Turkey, under the authority of an intelligence finding from the president earlier in 2012, which “broadly permits the CIA and other U.S. agencies to provide support that could help the rebels oust Assad.”

In January 2013, Scott Stewart, an analyst at the private intelligence firm Stratfor, concluded based on an examination of weapons seen in opposition-released videos that “the current level of external intervention in Syria is similar to the level exercised against the Soviet Union and its communist proxies following the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan.”

All of this predates the announcement of John Kerry’s “significant policy shift” to provide “food and medical supplies” to the opposition. It also predates the State Department’s April 2013 affirmation that, “We do not believe that it is in…the Syrian people’s best interest to provide lethal support to the Syrian opposition.”

The scale of the material aid reportedly delivered to the armed Syrian opposition by the U.S. and its allies through these operations dwarfs anything discussed in the government’s public statements. In February 2014, the Abu Dhabi daily The National reported that Gulf states, with logistical help from American intelligence, had delivered $1.2 billion in weapons and supplies to rebels in Syria since July 2013 alone:

“That amount is set to rise to as much as $2bn, with Saudi Arabia, which oversees the fund according to rebels, seeking to put in between $400m and $800m in additional money over coming months.”

All such numbers have to be taken with a grain of salt, but the scale of Syria’s insurgency makes the figure credible.

In addition, while the U.S. loudly trumpeted its worries about inadvertently supporting “extremists” in Syria, its coordination with Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey in this period – now well-known – belies this commitment. At one point, the U.S. publicly suspended its “nonlethal aid” program to “moderate rebels” after their warehouses in northern Syria were seized by “extremists.” The demonstration would have been more convincing if the “extremists” in question had not been from a group known as the Islamic Front, widely acknowledged to be bankrolled by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. A December 2013 report from the Brookings Institute looking at funding from Gulf countries for extremist groups in Syria claimed that “The U.S. Treasury is aware of this activity…but Western diplomats’ and officials’ general response has been a collective shrug.”

These reports of U.S. involvement in facilitating the arming of the opposition have never been refuted, or even denied. They are simply ignored, and lost in the confusion created by the landslide of contradictory public statements. The fact that leading newspapers and public figures now reprimand the Obama administration for not arming the rebels demonstrates the success of this apparent public information strategy.

The New Plan

This history should inform how we view U.S. government claims about its current doings in Syria.

In the public eye, at least, the effort to aid existing opposition groups in Syria has been replaced by a plan to create a new Syrian rebel army from scratch, training and equipping them in a neighboring country. But all the evidence suggests that this effort is no more serious, and no more central to the U.S.’ real plans in Syria, than the “nonlethal aid” program that consumed so much attention and public debate while American intelligence, with American regional allies, was organizing massive arms shipments to the opposition.

Obama first announced this new train-and-equip program June of last year. Congress approved funding for it in September. By November, recruitment for the new army still had not begun. By January, a host country for the program still had not been chosen, despite offers from four countries. In February, Turkey and the U.S. finally signed an agreement to begin training the force in Turkey, with Turkish and U.S. officials giving contradictory answers about whether the force would be allowed to fight the Assad regime. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff recently claimed that the Islamic holy month of Ramadan was slowing the training process because, “there’s a lot of folks that are interested in being with their families during that period” – a problem no other fighting force in Syria seems to have. In a devastating post-mortem published in July, Jamie Dettmer of The Daily Beast observed that the original plan called for training 15,000 soldiers by 2018, and asked “whether Syria would even exist by the time the envisaged force was at full strength.”

If this program were truly central to the U.S.’ Syria strategy, it is difficult to believe that this level of delay and recruitment failure – and now, attacks from Jabhat al-Nusra – would be tolerated. No doubt the military and intelligence officers tasked with its implementation are working sincerely. But for the U.S. foreign policy establishment as a whole, this program likely serves the same purposes as the State Department’s 2012-2014 initiatives to deliver MREs, radios and med kits to fighters in Syria: to demonstrate that the U.S. is involved, to create a public impression of an involvement so limited that it does not saddle the U.S. with any responsibility for the human catastrophe in Syria, and to consume media and legislative branch attention that might otherwise be directed at the main activities of the U.S. and its allies in Syria.

While this new training program spins its wheels, events on the ground in Syria are moving rapidly. Following the death of King Abdullah, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey have set aside their former squabbles and are cooperating in a renewed push to overthrow the Assad regime. This cooperation is manifest in a new rebel alliance, the Jaysh al-Fatih, led by al Qaeda’s Syria affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. If U.S.’ actions during the first three years of the conflict are any guide, this new joint initiative was not organized without American input or support.

Jaysh al-Fatih may be contributing to the U.S.’s stated goal of regime change in Syria. It may be contributing to an unstated U.S. goal of continuing a war that is very costly for Iran, on whose compliance with the U.S.-brokered nuclear agreement a great deal now rests. Jaysh al-Fatih may now be seen as a crucial counterweight to the Islamic State. It would be irresponsible to assign motivations to the U.S. policymakers from the outside, but unless they have had a recent change of heart, Jaysh al-Fatih’s al Qaeda links and its human rights violations (including violence against Christians and Nusra’s threat to forcibly convert Alawis) are unlikely to be an overriding concern for them. As the Brookings Institute’s Charles Lister writes, “The vast majority of the Syrian insurgency has coordinated closely with Al-Qaeda since mid-2012,” and the U.S. was helping to arm the Syrian insurgency since early 2012.

It has been necessary throughout the conflict, however, for the U.S. to distance itself from these troubling facts, by conveying the impression that its involvement in the conflict is limited to “nonlethal aid” – or, since last June, a small training program in Turkey.

Why does the U.S. only have sixty fighters to show for its $500 million, year-old training program? Because it reinforces the narrative – nurtured by a raft of previous hopelessly inadequate, publicly-announced and -debated programs to support the opposition – of the U.S. as a helpless bystander to the killing in Syria, and of President Obama as a prudent statesman reluctant to get involved. While the Senate berates the Pentagon chief over the program’s poor results, the U.S. is meanwhile outsourcing the real fight in Syria to allies with no qualms about supporting al Qaeda against their geopolitical opponents – unless the U.S. is, as before, cooperating directly or indirectly in that support.

Whereto Now?

Once it is recognized that the “helpless bystander” narrative is false, and that the U.S. has been deeply involved in the armed conflict almost from the start, it becomes both possible and necessary to question that involvement.

The U.S.’ direct cooperation with Turkey and Gulf states in arming the Syrian insurgency, combined with its refusal to engage in sincere peace talks (as expertly detailed by Hugh Roberts in The London Review of Books), virtually guaranteed that the war would continue without conclusion. The present crisis – 200,000 dead, over half the population driven from their homes, much crucial infrastructure destroyed and Syria’s territory fractured into multiple de facto statelets that will probably never reunify – is the result. Considering the Syrian people’s welfare, it is difficult to imagine a worse policy outcome. A refusal early-on to interfere in the conflict or countenance regional allies’ cooperation with extremist groups, or a genuine attempt at peace talks later in the conflict, or a full-fledged humanitarian intervention of the sort requested by many opposition figures – almost any policy alternative would have been better.

At this stage, it may well be too late to save Syria, but if U.S. policymakers want to try, a good place to start would be to make ending the violence – without preconditions and without regard for their preferred political outcome – the overriding objective in U.S. diplomacy and covert action. In a multi-religious country like Syria, that must entail restraining the ambitions of openly sectarian militant groups like Jaysh al-Fatih. It will mean walking away from a publicly-declared commitment to regime change in Syria. It will likely also mean straining relations with regional allies already discomfited by the nuclear pact with Iran. But to end the conflict, the policies and positions that have been perpetuating it must be changed.


Joel Veldkamp is an MA candidate at the University of Chicago’s Center for Middle East Studies who has previously lived in Damascus, Syria. Follow Joel on Twitter: @joelman42  Parts of this article are adapted from a paper presented at the 2015 Middle East History and Theory Conference at the University of Chicago: “Narrative and Reality in Direct U.S. Aid to the Syrian Armed Opposition, 2012-2014