How Far is Hezbollah Willing to Go in Syria?

1_VahikHow Far is Hezbollah Willing to Go in Syria?
By Vahik Soghom,
BA. AUB, MA. Univ of St. Andrews, Humboldt Univ of Berlin
For Syria Comment April 20, 2015

The melting of snow in the Qalamoun mountains signals the end of the especially harsh winter of 2015. By extension, it opens the door for the much anticipated “Spring battle” of Hezbollah and the Syrian army against Islamist factions stationed in Qalamoun. The battle is meant to achieve Hezbollah’s goal of cleansing the area of Takfiri militants, who consist mainly of Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra units. Hezbollah is confident of its impending victory in Qalamoun, yet one question that has received little attention revolves around the strategic implications of such a victory in the broader context of the Syrian civil war and the regional struggle against the Islamic state.1_Ranqous Plain

Regime forces fight for Ranqous plain in Qalamoun region

The fight for control of the strategic Qalamoun region separating Lebanon from Syria really began with the May 2013 battle of Qusayr in the North. Hezbollah learned to fight in dense urban settings there. Since then, Hezbollah has been bogged down in constant clashes with the IS and Jabhat al-Nusra in Qalamoun, clashes which extend not only to the Syrian-Lebanese border, but within Lebanese territory itself. In the summer of 2014, fierce clashes between the Lebanese army and Islamist forces in Arsal highlighted the severity of the Takfiri threat faced by the Lebanese. Due to fears of heightened sectarian division within Lebanon, Hezbollah refrained from participating in the battle, and its operations have thus been limited to the Lebanese-Syrian border and the Syrian Qalamoun region.

1_Qusayr

Central square of Qusayr after fierce battle b/n pro-regime forces and rebels

There are two questions to ask about the upcoming Qalamoun war: what are Hezbollah’s immediate strategic objectives and what are its long term goals? How far is Hezbollah willing to go in helping Assad and Iran reconquer Syria and defeat the Takfiri militants in the region? The first objective is to protect Lebanese border villages from militants, a threat that has been hanging over Bekaa residents for the past two years. Secondly, the objective is to impede the infiltration and spread of Takfiri ideology in Lebanon. The under-equipped Lebanese army does not stand a chance against a Takfiri assault, especially one that is coordinated among rival Islamist factions. Thirdly, by pacifying the roads between Lebanon and Syria, Hezbollah will secure access to Damascus and Homs.

But what if Hezbollah is victorious in Qalamoun, what will it do next? Almost certainly, Hezbollah will expand operations to key fronts crucial to the survival of the Assad regime. Given the heavy losses Hezbollah has suffered in Syria, it will be hesitant to spread itself too thin.

In recent weeks, the Islamic State has been targeting crucial supply lines that, if successfully disrupted, will prove fatal for the survival of Assad’s forces in the north of the country. On March 23, fierce clashes were reported around Sheikh Hilal village on the eastern edge of Hama province. This assault by the Islamic State, which included a reported massacre of civilians, was meant to cut off the Salamiyah-Khanasir-Aleppo highway, a vital regime supply line for its Aleppo front. Another goal is accessing Idlib province, which is mostly dominated by al-Nusra and its coalition of Islamist forces. If IS successfully blocks the highway, Aleppo will run the risk of falling entirely to rebel and Islamist factions.

1_Idlib

Jaysh al-Fatah coalition celebrates after capture of Idlib

Another crucial front that has made the headlines in the past couple of weeks is Idlib, where a coalition of Islamist forces, headed by al-Nusra, managed to expel regime forces from the city. Though the regime has referred to its defeat as a “regrouping operation” and sent reinforcements from Hama to recapture the city, this battle will likely be extremely challenging. Part of the difficulty, and one that applies to all major fronts, is the Syrian army’s drastic losses in men over the past few years. The regime has long lost the luxury of recruiting soldiers from its civilian population, and only by calling in reinforcements from other fronts can it manage to deal with military crises. But what makes recapturing Idlib particularly difficult has to do with al-Qaeda and its newly-formed Jaish al-Fath coalition. Over the past year, al-Nusra has been overshadowed by the Islamic State’s expansion and public display of brutality, but looking at al-Nusra’s success in Idlib province as well as the Southern front, it is giving the IS a run for its money. And with fertile ground for expansion and episodes of success in Yemen and North Africa, al-Qaeda will improve rather than decline, and al-Nusra will benefit from this general resurgence. If, as expected, Idlib remains in the hands of the Jaish al-Fath coalition, the regime will virtually have lost Idlib province. Assad’s Syria will then only be limited to the western stretch of the country, comprised of the provinces of Latakia and Tartous on the Mediterranean, the central to western portions of Hama and Homs provinces, Damascus province, as well as parts of Aleppo.

But there is another crucial province the fate of which is at stake—Daraa. Though the regime still has a significant presence in the province, half of the city and most of its countryside is controlled by a mix of FSA and Islamist factions. Its neighboring Quneitra has witnessed a growing presence of Jabhat al-Nusra, which is most worrying for both Hezbollah and the regime due to the invaluable strategic importance of the Golan. In the event of the fall of these provinces, the regime will no longer enjoy its status as an Arab resistance state, and Damascus will be further squeezed in and surrounded from all sides. All three fronts mentioned—the eastern, northern, and southern—are crucial for the survival of the regime as well as the total disintegration of Syria.

But for the same reasons, these fronts are equally important for Hezbollah. For now, its priority is to secure Qalamoun and Lebanon’s borders. But in the event of victory in the Qalamoun, Hezbollah will extend its operational activities to other Syrian provinces in which it now lacks a strong presence. Which fronts it will prioritize will depend upon circumstances. Hezbollah’s participation will improve not only the regime’s chances for survival, but also allow the Assad regime to maintain its access to Aleppo, as well as launch a more effective offensive on Idlib. Finally, Hezbollah will increase its role in Quneitra and Deraa provinces. And let us not forget that the regime still has a presence both in Deir el Zor itself as well as the eastern edge of Homs bordering Deir el Zor. If, with much needed assistance from Hezbollah, it is able to fend off IS attacks in Hama, it may even be able to start planning an offensive in Deir el Zor. Whether it will be capable—or even willing—to do so, will depend on the outcome in Qalamoun. Should Hezbollah suffer an unexpected defeat in Qalamoun or a decide to reduce its exposure in Syria following a tough fight, the country will be on the road to partition.

Hezbollah will likely win in Qalamoun. Jabhat al-Nusra and IS will remain its strongest of enemies. Their limited cooperation in Qalamoun will not likely translate into cooperation elsewhere. In fact, a recent report suggests that both factions are ready to hand over Qalamoun to Hezbollah in order to migrate to other fronts in Syria. If so, Hezbollah may be spared a grueling battle near home and be drawn further into Syria. It is worth noting that neither the FSA, Jabhat al-Nusra, nor IS will be the biggest obstacle to Hezbollah’s expanding operations. The strongest opposition will come from its Lebanese supporters who, although ready to sacrifice their sons to protect Lebanon, may not be so willing to commit to slaying distant enemies. For now, however, we must await the outcome of the battle for Qalamoun.

HRW: “ISIS Escapees Describe Systematic Rape”

Human Rights Watch today released new findings about IS’ sexual enslavement project that targeted Yazidi women and girls. Their report, entitled “ISIS Escapees Describe Systematic Rape,” contains many new interviews with survivors who escaped IS, some as young as 12 years old, who describe the forms of abuse experienced while in captivity. The report also details the important issue of the survivors’ need for health care options, both medical and psychological. Portions of the report are quoted below (though I recommend reading the entire report), followed by a round-up of several other recent articles on the Yazidi situation.

Iraq: ISIS Escapees Describe Systematic Rape – HRW – April 15, 2015

Yazidi refugee IDP girl in Kurdistan

Displaced Yazidi girl living in an unfinished building near Dohuk. Photo: Samer Muscati/HRW 2015

Human Rights Watch conducted research in the town of Dohuk in January and February 2015, including interviewing 20 women and girls who escaped from ISIS, and reviewing ISIS statements about the subject.

Human Rights Watch documented a system of organized rape and sexual assault, sexual slavery, and forced marriage by ISIS forces. Such acts are war crimes and may be crimes against humanity. …

The 11 women and 9 girls Human Rights Watch interviewed had escaped between September 2014 and January 2015. Half, including two 12-year-old girls, said they had been raped – some multiple times and by several ISIS fighters. Nearly all of them said they had been forced into marriage; sold, in some cases a number of times; or given as “gifts.” The women and girls also witnessed other captives being abused.

Human Rights Watch also interviewed more than a dozen international and local service providers, medical workers, Kurdish officials, community leaders, and activists who corroborated these accounts. A local doctor treating female survivors in Dohuk told Human Rights Watch that of the 105 women and girls she had examined, 70 appeared to have been raped in ISIS captivity.

All of the women and girls interviewed exhibited signs of acute emotional distress. Many remain separated from relatives and sometimes their entire families, who were either killed by ISIS or remain in ISIS captivity. Several said they had attempted suicide during their captivity or witnessed suicide attempts to avoid rape, forced marriage, or forced religious conversion.

… The director general for health in Dohuk told Human Rights Watch that local authorities had identified fewer than 150 women and girls who had escaped from ISIS and that only about 100 had received medical treatment. According to the KRG Directorate of Yezidi Affairs, 974 Yezidis had escaped ISIS as of March 15, 2015, including 513 women and 304 children. …

Sexual Violence and Other Abuse

The women and girls who spoke to Human Rights Watch described repeated rape, sexual violence, and other abuse in ISIS captivity.

Jalila (all survivors’ names have been changed for their security), age 12, said that Arab men whom she recognized from her village north of Sinjar accosted her and seven family members on August 3, 2014, as they were trying to flee ISIS. The men handed the family over to ISIS fighters, who separated Jalila, her sister, sister-in-law, and infant nephew from the other family members and took them to Tal Afar. Later, the fighters took Jalila and her sister to Mosul. Thirty-five days later they separated Jalila from her sister and took her to a house in Syria that housed other abducted young Yezidi women and girls. Jalila said:

“The men would come and select us. When they came, they would tell us to stand up and then examine our bodies. They would tell us to show our hair and sometimes they beat the girls if they refused. They wore dishdashas [ankle length garments], and had long beards and hair.”

She said that the ISIS fighter who selected her slapped her and dragged her out of the house when she resisted. “I told him not to touch me and begged him to let me go,” she said. “I told him to take me to my mother. I was a young girl, and I asked him, ‘What do you want from me?’ He spent three days having sex with me.”

Jalila said that during her captivity, seven ISIS fighters “owned” her, and four raped her on multiple occasions: “Sometimes I was sold. Sometimes I was given as a gift. The last man was the most abusive; he used to tie my hands and legs.”

Another 12-year-old, Wafa, told Human Rights Watch that in August ISIS fighters abducted her with her family from the village of Kocho. The men took the family to a school in Tal Afar filled with other Yezidi captives, where the fighters separated her from her family. From there they took her to several locations within Iraq and then to Raqqa, in Syria. An older fighter assured Wafa that she would not be harmed but he repeatedly raped her nevertheless, she said.

“He was sleeping in the same place with me and told me not be afraid because I was like his daughter,” she said. “One day I woke up and my legs were covered in blood.” Wafa escaped three months after her abduction, but her parents, three brothers, and sister are still missing.

The women and girls who said that they had not been raped said they endured constant stress and anxiety when witnessing the suffering of other women, fearing they would be next.

Dilara, 20, said ISIS fighters took her to a wedding hall in Syria, where she saw about 60 other Yezidi female captives. ISIS fighters told the group to “forget about your relatives, from now on you will marry us, bear our children, God will convert you to Islam and you will pray.” She told Human Rights Watch she lived in constant fear that she would be dragged away like so many women and girls before her:

“From 9:30 in the morning, men would come to buy girls to rape them. I saw in front of my eyes ISIS soldiers pulling hair, beating girls, and slamming the heads of anyone who resisted. They were like animals…. Once they took the girls out, they would rape them and bring them back to exchange for new girls. The girls’ ages ranged from 8 to 30 years… only 20 girls remained in the end.”

Two sisters, Rana, 25, and Sara, 21, said they could do nothing to stop the abuse of their 16-year-old sister by four men over several months. The sister was allowed to visit them and told them that the first man who raped her, whom she described as a European, also beat her, handcuffed her, gave her electric shocks, and denied her food. She told them another fighter later raped her for a month and then gave her to an Algerian for another month. The last time they saw her was when a Saudi ISIS fighter took her. “We don’t know anything about her since,” Sara said. The two sisters said they were also raped multiple times by two men, one of whom said he was from Russia and the other from Kazakhstan.

Some women and girls told Human Rights Watch that ISIS fighters beat them if they resisted or defied them in any way.

Zara, 13, said that ISIS fighters accused her and two other girls of desecrating a Quran while holding the girls captive on a farm. “They punished the three of us by taking us to the garden and tying our hands with wire,” she said. “We were blindfolded and they said they would kill us if we didn’t say who had done this. They beat us for 10 minutes and they fired a bullet in the air.”

Leila, 25, managed to escape from the house where she was held captive, but because she was behind ISIS lines, she realized she was trapped and felt compelled to return. The commander, an Iraqi, asked her why she had tried to escape. She said she replied: “Because what you are doing to us is haram [forbidden] and un-Islamic.” He beat her with a cable and also punished the guard who had failed to prevent her escape attempt. The guard beat her as well. “Since then, my mental state has become very bad and I’ve had fainting spells,” she said.

… Nadia, 23, said she was separated from the men in her family when ISIS fighters abducted them in her village near Sinjar in August. She tried to convince the ISIS fighters that she was married to escape being raped, because she had heard that ISIS fighters preferred virgins. However, after they took her to Syria, one of the men said that he would marry her. “The other girls with me said it’s forbidden to marry married women,” Nadia said. “He replied, ‘But not if they are Yezidi women.’”

Suicide Attempts

The women and girls who spoke to Human Rights Watch described their own suicide attempts or attempts of others as a way to avoid rape, forced marriage, or forced religious conversion. They described cutting their wrists with glass or razors, attempting to hang themselves, trying to electrocute themselves in bathtubs, and consuming what they thought was poison.

Rashida, 31, managed to speak to one of her brothers after her abduction by secretly using a fighter’s phone. She told her brother that ISIS fighters were forcing her to convert and then to marry. He told her he would try to help her but if he couldn’t, “I should commit suicide because it would be better than the alternative.” Rashida said:

“Later that day they [ISIS fighters] made a lottery of our names and started to choose women by drawing out the names. The man who selected me, Abu Ghufran, forced me to bathe but while I was in the bathroom I tried to kill myself. I had found some poison in the house, and took it with me to the bathroom. I knew it was toxic because of its smell. I distributed it to the rest of the girls and we each mixed some with water in the bathroom and drank it. None of us died but we all got sick. Some collapsed.”

Leila said she saw two girls try to kill themselves by slashing their wrists with broken glass. She also tried to commit suicide when her Libyan captors forced her to take a bath, which she knew was typically a prelude to rape:

“I went into the bathroom, turned on the water, stood on a chair to take the wire connecting the light to electrocute myself but there was no electricity. After they realized what I was doing, they beat me with a long piece of wood and with their fists. My eyes were swollen shut and my arms turned blue. They handcuffed me to the sink, and cut my clothes with a knife and washed me. They took me out of the bathroom, brought in [my friend] and raped her in the room in front of me.”

Leila said she was later raped. She said she tried to commit suicide again and showed Human Rights Watch the scars on her wrists where she cut herself with a razor.

Forced Conversions

About half the women and girls who spoke to Human Rights Watch said the ISIS fighters pressured them to convert to Islam. Zara, 13, said she was held captive in a three-story house in Mosul with girls ages 10 to 15:

“When they came to select the girls, they would pull them away. The girls would cry and faint, they would have to take them by force. They made us convert to Islam and we all had to say the shahada [Islamic creed]. They said, “You Yezidis are kufar [infidels], you must repeat these words after the leader.” They gathered us all in one place and made us repeat after him. After we said the shahada, he said you have now been converted to our religion and our religion is the correct one. We didn’t dare not say the shahada.”

ISIS fighters held Noor, 16, in various places including Mosul. “The leader of this group asked us to convert to Islam and read the Quran,” she said. “We were forced to read the Quran and we started to pray slowly. We started to behave like actors.” …

Provision of Health Services

Medical Care

KRG authorities have made significant efforts to provide health and other services to Yezidi women and girls and have designated a health committee in Dohuk to coordinate the identification and referral of survivors to services. The director general for health in Dohuk, Dr. Nezhar Ismet Taib, who heads the committee, said that some families do not wish to reveal that their female relatives were abducted and this has made it difficult for the committee to identify and support those in need.

Almost all of the women and girls who spoke to Human Rights Watch said they had received medical examinations. A local doctor said the medical tests included blood tests for sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy. In some cases, medical workers provided emergency contraception and post-exposure prophylaxis for HIV, as recommended by the World Health Organization.

It is not clear that doctors have always obtained informed consent before conducting examinations. Narin, the 20-year-old woman from Sinjar, told Human Rights Watch that she was abducted on August 3 and given as a “gift” to an ISIS fighter, who tried to force her to marry him:

“I wasn’t raped – [the ISIS member] didn’t touch me because I told him I was sick.… I got a forensic gynecological exam in Dohuk, which cleared me of abuse. I wasn’t comfortable during this exam, and [the doctor] didn’t explain what she was doing to me beforehand.”

Those who take the medical tests do not always receive the test results. The two sisters, Rana and Sara, said that they spent five months in ISIS captivity and that ISIS fighters raped them multiples times. They said that soon after they escaped in December they received medical treatment and tests, but six weeks later, they had still not received any test results. Eighteen-year-old Arwa, from Kocho, managed to escape in December after ISIS fighters raped her. She told Human Rights Watch that she was still waiting for her test results seven weeks later.

Local authorities should ensure that health workers inform women and girls of the purpose of each test and that they consent to each procedure. The World Health Organization has provided guidelines for carrying out such tests and obtaining informed consent.

Withholding test results, whether positive or negative, can compound women’s and girls’ fears about the state of their health. Health workers should ensure that there is follow up for such women and girls, including providing test results and any further treatment and information they need.

Psychosocial Support

Psychosocial support for women and girls who escaped ISIS is a crucial service that is largely lacking in Iraqi Kurdistan. All the women and girls interviewed showed signs of trauma. Jalila, the 12-year-old raped by four ISIS fighters, said she “can’t sleep at night because I remember how they were raping me. I want to do something to forget about my psychological problems. I want to leave Iraq until things get better, I don’t want to be captured again.” She had not received professional counselling.

Sixteen-year-old Noor told Human Rights Watch that ISIS fighters abducted her on August 3 from Tal Afar and held her until September, when she escaped. An ISIS fighter raped her multiple times over a period of five days, she said. In the first two months after her return, she said she remained traumatized and cried most of the time.

Noor did manage to get psychosocial support. A local activist arranged for her to visit a psychotherapist in the hospital three or four times and visited her frequently to encourage her to get regular psychosocial counselling. Noor was undergoing regular psychosocial treatment as well as attending a handicrafts course and leaving the camp for social activities with activists from local organizations.

However, representatives of international agencies and nongovernmental groups told Human Rights Watch that there was not only a lack of available psychosocial support, but also reluctance by the community to accept such help. One activist said that he had to visit girls and their guardians repeatedly to encourage the girls to participate in psychosocial counselling before they would agree.

Several of those Human Rights Watch interviewed stated that they would like to receive psychosocial therapy. Narin, the 20-year-old from Sinjar, said:

“No one has offered me one-on-one counselling of any kind. I’d be interested in receiving professional counselling to help me process my experiences if it was available.… I have trouble sleeping at night, and only sleep a few hours at a time. When I sleep, I often see my parents and siblings in front of my eyes, especially the image of my brothers being forced to kneel on the road, and my mother’s face.”

International and local groups agreed that there are not enough psychosocial therapists available to the women and girls to meet the need, given the number of escaped women and girls and the prospect of more to come.

Dr. Taib told Human Rights Watch that although he was not aware of any suicides of women or girls who had escaped, many were suicidal. He said that women and girls who sought treatment with local officials were assessed by a psychologist at the same time they received medical treatment. The health team designated to help Yezidi women and girls has two psychologists and two psychosocial therapists but plans to increase the number of psychosocial therapists to ten. In addition, some groups and international agencies are providing psychosocial support. A psychosocial therapist at Jian Centre for Human Rights said she and her colleague had provided support to 20 Yezidi women and girls who had escaped.

In the short term, psychologists and social workers, particularly those who speak the local Yezidi dialect, need training on counselling methods. This should be in addition to recruiting psychosocial therapists to deal with the urgent cases. More efforts are also needed to encourage and educate people who might need the services about how the services can help them.

Another recent article deals with the release of some abducted Yazidis, mostly elderly or very young. According to aid workers cited in this article, as many as 200 escaped or released Yazidi women are now pregnant from rape. These included a 9-year-old girl that had been raped by at least 10 fighters, whose life is endangered by the pregnancy:

Yazidi girls kidnapped by Islamic State return traumatized – Olivia Ward – Toronto Star – Apr. 9, 2015

… The youngest of these is 9, according to volunteers working in the refugee camps and abandoned buildings where they are sheltering.

“This girl is so young she could die if she delivers a baby,” said Yousif Daoud, a Canadian-based aid worker who recently returned from the region. “Even a caesarian section is dangerous. The abuse she has suffered left her mentally and physically traumatized.”

…“I don’t know what the future would be for their babies,” said Daoud. “The girls and women don’t want them. They have suffered so much they just want to forget. If they are married, their husbands won’t take them back if they are pregnant. And it’s clear that the babies will never be accepted.”

The kidnapped 9-year-old girl, he said, “was sexually abused by no fewer than 10 men. Most of them were front-line fighters or suicide bombers who are given girls as a reward. She was in very bad shape.”

This week a Kurdish aid group took her to Germany, where a medical charity is looking after her.

Fortunately, the Nigerian girls kidnapped by Boko Haram—and still missing—received some media attention this week with the anniversary of those kidnappings. This, however, is a sad reminder that despite many good articles on the Yazidi disaster, considering the several thousand women and girls enslaved, the Yazidi case has received far less global attention, relatively.

Thankfully, Foreign Policy on Monday published an article reminding readers that this trauma is ongoing:

The Preteen Sex Slaves of the Islamic State – Samer Muscati – FP – Apr. 13, 2015

The nightmare of 12-year-old “Jalila” began when Islamic State fighters abducted her, along with her family, in northern Iraq. They separated her from her family and imprisoned her in a house in northeastern Syria with other abducted Yazidi women and girls. Then the jihadi fighters came, one after another, to inspect them. One singled Jalila out, took her home, and proceeded to rape her for three days. Six other Islamic State fighters eventually took possession of Jalila during her captivity, she told me recently — three of them raped her.

… Jalila eventually escaped, but her ordeal is far from over. When I visited Iraq in January and February to interview Yazidi women and girls about their experiences, I found that many of them desperately need psychological counseling and other medical care, which is often unavailable or inaccessible.

“I can’t sleep at night because I remember how they were raping me,” Jalila told me in the northern Iraqi city of Dohuk. “I want to do something to forget about my psychological problems. I want to leave Iraq until things get better; I don’t want to be captured again.”

As an investigator of human rights violations, I have documented many atrocious acts of sectarian violence and wanton bloodshed over the last decade. But the Islamic State’s targeting of Yazidi women and girls is unique in its ferociousness. This apparently systematic abuse constitutes war crimes, and may well amount to crimes against humanity. …

… However the conflict against the Islamic State plays out, the needs of the survivors and their communities should be addressed. While, in many ways, Jalila is lucky to have escaped captivity, her family is still missing and she is ensnared by her harrowing past. By ensuring that girls like Jalila receive the psychological help that they need, the world can rehabilitate former captives, restore broken communities, and prevent the Islamic State’s misogynist cruelties from ruining lives forever.

Depicting horror: Iraqi artist puts Yazidi trauma to canvasJonathan Krohn – April 14, 2015

Ammar Salim - Photo: AFP

Ammar Salim – Photo: AFP

A jihadist fighter slits a man’s throat, another brandishes a severed head spiked on his rifle while more militants dump bodies into a trench overflowing with corpses.

This is how painter Ammar Salim depicts the massacres the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group perpetrated against his Yazidi minority in northern Iraq last summer.

In his tiny apartment in the city of Dohuk in Iraq’s Kurdish region, Salim has attempted to put the collective memories of his community to canvas in a series entitled “The Yazidi Genocide”.

This particular piece, his most recent, includes more than 100 characters and was inspired by mass graves found in the Sinjar area.

“Most people fight through weapons, writing, or the press. I said I’d fight through art,” Salim says. “I want people to see what they haven’t seen.”

The paintings, including many crowded and colourful scenes reminiscent of Renaissance depictions of hell, are intentionally shocking.

One work depicting the fall of Sinjar shows women being raped, killed, and carried away. Another presents cackling jihadists buying and selling Yazidi women in the city of Mosul, their main northern Iraqi hub.

Salim fled the town of Bashiqa when IS fighters took over Mosul in June 2014 in an onslaught that overran large areas of Iraq. …

Yazidis wary amid stalled Sinjar offensive – Shelly Kittleson – al-Monitor – April 12, 2015

 … Peshmerga fighters allied with various other forces say they will move forward as soon as the president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) authorizes them to do so.

Meanwhile, several members of the Yazidi ethno-religious minority expressed bewilderment to Al-Monitor about the halt of the offensive in late December 2014, after major gains were obtained with the help of US airstrikes, when over 3,000 square kilometers (1,864 square miles) in the Sinjar area were reportedly taken back from IS in less than 48 hours.

… As to why they were not trying to advance, Zaway replied, “If we get the order from [KRG President] Massoud Barzani.” He continued, “We need two to three days to ‘clean up’ the entire city,” implying that the operation would be relatively easy as soon as orders were received to go forward.

… Domle told Al-Monitor of a new program that would relocate many of the women and girls who suffered torture and rape at the hands of IS to Germany for health and psychological support.“The first group arrived [in Germany] last Saturday,” he told Al-Monitor earlier this month. The second group will leave April 15. “This is the result of an official agreement between the KRG and Baden state in Germany to take more than 600 women and children.”

“They are happy with the military operation,” he added, in reference to the community, “but they don’t know why it stopped and are waiting for the other Yazidi areas north of Mosul to be liberated.”

… Domle said, “The problem is that it is now eight months and nothing has been done to rebuild the trust between the Yazidis and their neighbors.”

“The KRG and the central Iraqi government should make a plan to start rebuilding the area as soon as it is liberated,” he suggested, calling for Yazidis to be given a leading role.

And the military offensive must go forward, he stressed. The central government “doesn’t promise anything,” he said, “it just says we hope you will all return to your areas.”

The Children of Syria: A War and Image Industry

by Asaad Al-Saleh

Photo: IMB

When writing my new book, Voices of the Arab Spring, I did not feature the testimonials of children. Though the book surveys participants from various backgrounds, differing in age, politics, and education, it doesn’t address the Arab Spring from the perspective of children, even though they are also actors in it. I chose not to cover their stories because they are being used and abused to promote propaganda in Syria. The immoral exposure of children to the war is heightened by the disturbing fact that they have been used repeatedly throughout the conflict to endorse various political positions. During the bloodiest confrontations of the Arab Spring, those between the Syrian regime and the hundreds of factions fighting it, children have become victims of the violence resulting from both the uprising and the subsequent civil war. Despite this tragedy, children are still used in the rhetoric of revolt, war, and jihad.

Reports and studies marking the fourth anniversary of the uprising and civil war in Syria show that more than 4 million people are refugees outside the country and 7.6 million are internally displaced. Almost half of these are children whose need for assistance (such as shelter and education) is only partially being met. Of the 200,000 killed in the 4-year span of the conflict, over 10,000 were children, some of whom died as a result of torture. Citing the international standard that the percentage of civilians targeted in war should not exceed 2%, reports on Syria point out that the percentage of targeted children and women reached 4.5%. On the same occasion, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) raised awareness about the emotional trauma affecting Syrian children, some of whom are suffering the effects of rape and the loss of parents. Labeling them the “lost generation,” UNICEF also reported that more than 20% of Syrian schools have been either destroyed or rendered effectively unusable because they are currently used for shelter by displaced families.

As if this tragic plight were not enough, images of children are used in Syria as a propaganda tool by many sides. For the regime of Bashar al-Assad, a rhetoric of defending children has been employed to portray its enemies as abusers of children and the regime as their protector. In September 2013, the regime aired on television the testimony of a 16-year-old girl named Rawan Qadah, who gave details about the alleged “jihad sex” she was asked to perform at the request of her father. The opposition immediately responded by stating that Rawan had been kidnapped, forced to tell the same lies the regime was spreading about its opponents, and appeared too young to be a reliable witness in regards to verifying the regime’s claims. Rawan’s story demonstrates how children can be easily used for political agendas in the context of war. For some revolutionaries, or those who revolted peacefully in Syria four years ago, it was likewise customary to use children while calling for regime change and to attract the world’s attention to al-Assad’s crimes. This position comes from the assumption that children are “part of the revolution” and that their role must therefore be presented. The world cares about children, and the situation in Syria has been exceedingly desperate. Thus, children are used to provoke emotions and elicit more attention, political pressure, and eventually humanitarian or military intervention to “help” or “save” the children. The regime’s behavior is highly unethical concerning Syrian children considering the widespread displacement and death that occurs for the sake of al-Assad’s staying in power.

As for rebel groups that use terrorism in Syria, children are considered the future of Islam—as it is envisioned by al-Qaeda or ISIS. Their participation in the terrorists’ programs, most of which are symbolic but are sometimes extremely graphic, is done without the least attention to legal, moral, or psychological considerations. One of the early instances of the use of children’s images was performed by Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate. In June 2013, a video of a child about 5-years-old was circulated by al-Nusra to promote their dogma. The child, who was carried on a man’s shoulder, was chanting a song full of bigotry and terrorist rhetoric:

Our leader is Bin Laden … O you who terrorized America

We destroyed America … With a civilian airplane

The [World] Trade Center became a heap of sand

O you Nusayri Police … Wait for us O Alawites

We are coming to slaughter you … Unheeding any convention

[The child is then handed a knife to pretend that he is killing someone, before continuing:]

They say I am a terrorist … “It is my honor,” I replied

Our terrorism is highly praised … It is a divine call.

Children often play games imagining themselves as heroes with guns to fight the bad guys. But in Syria they are being dragged into a real war zone, even as instigators. The image industry in Syria uses journalistic and political outlets to make children represent a cause that is not theirs. It circulates hundreds of images of children carrying conventional weapons or dressed in military costumes, and more recently playing with slaughtered heads as part of ISIS propaganda. Such visibility is hardly the outcome of genuine consent of the child since he or she is not cognizant of the meaning or the consequences of participating in such functions. These children are growing up in one of the ugliest war zones in the world. One day, they will tell stories full of bad guys, including those who let this war drag on and on.Voices of the Arab Spring: Personal Stories from the Arab Revolutions

The regime, the opposition, and the jihadis in Syria are all responsible for such unethical manipulation of children and their images. These players need to grow up and leave children alone.

 

Asaad Al-Saleh is Assistant Professor of Arabic Literature and Comparative Literary and Cultural Studies at the University of Utah and author of the new book Voices of the Arab Spring: Personal Stories from the Arab Revolutions

Syrian Rebels Capture Idlib, by Aron Lund

– Guest post for Syria Comment by Aron Lund, editor of Syria in Crisis

On March 28, Syrian rebels and jihadi fighters announced that they had captured the city of Idlib, posting pictures and videos online that showed them in control of government buildings and other landmarks. This followed a lightning offensive of several days, by a coalition of Sunni Islamist militias that assaulted the city from several directions.

After the security forces of President Bashar al-Assad violently put down protests inside the city in 2011 and 2012, resistance had been relegated to the countryside. With most of the surrounding Idlib Province captured, rebels had in the past year slowly but surely increased pressure on the city itself. They repeatedly demonstrated their capacity to block access roads as a way to force concessions and prisoner exchanges, which must have been a demoralizing experience for pro-Assad forces inside the city. In December 2014, the bell tolled for Idlib City, when the opposition overran the long-besieged Wadi Deif base, freeing up hundreds of crack rebel fighters for new campaigns.

At the time of writing, the situation remains unstable and it cannot be ruled out that Assad’s forces will launch a counterattack from areas still under their control. The government-run SANA news agency only speaks of “repositioning forces” in the southern neighborhoods of the city. Still, the apparent collapse of government defenses in Idlib has punched a gaping hole in the government’s narrative of approaching victory and boosted the opposition politically as well as militarily, spelling trouble for Bashar al-Assad.

A Sign of Government Overstretch

Out of thirteen provincial capitals, Idlib is only the second to be lost to the government, after the northeastern town of Raqqa was captured in early 2013. And like Raqqa, Idlib is a regional center rather than a major city – it would not fit on a top-five list over Syria’s most important cities. But the blow is heavy nonetheless.

The government remains much stronger than any rebel group on the national level, controlling perhaps two thirds of the population. Assad’s semi-cohesive central leadership and his control of a fully functional air force makes him Syria’s by far most powerful political actor, but his regime suffers from serious shortcomings nonetheless. It lacks enough reliable troops to conduct multiple offensives while also controlling its current territory and has been forced to farm out sensitive security tasks to local militias and Iranian-backed Shia Islamist foreign fighters.

Meanwhile, the state-run economy is withering, with a currency crisis and increasingly debilitating lapses in the fuel supply system and electricity production. The falling oil price is likely to cap Russian and Iranian support at levels too low to sustain the current ambitions of their Syrian ally. In short, it seems that Assad is still trying to bite off more of Syria than he can swallow, and the recent defeat in Idlib underlines how dangerously overstretched his regime has become.

The Islamic Emirate of Idlib?

The fall of Idlib is not without its risks for the rebels. Previous attempts by opposition groups to govern urban areas in Syria have been disastrous failures. Of course, a major reason has been Assad’s systematic bombings of civilian areas and infrastructure, which have killed and maimed tens of thousands of Syrians and forced millions out of their homes – a treatment now likely to be extended to Idlib. Even so, the rebels themselves are far from blameless. They have by and large failed to produce anything other than chaos and economic collapse, with what they refer to as liberated territory now suffering from chronic infighting, predatory criminal bands, and the brutal imposition of ultra-conservative Islamist norms. Most infamously, Raqqa has since its capture in 2013 transformed into a local capital of sorts for the self-declared Islamic State.

In the case of Idlib, many different groups were involved and all of them are hostile to the Islamic State, but the offensive appears to have been spearheaded by jihadis from the al-Qaeda-aligned Nusra Front and the large Islamist faction known as Ahrar al-Sham. While there are important sources of friction between these two groups – Ahrar al-Sham refuses to endorse al-Qaeda’s anti-Western attacks and is seeking local allies to avoid being swallowed up by the Nusra Front’s increasingly bold bid for hegemony in Idlib – they are both overtly anti-democratic, hostile to religious minorities, and committed to establishing a Sunni Islamist theocracy in Syria.

There is already great concern in the United States and Europe over the riseof jihadi groups in Syria. Now, early headlines in the Western press speak of a city that has “fallen into the hands of al-Qaeda,” which is hardly the kind of coverage that Syrian rebels were looking for.

This will be a serious problem for the rebels in the coming weeks and months. If Idlib becomes the scene of public floggings and streetside executions of “immoral” women, such as the Nusra Front has committed elsewhere in Idlib Province, or if it collapses into a turf war between rival groups, it would not only weaken more moderate rebel factions – it would also provide Bashar al-Assad with an opportunity to turn military defeat into political gain.

Where Next?

Militarily, however, the Idlib defeat puts Assad in a difficult spot as he needs to foresee the next rebel assault and deploy accordingly. Rebels already controlled most of the Idlib Province, but some pro-regime pockets remained apart from the provincial capital – notably the twin Shia towns of Fouaa and Kefraya, near the Sunni Islamist-controlled town of Binnish to the northeast of Idlib City. On March 27, Ahrar al-Sham announced that it had cut the last remaining supply route via Idlib City to Fouaa and Kefraya, meaning that these towns will now have to sue for peace with the rebels or risk destruction and perhaps a sectarian massacre.

To the south of Idlib City, the government controls a string of towns in the northern Jabal al-Zawiya region, the largest being Ariha, that served to supply forces inside Idlib. If that is no longer an objective, the regime may decide to abandon some of them to focus on defending territory of larger strategic value. However, at the other end of the road controlled by Ariha, we find the city of Jisr al-Shughour which connects the Idlib province to the Sunni-populated and rebel-friendly northern areas of Latakia Province. While Jisr al-Shughour is of little value in itself, Assad will presumably be reluctant to allow for increased pressure on his strongholds on the Alawite-majority coast. According to some sources, the government transferred its provincial government offices from Idlib to Jisr al-Shughour already two weeks ago.

South of Jisr al-Shughour lies the Ghab area of Hama, a heavily irrigated agricultural plain that butts into the Idlib Province alongside the Alawite Mountains. This religiously mixed powder keg has seen fierce fighting and may be of particular value to some rebel groups – for example, many of the founding fathers of Ahrar al-Sham hailed from villages in the Ghab. It is also possible that rebels from Idlib could move further south past Khan Sheikhoun and the battleground town of Morek, thereby attempting to put pressure on Hama, Syria’s fourth-largest city. It is a Sunni stronghold that has remained under Assad’s rule but could prove difficult to control once rebels gather critical mass on its outskirts. A rebel advance on Hama would certainly force the army to concentrate forces there, even at the expense of other fronts.

To the east, there is another very attractive target: the Abu Duhour air base. Capturing it would not only hobble Assad’s air campaign, it would also open up an area of coherent rebel control from the Turkish border to the desert south of Aleppo. In so doing, the rebels would also expose Assad’s only remaining supply line into Aleppo, a desperately improvised logistics trail through the rural towns of Khanaser and Sfeira that would be tremendously difficult to defend against multi-pronged attacks, especially if air cover falters. Under that scenario, the rebels could turn the tables on Assad in Aleppo, threatening his control over the city by cutting it off entirely from the rest of Syria.

At the end of the day, however, Idlib City is of limited value in itself. It is possible that the regime will counterattack or that none of the scenarios sketched out above will materialize. But considering the military and economic resources invested by Bashar al-Assad in its defense over the past four years, the loss of Idlib would undoubtedly signal to many of his supporters that the government’s current strategy is untenable in the long term.

– Aron Lund is a freelance writer on Middle Eastern affairs and the editor of Syria in Crisis, a website published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Affairs.

Review of “ISIS: The State of Terror”

ISIS the State of Terror by Jessica Stern and JM BergerISIS: The State of Terror
(available here
By JM Berger & Jessica Stern
385 pp. (hardcover), HarperCollins
$27.99

Reviewed by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

The ISIS phenomenon that has swept Iraq and Syria with global repercussions has produced a demand for information on the origins, rise, operations and future of arguably the most brutal jihadist movement yet. Following on from “ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror,” Berger and Stern’s book is the second major title to come out on the subject. In 11 chapters, the authors begin with the origins of ISIS through Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi and his predecessor groups in the days of the Iraq War, with the apparent fall of what then became the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) in the aftermath of his death on account of the surge and Sunni Awakening movement in Iraq, to the rebirth of ISI under new leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi since 2010. This rebirth culminated in the renaming to the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), expansion through Syria, and the eventual lightning surge through northern and western Iraq that led to the further rebranding as just the “Islamic State” or the Caliphate, currently controlling a vast swathe of contiguous territory from Mosul in Iraq to northeast Aleppo countryside.

What follows- and this constitutes the main bulk of the book- is an in-depth analysis of ISIS’ use of media techniques to advertise itself, including focus on video releases of military operations, recruitment of foreign fighters, manipulation of Twitter to inflate ISIS’ presence and the pushback against the ISIS presence on social media. The authors then analyze the ongoing international competition between ISIS and al-Qa’ida for support, while also exploring the psychological impacts of ISIS’ actions (e.g. child recruitment) and the apocalyptic nature of its ideology. The book concludes with a survey of Western policy responses, real and potential, to the ISIS phenomenon. There is also an appendix written by a doctoral student with a primer on Islam and notions of the Caliphate, jihad and takfir (the practice of declaring others who say they are Muslim to be non-Muslims).

The main strength of the book and its most original contributions come in the sections on ISIS’ exploitation of social media. Rather than simply stating the obvious that ‘ISIS is on social media and is good at it’ (a non-story), the authors explore in detail the manipulation techniques used, with a noteworthy account on the development of the “Dawn of Glad Tidings” application (p. 148f.), created by a Palestinian and designed to tweet out links to official ISIS media releases and promote hashtags ISIS wanted to use. The most notable result of this phenomenon- from April till June 2014- was to scare Iraqis in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Mosul with threats of an ISIS march on Baghdad to conquer the capital: qadimun ya Baghdad, as one of the Arabic slogans went.

Incidentally, there are two things about this instance of inflation on social media not noted by the authors. The first is that this scare tactic has contributed in no small part to the mythology that endures to this day among Iraq’s Shi’a (and also among many analysts) that had there been no mass Shi’a militia mobilization, Baghdad would have fallen. This mythology has helped to consolidate the sectarian paramilitary response ISIS wanted. Second, the particular slogan ISIS exploited is one widely known and used among Iraq Sunni insurgent circles in the belief that Baghdad should be under Sunni control. Indeed, it is most popular with ISIS’ main insurgent rival in Iraq- the Ba’athist-Sufi Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandia (JRTN). Arguably, this ISIS hijacking of a popular Sunni insurgent slogan helped it to gain the upper hand very rapidly over other factions in places like Mosul and Tikrit (where one thought JRTN might have been able to wield more influence), as locals and insurgents saw ISIS as the winning horse that would retake Baghdad, prompting defections to ISIS.

Besides the Dawn application, another notable strategy of online ISIS inflation highlighted by Berger and Stern is the use of so-called mujtahidun- supporters who would begin a process of obsessive retweeting with hashtags to further ISIS’ reach on social media (p. 155). The authors further make a sound argument on the net benefit of terminating ISIS/pro-ISIS accounts to reduce online appeal: though they note it is not full-proof to stamp out ISIS completely from the world of the Internet, suspensions seem to reduce the overall reach of replacement accounts, and trump the argument of allowing complete free space to collect intel. Indeed, as Berger and Stern point out, no one ever makes a similar argument to allow child pornographers to operate online- let alone open access social media- without impediment, even as doing so would allow much intel to be gathered on their activities (p. 141).

The concluding section on policy recommendations deserves credit for some insightful thoughts. Rather than proposing a grand master plan to ‘defeat/destroy ISIS’ as has become so common in think-tank circles, the authors broadly suggest a policy of containment and online messaging disruption, noting that the present approach of trying to defeat/destroy ISIS via airstrikes and some training of native ground troops in Iraq and Syria likely cannot realize such an ambitious goal. Critics of the terrorism analysis field often accuse those who work within it of overhyping the threat for personal gain. This charge certainly cannot be applied to Berger and Stern, who affirm that “ISIS does not represent an existential threat to any Western country” (p. 236).

Indeed, they rightly note media overstatement of the threat of ISIS helps to reinforce the group’s narrative of a cosmic clash between good and evil. The authors also wisely caution against simplistic policy solutions: for instance, an intervention in Syria that “simply removes Assad, as the Libyans removed Gadhafi, creates new and different problems for the Syrian people, and these new problems may be even more intractable” (p. 254). This does not mean the authors advocate the folly of forming an alliance with Assad (and/or Iran, for that matter), but rather there is sober warning here against monochromatic analysis and policy proposals, as Libya finds itself amid chaos post-Gadhafi engulfed with a significant jihadist phenomenon of varying stripes, including ISIS.

However, for all these merits, there are many substantial shortcomings to this book. When it comes to any book or extended dissertation on ISIS, one inevitably faces a problem of how much attention should be devoted to certain parts of the chronology tracing the group’s origin and rise. This is a common issue for a range of historical and contemporary subjects: compare Tacitus’ affirmed approach in the Annals of dealing with the lengthy reign of Augustus in brief and general terms (with focus on succession and the last days) with the year by year documentation of events in Tiberius’ reign. Since the bulk of Berger and Stern’s book deals with ISIS and its use of media, the group’s history is only covered in summary form and the account presented is little more than a readable rehash of what is already common knowledge.

Worse still, some serious errors have creeped into the chronology and historical narrative as a result of insufficient research. In the summary timeline, the authors put Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s release from the U.S.-run Camp Bucca prison in Iraq in “Fall 2009″ [Timeline: XVII], and affirm that many of Baghdadi’s allies “had spent several years with Baghdadi in Camp Bucca” (p. 37). This chronology is wholly erroneous: Baghdadi was captured in early 2004 and released in December of that same year. Not only do detainee file records demonstrate this, but Jaysh al-Mujahideen, a Salafi nationalist Iraqi insurgent group, affirms that Baghdadi was among its ranks in 2005 following his release from Camp Bucca, rather than immediately joining al-Qa’ida in Iraq or its subsequent manifestations as the authors claim. Further, for “August 14, 2013,” the authors write: “ISIS pushes Syrian rebels out of Raqqa” [Timeline: XIX]. Actually, ISIS in that month expelled the rebel group Ahfad al-Rasul from Raqqa city, but Ahrar al-Sham remained in the city, undoubtedly content to stand by and allow ISIS to expel what it saw as a greater non-Islamist threat. The next month Jabhat al-Nusra marked its official return to Raqqa city.

For the date “September 25, 2013,” Berger and Stern write: “Rebel groups form the Islamic Front from eleven Western-backed opposition groups” [Timeline: XX]. In fact, the Islamic Front was not formed till November 2013, was initially composed of seven groups, and none of those constituents was ever Western-backed: on the contrary its constituents have been distrusted by the West because they are seen as too Islamist. The authors appear to have confused the Islamic Front with the al-Tahaluf al-Islami (“Islamic Alliance/Coalition”) formed in September 2013 that was primarily an Aleppo-based phenomenon, formed in opposition to the Western-backed opposition-in-exile and including a number of groups opposed to the West, such as Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham. The Sykes-Picot agreement was in 1916, not 1906 [ibid.].

Nor did ISIS ever name Raqqa city the “capital of the ISIS emirate” [ibid.]. It is true there was talk of this notion on pro-ISIS social media following the seizure by ISIS of all major Raqqa province localities by the end of January 2014 and Raqqa city could be seen as the de facto capital where new aspects of ISIS governance were tested, but there was never any official declaration: had it been the case, it would surely have been referenced in the imposition of the dhimmi pact on the Christians of Raqqa by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in February 2014. Moreover, the term “emirate” was not applied to the totality of ISIS’ territory at this stage (or from mid-2013 onwards, when ISIS began to acquire strongholds in Syria where it could advertise governance) but rather for individual towns they controlled/intending to seize by force (e.g. JarabulusAzaz and al-Bab). It was this declaration of ‘mini-emirates’, together with the emergence of slogans like “The Promised Project of the Caliphate” in the fall of 2013 that really marked the beginning of ISIS’ testing of messaging of the coming establishment of the Caliphate, rather than the Twitter campaign in March 2014 demanding that Baghdadi declare the Caliphate (p. 157).

Interestingly, mid-2013 onwards presents an interesting discord in ISIS messaging by location. Though media output in Syria, given ISIS’ control of meaningful territory and urban areas, meant emphasis on the state-building project and the coming of the Caliphate, Iraq operations statements still tended to present attacks as revenge/in defence of Sunnis, emphasizing perceived ‘Safavid’ government crimes against them such as ethnic cleansing in the Baghdad Belt area. This is not touched on by the authors.

Some other errors: the authors claim that ISIS “captured Fallujah in January [2014]” (p. 44). In fact, Fallujah fell to a number of insurgent factions including ISIS, which only came to dominate the city over its rivals (including the Islamic Army in Iraq, Jaysh al-Mujahideen and JRTN) after 5-6 months or so. At times, excess repetition leads to some more minor mistakes: “in early 2013, al-Qaeda in Iraq announced…” (p. 66) when the Islamic State of Iraq is meant; “in the spring of 2014, Zawahiri disavowed ISIS, which was at the time considered an al Qaeda affiliate” (p. 180) when February 2014 is meant.

The last of those aforementioned errors comes in the overview section of the competition between ISIS and al-Qa’ida. This section is generally adequate- and slightly outdated on Boko Haram out of no fault of the authors- but could have made for a more insightful discussion by e.g. delving more into cases of pledges of allegiance to ISIS that have not been officially acknowledged to lead to the creation of new ‘provinces’ (e.g. Ansar al-Tawheed in India and elements of Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines; for the latter, the scanty evidence does not suggest the whole group has pledged allegiance pace the authors’ assertion in the glossary [Glossary IX], which may be one reason why ISIS has not created a ‘Philippines province’). Though touched on briefly by the authors, more could have been said on the question of ISIS social media manipulation and allegiance pledges from (components of) other jihadist groups, such as Jamaat Ansar al-Islam in Iraq and Syria- a group whose predecessor Ansar al-Islam is only referenced twice in the entire book, once in the glossary and once in the main content (p. 17).

In sum, parts of this book can serve as a useful primer for the general reader or university courses on ISIS regarding the relationship between ISIS and media, particularly open access platforms such as Twitter- a welcome relief from repetitive and sensationalist conventional media coverage. The book can also be a tab on some of the more infamous ISIS videos (such as the Saleel al-Sawarim/’Clanging of the Swords’ series) for those who may have missed them when they were released, with worthwhile background for those unfamiliar with how jihadis before ISIS have tried to exploit the online world.

Yet the opening historical narrative on the rise of ISIS is too terse, too unoriginal and has too many mistakes. We are also given very little insight into how exactly ISIS is managing territories it controls. More generally, there is over-reliance on secondary sources in the sections that are clearly outside the authors’ specialties, and the book is marred by lack of fieldwork and local contacts in Iraq and Syria. Hopefully the errors highlighted here will be corrected in a subsequent edition, but this work is by no means the definitive text on ISIS, which is still years, if not decades away from fruition- as the authors themselves implicitly acknowledge (p. 7).

 

 

The Administration of the Local Council in Azaz

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Readers of my report on my visit to the north Aleppo town of Azaz near the border with Turkey will recall that authority in Azaz is divided between two bodies: the local council and the Shari’a committee. Broadly speaking, the local council covers the realm of public services, while the Shari’a committee, working with the Northern Storm Brigade as the police force, is responsible for criminal law and order, family and public morality. Both bodies are officially ‘civil’ (madani) and ‘independent’ (mustaqill), but in particular, the Shari’a committee’s own links with what was then the Islamic Front in Aleppo (now the Levant Front) were clear during my visit with the presence of the rebel coalition’s flags at the entrance to the building.

This post explores in greater detail the activities of the local council in Azaz, which is located in what used to be the regime’s local security centre that also held detained opposition activists. The local council’s funds primarily come from its own members and charging of locals for some services it provides (e.g. street cleaning).

As the Syrian civil war enters into its fifth year, with so much attention on the Islamic State (IS) phenomenon and its system of administration of territories it controls (for an ongoing extensive archive of IS administrative documents, see this post on my site), one should not forget that life and governance in Syria exist beyond IS, jihadi groups and the regime. Though there is a Jabhat al-Nusra presence in the town that has a base and controls one of the mosques, it still does not exercise governing authority and thus has no presence in Azaz’s local council or Shari’a committee. An interesting notable Jabhat al-Nusra figure in Azaz who was reportedly assassinated in January this year was Shari’a cleric/judge Abu Shu’aib al-Masri, a defector from the Islamic State.

The Azaz local council describes its activities thus in a statement it released earlier this year (beginning of February 2015):

Local Council in the town of Azaz

Clarification statement on the activities and specialties of the local council in Azaz.

The local council undertakes to guide civil affairs through self efforts and very sparse financial support. Through this statement we clarify the specialties that the local council bears on its shoulder as far as possible:

1. Cleaning/Sanitation: With all its burdens and requirements including securing fuel for the municipality’s vehicles, regular maintenance for them, and securing ‘nature of the work’ for the cleaning/sanitation workers- whose number is at 40- at a sum of 250000 Syrian pounds a month.

2. Electricity: That also through fuel for the electricity network’s mechanisms and regular maintenance for them in addition to supporting the electricity network with maintenance necessities for the town’s network as far as possible, it should be noted that we have received from the Energy Ministry real materials and necessities for the electricity network in the town of Azaz but they are insufficient on account of the accumulation of malfunctions in the network for 4 years and we have undertaken to restore the functioning of the al-Asyana network whose malfunctioning has continued for more than 3 years.

3. Education: We have begun our project on the education situation in a self-effort with the help of some of the generous families and guarantee of male and female teachers recruited from all specialties and the number of schools’ students in all study stages has reached 6500. Let it be known that the schools in the town of Azaz have been interrupted in functioning since the beginning of the revolution but Chemonics and the Syrian Promise movement have moved forward in supporting us in restoring suitable furniture for eight schools including doors, windows, fibres, heaters, and fuel to heat the schools over the course of the winter season and work is now proceeding excellently in the town.

4. Health expenditure: The local council has begun its work in maintaining some of the drainage points with very simple capabilities and we are continuing this project.

5. Water: The local council has undertaken to prepare uncovered wells and the water main in complete form and to draw water from the Midanki Dam so we are continuing to work and by all available means to prepare this project and complete it in the nearest time possible to provide water for all the town of Azaz.

6. Aid: We are now working to restructure the aid staff with areas directors and organizing the distribution operation. As for the operation to distribute milk and diapers, the local council is undertaking to verify children’s vaccination cards on account of the widespread existence of fake vaccination cards and we have undertaken to publish the names of all the beneficiaries for the distribution of milk and diapers on our page and we have asked families to help us identify the names of those not entitled.

7. As for the issue of restoring roads, the engineering office is responsible for this matter in the town in cooperation with the local council and the military office and we will undertake this project at the beginning of the spring because of the lack of possibility at the current time with the rain.

8. As for the bakery (reserve/relief), we undertake to secure aid-provided flour for the bakery through aid of some of the organizations for us and as for its functional management we have nothing to do with that at all.

The local council is ready to be held accountable and open up all to its financial reports and our door is open to any citizen who wants to hold us accountable and hold us to an inquiry by legal means and principles.”

To give some context to the various points statement, sanitation operations for Azaz are reportedly being implemented in cooperation with the World Vision humanitarian organization. ‘Nature of the work’ (tabi’atu l-‘amal) refers to compensation for unusual work undertaken to complete one’s job. In another post, expenses are given as follows for various aspects of sanitation in January 2015:

Municipality vehicles’ fuel: 356275 Syrian pounds.
Vehicles’ maintenance: 141600 Syrian pounds.
Vehicles’ frames: 60200 Syrian pounds.
Oils for the vehicles’ engines: 17590 Syrian pounds.
‘Nature of the work’ for workers: 220000 Syrian pounds.
Sanitation workers’ salaries: 78000 Syrian pounds.

10929965_365132103672281_3153806162873793422_n
Rubbish collection in Azaz by the local council. Accumulation of piles of rubbish in the open in the town is a notable problem.

Besides World Vision, the local council has also received assistance from GIZ, a German international development organization, claiming to receive 350 garbage containers.

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As regards electricity, al-Asyana area mentioned here is a part of Azaz that has suffered from a lack of electricity over long periods. In December 2014, the local council claimed to fix technical problems with the network for the area, including by extension of new cables, but the February statement suggests malfunctioning is still an issue. More generally, problems with electricity will have begun since the outbreak of unrest in Azaz in 2011 and become more acute since July 2012 when the town fell out of regime control. Electricity has since that time come almost wholly from private generators. The “Energy Ministry” that has provided the local council with some aid is that of the opposition-in-exile’s declared Syrian “interim government,” which has been hoping to supply electricity as a public service to rebel-held areas via connection with Turkey’s electricity grid using the town of Azaz as the main link. That said, there has been no sign of real progress on these plans thus far.

The education system is one of the areas in which the Assad regime maintains leverage in Azaz as public school teachers still receive salaries from the regime, which they must collect from regime-held areas of Aleppo province. The system is also disliked by the Jabhat al-Nusra presence in Azaz, which set up its alternative in the Mus’ab ibn Umair mosque it controls in the town. The local council has mostly advertised maintenance and repair of school furniture and equipment as well as provision of appropriate materials for heating in the winter. For example, this statement from mid-February 2015:

Local Council in Azaz
Intended recipient: Syrian Promise Movement

Thanks to the Syrian Promise Movement

The Syrian Promise Movement has provided a financial sum of $500 as simple aid (for month of February) from the movement to meet the guarantee of fuel for three primary schools in the town- the well-being of the primary schools have precedence since they have a large number of children whose bodies cannot bear the cold of winter.

Head of the Local Council in Azaz
Education Office

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Initiative by Local Council in Azaz working with the Islamic Relief to provide winter clothing for children.

On the plans to secure water, it is of interest to note the local council’s mention of the Midanki Dam, which is located in the Kurdish PYD autonomous canton of Afrin. Northern Storm and the PYD were once enemies, and tensions between the two sides meant that water, which before the civil war would come from the Midanki pumping station two days a week, was subsequently cut off.

However, there was some limited cooperation of convenience in the fight to drive ISIS out of ISIS’ declared ‘Emirate of Azaz’ once wider infighting broke out between the rebels and ISIS in January 2014. Since Northern Storm returned to Azaz officially under the authority of Liwa al-Tawhid and the Islamic Front in Aleppo (now the Levant Front), there has been official neutrality despite suspicion that reinforcements come from Afrin to the regime-held Shi’a villages of Nubl and Zahara.

Securing water from Afrin would therefore require greater outreach to the PYD, which may be one of the underlying reasons behind the agreement publicly announced in February between the PYD’s military wing the YPG and the Levant Front, stipulating a united judicial system, establishing joint Shari’a and da’wah offices in Aleppo and Afrin, and working together to crack down on crime. Of course, Jabhat al-Nusra is opposed to any such arrangements with the PYD/YPG, which it considers to be apostate entities.

Provision of aid and vaccinations has also been advertised by the local council in Azaz. For example, in January, the local council’s aid office claimed to distribute 3500 packs of milk to locals, while also noting the problem of those not needing the milk but receiving distributions to sell for profit.  On 24 February, a notification was put up for a polio vaccine campaign for children in Azaz running from 28 February to 5 March. This vaccine campaign was also advertised by the Azaz Media Centre that exists in a single room on the second floor of what was once a café, now otherwise abandoned.

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Outside the Azaz Media Centre: in solidarity with the people of Raqqa living under Islamic State rule. The image alludes to ‘Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently.’ 

Perhaps more notable is the omission by the local council of mention of hospital services in Azaz, likely because the local council has no influence over such services that are private in nature. This similarly applies to the mention of only one bakery for which the local council provides flour, for it is public in nature whereas the other three bakeries in Azaz are privately run.

In sum, it can be seen how the council wishes to present itself as an accountable body caring for local needs. Some sense of order has also been brought to the town particularly as Northern Storm is no longer an independent group but must answer to a higher rebel coalition authority (the Levant Front) if trouble arises. The opposition-in-exile, despite its unpopularity with locals on the ground in Azaz and more widely in Syria, maintains limited indirect influence in Azaz through its “interim government” provision of some aid.

Yet by the local council’s own admission, resources are still highly strained, undoubtedly further pressured by the internal refugee influx into Azaz and the wider district. In comparison with direct Islamic State administration that spans significant contiguous territory and has greater financial revenues, the Azaz local council’s administrative system is much less complex and also suffers from the inherent problem of localization of rebel administration.

The Kobani Model: Strengthening Kurdish-Arab Relations in Syria

by Nicholas A. Heras and Wladimir van Wilgenburg

Wladimir van Wilgenburg KurdistanNick HerasThe Islamic State (IS) suffered a setback at the northern Syrian-Turkish border city of Kobani. This much-heralded event was important for a reason that has potential future ramifications for the civil war and the future stability of Syria: Arab-majority armed, moderate opposition groups and Kurdish militias under the People’s Protection Units (YPG) willingly entered into a joint operations room to coordinate the city’s defense. By standing and fighting against IS, the joint Kurdish-Arab effort in Kobani demonstrated that a multi-ethnic armed opposition coalition could function and succeed in the test of battle.

Euphrates Volcano Kurds Arabs Syria

Example of Euphrates Volcano press material

Building pan-ethnic cooperation as part of a pluralistic political program should be a core element of the U.S.-led Syrian rebel train-and-equip program. But so far, the most effective anti-IS force, the YPG, has not been included and its forces are euphemistically referred to as “anti-ISIL forces” by the Coalition. There is a reason for this: the YPG are linked to the most powerful Syrian Kurdish political faction, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is closely associated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Encouragingly, several Arab brigades associated with the mainstream moderate armed opposition coalition under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) participated in this joint operation with their Kurdish peers. Working together, their “Euphrates Volcano” campaign against the IS-held cities of Tal Abyad and Jarabulus is threatening IS’ grip on vital Syrian-Turkish border areas in its capital province of Raqqa. Until the Coalition has established actionable lines of influence into IS-held territory, it is likely that the most immediate and effective method of limiting the spread of IS and confronting it head-on is by operating on the margins of its territory in eastern and northern Syria, which is exactly what the Euphrates Volcano campaign is doing.

Speaking to this development, the PYD’s leader Salih Muslim stated to one of the authors in a March 11 interview at the Sulaimani Forum conference in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq that:

“If they [the U.S.] accept it, we will do it. Our people have more experience than those they will train [FSA forces]. But there should be coordination even for the training. If the U.S. supports this, it could be a model for a future Syria.”

Turkey, a key U.S. ally in the anti-IS campaign, will also be critical to any expansion of a joint Kurdish-Arab armed opposition campaign against IS. The brutal history of conflict between the Turkish government and the PKK, and the United States’ designation of the group as a terrorist organization, might seem to place a severe limit on the extent of future cooperation between U.S. trained-and-equipped Syrian Arab rebels and the YPG. Turkey’s early and sustained influence over the Syrian armed opposition movement, including hosting some of the Arab rebel leaders who are cooperating with the Kurdish militias, could also potentially limit the further development of a Kurdish-Arab joint operations room against IS.

There are signs, however, that a pragmatic Turkish approach to Syria’s Kurds may be emerging. There has been continuous, although at times contentious, engagement between Turkish officials and the PYD, including with Salih Muslim. The ongoing PKK-Turkish peace negotiations and political pressure from Turkey’s Kurdish-majority political parties also adds impetus for the Turkish government to tolerate the existence of the YPG and incorporate it in the anti-IS campaign. Turkey’s ability to work with the YPG was shown in the recent auxiliary role that the Kurdish militias played in assisting Turkish troops to secure the body of Suleiman Shah and relocate it to Kurdish-held areas of Syria.

Further, in October 2014, the Turks proposed a no fly zone and safe-haven in northern Syria, but so far this plan has not been implemented. Building on the cooperation between the YPG and the FSA, Turkey could use this to create a safe buffer zone between Turkey and Syria. Turkey initially strongly opposed Iraqi Kurdistan’s autonomy, but now the Iraqi Kurds are treated as potential allies by Ankara. Repairing relations between Sunni Arabs and Kurds in Syria will require a Turkish role.

Inside Syria, there is still a great deal of animosity between Arab and Kurdish communities, particularly in the strategic Syrian-Iraqi border province of al-Hasakah, where the YPG and its auxiliaries are waging a campaign against IS’ lines of supply and communication between Iraq and Syria. Arab tribes from Raqqa were settled in this predominantly Kurdish region the 1970s by the Syrian government as part of its “Arab belt” policy to weaken the demographic weight of the Kurds.

The YPG, under the influence of the PKK, is accused of trying to ethnically cleanse Arabs and rip the oil-rich areas that it dominates out of Syria, heightening ethnic tensions between it and the Arab-majority opposition movement. IS has preyed on the suspicion of local Arab communities toward the Kurds to recruit Arab rank-and-file fighters in al-Hasakah. However, members of local Arab tribes, such as from the powerful, trans-national Shammar confederation, actively cooperate with the YPG and have participated in the Syrian Kurds’ attempt to build a nascent government. Ethnic relations between Kurds and Arabs, complex and fraught as they may sometimes be, are not irreparable.

Still, a potential post-Assad/post-IS Syria will need to recognize and honor the desire of Syrian Kurds to have their ethno-linguistic cultural rights protected, promoted, and enshrined in law, or risk endemic ethnic conflict. It will also need to manage the process of incorporating Syrian Kurdish communities, many of them already practicing a de facto form of autonomy from the rest of the country, back into the national political fold.

To that end, developing Kurdish-Arab joint military campaigns against IS in Syria can have far-reaching impact. Continued Kurdish-Arab joint operations could end IS control over large areas of the Syrian-Turkish border and would cut the flow of IS fighters into Syria, denying IS strategic depth as the U.S.-led Coalition works to defeat IS in Iraq. Active encouragement and support from the Coalition for this organic process can contribute to the process of rebuilding trust between the communities. Improving Kurdish-Arab relations will be a core component of establishing an effective and stable security environment in Syria.

 

Nicholas A. Heras is the Research Associate in the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security

Wladimir van Wilgenburg is a Middle East Analyst at the Jamestown Foundation and a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan. Follow at @vvanwilgenburg

The Killing of Muhammad al-Assad, a.k.a. “Shaykh al-Jabal”

MuhammadAssad2015_1The Killing of Muhammad al-Assad, a.k.a. “Shaykh al-Jabal”
By: Mohammad D.
For Syria Comment, March 14, 2015

Muhammad Tawfiq al-Assad, a.k.a Shaykh al-Jabal, a well known second cousin of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, was killed two days ago. He was the son of Tawfic al-Assad. His grandfather, Ismail al-Assad, was a half-brother of the late president Hafez al-Assad. Muhammad al-Assad, a.k.a Shaykh al-Jabal, was the best known and most feared member of the second generation of shabiha that emerged from the al-Assad family in rural Latakia in the early 1980s. In his death announcement (Na’wa نعوة), he is listed as both a Doctor and Mujahid. He was 48 years old.

His being given the honorific title “Mujahid” made people ask where and when Muhammad al-Assad, a.k.a Shaykh al-Jabal, was fighting. His supporters claimed that he was killed in the vicious battle underway in Doreen دورين, east of Latakia.

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The Battle of Doreen is  important and has been heated for some time. The Syria Arab Army and National Defense Forces (al-Difa’ al-Watani) attacked recently and were able to achieve some success. The Hill of Doreen fell first, then Doreen itself. But since then it has become a tough back-and-forth slog against a coalition of rebel militias that include Jabhat al-Nusra and al-Jabha al-Islamiyah. The rebels are trying to retake the high ground and break through into the Alawite areas below Doreen. The high ground also allows for rockets to be fired at Latakia.

Regime Soldiers killed fighting Jabhat al-Nusra around Dorin in Latakia

Doreen is a well known summer resort in the mountains next to Salma. It is a Sunni village and was held by the anti Assad groups for years. Salma is the biggest and only important stronghold left in the hands of the anti Assad forces East of Latakia in the Jabal al-Akrad region.

Doreen is strategically important because it is a high point and puts Salma, a major rebel stronghold, under the guns of Assad forces. The fall of Salma would provide a major victory for al-Assad in the coastal areas. Thus, the battles are heated. To put Muhammad al-Assad, a.k.a, Shaykh al-Jabal in the midst of this battle would mean that he was a Mujahid, as his death notice claims.

The Question is: was Shaykh al-Jabal really fighting there? Alawite sources that I have contacted in Latakia, and one in al-Qurdaha itself, all claim he was not. They confirm one story: Shaykh al-Jabal was killed near al-Qurdaha by a man named Ali Salhab  علي سلهب. This happened after Shaykh al-Jabal had a long night of drinking and partying. Whether or not Ali Salhab was drinking is debated because many said he ambushed Shaykh al-Jabal, then shot him dead.

There was bad blood between these two men. One of the sources said that “Shaykh al-Jabal ” was killed because he had put Ali Salhab in prison and tortured him. According to this source, Mohammad al-Assad had his own prison. Another source said that Ali Salhab killed him because of a land deal gone bad, and that Assad’s body was then taken to Doreen in order to provide him with an honorable death at the battle front.

When asking a pro-Assad supporter about the doctorate degree Muhammad al-Assad A.K.A. Shaykh al-Jabal claimed on his death notice, he said: “His degree is false…he was no doctor…just a smuggler… he bought his doctorate from an Eastern European country the same way he bought the name Shaykh al-Jabal for himself. See, the real Shaykh al-Jabal are the fighters who are cold, most likely hungry, and fighting in the mountains…”

Muhammad al-Assad gave himself the name Shaykh al-Jabal, when he was an up-and-coming smuggler in the late 1980s and one of the Shabiha.  But, he was not the top Shabih by any measure. That position was held by Fawaz al-Assad, the son Hafiz al-Assad’s full brother Jamil.  Despite being under the shadow of Fawaz, “Shaykh al-Jabal” was able to assemble a notorious gang of smugglers that operated for a long time.  But when the age of smuggling came to an end with the opening up of the economy, Muhammad al-Assad bought himself a Ph.D and upgraded along with the rest of Syria.

Stories about his bad behavior are many, the most notorious of which is the story of Hala ‘Aqel, a very beautiful Alawite 18 year old who died in mysterious circumstances twenty-five years ago.  Anti-Assad agitators claimed that Shaykh al-Jabal killed her.  I myself was living in Latakia when this happened and to my knowledge no one knew how she died.  No investigation was carried out into the reasons for her sudden death. This left the door open for those who had been hurt by the Assads to claim that Muhammad had killed her.

Bashar al-Assad’s many second cousins and distant relatives who share his family name do not orbit in the same sphere as his first cousins, many of whom are trusted to fill sensitive positions in running security or the economy. Mohammad al-Assad may have shared the president’s last name, but his notoriety came from being a smuggler and highway robber (qata’ al-tariq) and not as a man of consequence.

Muhammad_Assad2015

Note: Jabal means mountain in Arabic. Shaykh al-Jabal means: The Chief of the Mountain.

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Meet the Badris

By A.N.

Abd al-Aziz al-Badri
Sheikh Abd al-Aziz al-Badri

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the self-declared Islamic State, was not produced in a vacuum. In fact, he comes from a tribe with a long history of support for Salafism. The following is a brief window into this extended family.

 

In the first letter calling for bayʿa (swearing of allegiance) to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Turki Binali needed to prove that Baghdadi was a descendant of the Quraysh in order to establish that he was entitled to become a caliph. Binali, from Bahrain, now holds an important position as one of the top jurists in IS, and despite being very young, is referred to by some as the “grand mufti” of IS. The requirement that a caliph be descended from the Quraysh is based on the dominant understanding of a saying of Mohammad in which he declared that the Quraysh were the best tribe. This has been understood by the Sunni schools to mean that the office of caliph should be exclusive to the descendants of the Quraysh tribe.

In proving Baghdadi’s eligibility, Binali not only attempted to demonstrate that Baghdadi descended from the Quraysh, but traced Baghdadi’s lineage to Mohammad himself, through Ali and Fatima (the daughter of Mohammad), by saying that that Baghdadi is: “From the the descendants of Armoush bin Ali bin Eid bin Badri bin Badr al-Din bin Khalil bin Hussain bin Abdallah bin Ibrahim al-Awah bin al-Sharif Yehia Ez al-Din bin al-Sharif Bashir bin Majed bin Atiah bin Yaala bin Douwed bin Majed bin Abdulrahman bin Qassem bin al-Sharif Idriss bin Jaafar al-Zaki bin Ali al-Hadi bin Mohamad al-Jawad bin Ali al-Rida bin Mossa al-Kazem bin Jaafar al-Sadeq bin Mohamad al-Baqer bin Ali Zein al-Abidin bin al-Hussain bin Ali bin Abi Taleb and Fatima, daughter of Mohammad.”
عرموش بن علي بن عيد بن بدري بن بدر الدين بن خليل بن حسين بن عبد الله بن إبراهيم الأواه بن الشريف يحيى عز الدين بن شريف بن بشير بن ماجد بن عطية بن يعلى بن دويد بن ماجد بن عبد الرحمن بن قاسم بن الشريف إدريس بن جعفر الزكي بن علي الهادي بن محمد الجواد بن علي الرضا بن موسى الكاظم بن جعفر الصادق بن محمد الباقر بن علي زين العابدين بن الحسين بن علي بن أبي طالب وفاطمة
Turki Binali did not need to do much research to find this out: this is the lineage that Abu Baker al-Baghdadi’s tribe claims for itself. Abu Bakr’s real name is Ibrahim al-Badri, and his full name is Ibrahim bin Awad bin Ibrahim ibn Ali ibn Mohammad bin Badri bin Armoush (the same Armoush who kicks off the tribe’s lineage). He belongs to the Bou Badri tribe named after Badri who was the son of Armoush.
Bou Badri is an Iraqi tribe present in Samra’, Baghdad, Missan, Wasset, and Diala. The eponymous father of the tribe, Badri, moved to Samaraa from Medina in the 1700s, married locally, and had 5 children. Today the tribe numbers around 25,000 people, most of whom are Sunni, but with a population of about 1,500 Shiʿis, as well.
The tribe includes notable figures in Iraqi history, some of which worked toward Islamist objectives and were heavily involved in religious activism. Five of these are profiled below, one of which personally supervised Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s religious studies. Most of the below are direct quotes translated from Arabic sources online. (Note that some members of the al-Badri tribe use the “al-Samera’i” nisba which refers to their town of Samarra, rather than “al-Badri.”)

Sheikh Abdel al-Aziz al-Badri (1929 – 1969) — One of the founders of the Iraqi branch of the Hizb al-Tahrir and later emir of Wilayat al-Iraq (a Hizb al-Tahrir designation)

  • He called for the revival of the caliphate
  • In the early 1950s, Hizb al-Tahrir approached several Islamic figures in Iraq including Abdel al-Aziz to create an Iraqi branch
  • He traveled to Jordan and met with Hizb al-Tahrir founder Taqiuddin al-Nabhani and returned to Iraq to form a Hizb al-Tahrir branch. He presented the party credentials to the Iraqi government, seeking to register the party, but they refused to give the founders a permit and later proceeded to persecute them
  • He fought against the Hashemites, the communists, and the Baath party
  • He left Hizb al-Tahrir in 1956
  • He grew closer to the Muslim Brotherhood and became one of their symbols in Iraq
  • He was arrested 14 times in addition to numerous house arrest orders by each of the various rulers that controlled of Iraq during his lifetime
  • Baath forces arrested him and tortured him for 17 days until he died, and then returned his body to his family for burial in 1969
  • Witnesses have said that he was beaten by Nazem al-Kazaz, head of the Baath regime’s General Security Forces for defying the Baath. Kazaz was later killed after a failed attempt to overthrow Ahmad Hassan al-Baker and his deputy Saddam Hussain in 1973
  • He worked with the Shiʿa and strove to develop good relations with them. He visited Karbala and Najaf to ask the ulama there to intervene with Gamal Abd al-Nasser to stop the execution of Sayed Qutb
  • He wrote several books including The Position of Islam on Socialism (he concludes it is kufr), Islam Between the Scholars and the Rulers (in which he condemns scholars that work for rulers), and Islam: A War Against Capitalism and Socialism

 

Subhi al-Samerai al-Badri

Subhi al-Samerai

Subhi al-Samerai [al-Badri] (1936 – 2013) — One of the founders of Salafi movement in Iraq

  • A leading Iraqi muhaddith
  • Bin Baz (Saudi mufti) said about him “this man is one of the remnants of the people of hadith in Iraq”
  • He was one of the founders of the Salafi movement in Iraq and belonged to the branch that preferred to work independently and focus on combating tashayuʿ (conversion to Shiʿism) more than other Salafis
  • He kept a library full of Shiʿi books that became a destination for other Salafi sheikhs who wanted to learn about Shiʿi beliefs
  • He was a policeman from 1951 until he retired in 1977
  • When Baath came to power in 1968, he was forced to cease his anti-Shiʿi activities and limited his preaching to a group of his friends and students
  • He was finally able to express himself again after he went to Saudi Arabia in the early 1980s, where he taught at al-Masjid al-Haram
  • He lectured at university of Mohammad bin Saud
  • He also lectured at the King Abdallah University where he gave his most well known lectures in the science of shiʿi hadith
  • He came back to Iraq in the 80s and was appointed to a mosque in Baghdad. People that attended the mosque knew of his dislike of the rafida (Shiites) and whenever somebody mentioned rafida during his hadith lesson, he would forget about the lessons and start preaching about the rafida in anger
  • In 1989, he taught in the University of Islamic Sciences in Baghdad [the same university where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi got his bachelors, and his alleged masters and PhD], where he raised his voice loudly against Shiʿa.
  • He did not publish many books because of the oppressive regime in Iraq but he did write an introduction to a book in which he tried to prove the Shiʿi admission of the existence of Abdallah bin Saba (a supposedly early Jewish convert to Islam who was supposedly the first to call for Ali to become Mohammad’s successor, invoked by Sunnis trying to demonstrate that Shiʿism is a Jewish invention) because some Shiʿi and Orientalist authors were publishing books denying his existence
  • He lost popularity because of his soft tone towards the Baath regime
  • Between 1990 and 2003, Islamic daʿwa started spreading in Iraq as the government was being weakened; due to this he gained a bigger following
  • He also went on trips with al-Albani (influential and founding Salafi sheikh) in Jordan starting in 1991
  • He was elected as an honorary emir of Salafism in Iraq after the fall of Baghdad
  • He was part of the Hayat Ulama al-Iraq
  • In 2003 he knew that the Shiʿa would end up ruling Iraq so he left with his family to Jordan. From there he moved to Syria where warned against the Nusayris saying ,”these people are kuffar and are not of Islam”
  • He eventually made it to Lebanon in 2009 where he also preached against Hezbollah and had a small following
  • He died in June 2013 at the American University hospital in Beirut
  • One funny anecdote that the sheikh would recount is that once while traveling he found a possessed man, so he performed an exorcism on him. During the exorcism he discovered that the jinn that possessed the man was a Iraqi Shiʿi rafidi from a well known Shiʿi city so he asked him: “What brought you here?” [he had such a great sense of humor]
  • He traveled the world in search of Islamic manuscripts and visited Berlin, Dublin, and Princeton
  • He supervised Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s studies of the Qur’an and hadith [the Newsweek article linked to misspells Subhi’s nisba]
  • Youtube videos of him

 

Lieutenant General Nassif Jassem al-Samerai

Nassif Jassem al-Samerai stands to the left of Iraqi President Abd al-Karim Qasim in the late 1950s

Nassif Jassem al-Samerai stands to the left of Iraqi President Abd al-Karim Qasim in the late 1950s

  • The brother of Subhi al-Samerai
  • Nassif Jasem was head of the military academy in the 1960s
  • Was head of the logistics unit at the time of the coup against the communists. Played a role on the Baath side
  • He executed 25 communists without trial during the coup in February 14, 1963
  • He became deputy commander-in-chief of the Iraqi army under the Abdul Salam Arif government
  • He played a major role in the Iran-Iraq war
  • He became a military adviser to Saddam
  • He was arrested by US forces in 2004 along with his son in a raid on his house

 

Haitham Sabah Shaker Mahmoud al-Badri — Mastermind of the 2006 al-Askari mosque bombing; was al-Qaida Emir of Salahudin Province

  • Haitham al-Badri was the al-Qaida Emir of Salahudin Province and the Emir of Samarra before that
  • His brother was killed in a US air force bombing
  • He had connections to the supporters of the fallen Baath regime
  • He was connected to Ansar al-Suna before he moved to al-Qaida
  • He planned the 2006 bombing of the al-Askeri mosque in Samarra, and extremely important religious site for Shiʿis that housed the tombs of two of the twelve Shiʿi imams. He gave the order to to 4 Saudis, 2 Iraqis, and one Tunisian to carry out the bombing
  • He was accused of killing al-Arabia reporter Atwar Bahjat himself but the Iraqi government later accused and convicted someone else for her killing
  • He allegedly refused an offer by Izzat al-Douri in 2006 to coordinate with the Baath
  • He was killed in an airstrike in 2007 during a US forces raid in Samarra
  • In September 2012, Iraqi police arrested his brother “Hisham Sabaa Shaker” who later became a prominent leader of IS in the Jazeera area. He was preparing to commit a suicide bombing in the center of Mosul when he was captured

 

Abdel Al-Satar al-Badri — Salafi Sheikh

  • Pupil of Bin Baz (Saudi mufti)
  • He worked to spread Salafism in Dayala
  • His son died fighting American forces in 2007
  • Possible twitter account
  • He, along with another sheikh from the tribe, built the al-Khoder mosque in Dayala. Several people that attended this mosque were killed fighting US forces. Most of them were al-Badris

 

Video presents views of al-Qaida’s European jihadists in Syria

A few days ago, al-Jazeera English aired a documentary called “People & Power – Western Jihadis in Syria.” The film, which includes an interview with Dr. Landis, presents discussions with articulate, English-speaking jihadists in Syria’s al-Qaida organization, Jabhat al-Nusra. As members of al-Qaida, such jihadists maintain a position involving: 1) opposition to the self-declared Islamic State, 2) a struggle against the Assad regime (specifically because it “oppresses Muslims”), and 3) a war against America and the West who are blamed for trying to prevent the development of a prosperous and powerful Muslim nation.

 

Other films from the makers of this documentary, Tom Greenwood and Nagieb Khaja, who went to Syria and tracked down Nusra members for his interviews at great personal risk, can be found on the website for their organization, North Bridge Film.