The Plight of the Druze Hostages Held by ISIS & the War on the Islamic State – by Talal el-Atrache

The plight of the Druze hostages:Why Washington should change its approach in Syria
By Talal el-Atrache – 
For Syria Comment – 8 Nov 2018

Throughout the Syrian war, the Southern Province of Sweida, in coordination with the Syrian army, had succeeded in protecting itself against the jihadist attacks on the province’s Western border with Deraa, and on the Eastern flank, adjacent to the Syrian Desert.

By the end of summer 2018, as the war seemed to reach an end in Southern Syria, the local paramilitary units were partially demobilized. The Syrian army units stationed in Sweida’s Desert were redeployed to the southwest of Deraa, where they joined the fight against an Isis enclave nestled at the foot of the Israeli controlled Golan Heights.

The demobilization was a fatal mistake. On July 25, at dawn, hundreds of Isis fighters emerged from the Eastern Desert. They carried out a coordinated attack marked by suicide bombings, shootings, and stabbings targeted mainly at the Eastern villages overlooking the Syrian Desert. The poorly armed local villagers, men and women, from 12 besieged villages fought bravely against the invaders, but six villages succumbed to the fundamentalist group as it carried out door-to-door massacres with the help of some local Bedouins.

The attack had two objectives. The first was to force the Syrian army to halt its offensive against the Isis enclave in Deraa. The second was for ISIS to provoking a massive exodus from the Druze Mountains.

Within less than two hours, hundreds of Druze fighters rushed to the targeted areas, killing more than 80 ISIS members. Dozens of Druze fighters from Mount Hermon and from the Damascene suburbs of Jaramana and Ashrafiet Sahnaya arrived that same day and joined the combat. The besieged areas, including the six ambushed villages, were liberated by the end of day, boosting the morale of the local population. More than 250 civilians and local Druze fighters lost their lives and another 250 people were injured, in what has become the bloodiest day for the province since the beginning of the war.

Over the next few days, the army dispatched hundreds of soldiers and armored units, before launching a major counterattack in the Eastern Desert. By September,ISIS had lost more than 3000 square kilometers of land, and became completely encircled in al-Safa hills, a 250 square kilometer volcano in the middle of the desert east of Sweida.

ISIS lost the Sweida battle but managed to capture 31 Druze hostages: 20 women and 11 children.

The local fighters found and rescued a woman who had managed to escape in the desert, while a second woman, shot in the head by the fundamentalist group, died.

For the next three months, the hostage issue became the major political, social and humanitarian concern in the Province of Sweida. ISIS conditioned the release of the abductees to the withdrawal of the Syrian army from the Eastern Desert, the neutrality of the Druze, the release ofISIS fighters and their relatives, and the payment of ransom. Damascus and the Druze delegation in charge of the hostage issue systematically rejected ISIS’ conditions, as they would have put the Druze Mountains in harm’s way and strengthened the fundamentalist group. As a result, ISIS killed two of 29 Druze hostages. Muhannad Abou Ammar, a 19 year old university student, was beheaded on August 1.

An older lady, Tharwat Abou Ammar, was shot on October 1. Another 65 year old captive died in custody. The video of the beheading and the pictures of Tharwat’s body covered in blood, published online by ISIS, angered the local population. They were aimed at putting pressure on the government.

On October 19, six Druze hostages were liberated in exchange for the release of 17 women (ISIS relatives/wives) held by the Syrian government, as well as a dozen Bedouin captives that had been kidnapped by some local Druze fighters in the aftermath of the July 25 attacks.

This was the first part of a negotiated agreement between Damascus and ISIS that also included a ceasefire in the Eastern Desert of Sweida, where the Syrian army has been fighting ISIS for the last three months with the help of Russian air force. According to some estimates, between 800 and 1000 ISIS fighters are now surrounded in the Safa volcanic field in the desert.

However, the truce collapsed on November 3 in addition to the second part of the deal that stipulated the liberation of seven Druze women and three children in exchange for the release of 35 ISIS relatives. The group demanded the release of 35 fighters from government custody, but was met with rejection since the initial deal only included civilians.

ISIS has had recent military success in Hajin near the Euphrates city of Deir ez-Zor, where it has killed some 327, US-backed fighters belonging to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces since the beginning of the military operation there in September. ISIS has regained self-confidence and launched several assaults from the Safa Volcano, before being quickly rebuffed. On November 5, the Syrian army started deploying considerable reinforcements around the volcano, which consists of a plateau of black rocky hills where ISIS has not only been able to successfully resist for more than a month, but even launch deadly attacks against Syrian troops, killing more than 400 Syrian soldiers in the last three months. The Fourth Army Division (one of the toughest) and the Fifth Corps (advised by Russian officers) have deployed alongside Hezbollah units and the Palestine Liberation Army for the upcoming battle against ISIS. The impressive military buildup intimidated ISIS and forced the group to renegotiate.

On November 8, Syrian State media said that the government troops have freed all remaining Druze hostages kidnapped by ISIS. The army’s operation occurred in a remote area Northeast of Palmyra. However, some analysts believe that the liberation of the women and children was part of a prisoner’s deal exchange.

Meanwhile, the Syrian army launched a new assault against Isis on Thursday in the Safa hills. According to a member of the Druze delegation in charge of the hostage issue, there have been a few disagreements between the Americans and the Russians who were assisting the Syrians in the negotiations with ISIS. The Russians wanted to transfer all ISIS fighters from the Safa Volcano to the north of the Province of Hama, a region currently controlled by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (ex-Nusra, affiliated to al-Qaeda), while the Americans wanted to gather them in the Hajin region.

The refusal of Washington to cooperate with the Syrians and the Russians in the battle against ISIS has left a hole through which ISIS has been able to operate. The Americans have forbidden the Syrian army from penetrating within a 55 km radius buffer zone surrounding their military base in al-Tanf, 120 km east of the Safa Volcano. This base sits on the strategic Damascus-Baghdad highway. Damascus has declared this buffer zone problematic as it is preventing the Syrian army from cleaning up the area. The government believes the buffer zone is being used by Isis to move its troops undercover between Northern and Southern Syria, and between Syria and Iraq.

In Northern Syria, the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have halted their military campaign against Isis after suffering heavy losses in the Hajin area in the Euphrates and following clashes against Turkish forces in Northern Syria. The Kurds, who lead the SDF, are focused on their struggle against the Turkish army after President Erdogan announced his intention to eradicate the SDF.

This leaves ISIS with enough room for maneuver to regain influence either in the Euphrates or along the Syrian-Iraqi border. The United States’ refusal to cooperate with the Russian and the Syrian armies might be counterproductive with the absence of troops on the ground capable of eradicating Isis.

Damascus also accuses Washington of training Isis fighters converted to moderate rebels, such as the Pentagon-backed Jaysh Maghawir al Thawra. The Syrian government is asking Washington to either contribute to its anti-Isis campaign in the Syrian Desert, or leave the area and let the Syrian army clean up the desert all the way to the Iraqi border.

On October 29, Syria’s foreign minister Walid al-Moallem declared that “under the pretext of supporting Syrian Kurds, the U.S. has established bases in the North of Syria and a base in al-Tanf in the South, which are in reality used to reorganize ISIS terrorists to fight the Syrian Arab Army (…). What for? Because they want to prolong the Syrian crisis in Israel’s interests”.

US officials have declared that al-Tanf base serves as a launching pad for counter ISIS operations, even though the US coalition has never been involved in any effort to eradicate ISIS to the south of the Euphrates Valley, such as when ISIS invaded Palmyra, the suburbs of Damascus, and the Province of Sweida.

Washington maintains its base in Tanf as leverage in any future negotiations with the Russians. Its strategic goal is to stop Iran from establishing an East-West land corridor stretching from Tehran to Beirut that serves as an arms supply route to Hezbollah.

After the Syrian army and the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Units cleaned ISIS out of most of the desert, the US base in al-Tanf is becoming obsolete as an anti-ISIS tool. Sooner or later, Washington’s choice of maintaining Tanf will risk helping ISIS, rather than hurting it.

Saudi Arabia, Shi’ism and the Illusion of Reform – by Robert G. Rabil

Saudi Arabia, Shi’ism and the Illusion of Reform
by Robert G. Rabil – @robertgrabil 
October 30, 2019

The emergence of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is inextricably associated with the Wahhabi school of Islam. The Saudi-Wahhabi pact goes back to the eighteenth century when Sheikh Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792), the founder of the Wahhabi-Salafi school of Islam traveled to Diriya, the stronghold of the Saudi tribe, and struck a deal with its chief. The pact served the interest of both parties by expanding their respective political and religious influence throughout the regions of Najd and Hijaz.

Basing his ideas on the writings of classical Salafi scholar Ibn Taymiyyah , al-Wahhab rejected shirk (idolatry, polytheism) and bid‘ah (heretical religious innovation), which he believed permeated the holy land of Islam. He believed in the return to the authentic ways of the salaf al-salih (pious ancestors) and advocated tawhid (oneness/unity of God) and transcendence of God. He called for unity and the purification of Islam. His puritanical movement became known as the Muwahhidun. Significantly, he justified leveling the charge of takfir (unbelief) on those he considered engaged in shirk. For example, the failure of Muslims to observe all the pillars of Islam was tantamount to committing kufr (unbelief). His definition of tawhid centered on Muslims’s exclusive worship toward God alone. In other words, it was Kufr to associate any other being or thing in the Worship of God.   This constituted for him the divide between Islam and kufr, and between tawhid and shirk.

In this respect, the Shi’a, and their offshoot sects such as Alawis, Ismailis, and Zaydis, were considered as the worse of mushrikoun (polytheists) for they have associated worshipping God with venerating the infallible descendants of Prophet Muhammad. More so, Shi’a traditions, among other Islamic and non-Islamic traditions, such as tawassul (supplication), Shafa’a (intercession of prophets and Imams), tabarrruk (seeking of blessings) and ziyara (visiting the tombs of venerated religious figures) only deepened the Wahhabi identification of Shi’ism with polytheism and idolatry. The corollary of this identification made warfare against Shi’ism a Wahhabi religious duty.

Between the years 1794-1802 the Saudi-Wahhabi movement destroyed many holy shrines in today’s Iraq, including the Prophet Grandson Imam Hussein’s shrine in Karbala in 1802. Imam Hussein’s martyrdom in 680 at the hands of Umayyad Caliph Yazid at Karbala was most formative for Shi’a ideology and tradition. This martyrdom became central to Shi’a identity, tradition, and theology because it epitomized Imam Hussein’s opposition to tyranny, oppression, and the struggle against the chronic injustices of the world.

During the campaign (1902-1932) of Saudi chief Abd al-Aziz to conquer Najd and Hijaz thousands were killed and maimed, including many Shi’a. In 1927, Wahhabi scholars issued a fatwa (religious edict) calling for the expulsion of Shi’a from al-Ahsa in the Eastern province of Saudi Arabia unless they consented to the destruction of their mosques and their conversion to Wahhabism. This anti-Shi’a religious strand became the official view of the monarchy when King Abd al-Aziz proclaimed the establishment of his kingdom in 1932 and made Wahhabism its official religious establishment.

Correspondingly, the Shi’a, as a minority in the kingdom comprising around fifteen per cent of the population and residing mostly in the oil-rich Eastern Province, have been religiously and institutionally discriminated against. Their religious customs, including Ashoura commemoration of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, were forbidden, the publication and distribution of their religious texts were outlawed, their call to prayer banned, and their centers of religious studies closed. No less significant, they were vilified in textbooks.

The early expression of their grievances was manifested in their heavy participation in the 1950s in the labor riots of the oil fields managed by the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco). The riots were brutally suppressed by the Saudi National Guard. Subsequently, apparently inspired by the success of the Iranian revolution in 1979, Shi’a demonstrated in the Eastern province. The government violently suppressed the demonstrations, arrested Shi’a leaders and forced a number of Shi’a activists into exile. It was at this time that a cleric Sheikh Hassan al-Saffar, supported by the followers of religious scholar Mohammad al-Shirazi, established the opposition group the Organization of the Islamic Revolution (Munazzamat al-Thawra al-Islamiyya).

Saudi harsh treatment of their Shi’a community began to change in the 1990s, following the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq and the deployment of American troops to the Kingdom. This change apparently stemmed no less from American deeper involvement in the Middle East than from the failure of both Saudi policy of oppression and Shi’a policy of protestation. Sheikh al-Saffar changed the name of his organization to al-Haraka al-Islahiya (Reform Movement), and in 1993 a leader of the Shiite opposition in exile, Tawfiq al-Sayf, led a large delegation of Shia to meet with King Fahd. Meaningfully, King Fahd conceded to some Shi’a demands including permitting them to practice previously banned religious rites, some Shi’a to return from exile, and to guarantee the safety of those returned. Significantly, the King ordered the revision of a school text book that had referred to the Shi’a as a heterodox sect. The new edition added the Twelver Shiite School of Islam to the four Sunni schools of Islam.

This slow and circumspect yet important transformation in the relationship between the monarchy and its Shi’a community gained momentum following the American liberation of the Shi’a from the yoke of Saddam Hussein’s oppression in 2003. Many Shi’a activists signed a statement, titled “Partners in the Homeland,” and submitted to Crown Prince Abdullah. The statement emphasized the loyalty of the Shiites to the Kingdom and called for their integration into Saudi society by removing institutional and social discrimination against them. Moreover, when the Crown Prince became King in 2005, many Shiite leaders and clerics went to the capital to pledge their allegiance to him. Many Shi’a believed that the new King would turn a new page in his relationship with the Shi’a community at large.

It’s noteworthy, however, that a minority of Shi’a, including the militant group Hizbollah al-Hijaz, opposed Shi’a engagement with Saudi authorities. The kingdom has designated Hizbollah al-Hijaz as a terrorist organization and blamed it for several terror acts, including the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing. Conversely, many Wahhabi religious scholars maintained their disparaging views of the Shi’a and opposed any rapprochement with them. Even Saudi religious reformer Sheikh Safar al-Hawali disparaged the Shi’a and called the Shi’a Islamist party Hezbollah of Lebanon the party of the devil.

King Abdullah had to walk a fine line between improving the conditions of the Shi’a, opposing what he saw as Iranian encroachment across the Middle East, and curbing the power of his religious establishment that stood as a hurdle to his reforms. He focused on bolstering the Kingdom’s defenses, enhancing scientific research, fighting al-Qaeda, and curbing the power of the Wahhabi religious establishment as a precondition to enunciate significant reforms. He removed a popular Wahhabi cleric, Sheikh Saad Bin Nasser al-Shathri, from the country’s High Council of Religious Scholars because he criticized the king’s decision to allow male and female researchers to work together in the newly established mixed gender King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. Similarly, he sacked the head of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, whose puritanical agents try to enforce the behavioral application of Islamic law. Significantly, he tried to break the monopoly of the power of Wahhabi clerics within the Council of Senior Scholars, who issue official religious rulings, by including in the 21-member Council representatives of all four schools of Sunni Islam (Shafi’I, Hanbali, Maliki and Hanafi schools of jurisprudence). Though he did not include in the Council any Shi’a cleric, he increased Shi’a representation in the Consultative Assembly of Saudi Arabia.

Shi’a cleric Sheikh Nimr Nimr.

Unfortunately, King Abdullah’s reforms not only came to a screeching halt but regressed following the eruption of Arab Revolutions across the Arab world. Protests erupted in the Eastern province few days after widespread protests started in Bahrain on February 14, 2011. The province is only a 30-minute drive across the causeway from Bahrain. In a show of force, the Saudi interior minister Prince Muhammad bin Nayef vowed to crush the protests with an “Iron Fist.” In the following days and months, Saudi authorities clamped down on the protests, killing a number of them, and arresting dozens of them including the preeminent Shi’a cleric Sheikh Nimr Nimr.

In the meantime, feeling threatened by the swift spread of Arab revolutions, the monarchy felt the need to be further legitimized by the religious establishment. On March 6, 2011 the Council of Senior Scholars issued a fatwa acclaiming the rule of Saudi royals and banning demonstrations. Excerpts of the fatwa read:

The Council praises Allah Almighty for what He has bestowed upon the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia with unity of words and action on the basis of the book of Allah and tradition of the messenger, under the wise leadership of legitimate allegiance… Since the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is based on the Qur’an, Sunnah, the pledge of allegiance, and the necessity of unity and loyalty, then reform should not be by demonstrations and other means and methods that give rise to unrest and divide the community…The Council affirms prohibition of the demonstrations in this country…It is what practiced by the Prophet (peace be upon him) and followed by his companions and their followers.

Since then, in order to maintain absolute power, the monarchy has renewed its firm commitment to its Faustian pact with the Wahhabi religious establishment. This resolve for maintaining absolute power has taken a critical dimension with the ascension to power in 2015 of King Salman and his son crown prince Muhammad bin Salman, who essentially managed to wield effective power in the kingdom. On January 2, 2016, Sheikh Nimr, along with 47 Saudis, was executed for being convicted of terrorism offences. Sheikh Nimr was a vocal critic of the monarchy. But he was not a terrorist.

This is the background against which Prince Muhammad launched his so-called campaign of reforms, which have been no more than a window dressing to his attempt at modernizing and controlling the Kingdom. Fundamentally, Muhammad’s reforms have not introduced any systemic change to the Kingdom’s austere social structure and laws. Under the pretext of fighting corruption, he detained dozens of princes and wealthy Saudis so that he could clip their wings and take a hefty portion of their fortune. He arrested the women activists who campaigned for allowing women to drive. He kidnapped Lebanon’s Prime Minister for not being tough enough on Hezbollah. He has waged a brutal war in Yemen initially foregrounded in Wahhabi proselytizing among Zaydi Shi’a. He arrested dissenting scholars. And most recently, he most likely ordered the gruesome dismembering of the journalist Jamal Kashoggi for being critical of his policies.

Clearly, Prince Muhammad does not tolerate any form of dissent. His absolute power rests on his ability to both check the power of his family members and to maintain the loyalty of the religious establishment. Washington cannot influence the Kingdom’s religious establishment, but it can prod the royal family to remove Prince Muhammad from power in the interest of the welfare and reputation of the Kingdom. In 1964, the royal family forced King Saud to abdicate in response to his blunders. At the same time, the Trump administration should use the inexcusable murder of Kashoggi to persuade the Kingdom to renew the path of slow but steady systemic reform that began under late King Abdullah. As such, Washington can better maintain its strategic relationship with Riyadh. Otherwise, the Trump administration, besides forsaking its moral compass, will definitely make United States complicit in Prince Muhammad’s present and future misfortunes and catastrophes involving Sunni-Shi’a sectarianism and a possible war with Iran instigated as much by Wahhabi theological views of Shi’ism as by geopolitical considerations.

Robert G. Rabil is a professor of Political Science at Florida Atlantic University. He is the author most recently of The Syrian Refugee Crisis in Lebanon : The Double Tragedy of Refugees and Impacted Host Communities (2016); Salafism in Lebanon : From Apoliticism to Transnational Jihadism (2014); and White Heart (2018). He can be reached @robertgrabil .

*The views expressed in this article are personal and do not reflect those of Florida Atlantic University.

*The views expressed in this article are also not the views of Syria Comment, which has consistently argued against US-backed regime-change. It is worth reading Yezid Sayigh’s “The Warior King,” in which it is argued that Mohammed bin Salman will weather the Khashoggi murder, his tightening grip over Saudi security explains why.


Interview with Lebanon’s Minister of Refugee Affairs, Mouin Merhebi

Middle East journalistBy Michael Gerini

Residing in the north of Lebanon, Mouin Merhebi is a member of Saad Hariri’s Future Movement. A staunch opponent of Hezbollah and the Assad government, he currently serves as Minister of Refugee Affairs (officially “Minister of State for Displaced Affairs”) in the Hariri government, a position he has held since December of 2016. Though coming into the position with little experience in the matter, Meherbi’s active lobbying on behalf of the refugees and his adamant stance on refugee return has won him the praise of several NGOs and the U.N.

With the Syrian Civil War seemingly approaching its end, the Minister’s position and the administration of his bureaucracy will become even more important. Though severely strained by possibly over two million Syrian refugees, Lebanese infrastructure and society have managed the crisis well. The next test for Lebanon will be for it to manage the orderly and peaceful transition of Syrians back to their home country.

Minister Merhebi was kind enough to share his opinions and outlook with me in an interview conducted in Beirut in April of this year.

Mouin Merhebi Lebanon's Minister of Refugee Affairs Minister of State for Displaced Affairs Hezbollah Hariri Syrian refugees

There is some disagreement regarding the actual number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Some put the number at just over one million, others at two million. I would like to know what is the best count that your ministry has of the number of Syrians actually in your country?

Well the count is about one million but we have about 500,000 who are not registered. The difference in numbers is due to not having those people in camps. When they came into Lebanon they did not come through official crossings. So that’s why. But according to the U.N. agencies and the UNHCR, the registered are about one million and adjusting for uncounted people in remote areas, we have one to two.

One to two million?

So that’s at 1.5 [million].

Initially, there was a decision made not to put them into camps. Why was that decision made?

When those people first fled, it was from killings and torture. They were forced into being refugees; they were trying not to be killed, [trying to protect their] families, children. They did not agree with our [Hezbollah-backed] government [which is why they crossed illegally rather than through official border crossings]. So they ran across the border from their cities and we were not prepared, we did not know about it [ahead of time]. We tried to help them individually, not officially, not through our government at that time. It took time to really understand how big the problem was, that the crisis was huge. Later on, all the U.N. agencies, our government, the NGOs, and other nations tried to help. We did not have tents, we had our houses. We put them into our homes just to shelter them. Later on we had internal political problems inside Lebanon. Some of our parties did not want to let those people live in camps. They feared that the same issues that happened with the Palestinians will happen with the Syrians. We are a small country with a small population. We are 4.2 million within 10,452 km2 so you can understand the issue.

Absolutely. You mentioned the various U.N. agencies that are working with you. It seems that government efforts have been somewhat haphazard. Has the U.N. helped in terms of organizing, not just their own efforts, but government efforts?

No, the U.N. agencies have not organized government efforts. No. We had some issues stemming from our internal problems. We had to deal with that and it took time. The perception may be such, but really from the first—let me tell you, PM Saad Hariri’s cabinet had resigned and it took six months to get a new cabinet. During these six months we did not do things the right way because we did not have a cabinet at the time. Later on, we got a cabinet with PM Mikati—it was a Hezbollah cabinet. Hezbollah did not want to deal with this issue positively. So myself, I had many problems with this cabinet. I always called on this cabinet to help those people, to build camps for those people so that we could help them in a positive way—most of all to know where those people are living. Sometimes we are not able to send food because we don’t know where they are. Things went much better with the cabinet of PM Salam. And now with this cabinet, we have made a new Ministry for refugees. By the way, we call it “displaced” [in reference to the title “Ministry of State for Displaced Affairs”] because in Lebanon we do not like to [include Syrians within] the same problem as the Palestinians, who since 1948 have been living in Lebanon. But we deal with them [Syrians] as refugees, let me tell you frankly.

This is different from the Palestinian crisis because the Syrians, unlike the Palestinians, have a country to go back to. It seems that across the political spectrum in Lebanon the intention is to send the Syrians back. Is that the official stance of this Ministry?

Let me tell you: Regarding the return of the Syrians, they should willingly return under the supervision of U.N. agencies. We will not force those people to return. We cannot guarantee those people’s safety if we [force them to] return them to their country. So they have to decide themselves to return. We are not going to interfere with the situation. We have not made any statements saying that we will force people to go back to Syria. And we will not.

So you won’t take a more internationally-facilitated return?

It is a direct responsibility of the U.N. to take action on this issue. So if there are safe places where they can build homes, or build camps for them, it is those refugees’ decision to return and with U.N. help and U.N. cover. We as the government of Lebanon cannot take any forced action towards those people’s return to Syria. We cannot do it. We are a member of the U.N. and we will not do this. There are some major principles and we are abiding by those principles and laws.

Conversely, that might mean that Lebanon will have to tolerate a large, semi-permanent refugee population from Syria?

We have been coordinating this issue since 2011. This is an issue of human beings. It’s not an issue of trade or whatever. They are people, like me and you. So you cannot treat them as if you are not aware of this issue or do not know about this issue. We have had a lot of problems with Syrians and Syria used to govern our country. Their soldiers tortured us, their soldiers shot at our cities. Our government was controlled fully by the Syrian government, by Hafez al-Assad and Bashar al-Assad. But this issue is about human beings and we cannot deal with this issue as if we are avenging what they did as torturers and destroyers in Lebanon. These refugees—they did not do this to Lebanon. They are not responsible for what their government did to Lebanon. We are dealing with this issue from a humanitarian side.

I’m struck by the human face that you are adding to this issue, in contrast to the responses heard from other ministries who only focus on the numbers and talk about the one million, 1.5 million, two million, etc.

With the Palestinians, yes there are two million, plus some Iraqis. But it is something human, nothing else.

It’s remarkable that you would take a step back from the numbers when we are talking about two million foreigners, compared with a population of four million.

Fifty percent or above.

It’s an impressively large number. And you think that return should be absolutely voluntary?

We cannot send somebody to be killed or we would be criminals, and we are not criminals. We are not.

In terms of Lebanon’s future, if a large part of the Syrians stay, what will be their status? Will they ever be integrated into Lebanon?

No, not at all. This situation will not allow it in any condition. And when things get better in Syria, I think the refugees will be eager to return. Fifty percent of those people are living below $2 per day [inside Lebanon, now]. How can they continue living this way? If they are able to go back to their houses, their lands, to build a new future with new hopes, I’m sure the conditions in Syria will be much better for them. I don’t think there will be a mass of them not willing to return to Syria. If you go and ask a young Syrian student, “what do you want?” He will tell you directly: “I want to go back to my house in Syria, to my land in Syria. I want peace.” That’s it. Let me tell you, those Syrians, I respect them very much. They used to come every Thursday in the afternoon and go back to Syria on Friday afternoon. Do you know why? They used to have demonstrations on Friday after prayer at twelve. The demonstrations used to be finished at four or five o’clock. So they used to send their wives, their children to Lebanon on Thursday to safeguard them. They used to get them back after the demonstrations, just to keep them safe. When we would ask them “Why don’t you stay a little bit, just to be sure there are no shootings or anything?” They would tell us, “Well, we are eager to go back and we cannot keep our lands and our houses from those criminals.” So when you are moving every week for eight months and going back every week, and going back to your house, your village, what do you think about those people? Just a mother taking her children with her—two, three, ten years old, twenty years old—what do you think about those people? Well I have full respect for them. Till now they are thinking about their return; I’m sure they are eager to go back now and not tomorrow.

And just one final question concerning the future of the region, Lebanon and Syria in particular. Do you think that Syria, post-conflict, can learn lessons from post-conflict Lebanon, with how well this nation is doing comparatively?

Yes, sure, and everybody should learn from each other and for sure as neighbors we are learning from each other. I think things will go much better when this criminal Bashar al-Assad, this butcher, will be out of Syria, him and his regime, those killers. The Syrians will be able to live in peace, to rebuild Syria. Those people are not Daesh, they are not al-Qaida, and they are for sure not the worst criminal ever on earth: Bashar al-Assad. He killed maybe 500,000 of his people and destroyed all his cities. Now 50% of his people are refugees in other countries. What a shame for everybody, for the world, for the international community. So if we can, if we are able to help them find peace, to enforce peace in Syria, it will be for the best for the region, for the best for the whole world. That’s why we are fighting those butchers and ISIS and al-Qaida. This is the right way, to force peace in Syria and to stop this war, to stop the killing. We are not enabling ISIS or al-Qaida to recruit for their militias if we find a solution for Syria.

What is needed most of all now is to really find an end for this war, but at the same time to try to help those people. They need help. The Lebanese have a small country with a debt of $75 billion up to now, according to the World Bank. This issue cost Lebanon with a debt of $75 billion about $18 billion as assessed by the World Bank. We cannot really help anymore. The international community should help Lebanon to help these people, which at the same time will help the international community. Without this, we are really going to have significant international problems that will affect the whole world and not only this region. Thank you.

Absolutely. Thank you.


Michael Gerini is an independent journalist who focuses on Middle Eastern and US politics.

Idlib: The Game Above the Game – by David W. Lesch

David Lesch

The Game Above the Game
by David W. Lesch
For Syria Comment – Sept 21, 2018

The various combatants in and around Idlib seem to have hit the pause button for the time being.  What just a short time ago appeared to be an imminent onslaught by Russian and Iranian supported Syrian government forces to take back one of the last areas outside of the control of Damascus, accompanied by widespread civilian casualties and refugees fleeing the battleground, now has given way to high stakes diplomacy.

The key is Turkey.  The Turks have been the dominant power in northwestern Syria along the border and down through the province of Idlib for a number of years since the fall of Aleppo to the opposition early in the Syrian civil war.  Indeed, in some ways, with Turkey establishing shared power grids, training local police forces, rebuilding and staffing schools, and investing in the local economy, northern Syria functionally looks more like southern Turkey nowadays. This process actually started years before the beginning of the civil war when a honeymoon in relations between the two countries led to heavy Turkish investment in Syria, economic integration, and an expansion of Turkish cultural markers.

Since the civil war began, however, Ankara has supported the many stripes of the anti-Assad coalition in this part of Syria, including elements of the Free Syrian Army and a plethora of jihadist groups.  At first, Turkey was committed to the fall of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. As it became clear, certainly since the Russian military intervention on behalf of the Syrian government in 2015, that Assad was going to remain in power, Turkey’s objectives in Syria shifted to making sure empowered Kurdish groups, many of whom Ankara has labeled terrorists, were unable to establish autonomous zones, especially along the Turkish-Syrian border. The most powerful Kurdish fighting force has been backed by the US as part of the Syrian Democratic Forces in its attempts to roll back and eliminate the presence of the Islamic State in Syria, a dynamic that has, to say the least, complicated US-Turkish relations.

Enter Russia—or more to the point, Vladimir Putin.  The Russian president’s foray into Syria has proven to be quite successful in the short term.  He was able to keep Assad in power and, therefore, maintain, indeed significantly enhance, Russian strategic assets in the heartland of the Middle East.  By way of this intervention, he has orchestrated Russia’s return as a major diplomatic player in the region, probably even more so than the US at the moment.  And because the US early on decided to team with the Kurds, who had the best available indigenous fighting force to take on the Islamic State, therefore alienating an increasingly autocratic Turkish President Erdogan, perhaps he could even find the holy grail and pluck a disenchanted Turkey away from the US and NATO and into Russia’s orbit—a potential strategic coup of enormous proportions. As a result, Russian-Turkish relations have greatly improved in recent years after some early hiccups, to the point where Russia, Iran, and Turkey have become the working group in the so-called Astana process, which for several years has monopolized attempts to de-escalate the war in Syria.

What has emerged is a very tense diplomatic game focusing on Idlib.  Everything would be much easier if Turkey would have just withdrawn from the area.  Certainly, this is what Russia and Syria were hoping for, especially as it appeared the Turks had backed themselves in a corner with no easy way out.  The Syrian government and the Russians would like nothing better than to just batter Idlib into submission, a strategy that has worked elsewhere in the country. But Turkey abandoning Syria was never going to happen. Erdogan has invested too much political capital—and two full-fledged offensives—in northern Syria to just give up.  His domestic position politically is not as solid as it once was, especially as his economy continues to plummet, so admitting defeat by leaving Syria is not an option.

Perhaps this is why the Syrians and Russians built up their forces in the area and began a targeted aerial assault, i.e. to intimidate Turkey into taking the path of least resistance out of Syria. Instead, it appears that Erdogan, stiffened by the timely support of and tough talk from the US and some of its European allies, has called the Russian bluff.  He has sent more men and materiel to reinforce existing observation posts in Idlib and moved more forces toward the border.

Erdogan is basically saying the following to Putin:  if there is an all-out Syrian-Russian offensive, Turkish troops will be killed, with possibly a direct Russian-Turkish military confrontation that could even involve the US in support of its recalcitrant NATO ally.  This would all but end Putin’s dream of reeling in Turkey and perforce push Ankara back toward the US—the Kurdish issue notwithstanding.

Putin blinked.  And now there has been a Russian-Turkish agreement to find another way to resolve the situation in Idlib short of war.  He’s giving Erdogan a face-saving way out of his morass while possibly solidifying his relationship with him.  Somehow Turkey will fudge the separation of legitimate Syrian opposition forces from the jihadists, such as the al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, after which time perhaps there can be a joint effort to eradicate the “terrorists.”  This will be easier said than done as the estimated 10,000 jihadists in Idlib have nowhere to go and will dig in.

I can’t imagine Assad likes this deal at all, as it consecrates Turkey’s position of influence in the north. He wanted to pummel Idlib and gain more territorial control over his country, but his depleted forces can’t do it without substantial Russian help.  He has to go with the Russian diplomatic game right now, perhaps waiting until it might inevitably breakdown—or until the next UN General Assembly session is over in September, when international diplomacy focuses elsewhere while he incrementally picks away at the edges of Idlib both militarily and through reconciliation agreements. Maybe this is also what the Russians have in mind. They too would like nothing better than to eliminate jihadists in Idlib, a number of whom are Chechen and from other areas in Russia who have caused problems for Moscow in the past.  They want to dig the graves of these hardened jihadists in Syria rather than have them return to Russia.

Right now, though, the diplomatic games are being played above those in Idlib itself, many of whom are anxiously awaiting their fate—and are at the whim of leaders who have anything but their fate in mind.

David W. Lesch is a the Ewing Halsell Distinguished Professor of Middle East History at Trinity University in San Antonio, TX and author of the upcoming book, Syria (Polity Press).

Loyalty over geography: Re-interpreting the notion of ‘Useful Syria’ — By Matthias Sulz

Loyalty over geography: Re-interpreting the notion of ‘Useful Syria’
By Matthias Sulz *
For Syria Comment: Sept. 6, 2018

As the offensive to reconquer Idlib starts, it is useful to recall that the notion of ‘Useful Syria’ as geographic reference to the population-rich axis of Aleppo-Homs-Damascus, as well as the coastal areas of Latakia and Tartus, does not accurately reflect the regime´s intention of reconquering all of Syria. This makes the Idlib offensive not the end of the civil war, but merely its next stage that will be followed by further regime manoeuvring and fighting to retake the country´s north and east. It makes more sense to reconceptualise ´Useful Syria´ in terms of loyalty, i.e. as reference to the regime’s policies to consolidate its power by rewarding loyalty and punishing ‘betrayal’.

The term ‘Useful Syria’ was popularised by analysts in July 2015 after a deal between the regime and rebels was struck to end the siege of al-Fuah and Kafraya, two towns in Idlib in the north-west of Syria. The Shiite population of the two cities was exchanged with the population of the Sunni towns of Madaya and Zabadani near Damascus, cities that had also been besieged by the Syrian regime. Since then, it has become a shorthand reference to the Aleppo-Homs-Damascus axis, as well as Syria’s coastal regions, with the implication that, in a pinch, the regime would consider restoration of its control over these areas as an acceptable outcome of the war. In a candid speech on 26 July 2015, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in fact conceded that the Syrian army could not guard every spot of Syrian soil because otherwise more crucial areas would be infiltrated by ‘terrorists’, endangering their stability. But Assad did not use the words ‘Useful Syria’ to refer to these territories. Rather, four minutes later into the same speech, he stressed that all regions of Syria are equal and that the regime does not discriminate, but that military exigencies require a temporary preference to defend the more strategically important areas first.

Nevertheless, Western analysts soon framed a kind of ‘Useful Syria’-doctrine that would supposedly guide the Syrian regime´s strategy to consolidate its grip over said parts of the country[1] and of Iran to connect Hezbollah’s strongholds in Lebanon with Syria’s coastal region.[2] This, however, ignored the repeatedly and publicly stated intent of the regime to take back ‘every inch of Syria’.[3] Tellingly, the term ‘Useful Syria’ has  not once been employed by the Syrian regime’s itself. The only article in Syrian state media that refers to this concept heavily criticizes the notion and sees it as a US invention aimed at splitting up Syria and to maintain its military base in al-Tanf on the Syrian-Iraqi border.[4] So, where does the term ‘Useful Syria’ come from if not from the Syrian regime?

Historically, ‘Useful Syria’ meant something different. Around 1920, the French used it in a bid to maintain control over today’s Syria and the petroleum resources of Mosul while renouncing their claim to ‘Greater Syria’, which included Palestine and Jordan. At the time, Palestine and Jordan were considered ‘Useless Syria’. As it happened, the French Prime Minister Clemenceau in the end also had to surrender the Mosul region to his British counterpart, Lloyd George, under intense pressure, but managed to retain 23,75% of the shares of what would later become the Iraq Petroleum Company for the ‘Compagnie française des pétroles’ (now Total).[5]

More recently, the French journalist Georges Malbrunot used the expression ‘Syrie utile’ in an article in Le Figaro in 2012[6], predicting that the Syrian regime might have to withdraw to the country’s economic and population centres. In making his case, Malbrunot took a page from the French colonial playbook in Algeria: keep control over economically relevant regions as basis for fighting a long war of attrition against internal ‘enemies’.

The dichotomy of useful/useless (utile/inutile) is well known to the French as they widely practiced it during their colonial rule in Africa. The French aimed to control cities at the coast as well as resource-rich regions in the periphery (‘Afrique utile’) while marginalizing economically irrelevant regions (‘Afrique inutile’).[7] French policy in Morocco is a good example of this practice: the French focused on controlling the urban centres of Rabat and Casablanca but left the Rif region to its own devices, the effects of which can still be felt today.[8]

When one applies this economic approach to Syria, it is self-evident that the agriculture, oil and phosphate-rich regions of Palmyra and Deir Ezzor in the east of the country will not be considered ‘useless’ by the Syrian regime as their revenues are significant.[9] That the Syrian military fought to regain those regions before advancing south and towards Idlib is telling. In short, the geographical and economical notion of ‘Useful Syria’ only makes sense when including the resource-rich eastern parts of the country. But this makes practically all of Syria ‘useful’, rendering the notion analytically impractical.

A more helpful way of applying the notion of ‘Useful Syria’ discards its geographical connotations, and views it in loyalist terms instead. Through population- and ceasefire deals the regime re-established social control over reconquered areas and made them ‘useful’. Inhabitants were given the option to remain, or to move to rebel-controlled areas such as Idlib. Those that remained know that they are under government surveillance. The climate of fear that has been created by mass disappearances, torture and executions has further battered them into submission. The resulting ‘loyalty’ will help prevent future uprisings. Further loyalist strategies for creating a ‘Useful Syria’ that the regime applies include considering those that fled military conscription as having lost a right to return,[10] imprisoning returning refugees viewed as disloyal and rewarding loyalists with contracts to rebuild destroyed cities and giving them preferential housing access. Finally, some areas in Syria have been selectively depopulated of Sunnis, which strengthens the regime´s support base in strategic locations.[11] In terms of loyalty these areas are now ‘useful’ to the Syrian regime, as the risk of a future uprising has been decreased.

In summary, when thinking about the Syrian regime’s war fighting strategy, two things are worth keeping in mind. First, the Syrian regime does not limit itself to a geographical notion of a ‘Useful Syria’ in the sense of the Aleppo-Homs-Damascus axis and the coastal regions. Instead, the resource-rich east is part and parcel of its reconquest. This means that Assad’s repeated announcements to take back every inch of Syria need to be taken at face value. The regime’s military preparations for the campaign on Idlib are in full swing and negotiations with Syria’s Kurds and the Syrian Democratic Council have commenced to agree on a roadmap that would see regime cooperation in the provision of utilities and services. That the US presence in al-Tanf is a thorn in the Syrian’s regime flesh is no secret. In the longer term, Syrian military advances on al-Tanf and the adjacent areas of the Syrian-Iraqi desert where remnants of ISIS pursue their activities can be expected.

Second, the regime shores up loyalty by instilling a climate of fear in reconquered regions as well as in areas that never rose against it. In reconquered areas, the regime moreover engages in selectively permitting refugee and IDP return based on perceived loyalty. This re-population tactic is key to decrease the risk of future uprisings. International reconstruction policies and aid should be mindful of it. 

Matthias Sulz is a junior research associate with the Conflict Research Unit of the Clingendael Institute. This long read is part of its Levant research program.


[1] Sayigh, Y. (2015):; Qutrib, H.I. (2017):  / Beauchamp, Z. (2016):  / Thompson, J. (2018):  / Haid, H. (2016):

[2] Ghaddar, H. (2016):

[3] Cousseran, J.-C.; Daguzan, J.-F; Levallois, A.; Tannous, M.-N. (2016): p. 10.  / Sanger, D.E.; Gladstone, R. (2016):

[4] Alloush, I. (2017):

[5] Laurens, H. (2003):

[6] Malbrunot, G. (2012):

[7] Cf. Reno, W. (1999): Warlord Politics and African States. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner

[8] Cf.

[9] Balanche, F. (2017): / Charap, S.; Martini, J. (2018):

[10] خطاب الرئيس الأسد بتاريخ 26-7-2015: Min. 44:05


60 years after Iraq’s 1958 July 14 Revolution by Christopher Solomon

60 years after Iraq’s 1958 July 14 Revolution by Christopher Solomon @Solomon_Chris

The black, white, and green tricolor flag emblazoned with the eight-point red star of Ishtar fluttered amongst the marchers. The flags waved by members of the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) had previously flown over a period of Iraq that had long been forgotten by the rest of the world. A distant, but positive memory for some Iraqis, the regime of military strongman Abd al-Karim Qasim evokes a period of progressive politics, anti-sectarianism, and an emphasis on Iraqi self-determination. Though the bygone era had been engulfed by the long rule of Saddam and the Iraqi Baathists, the Iraqi Communist Party continues to channel Qasim in modern day Iraq. In Firdus Square, the party stages annual rallies where supporters carry the Qasim regime’s flag along with large portraits of the ruler in order to commemorate the anniversary of the July 14 Revolution. Who was Qasim and how did his coup change Iraq? What lessons can be drawn from the July 14 Revolution today?

Returning to the present moment, the May 12, 2018 parliamentary elections have pulled the ICP back into the consciousness of the West. As the United States and Iran watched the electoral success of Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr and his Sa’eroun alliance, the subsequent formation of a new Iraqi government could see the muting of both nations’ influence. Just as Qasim successfully implemented his military coup in 1958, Sadr in 2018 in a sense has delivered a coup if of his own, only this time at the ballot box. Like Qasim, Sadr promoted an “Iraq first” policy that seeks to put the country above the regional fray and preserve its independence.[1] In the realm of foreign policy, this independence was first seen in March 1959 when Qasim began a friendly relationship with the Soviet Union and allowed for the transfer of Soviet military hardware and advisers, a first for a modern Iraqi leader. Even though his rule lasted just over four years and six months, the lessons and legacy of Qasim’s regime still resonate today, with recent trends of Iraqi nationalism, anti-establishment fervor and anti-corruption undercurrents evidently dominating the political landscape.

The July 14 Revolution Coup

Sixty years ago, Qasim led the July 14 Revolution, abruptly ending Iraq’s monarchy, removing Iraq from the Baghdad Pact and reorienting Iraq’s foreign policy away from the West. For outside observers, the coup tragically “placed a General on the throne” and by brutally eliminating the monarchy from Iraq’s political sphere permanently transformed the very character of state power in the country.[2]

In order to carry-out his coup, Qasim took advantage of the Iraqi army’s deployment near its Western border. Fearing the movement of Syrian troops along their shared border, King Faisal II and Prime Minister Nuri al-Said ordered the army to mobilize for deployment to the frontier. Taking advantage of the security vacuum created by this mobilization, then-General Qasim, together with Colonel Abdul Salam Arif, moved the army’s 3rd Division stationed in eastern Iraq towards the western border in support of Jordan. Passing early in the morning through Baghdad, Qasim suddenly ordered the secret group of Free Officers (formed and inspired by Gamal Abdul Nasser) to seize the radio station, the royal palace, and other key sites in the capital. The Hashemites in neighboring Jordan blasted the coup as the work of foreign powers while BBC radio stations reported that the United Arab Republic was “naturally delighted by news of the Iraq coup.”[3] Successfully taking control of key points in the city of Baghdad, Qasim’s coup in the summer of 1958 ended the thirty seven year reign of the British-backed Hashemites in Baghdad. Unlike the 1941 Golden Square coup of pro-Nazi Rashid Ali al-Gaylani however, the British did not respond to Qasim’s coup by conducting a monarchy restoration invasion.

Sixty years later, and the  July 14th anniversary of the coup comes at a time when the context of the region has triggered a Qasim-esque resurgence of Iraqi nationalism alongside an intense popular demand for political and economic reform. Despite the temporal difference, the geopolitical situations of these two eras are remarkably similar. The defeat of Da’esh, the re-conquest of the territories held by the Kurds, (including the oil-resources around Kirkuk), each highlight how Iraq is in the process of a tremendous shakeup that recalls the dramatic experience of the Qasim era. Leading up to most recent parliamentary elections, The West widely expected the incumbent Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to creep across the finish line. Given the lack of alternative options within the Iraqi political landscape, the U.S. had been heavily invested in Abadi’s electoral survival.[4] As the West witnessed Sadr’s Iraqi populism-powered victory, much speculation has been generated about Iraq’s future.

Anti-corruption and the Communists

Qasim’s enduring popularity among secular-minded and leftist Iraqis continues to prevail through the decades after the military figure launched a coup and established a benevolent dictatorship. In the Iraqi popular imagination, Qasim continues to be viewed as a patriot who kept Iraq out of the Nasserist and American orbits, as well as a strong leader who stood for the poor and promoted progressive values. Qasim was known for living a simple lifestyle and even slept in the Ministry of Defense building. His land reform efforts, educational, and social policies continue to be examples hailed today by the ICP as a process cut short by the sudden end of Qasim’s regime in 1963. He also placed a noted importance on including women in Iraq’s civil society and promoting gender empowerment through education and political participation. On top of all this, being part Kurdish, his regime promoted an anti-sectarian agenda for the country, a policy that resonates with many Iraqis today.

Economically, Qasim was famous for nationalizing the oil sector, significantly scaling back the power of the Anglo-American Iraqi Petroleum Company and creating the Iraq National Oil Company. His government also laid the groundwork for the establishment of OPEC in Baghdad in September 1960.

Despite this rosy retrospection, the Qasim regime’s relationship with the ICP was not always easy. The communist party was not fully in support of the military nature of Qasim’s coup, the inclusion of Arab nationalists in his cabinet, and his lack of desire to contest elections. The ICP had earlier been behind massive demonstrations in 1948 as well as the Intifada of 1952 directed at the corruption of the monarchy. The People’s Resistance, the name of the ICP militia organized after the July Revolution to defend Qasim’s regime, sought a central role in the security of the new revolutionary government and the country. However, in spite of sharing many goals, Qasim sought to curb the ICP’s influence and even issued an order for it to disband. In spite of the ban, the party’s swelling ranks by 1959 gave the organization immense influence in Baghdad, forcing Qasim to reconsider the party as “a power to be reckoned with.”[5]

Returning to the present, and the alliance formed by Sadr and the modern ICP signals the priority of economic development over the widely discussed problems of sectarianism in post-Da’esh Iraq. The nation continues to face the same issues of poverty and the uneven provision of essential services. Supporters of the Sadr-Communist alliance hope the political shake up can bring economic development to their bastions of support, such as the power-outage-plagued Sadr City, (originally established as a Revolution City by Qasim’s regime in 1959). Jassem al-Helfi, a member of the ICP in Sadr City, expressed his concerns for maintaining the support amid the slow pace of restructuring, “How can we convince our supporters that reform will not happen instantaneously?”[6]

Days before the election, Sadr met with ICP Politboro member Raid Jahid Fahmi in Najaf where the two agreed on the need to combat corruption and hold politicians accountable after Da’esh’s military defeat.[7] Electrical shortages, leading to problems such as last summer’s insufferable heat waver, will keep the issue of government services and infrastructure front and center. ICP member and recently elected female MP from Najaf, Suhad al-Khateeb, was another example of the Communists’ newfound viability. She touched on the region’s geopolitics saying, “There is a conflict between Iran and the U.S. in the region, in Iraq, Yemen and Bahrain. But we, the Iraqis, want our independence back from the U.S. and Iran. These two counties would harm the Iraqis with their conflict.”[8]


A History of Coups and Regional Power Plays

Qasim gathered with a delegation of Syrian journalists. Photo courtesy of Syrian History

Prior to the 1958 Revolution, the region had already been rocked by several coups. Syria experienced three rapid-fire coups in 1949 alone. The power of Hashemite Iraq had a severe impact on the intrigue and stability of neighboring Syria. Most interestingly, the second coup in Damascus was led by Colonel Sami Hinnawi, who launched a coup in August 1949, and was accused of seeking a union with Iraq’s Hashemite regime. The so-called Fertile Crescent Plan, although favored by the pro-business People’s Party in Aleppo, was by and large unpopular with mainstream Syrian society due to the British monarchy’s continued backing of Baghdad. Predictably, this resulted in Hinnawi’s overthrow in the final coup in December and the subsequent rise of Adib Shishakli and his four years of military rule.

Nearby in Egypt, the July 23 1952 revolution brought Gamal Abdul Nasser and the Free Officers to power, effectively ending yet another Middle Eastern monarchy. Just a few years later, the fall of Shishakli in Damascus and the establishment of the United Arab Republic (UAR) in February 1958 between Syria and Egypt changed the dynamics of the region entirely. To Iraq’s west, Jordan faced its own troubles including Arab nationalist military officer Ali Abu Nuwar and the April riots at the royal army barracks in Zarqa. Once Syria was out of the picture, Nuri Pasha al-Said sought to ward off the Pan-Arabist tide by pre-emptively creating an Arab Federation with Jordan, a move which was struck down after only six months by Qasim’s coup. In Lebanon, the government of Camille Chamoun refused to join the UAR, and when the July 14th coup occurred in Iraq, he turned to the Eisenhower Administration for support against pro-Nasser rebels at home, sparking the 1958 Lebanon Crisis leading to an American intervention against Arab nationalist rebels.

The View From the West

The West viewed Qasim’s takeover in Baghdad with great panic. The Suez Crisis was still fresh in the minds of Washington and London, while the Baghdad Pact, a centerpiece of the Cold War’s Middle East anti-Soviet military strategy, was rendered meaningless without Iraq. For the U.S. and the British, the coup was a deep embarrassment and became a source of handwringing. The British, although dismayed, were determined to cut their losses and build a new relationship with Qasim. As long as their economic interests with the Iraqi Petroleum Company were maintained, they were willing to acquiescence to his regime. On the other hand, the Eisenhower Administration viewed the situation as a political fiasco. The long serving head of the Foreign Relations Committee, Democratic Senator James William Fulbright of Arkansas accused CIA chief Allen Dulles of “fumbling in the dark” with the large budget allocated to the agency’s intelligence activities.[9]

The View from Within

Within Iraq, Qasim faced his own serious challenges. The veteran nationalist Rashid Ali returned after a long exile in Germany and Saudi Arabia, planning a coup attempt for December 1958, one that ultimately failed and landed him in prison. The impetus for the coup being that Ali differed over Qasim’s wish to avoid an overtly Pan-Arab character in his government, along with the fact that the Qasim regime did not offer the infamous politician a ministry post.[10] Rashid Ali was later pardoned and released into exile, where he lived in Beirut until his death in 1965. However, the Iraqi Nasserites longed to join the UAR and remained unhappy that Qasim’s regime was close with the Communists. These disagreements led to conflict when in March 1959, Arab nationalist army officers revolted in Mosul and clashed with pro-Communist militias.  Mosul then became a battleground, culminating in a standoff between the Iraqi army and the rebels that ultimately helped the Qasim regime persevere. Their rebellion had been crushed. Afterwards, the communists helped implement an anti-Arabist purge of the army, a move which further galvanized the Baathists.

To aid in survival, Qasim built an alliance with the Kurds. The above picture shows a young Masud Barzani, the future leader of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region (IKR), sitting next to Qasim. His father, Mustafa, who had earlier taken part in the short-lived Mahabad Republic of 1946, returned from exile to Iraq and formed a friendship, however rocky, with Qasim.[11] Kurdish revolts broke out in 1961 and Qasim strove to achieve stability using both negotiations and military force. For both Qasim and Sadr, the Kurdish region continues to come into play, most recently evidence by Barzani, whose 2017 resignation occurred after spearheading the Kurdish independence referendum. This move dramatically backfired and saw Abadi order the military to retake Kurdish areas, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, an offensive that was widely lauded by Arab Iraqis and which prominently featured the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) militias. Kurdish nationals then suffered through a blockade lasting six months. Tension continues to exist, with Baghdad issuing arrest warrants for Kurdish leaders, such as Kirkuk Provincial Council Deputy Chairman Rebwar Fayq Talabani, a decision that was later cancelled.[12]


This article was original posted on August 9, 2018 on Gulf International Forum. You can finish reading the article on the Gulf International Forum’s website.




[1] Margaret Coker, Once Hated by U.S. and Tied to Iran, Is Sadr Now ‘Face of Reform’ in Iraq?, The New York Times, May 20, 2018,

[2] Dennis P. Chapman, July 14th, 1958: Iraq’s Day of Infamy, Small Wars Journal:

[3] 1958: Coup in Iraq sparks jitters in Middle East, BBC News, July 14, 1958,

[4] Aron Lund, How Washington Learned to Love Haider al-Abadi, The Century Foundation, March 29, 2018,

[5] Marion Farouk-Sluglett and Peter Sluglett, Iraq Since 1958: From Revolution to Dictatorship, p. 62-63

[6] Isabel Coles and  Ghassan Adnan, Iraq Kingmaker’s Daunting Task: Lift the Poor of Sadr City, The Wall Street Journal, June 3, 2018,

[7] Sadr and Communist leaders: Battle Against Da’esh will not achieve its objective if corruption not combated, April 27, 2017, Al-Sumaria,

[8] Alex MacDonald and Mustafa Abu Sneineh, First female Communist MP in Iraq’s holiest city calls for ‘social justice’, Middle East Eye, May 22, 2018,

[9] Roby Barrett, Intervention in Iraq, 1958-1959, The Middle East Institute Policy Brief, No. 11, April 2008. p. 6

[10] Marion Farouk-Sluglett and Peter Sluglett Iraq Since 1958: From Revolution to Dictatorship, p. 61

[11] For more background see: Christopher Solomon, That Time There Was a Kurdish State, Raddington Report, November 1, 2017,

[12] Iraq issues arrest warrant for Kurdish referendum leader, Agence France-Presse, June 4, 2018

Romancing Rojava: Rhetoric vs. Reality


A billboard near a main entrance to the city of Hasaka, Syria announces “Hasaka Welcomes You” in the Arabic, Assyrian, and Kurdish languages beneath a prominently-displayed image of PKK founder Abdullah Öcalan. Photo: Wladimir Van Wilgenburg

By Max J. Joseph and Mardean Isaac



The purpose of this article is to provide a critique of the Rojava project through a close examination of the discrepancies between the rhetoric surrounding the endeavour and the realities governing its implementation. By “Rojava project” we refer to the endeavour to establish Kurdish nationalist sovereignty in northern Syria by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its military wing the People’s Protection Units (YPG), later transformed into the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Our substantial focus is on the ways in which Kurdish nationalist leaders and parties in Syria and Iraq have simultaneously oppressed Assyrians—revealing the fundamentally ethnocentric and nationalistic nature of the politics behind the Kurdistan project in both countries—and co-opted Assyrians in order to propagandise the supposedly ethnically-inclusive nature of their politics. We will also examine the rhetorical, political, and media strategies behind the Rojava and KRG projects, particularly in relation to Assyrians. The particular geographical focus of our analysis is “Rojava”, but an analysis of Kurdish politics and the fate of the Assyrian people requires a transnational perspective. The “Dawronoye” (“Revolutionaries”), an Assyrian political movement which operates under PYD and PKK control, will be assessed as a force serving to advance Kurdish nationalist interests in Syria and Iraq and to burnish the rhetoric surrounding those interests. The participation of the Dawronoye in the Rojava project and the SDF—backed by a substantial rhetorical and media strategy—and the readiness of western governments to accept them as valid representatives in order to ethnically “pluralize” the SDF and legitimize them as an ally means a comprehensive account of the nature, operations and capabilities of the Dawronoye is needed.

Our thesis is that the policies of Rojava’s Kurdish self-administration and its Assyrian proxy, the Dawronoye, are actively harming the prospects of Assyrian survival in Syria. In support of that thesis, we document a range of abuses by the Kurdish self-administration and the Dawronoye, which include:

  • Extensive harassment and intimidation of Assyrians who resist the policies of the Kurdish self-administration;
  • Physical violence committed by both the PYD asayish and the Dawronoye Syriac Military Council (MFS) security forces against Assyrians;
  • Forced conscription and parallel tax systems;
  • The imposition of Kurdish nationalist ideology through an overhaul of the education system;
  • Attempts at land confiscation and the annexation of Khabur by Kurdish nationalist forces;
  • Manipulation of rhetoric and propaganda that seek to fully absorb the Assyrian experience into the Kurdish nationalist cause as articulated by the PYD/YPG, paving the way for the long-term absence of any Assyrian representation outside or apart from the Kurdish self-administration.

We seek to illuminate these abuses in order to recommend actions that will change the outlook for Assyrians, enhancing the possibility of Assyrian survival and flourishing in Syria in the long-term. These recommendations are made clear in our conclusion. Following the conclusion, an addendum provides an itemized chronology of a some security abuses and terror attacks against Assyrians in Rojava.

The Tyranny of Optics: Kurdish Politics in Syria Under Western Eyes

There are many answers to the question of what Rojava is and is not. They have emerged largely from special interests: pragmatic state press releases designed to obscure as well as inform; unflinchingly positive reviews by Western internationalists with anarchist and leftist sympathies; wholly negative indictments made by either Syrian regime loyalists, Turkish nationalists, or their allied Syrian “revolutionaries”. There is very little unweighted reportage.

For sympathetic Westerners, attachment to Rojava goes a step further than assuaging war-guilt or a pursuit of tangible “success” in Syria. It is an attachment that often feeds into and affirms their own ideological positions and projections. Rojava’s actors are frequently described as radicals, feminists, anarchists, communists, and so forth. Yet the very observers of these terminologies (and members of the ideological communities they denote) rarely identify Rojavan actors as nationalists, since nationalism is viewed negatively among the proponents of all of the other labels.

The work of anthropologist David Graeber, a close follower and supporter of the Rojava project, is testament to this. Graeber is aware that some of the criticisms against the PYD are legitimate; in 2014 he stated that “clearly, authoritarian elements remain”. But that awareness is insufficient to overturn a belief in not only the democratic, but also the non-nationalistic, nature of the Rojava experiment. In the context of Rojava, the notion of a “Syrian Kurdish” endeavour precludes the negative connotations associated with ethno-centric politics. (This stance is echoed in the less heady work of left-wing columnist Owen Jones, among others.) “Kurdistan” is depicted as a more or less “naturally” occurring phenomenon in Graeber’s writing, and the distinctions between its Kurdish components are primarily ideological. Two key distinctions can be found at the geo-political and the inter-ethnic levels. According to Graeber:

“…the Syrian Kurds have built a coalition with Arabs, Syriacs, Christians and others in the northern slice of Syria that they call Rojava (or, more officially, the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria.) They want pluralistic, democratic self-determination for themselves and others in a newly federated Syria, discarding the nationalist project that led to the Iraqi referendum.”

Further in Graeber’s view, this coalition operates under the auspices of a “Syrian Kurdish freedom movement that… has pursued an entirely different vision from that of the Kurds in Iraq: It does not wish to change the borders of states but simply to ignore them and to build grass-roots democracy at the community level.”

David Graeber, attending the book launch of “Revolution in Rojava” in 2015, gazing at a projection of a map of Greater Kurdistan. Photo: Carla Mereu Keating.

The claims made by Graeber about the distinction between “direct democracy” within already-existing national borders as practiced by the PYD/YPG and the nationalist separatism of the Iraqi KDP are closer to being true in reverse. The Iraqi Kurdistan independence referendum—pushed forward by Masoud Barzani despite significant local and international criticism and held Sept. 25, 2017—was, in fact, not intended to produce a sovereign nation-state for Iraqi Kurds. Every indicator pointed to this: from the profoundly dysfunctional institutional apparatus, plagued by near absolute levels of corruption and partisanship, to the obvious advantages for the KRG of remaining in Iraq and the obvious nonsense of a direct link between the referendum result and the actual declaration of an internationally recognized sovereign state. The referendum push was instead a gamble aimed at reinforcing existing systems of patronage and power, with both major sides of the KRG also having one eye on aggrandizing the extent of their own control of the KRG in relation to external patrons and/or the Iraqi state. The nationalist vision of the KDP is therefore a tool serving several connected ends, but it is not an unswerving political vision or a true telos.

The PYD/YPG preoccupation with shifting power and demographic dynamics within Rojava, however, is little different in nature—even if circumstances entail serious discrepancies of execution—than the manipulations and agendas of the KRG. Though party hegemony serves as the vehicle of implementation for both PYD and KDP agendas, the PYD’s actions are molded to the task of enforcing ethnic supremacy.

From the anti-imperialist, anti-American lens of many pro-Rojava observers, the thorny question of American support is dealt with as follows. American support for the YPG/SDF has served as a source of material and symbolic vindication of the project, even if America has officially opposed Rojava’s declaration of autonomy. Many pro-Rojava observers in the West also oppose American support for the armed rebellion against the regime, so the distribution of American support across favorable lines can be seen as a temporary corrective measure for excesses elsewhere in the country and region. But when American support dwindles—as it did crucially during the Turkish invasion of northern Syria in August 2016 and again in Afrin most recently—it can be identified as a sign of the opportunism, “insincerity”, and inconsistency of American support for the YPG, coupled with a return to the eternal cliché of Kurdish betrayal by the west. (Graeber opens his New York Times piece with the most quoted ethnic proverb in the analyst-journalist world currently, the one about how Kurds—a nation of millions whose leaders have been exceptionally audacious in asserting themselves militarily and politically, and who have attracted more support for it than many other peoples and groups—have no friends but the mountains.)

On the other side, regime loyalists decry any deviation from the status quo in Syria and see attempts to enhance the recognition and rights of the different ethnic and religious groups comprising Syria as emblematic of the country’s destruction. On the northern front, having seen IS wither away, Turkey has responded by actively backing an assortment of Syrian rebels, directing them towards Afrin and Manbij while citing the need to secure their borders against the PKK threat.

Each appraisal of the composition, aims, and behaviours of the PYD/YPG project come heavily burdened: many of the characterizations above are not primarily descriptions of Rojava or its chief actors, but a narrow projection of particular interests in relation to them. Lionized as the liberators of women, inclusive trailblazing democrats, and the primary (and often erroneously denoted by some as the only) actors working against IS—or demonized as ethnic cleansers and a proxy force by others—many observers are left with extreme, polarizing views to choose from. This situation is made worse by the high cost of reporting from Syria. Despite much courageous reporting undertaken at great risk, a large space has also opened up for hobbyistic indulgence to expand into long-form propagandistic narratives.

Thus, we are left mostly with these romances. What is presented in this article is not romance—it comes from an Assyrian perspective—a group that has suffered uncountable losses after the emergence of ISIS/IS in Syria and Iraq. Assessments made by too many analysts and operatives are saddled with exaggerations and hyperbole because they are all downward projections of interests. The experience of Assyrians in Syria takes place on a lower, grittier level several rungs down on both the material and ideological ladders encompassing the realities in northern Syria. It is the experience of details seldom touched upon by parties keen to make sweeping points about the situation.

An appreciation and sensitivity to these nuances and this context is utterly lost amid the cacophony of bombs and smears. All of this noise, however, presents opportunities to those whose relevance depends on a lack of clarity. Let us now work towards some clarity from the ground up.


Among its other facets and characteristics, the PYD is a Kurdish nationalist party. Supporting the PYD means supporting a Kurdish nationalist agenda. The views of a PYD representative as recorded within a UK government Foreign Affairs Committee report in November 2017 affirm as much: “The Democratic Union Party (PYD) […] told us that it was not arguing for a “Greater Kurdistan”, but instead that “different solutions to each part of Kurdistan are needed in line with the objective circumstances of each part” (It did nevertheless hope, in the future, for the chance of “self-determination for a confederal united Kurdistan”).” In other words, the PYD admit they need to speak and behave differently according to the circumstances in each part of Kurdistan in order to effectively advance a nationalist agenda.

The PKK have very intimate links with the PYD on all levels—to quote KDP leader Massoud Barzani, former President of the KRG and the PKK’s primary Kurdish rival: “any support to the PYD means support for the PKK […] They are exactly one and the same thing.” Barzani made this statement in March 2016 in a lengthy interview with Al Monitor who have since removed it from their website. The US—for whom Barzani’s KDP peshmerga are an ally in Iraq—designate the PKK as a terrorist organisation, while the YPG are viewed as America’s boots on the ground in Syria. No doubt, this unequivocal declaration by Barzani was terribly embarrassing for the US. The image below contains an excerpt from a press conference from March 2016 with Mark C. Toner, then Spokesperson for the United States Department of State, illustrates how the United States has been navigating rivalries within the Kurdish nationalist political space, while accommodating Turkish foreign policy interests in relation to them. These rivalries are both political and military, as evinced by conflicts such as the March 2017 attack by KDP-employed “Rojava peshmerga” against Yazidis of the YBŞ, a PKK affiliate, in Sinjar.

QUESTION: Yeah, thank you. In Iraq, the Kurdish Regional Government President Massoud Barzani yesterday said in one interview that the PYD and the PKK are exactly one and the same thing. And he also said that Americans know that they —

MR TONER: I’m sorry, you said the PKK and —




MR TONER: Sorry, yeah. Finish. I’m sorry.


MR TONER: I just wanted to make sure I had the —

QUESTION: Okay. And he also said that Americans know this very well, but they don’t want to say it, as the top priority is the fight against ISIS, so they turn a blind eye PYD relation with PKK. And this is what your close ally Peshmerga’s leader, Mr. Barzani, said.

MR TONER: Well – and you’re asking me for my reaction and whether —

QUESTION: I want to know, what do you know about PKK and PYD relation?

MR TONER: I mean, we still adhere to what our policy’s been for the past many months, which is that we view the PKK as a foreign terrorist organization. We condemn its – the violence that it carries out against Turkish civilians and citizens. And separately, we have been working with the YPD – or YPG, rather, in parts of Syria as part of a number of groups we’re working with who are actively fighting and dislodging Daesh or ISIL from territory it controls. That doesn’t mean we haven’t had disagreements with them when they try to hold territory or not – or declare semi-autonomous self-rule zones. We disagree with them on that and we have frank discussions with them about that. 

The CIA website even listed Salih Muslim, the co-chair of the PYD, as “the leader of the PKK in Syria” in early 2018. This listing has since been altered to exclude Muslim’s designation as leader of the PKK in Syria, along with changing the PKK’s aim(s) from a desire to “establish Kurdistan” to “advance Kurdish autonomy, political, and cultural rights in Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran.” Over recent years, the professed positions of the PKK have undergone new changes following developments in the thought of its leader, Abdullah Öcalan, changes that emphasize inclusivity and move away from ethnic nationalism; however, these intellectual evolutions have had little practical impact on the street-level military culture of the PKK or the political policies and state-building agendas of the rank-and-file for whom the ethos of the organization remains inherently connected to Kurdish nationalism.

An image of the CIA website’s definition of the PKK, prior to being altered in 2018, specifying that the purpose of the organization is to “establish Kurdistan.”

The long game for the PKK-PYD-YPG Kurdish axis is Kurdistan. That is the whole point of taking and holding land, incorporating a Kurdish school curriculum (not only in terms of language, but in cultural substance and content), drafting soldiers, setting its own taxation levels alongside the Syrian regime’s, holding elections and dealing directly with international powers. Rojava has been defined by taking every possible step to secure the bases for future separatism, while verbally relinquishing the significance of those steps when it is strategically and rhetorically convenient. This plan has included measures of support for the Syrian state against the rebellion against it with a view to securing a superior place under its broader dominion in the medium term. These policies are harmful to Assyrians—not because of any problem with Kurdish self-determination in principle—but because they introduce parallel systems based on an ideology and political apparatus that position Assyrians as an adjunct to Kurdish nationalist aspirations. Those aspects of Rojavan policy are a strategic gamble, not a statement of allegiance to a Syrian state that is perceived at the deepest level as fundamentally illegitimate, given its Arab-dominated nature as well as its “occupation” of part of “Kurdistan”.

Rojava, Northern Syria: Group Branding and Minority Co-optation

Kurds have indeed made sacrifices to retain territory taken from IS in Syria, both in terms of lives and in terms of rhetoric. Regarding the branding of security entities, the key terms and actors comprising “Rojava” and the YPG later became the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria and the composite SDF force. Despite this superficial reformulation, the PYD is still the chief overseer of this newly-branded zone and the YPG is most certainly still the key fighting force. Things have not suddenly transformed on the ground from Rojava/YPG hegemony to an idealized horizontal society removed from ethnic or party character. The previous vision—of Western Kurdistan carved out of, though still linked to, Syria—was compromised in order to secure lasting support from coalition partners who wanted to be seen backing a pluralist force fighting for a shared future, rather than a Kurdish-dominated group fighting for an iteration of Kurdistan, the latter of which is not even in the interests of the US, whose current objective in Syria is to destabilize the regime and make it vulnerable to dissidents, not deliver its deathblow.

In order to massage concerns and meet these requirements, a number of steps were gradually taken by the PYD’s leadership. One such step has been to boost the presence and platform of non-Kurdish subsidiaries such as the Dawronoye in Syria—a small network of Assyrians originating from Midyat, Turkey, who were assembled, funded, and directed by the PKK in the late 1980’s to join their campaign of military resistance based on a mutual enmity of Turkey. The relationship between the PYD and Dawronoye’s Syriac Union Party (SUP) and Syriac Military Council (MFS) is identical because their parent organisations are not discrete groups: the PKK can be said to simply have opened a Dawronoye chapter in Syria.

Christian Assyrians face the threat of similar systems of patronage in both Iraq and Syria as Assyrian identity is a useful rhetorical device for dominant ethnic, political, and religious interests in both countries. Kurdish nationalist groups such as the PYD in Syria and the KDP in Iraq make extensive use of the Christian and Assyrian identities to promote their own agendas and objectives, trading titles, status, money, and a platform to individuals in exchange for loyalty. No meaningful agency, autonomy, or power is ever afforded by the patrons in these relationships. The promise that is instead offered is a seat at the table of an emergent Kurdish political entity that will entail opportunities to serve as the intermediary between Kurdish power and the Assyrian community. This approach is a near replication of the policies of key figures in the history of Arab and Turkish republics in relation to less powerful ethnic groups that needed to be controlled, including Kamal Ataturk, who incentivised Assyrian religious leaders into complete subservience to the Turkish nationalist agenda in exchange for the most minimal and intermittent of protections, and Saddam Hussein, who used “recognition” of Kurds as a means to control them (and punish them, when necessary) through proxies.

For the KDP in Iraq, a power structure run by a single family long-backed by the US, installing patronage systems (through which loyalty among tribal, religious, and community leaders is bought with aid money and petrodollars) is an existential matter: the KDP is dependent on these systems to persist as both a political and military force in a context where much of the populace increasingly agitates for political democratization and the rejection of the model of single-party regimes. Smaller, weaker groups that lack backing from outside sources, ways to protect themselves in the face of hostility and violence, or control of oil assets are more vulnerable (and receptive) to these patronage systems. Individuals electing to partake in these exchanges either out of desperation or self-interest often create an illusion for external observers of general approval or buy-in by the minority group for the patron’s policies, even though the co-opted elites who assume this role as intermediary often do so apart from consultation with the minority’s general population and without its approval.

The methods by which the KDP have attempted to positively own the Assyrian question in Iraq have been varied and well documented, from enlisting Assyrians into the party itself to setting up and funding loyal proxies. In the earlier decades of the Kurdish nationalist movement in northern Iraq, Assyrians would be compelled to simply join the KDP in order to receive conditional freedoms and privileges. But with the growing mobilisation and development of an independent Assyrian agenda amongst Assyrians in Iraq and in the diaspora—which accelerated amid its own intensity and the force of the KDP response to it following the establishment of the no-fly zone in 1991, and again after the invasion and creation of a new Iraqi state in 2003—the need to create separate proxies to muffle and undermine this emerging voice became a pressing concern for the KDP. (For a broader analysis of these and related phenomena in the contemporary Iraqi context, please reference the recent Erasing Assyrians” report, to which the authors of this article contributed.)

The Dawronoye in Syria—A Strategic Façade

As conflict gripped Syria, the PYD/YPG immediately sought to enlist Assyrians through the networks afforded to them by their PKK counterparts. What is important to highlight here is that wherever the PKK or PKK-affiliated groups emerge, one can be certain that a Dawronoye presence will subsequently be paraded. We see this most vividly in Syria, where the Syriac Union Party (SUP) emerged alongside the Syriac Military Council (MFS) following the start of the Syrian uprising in 2011. These are the political and military manifestations of the Dawronoye in Syria.

The MFS in Syria are vastly exaggerated in terms of size and barely any ethnic Assyrians make up its ranks. The MFS Wikipedia states that the force is “2,000+” strong, citing a news article informed by an MFS spokesman, but there is no evidence for these numbers, and moreover, around 90% of the fighters who are depicted in MFS communications and media are ethnic Arabs and Kurds. These men have been conscripted into fighting on behalf of the Kurdish self-administration in recent years, and due to the absence of hard boundaries between the MFS and the YPG have frequently been dressed in MFS garb in order to inflate the strength of the diverse components participating in the SDF. This tactic provides an image of agency and participation by these diverse components where there is in fact very little. Leadership positions, such as those occupied by ethnic Assyrian Kino Gabriel, who was promoted from MFS spokesperson to SDF spokesperson, are exaggerated and made extremely visible to outsiders to compensate for this internal dynamic. The Bethnahrin Women Protection Forces (HSNB) serve as the MFS version of the Kurdish Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) and provide similar rhetorical and imagistic value.

Kino Gabriel, SDF spokesperson

The Dawronoye is a nationalist movement seeking to establish national sovereignty for another people. They seek to politically represent the Assyrian community (from whom they have almost no support) while disavowing the possibility of any Assyrian interests outside or apart from the formation of Kurdistan. According to Dawronoye ideology and practice, each gain made in the attempt to carve out territory for Kurdistan is a gain for Assyrians. Engagement with non-Kurdish political forces, except through this lens and towards those aims, is depicted as inherently harmful, a traitorous reinforcement of the tyrannical status quo of the Arab and Turkish state. The MFS, as the military wing of the Dawronoye, fights under the command and on behalf of the YPG, even serving in missions that do not directly affect Assyrians and are formed predominantly, and increasingly, of non-Assyrian fighters.

MFS soldiers in a graduation ceremony

The PYD attempt to position the MFS in relation to geo-political and inter-ethnic affairs in a way that capitalizes on the attention of the world on the major events and competitions of interest in the region. This attempt has been fruitful, to the extent that Dawronoye are now regarded as the legitimate representatives of the Assyrian community in Syria in many forums and contexts, including media and thinktank reports and official government communications. The rhetorical and ideological frame of the Rojava project has allowed the Dawronoye the following productive inversion of the terms of their propaganda: The greater the group’s focus on Assyrians, the more it links itself to a broader vision of ethnic co-existence and democratic values. It is essential for the Kurdish nationalists of the Rojava project to claim that their project includes non-Kurds: not as proxies or adjuncts, but as committed both in terms of their own self-interest as a community (proving that Rojava is the most effective safeguard thereof), and in ideological and political principles. Within the latter frame, non-Kurds serve as enthused participants in an endeavour that, uniquely among those in the region, is undergirded by an ideological tradition as well as that of the territorial, racial, and historical justice embodied in the ultimate vision of Kurdistan. In light of the PKK’s failure to affect territorial partition in the form of a nation state through armed struggle in Turkey, a shift to localist-autonomist ideology invoking the work of Anarchist theorists has taken place. But the ethnic politics underneath that language, as represented in the actions of the PYD towards Assyrians, remain solidly nationalistic.

A since-deleted tweet extolling the multi-ethnic composition of the MFS force.

From the perspective of the Dawronoye, they are representatives of a nation that has survived genocide at the hands of the Ottomans, who are perceived as a direct prefiguration of the Turkish state, allowing the fundamentally hostile stance of the PKK to the contemporary Turkish state to serve as a means to morally restore the losses of that genocide on behalf of Assyrians. The possibility of presenting the Dawronoye as the authentic, native voice of a beleaguered nation—and the MFS as the self-led military force that Assyrians needed all along, finally granted by the Kurdish liberation movement—that has the same perception of history as their Kurdish overlords is of immense significance to the PYD/YPG. The Dawronoye can encompass both the parochial enthusiasms of a liberated Assyrian nation, and a grand, beautifully fuzzy vision of liberation with almost unlimited flexibility of scope.

The participation of the MFS in SDF operations are minimal yet usually accompanied by vast and disproportionate broadcasting aimed at, and coverage from, media. For example, the announcement that the MFS were sending fighters to fight the Turkish military was accompanied by images of a few dozen soldiers posing in a field carrying light arms and being photographed. Even stranger are their contributions to international political affairs: statements are regularly released commenting on these affairs, “stating a position”, and recommending actions to sovereign actors—sometimes on affairs that have nothing to do with Assyrians—all by a small group of people who represent almost nobody on the ground or in diaspora.

MFS fighters pose in front of a martyr board prominently featuring Assyrian fighter Basil “Akad” Talya. This picture was used as part of a Twitter thread announcing MFS participation in the SDF battle against the Turkish army. Photo: MFS

In these pursuits, they are no more than an adjunct of the Kurdish project in Syria on an international level—a head without a body: In Europe, they lobby the European Parliament as the European Syriac Union (ESU). Through social media, they mostly rely on the omnipresence of David Vergili, himself a Dawronoye lobbyist for the ESU at the European Union. If one examines their record at the European Union, the financials for the year 2015 indicate that no money was gathered from public, regional, European, or community sources, but all came from “other sources”. The record also lists the ESU as having three full time, unpaid “volunteers” and two part time volunteers who receive no salary (totalling four FTE). The ESU was registered in 2012. It is unclear based on this information how these individuals have subsisted full-time for years, collecting no salary, with unnamed funding sources.

In other places, Dawronoye go by the name of Beth Nahrain Revolutionary Council. Invariably, the same handful of people and families create these memberless, interchangeable ghost organisations to create a façade of “consensus” among Assyrians, when in fact the only Assyrian organisations (or media outlets) that support the Dawronoye are generated by the Dawronoye themselves, examples of which were displayed in one of their published letters (see below image).

The ESU/MFS are more vocally hostile towards Turkey than even Kurdish parties, while possessing an incomparably minor capability to act on that aggression (i.e. defending against any retaliation by Turkey) compared to Kurds.

Requests for direct armament are made by the ESU to coalition partners. This is simultaneously a strange reflection of their status as a “forward unit” of the PYD rhetorical machine, as they provide the illusion that discrete pro-Rojava actors are joining voices spontaneously, and a paradoxical admission that they have no independent military will or capacity, hence the need for a direct request that cuts through provisions granted to the YPG. Their request for weapons is an acknowledgement that they depend completely on the Kurdish authority, unable to enforce even basic authority on the ground in comparison to Kurds, further illuminating their peripheral and diminutive status in the military hierarchy of northern Syria.

Amongst diaspora communities, the Dawronoye have negligible impact and relevance. An older business model for the group saw businesses petitioned for resources to fund their activities and training and indoctrination camps, modelled on those of the PKK. The whole affair is steeped in mystery and lack of transparency, with organisers and figureheads rejecting any line of questioning or criticism of their activities, dismissing everything as unfair and the work of their Assyrian rivals. The Dawronoye depend on secrecy: upon being merely questioned by other Assyrians, they revert to wounded, misunderstood agents of an ideology so elevated and transcendent that nobody expressing healthy scepticism can possibly hope to understand it. The largest nonpartisan Assyrian diaspora organizations have collectively condemned their activities and politics in Syria. In reality, the whole operation is as thin as a playing card in terms of substance, but boasts an enormous surface area. Even shallow penetration reveals the emptiness that lies behind the surface of their operation.

And so, considering their tremendous unpopularity among Assyrians and lack of resources, the Dawronoye offer Kurds the one thing they have: they leverage the Assyrian identity as both parallel and inferior to the narrative constructed by their superiors. The Dawronoye today are a letterhead whereas the Assyrian nation is a living document. Their vision is a complete gamble: they plan for the day when they will serve as the only Assyrian political entity that has the approval of a triumphant Kurdish power.  They pin their hopes on being the “approved” expression of Assyrian political will at a later date, delegitimizing all other expressions not by virtue of winning a battle of ideas from within the community, but by trading upwards and being selected and incentivized to make this trade.

The Dawronoye in Iraq and the expansion of PKK influence

Syria was inevitably going to be the territory where the Dawronoye network would surface given the popularity of the PKK among Kurds in Syria. The Dawronoye traditionally have not participated in Assyrian affairs in Iraq given that the PKK’s arch rival, the KDP, wields political and military power there. The KDP are categorically opposed to any PKK presence in Iraq, going so far as to even attack PKK-aligned Yazidis in Sinjar last year. Here, the KDP view their own peshmerga and non-Kurdish units who fall under peshmerga command as the only legitimate actors.

After the IS conquest, however, a new marketplace of militias and their associated politics opened within which the Dawronoye could operate inside Iraq. This allowed the Dawronoye to form a relationship with the NPF, a small Assyrian proxy of the KDP, which saw them promoting eachother on social media.

The KDP (via the Beth Nahrain Democratic Party—BNDP) created the tiny Nineveh Plain Forces (NPF) militia with “leftover” arms of KDP peshmerga. As well as complaining about this lack of armament (and therefore authority), this small unit was used to grab headlines and undermine the Nineveh Plain Protection Units (NPU), a much larger force that enjoys popular support among Assyrians tied to the central government and recognized and trained by coalition forces. The NPF claim to have 500 men (we have been able to identify only a small handful, amounting to fewer than 30) but have inevitably collapsed into obscurity after Iraqi Security Forces took back large swathes of territory, shrinking the KRG’s 40% territorial gains after the end of the IS occupation. At present, there is no sign of the NPF in the Nineveh Plain, but the NPU are still deployed and functional.

The NPF nevertheless persist as an occasional footnote in KDP media. Towards the end of their “operational” functioning (which amounted to bringing up the rear in peshmerga formations and taking pictures in liberated towns), the Dawronoye courted this small group despite the rivalries between their respective Kurdish sponsors. The Dawronoye’s growing presence in Iraq coincided with the PKK’s more formal entry into Iraqi politics during IS’ onslaught. The pattern is the same: acquire patronage through Kurdish authorities to increase their own prestige and visibility. For example, a Dawronoye candidate was recently appointed as mayor of Baghdeda (Qaraqosh) the largest Assyrian town in the Nineveh Plain and Iraq. He was appointed by the KDP-dominated 13-member Provincial Council, ahead of candidates backed by non-Kurdish controlled parties. Dawronoye social media outlets, in tandem with the KDP-controlled Ishtar TV, described the appointment as an “election”.

The Dawronoye and their extensions are so insignificant politically and militarily that they garner and accept both PKK and KDP support, with both groups fully cognizant of this fact, and keen to instrumentalise them according to their interests and the relevant landscape. Yoking together NPF (KDP) and MFS (YPG) as they have in this martyr board (the below image) doing the rounds online (material versions of which exist in Qamishli) demonstrates both how desperate the Dawronoye are to take advantage of martyrs from these contradictory causes in order to exalt their own status, as well as how materially harmless they are for this to pose no problem for their rival sponsors. Such is the reliance of the Dawronoye on the opportunities provided by Kurdish power that they enthusiastically work towards any iteration of Kurdistan that utilizes them in any given moment. Given the extent of the enmity between the PKK and the KDP, it is remarkable that this fluidity is possible. But it must be understood that from the perspective and position of the Dawronoye, these rivals operate within the same nationalist and political framework without which the Dawronoye have no place. Across Iraq and Syria, they remain passengers in different vehicles: for the Dawronoye, it does not matter who is driving the car as long as the destination is Kurdistan.

A Dawronoye martyr board with images of fighters in both KDP- and YPG-affiliated Dawronoye groups.

Nation Building or Nation Destroying?

One problem Assyrians have in Syria (in contrast to Iraq) is that the US and its allies initially threatened to oust Assad, and so many Assyrians who accepted Syrian regime support in the northern provinces were smeared, abandoned, and neglected by Westerners and local dissidents alike, whereas the few Assyrians who fell under YPG command became celebrated and given a platform. This is another factor explaining the disparity in influence and visibility the Dawronoye have within Iraq as opposed to Syria. Coalition partners work directly with the Iraqi Government and the KRG, and not the Syrian Government, meaning that attention and resources are thus allocated far more to supporting a sovereign authority and groups attached to it in the Iraqi case, rather than exclusively sub-state actors as they are in Syria.

These Assyrians who did not tow the YPG line in Syria were dismissed as “Ba’athist Assyrians” by both Kurdish and Western actors and observers, many of whom ignore the fact that the YPG is not officially in conflict with the Syrian regime. The two groups have collaborated consistently and extensively over the course of the conflict. But as in Iraq, the dominant Kurdish group has inserted itself as an administrative layer between the central government and any Assyrians under its self-defined jurisdiction. The rhetoric following this dynamic works like this: When the PYD works directly with the regime, it is necessary and should be understood within a context of pragmatic engagement aimed at the survival and flourishing of a people and a dream. But when groups who resist PYD control and seek to engage the regime do so, they are harassed and smeared for it.

A false choice is often presented: go with the Kurds or the Arabs (in Iraq or Syria). It is a false choice because Kurdish groups in Syria and Iraq are entirely dependent on aid from both central governments in Iraq and Syria (via military deployment around Afrin, Damascus-issued passports, etc.) as well as vast sums of aid and weapons from international actors. The choice is not an equal one. Assyrians who create a direct channel between themselves and the central governments in Iraq and Syria are demonized and actively undermined by these Kurdish groups, whereas Assyrians who submit to a Kurdish intermediary are celebrated as expressing a popular will: for “working together”. Ironically, Assyrian groups who do want to establish these direct channels are often seeking to establish Assyrians as a political community on a par with Kurds within those states—even if at a lower level given demographics and capacities—while the groups “working with” major Kurdish nationalist forces such as the PKK, YPG/PYD, and KDP seek to penetrate, divide, and weaken Assyrian communities in order to secure a gilded station in the very machinery repressing Assyrians.

Demographic Games and Land-Grabbing

In conflict zones such as Iraq and Syria, new “facts on the ground” can be easily created given the turbulent and shifting nature of military lines, demographic dominance, and policy objectives. In both the cases of Syria and Iraq, Kurdish groups prioritized taking, holding, and normalizing facts on the ground. Because of IS in Iraq, KRG territory expanded by 40%. The positive glee expressed at the onslaught of genocidal terrorists is revealed most sincerely by an anonymous KRG official in 2014: “ISIL gave us in two weeks what Maliki has not given us in eight years.” In Syria however, the fight against IS was far more complex to navigate given the pariah status of the Assad regime and its Russian ally.

There, the Kurdish groups experienced in conducting clandestine rebellions, guerrilla fighting, and operative secrecy had to navigate the Syrian regime, Russian, Turkish, and US political interests, as well as various groups of rebels and Islamists. The line dividing the YPG and the PKK is blurry, with plenty of crossover in terms of personnel, leadership, ideology, and goals.

In collapsing states, as Syria and Iraq were during IS’ emergence and occupation, the homelands of vulnerable and minoritized groups have often proven to be the easiest spaces on which to rapidly establish new “facts on the ground”. Iraq was first; long plagued by a multitude of clashing interests, military dictatorships, violence, and oppression, the northern territories became dominated by Kurdish groups given their demographic superiority after repeated acts of ethnic cleansing and expulsion of the indigenous Assyrian populations. This dominance precipitated the gradual erasure of Assyrians from their own lands, both symbolically and materially. Dozens of Assyrian villages and swathes of Assyrian land in Dohuk, on which Assyrians have not only a historical but legal claim, have been seized and occupied by Kurds. This process has only accelerated since the implementation of the no-fly zone and the establishment of the KRG, with land theft cases overwhelmingly being ruled in favor of Assyrians with no corollary action taken to challenge their occupation, which is often enforced through threats or actual violence. To give one of almost innumerable examples, Diana (now renamed Soran) “expanded rapidly from a small Assyrian village in the 1990s into a large ethnically Kurdish city of approximately 125,000 people, of which 64% are refugees who returned to Iraq within the last ten years.” Demographic change on this scale has not required centuries, but mere decades.

Syria’s conflict offered the PKK an opportunity to create a similar model. Assyrians in urban centers in Hasakah, especially Qamishli but including Hasakah city, have been exposed to dual administrations and taxed twice, as well as subjected to forced recruitment in the YPG, even if they had previously served in the Syrian Arab Army. In September 2015, Jenan Moussa reported that Kurds in Afrin would need special permission to sell their houses in an effort to prevent them from leaving Syria. On the other hand, Assyrians were that year targeted by a law which facilitated the expropriation by the Kurdish self-administration of presently unoccupied property. The law was only overturned after massive protest. Thirty Kurdish families, internally displaced from Afrin, are currently living in Tel-Nasri. Qamishli and Tel Tamar were established by Assyrian refugees fleeing the Assyrian Genocide in the 1920s and 30s respectively; they are both now majority Kurdish. Recent events make clear the YPG’s intentions to extend itself across the Khabur River, another initial site of concentrated Assyrian re-settlement following genocide. The Khabur Guards, a local Assyrian security force comprised of a small number of residents of Khabur primarily seeking to patrol empty villages and protect property, but which has also taken part in military operations, such as the liberation of Shaddedeh (more on which will follow), had routinely resisted previous such attempts. But beginning the week of June 25th, the YPG/asayish, along with the MFS, began to try to directly establish self-administration authority in Khabur. The YPG entered Tel Baz, and the MFS Tal Jazira. They dismantled Khabur Guard checkpoints and dug for new ones. The MFS established a military base on the land of an Assyrian farmer, who asserts that the title deed for his land was falsified. Gunfire was exchanged between the MFS and the Khabur Guards, with no injuries reported.

It remains unclear whether the boldness of the YPG incursion into Khabur is a land grab in expectation of the return of regime forces to an area they abandoned to focus on more significant territory in 2012. The Assyrians of Khabur have almost no independent capacity, support, or reliable security in their attempt to re-settle the once fully Assyrian villages emptied amid IS pillage and kidnapping. Beyond that, local alignment with either side vying for Khabur—a place that prior to the conflict hosted one of the most stable and concentrated Assyrian populations in modern history—is a depressing prospect. There is no guarantee (and little likelihood) that a re-assertion of regime control would entail a return to the relatively stable property rights and enforcement situation afforded to Khabur Assyrians historically in Syria. The takeover of Khabur by Kurdish self-administration forces would be understood as an alien occupation, and a signal that return is impossible.

Assyrian Martyrs as Kurdish Nationalist Currency

The fight against IS—a universal enemy that seriously called into question the legitimacy of several Middle Eastern states—has specifically provided the PYD an opportunity to monopolise Assyrian martyrdom in order to enshrine their claims on the future, politically and territorially. (Here, there are echoes with the KDP’s veneration of famous Assyrian KDP member Franso Hariri, assassinated in 2001, which serves as both a threatening reminder of the fragility of even a tokenistic Assyrian representation and a way to instil a permanent psychological legacy of subservience to the KDP in Assyrians.) One prominent example is the case of David Jindo, the leader of the Khabur Guards, whose attempts to maintain diplomatic channels with the YPG were initially frayed by his refusal to accept the term “Rojava” and his commitment to Syria as a unified country. After Jindo spoke out against rampant MFS and YPG looting of villages in Khabur, he was on April 22nd, 2015 abducted and assassinated by members of the YPG. His compatriot Elias Nasser was also shot at and left for dead in the same operation: it was only Nasser’s survival and the transmission of information to observers from his hospital bed that forced the need for recognition of the attack. Despite being assassinated by members of the YPG, Jindo has now been fully incorporated into the martyrdom imagery and narrative of the Kurdish self-administration through the MFS, a clear demonstration of how concerted the attempt to absorb Assyrian suffering into that narrative is, and how the MFS is used as the vehicle to do so. The underlying message is that his assassination, which in fact had the effect of severely weakening Assyrian capacities independent of the Kurdish self-administration, was an act that harmed the Assyrian community as a whole, and that his tokenistic placement on MFS martyr boards and in their rhetoric demonstrates the legitimacy of MFS stewardship of that community.

Image of martyr “Dawud Cindo” (David Jindo) installed in Tel Tamer, Syria alongside MFS symbols. Photo: MFS

On February 22nd, 2016 a dispute arose over a martyr (“George”) who had participated in anti-IS operations in Shaddadeh, an area of particular importance to the Assyrian community since the hostages taken from Khabur by IS were held there. George was in the Khabur Guards. As preparations for his burial began, and his coffin was being draped in the Khabur Guards flag, MFS representatives insisted that he instead be buried in MFS colours and recognized as an MFS martyr. Rabi Isa, a Khabur Guard fighter who raised objections, emphasising that the two forces participated side-by-side in the Shaddadeh operation, was beaten severely, imprisoned, and threatened with execution by MFS fighters, who told him that “there is no such thing as a martyr of the Khabur Guards, and no such thing as the Khabur Guards.” A woman who was present throughout the ordeal, found Rabi Isa with “his hands broken, blood streaming from his face, his clothes dirty”. She gave the following recorded testimony:

“We must let the world know that not a single Dawronoye should remain in Khabur—to avoid bloodshed, for they do not accept us as brothers of the same blood: they do not want to maintain and sustain Khabur and to sacrifice for the sake of Christianity or for our people, they wish to create enmity between us, and to annex Khabur and get us out of there—just like we were forced to leave Iraq and Turkey.”

For Assyrian men aged 18-30 in Gozarto, conscription usually entails serving in either the MFS/YPG or the Gozarto Protection Forces (GPF)/Sootoro, a regime aligned local security force comprised of Assyrians and a small number of Armenians mainly operating in the Wusta neighbourhood of Qamishli and its police branch. Assyrians (like Kurds and Arabs) are liable to be conscripted into the YPG even if they have served in the SAA. Assyrians sometimes enlist with Sootoro/GPF in order to obtain their identification papers, protecting them to a degree from conscription by the YPG. These ID papers are in a sense exchanged for irregular and sparse service commitments to the GPF, who themselves can only afford to pay approximately a third of the salary that the MFS/YPG offer to their Assyrian conscripts. For a granular account of the current operational and political dynamics of the GPF/Sootoro in relation to the Syrian regime and the Kurdish self-administration, see this recent paper, based on a research trip to Syria, by prolific analyst Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi.

During YPG-regime clashes in April 2016, four GPF fighters were disarmed and detained by PYD asayish. Once agreements were reached between the two sides and violence subsided, the GPF released seven YPG fighters in exchange for their four men. (The GPF fighters were the last to be released of all the soldiers locally captured from the government side.) The fighters were “handed over” to the MFS so that they could claim ownership of their “liberation”, which is paraded on this Dawronoye news website as an act of pan-ethnic solidarity triumphing over political differences, and a vindication of the Dawronoye participation in the Rojava project. According to the site, it was only “with the help of the Syriac Union Party in Syria (part of the autonomous self-administration)” that their brethren, led astray by regime propaganda to fight in the GPF and not the MFS, could be freed. In reality, the men were blindfolded, interrogated, and at least one GPF fighter was beaten badly by the PYD asayish captors; our source—who viewed the scars on his back in person—was able to confirm only his beating, but told us that the other three men “were almost certainly” given similar treatment. After their blindfolded interrogation and beating, the fighters were handed over to the MFS for the photo-op release. (The MFS sought to include GPF representatives in the handover “ceremony” to enhance its propaganda value, but they declined to participate.) The episode illustrates the intermediary status of the Dawronoye described earlier in this article; their combination of powerlessness and utility, the absence of a distinct capacity that yields a distinct capacity to do harm.

Teaching Kurdistan

Needing to manoeuvre between the regime and Kurdish authorities has been a significant factor behind emigration of Assyrians from Syria. The propaganda machinery of the PYD and its supporters constantly broadcasts how their revolutionary system benefits Assyrians and other minorities, placing all ethnic groups on an equal level (“for the first time in modern Syrian history”). This position is projected onto Turkish nationalist and Islamist opponents as well as Assyrian witnesses on the ground alike. In April 2017, Wladimir van Wilgenberg posted a page of a textbook currently in use in the Jazira/Cizere Canton where Assyrians are predominantly clustered. Here, we can see that not only are children being taught about Kurds or Kurdish history in Syria, but about an idealised Greater Kurdistan (that includes even Mosul). The significance of this cannot be understated: if the Rojava Revolution was primarily about sophisticated leftist ideals, a map commonly circulated by ethnic-nationalists would not be published within its educational literature.

Educational materials (such as this page from an Assyrian child’s schoolbook in Rojava) containing maps of an idealised Greater Kurdistan are distributed to all children under the Kurdish self-administration.


Children’s schoolbooks celebrating Kurdish figures used within areas under the Kurdish self-administration.

The educational program of the Kurdish self-administration has played a role in garnering moral and political support, their policies assumed to be inherently and implicitly progressive. But there has been massive resistance to them among Assyrians across Hasakah. Until the assertion of self-administrative authority, the Syrian central government provided the curriculum for both governmental schools and private schools, such as those belonging to Churches in Hasakah. Teaching was in Arabic, with classical Syriac or spoken Assyrian permitted for use up to two hours a week in classes run by churches. Assyrian and Syriac were depicted by the state not as ethno-national languages belonging to a people but as the province of church education.

In 2015, the Kurdish self-administration released a new curriculum fully steeped in their own ideology. They sought to separate each ethnic group under their control (namely Kurds, Armenians, Arabs, and Assyrians) so that each community would learn the new curriculum in their own mother tongue. The subject of Arabic nationalism—previously a source of the retroactive absorption of Assyrian and non-Arab history into an Arab racial narrative—was cancelled, only to be supplanted by another geographically and historically expansive narrative of Kurdish ethno-centrism. An Assyrian source living in Qamishli told us: “We’ve merely been granted the right to learn about Kurdish history, from a Kurdish nationalist perspective, but in our own language.” This demonstrates the irony that Kurds, once subject to chauvinistic Arab nationalist educational curricula, are now acting as the enforcers of a similarly chauvinistic model over Assyrians and others. There is no dispute that all groups in Syria should have the right to be taught in schools in their own language, but this should not come saddled with the imposition of specific political and racial narratives.

The Assyrian community overwhelmingly refused to accept the changes, rejecting the curriculum on ideological grounds as well as fearing the consequences of segregating schools and classes by ethnic group. PYD representatives pressurized (and continue to pressurize) church representatives to accept the new system, which has been implemented successfully across much of Hasakah. In April 2015, a document denouncing the “interference” and “pressure” TEV-DEM was placing on schools in Gozarto was signed by sixteen Assyrian and Christian organizations. The Dawronoye were the only Assyrian organization that did not sign the paper, a vivid indication of how marginal their politics are in relation to their purported constituency.

For the PYD, enforcing a new curriculum is part of a long-term process of entrenching themselves over a dominant demographic: this process is subject to contingencies and externalities, such as negotiations over their international legitimacy and how much they are recognized and supported internally by the Syrian state. But it is tasked with a clear political goal and backed by the YPG. For Assyrians, this is a process they are forced to partake in with no clear long-term benefit.

Beyond Rojava: Assad, Turkey, and the Syrian State

Creating facts on the ground in the manner described in this article represents a zero-sum game for Assyrians. Wherever Kurdish nationalist forces are flourishing in these areas, Assyrians are leaving. This is not partnership: it is submission and displacement, and the US is continuing to funnel hundreds of millions of dollars into it. The US is protecting its interests in Syria, as it has often done in Iraq by propping up the peshmerga. What must be realised is that both of these endeavours are not only harming Assyrians materially, but conserving the very patronage systems Assyrians are desperately trying to resist.

The KRG has repeatedly proven itself to be a hugely expensive blunder. Almost none of the money allocated to the KRG over the years has been used to build democratic institutions or to diversify its economy—it has instead been used to maintain patronage systems and enable corrupt leadership classes to enforce their will and enhance their personal wealth free of consequences, as reported here recently by Kurdish journalist Abdullah Hawez. What we are witnessing in Syria is a more committed form of the same type of behaviour that the US performed in Iraq during the 1990s: the funding of rebels and destabilizing elements against a tyrant they are not ready to force out. Endless sums of money were poured into the KRG creating a region that has imploded, eating itself.

The PYD’s strategic handling of the complexities of Syrian and regional politics following the outbreak of war was highly sophisticated. But the events of the past few months—specifically the liberation of Raqqa, the ongoing success of the SAA against rebel groups, and the invasion of Afrin by Turkey—have exposed the fact that they were manoeuvring, albeit with considerable craft and skill, between major powers that were either using (or sparing) the PYD/YPG for their own ends.

The “multi-ethnic/confessional” nature of the Syrian Arab Army and regime is only invoked by hardcore supporters of the regime in its defense, and even then, partly as a reactive stance to contrast against Islamist forces and to undermine PYD/YPG claims to unique sophistication on that front. And rightly so. All of the disparate individuals and elements fighting on behalf of the regime are seeking to buttress a system responsible for mass imprisonment, torture, and staggering, irreversible material and infrastructural destruction—all performed at the expense of reform. The extensive chronicling of the particularities of the Rojava project in this article should suffice to convey an understanding of the fundamental differences between that project and the attempt by the regime to survive and dominate again. Our emphasis is on the speciousness of invoking ethnic inclusion in order to force Assyrians to accept subjugation as preferable to death.

The search for a “natural order” in nation building and geo-politics has led to the radical toppling of existing orders in the pursuit of perfect racial-geographical justice, the worst extreme of which has led to genocide. Almost uniquely, the project to “unearth” Kurdistan from Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Iran—as if statecraft were a sculptural medium, chipping away at the surface of reality to reveal the perfect form underneath—remains widely perceived as an act of liberation and restoration, of the just overturning of ethno-demographic and power imbalances that have either existed since time immemorial or since the early 20th century.

Rhetoric is a powerful device, but Assyrians feel the reality on the ground. State actors and interested observers remain unwilling to see the darker, uglier side of the coin.



  • Reject unhelpful political binaries, whether “Assad vs. opposition”, or “pro- vs. anti-Kurdish self-administration.” Assyrians in Syria are on the verge of disappearance and their survival in any form must be prioritized for them to have any long-term presence in Syria. Assyrians are trying to survive by any means they see fit given these extreme circumstances. The imposition of binaries does nothing to address the crisis facing Assyrians, nor is it the appropriate framework through which to view a people with insufficient capacities to make political choices to support their interests.
  • The participation of Assyrians in the Kurdish self-administration should not be understood as representing the general will of Assyrians in Syria. The Assyrian participation in the Kurdish self-administration has done nothing to stem the outflow of Assyrians from Syria.
  • In the ongoing absence of a legitimate government in Syria, it is essential that lands to which Assyrians are legally entitled and which Assyrians have inhabited from before the formation of the modern Syrian state, specifically in Qamishli and Khabur, are not subject to occupation, annexation, and reclassification by any forces. The absence of consensual order must not serve as an excuse for short term measures that will likely lead to the permanent disappearance of Assyrians.
  • Depoliticize aid and support directed towards Assyrians and other vulnerable groups in Syria. Detach the material needs of these threatened communities from contingencies involving political conflicts and ideological positions.


POSTSCRIPT: Ethnic and Communal Security Dynamics in Qamishli and Hasakah Provinces

This appendix will expound upon the details of confrontations (and associated incidents) between Assyrian and Kurdish security forces in Qamishli. Having established our analytical perspective on these Kurdish-Assyrian political dynamics in northeast Syria, we wish to include the below details for the sake of closely documenting the details of events that risk going unrecorded.

Checkpoint skirmish

In the early morning hours of Tuesday, January 12th, 2016, a skirmish took place in the Wusta neighborhood of Qamishli between the Gozarto Protection Forces (GPF) and the People’s Protection Units (YPG).

At around 12:30 AM on the morning of Tuesday, January 12th, the PYD asayish approached a GPF checkpoint in the Al-Wusta neighborhood of Qamishli an overwhelmingly Assyrian neighborhood with an Armenian minority. This demographic is mirrored in the composition of the GPF.

The PYD asayish told the GPF that they would have to dismantle the checkpoint. The GPF objected. Tensions quickly rose and the PYD asayish, accompanied by the YPG, opened fire.

The initial opening of fire killed a GPF fighter, Gabi Daoud, and injured another. Once the GPF began returning fire, the YPG departed the scene, before re-grouping and returning in greater numbers. A battle raged for around two hours. Even civilian Assyrians in Wusta fired back at the YPG alongside GPF fighters. Anywhere between one and eight YPG fighters appear to have been killed in the fray, according to eyewitness claims. Eyewitness reports provided to us attest to GPF fighters inflicting at least two casualties among Kurdish fighters. Allusion was made to the death of thirty-year-old Sefedin Ahmad Barazi from Hleliye, for example, later on the 12th, in a Facebook link since taken down. In the morning, YPG fighters were heard firing in the air in Kurdish neighborhoods of Qamishli, suggesting casualties having developed from wounds inflicted in the battle hours earlier.


Beyond the broader dynamics discussed in this previous Syria Comment article, two terrorist attacks formed the background of the skirmish.

The first was a triple truck bombing by the Islamic State that hit Tel Tamar, a town established by Assyrians but which is now majority Kurdish, on December 10th. Around 50 Kurdish and Arab civilians died, with up to 80 injured. Four Assyrians died in the attack.

The second, and more significant in relation to Assyrians, took place on December 30th. A coordinated bomb attack targeted three Assyrian restaurants in the Wusta neighbourhood of Qamishli. A bag was left in Miami Restaurant and detonated at 9:30 PM; at 10, a bag left outside Gabriel restaurant exploded; and at 10:30, a similar bomb left inside a bag is said to have blown up outside Masaa Restaurant. Fourteen Assyrians were killed and dozens were injured. The bombs also killed two Kurds.

A week prior to the attack in Wusta, the YPG approached a Sootoro checkpoint in Wusta and attempted to dismiss the Sootoro, insisting that the YPG assume control of the checkpoint. The Sootoro insisted that they return to Kurdish areas of the city. Guns were drawn but an exchange of gunfire was averted.

Following the attack, the GPF tightened their security in Wusta, leading to further tensions with Kurdish self-administration security forces.


The PYD issued no official statement regarding the incident on January 12th.

However, the Revolutionary Council of Beth-Nahrain (MUB), the political and advocacy body overseeing the SUP and the MFS, issued an unusually combative press release in response to the skirmish. Several points are notable from the text.

  • The MUB do not explicitly and specifically blame IS for the bomb attacks on December 30.
  • The Sutoro claim joint responsibility for the PYD asayish attempted dismantling of the checkpoint in Wusta.
  • The statement claims that the GPF fired against the PYD asayish and the Sutoro first.
  • The statement disavows the agency of the GPF entirely, blaming the regime (and their perceived allegiance to it) for their actions.
  • There is no claim that any YPG fighter lost his life.

The Sutoro’s statement is less incendiary, but is also predicated on regime responsibility.

An unlikely supporter of the Sutoro/MUB position came in the form of a campaign to help persecuted Christians, the Jubilee Campaign, whose “work is spirit-led and constantly changing” and which is committed to supporting the fringe Assyrian participation in the Rojava project. Their statement mirrored the themes of the Sutoro and MUB statements.

Subsequent Attacks on Assyrians in Qamishli and Hasakah Provinces

On January 24th, 2016 a bomb attached to a bicycle exploded outside of the Star Café in Qamishli, killing 3 and wounding 20 Assyrians. Perpetrator uncertain.

On March 7th, 2016 a grenade was detonated outside the Delta Restaurant in the Wusta neighbourhood of Qamishli, causing five injuries and no deaths. Perpetrator uncertain.

On May 15th, 2016 a grenade attack at noon in an Assyrian residential area in Qamishli caused no injuries, but damaged cars and buildings. Perpetrator uncertain.

On May 21st, 2016 a dual suicide bombing and grenade attack, likely carried out by IS, took place in front of the Miami restaurant in Qamishli. The suicide bombing killed three Assyrians; the GPF/Sootoro killed two other suicide bombers before they could self-detonate.

On June 19th, 2016 a suicide bombing took place at an event consecrating a monument to the Assyrian genocide (1914-23), popularly known as “Seyfo”, in Qamishli, a city founded by Assyrians who survived that genocide. Mor Ignatius Aphrem II, the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch, and Mar Athniel of the Assyrian Church of the East were present at the consecration and were the particular targets. A Kurdish fighter (“Ali Hassan”) in the MFS was killed, and three Assyrians (one fatally) and two Kurds were wounded. A sizeable crowd had gathered to observe the event; the suicide bomber self-donated on its periphery. The attack was widely suspected to have been carried out by IS, who were not specifically named in in the official Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate statement on the incident.

On July 1st, 2018 a bomb attached to a motorcycle exploded in front of the headquarters of the Sutoro. Eight members of the Sutoro were wounded. Their official statement does not name a perpetrator.



Mardean Isaac writes fiction and essays. His work has appeared in Tablet MagazineThe AwlThe Times Literary Supplement and elsewhere.

Max J. Joseph is an artist and writer focusing on indigenous groups within the Middle East. His work has included presenting research to the European Parliament detailing the security situation for indigenous minorities in the Nineveh Plain, Iraq.

Winning in Syria and the Middle East – By David W. Lesch and Kamal Alam

David W. Lesch

Winning in Syria and the Middle East
By David W. Lesch and Kamal Alam
For Syria Comment – July 16, 2018

The common perception today is that Russia has won in Syria, having supported the government of Bashar al-Assad, which is now steadily reasserting its control over previously lost territory. As a result, Russia has inserted itself as the power broker in Syria, if not the entire Middle East.  The summit between Presidents Trump and Putin on Monday in Helsinki, where the subject of Syria was high on the agenda, seems to have consecrated Russia’s victory. Countries tend to gravitate toward winners, not losers.

Kamal Alam

The United States, on the other hand, directly and indirectly intervened in multiple conflicts in the Middle East since 9/11, first in Afghanistan, then Iraq, followed by involvement in a series of upheavals brought on by the Arab Spring:  Libya and Syria most notably. No one would say the US has won in any of these cases—far from it.

On the surface, this is difficult to comprehend.  After all, the US has by far the most powerful military on earth. The image of Russia’s only aircraft carrier limping toward, breaking down, and being towed in the eastern Mediterranean in support of Assad’s forces was a stark reminder of this reality.  So how did Russia win—and why did the US fail over and over again?

There is one outstanding difference in the Russian versus American military interventions in internal national conflicts in the Middle East:  in Syria, the Kremlin supported the entrenched state. In Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria, the US supported opposition forces seeking the overthrow of the entrenched state.

For the sake of argument, let’s say the US and NATO reversed their policy and actually wanted Libyan President Muammar Gadafi to remain in power against the opposition forces unleashed by the Arab spring. Is there any doubt that with US military support he would still be in power today?  Perhaps he too would be mopping up pockets of resistance much as Assad is doing today in Syria.  However illogical or immoral it may have seemed at the time to most in the West, let’s say Washington wanted Assad to stay in power seven years ago when the Arab spring hit Syria. Would not the US be the one crowning its success there, not Russia? Ironically, the US supported the Iraqi state against ISIS—and won.  But the US is not going to get much credit for solving a problem it largely created when it dissolved the state via the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and its chaotic aftermath.

The US can overthrow just about any government in the world or keep one in power if it sets it mind to it.  That’s how overwhelming its military might is. The US could have removed Assad if we really wanted to.  The problem is that the Middle East security state, by its very nature, constructs a ruling apparatus and governance system that is pervasive. It is one that becomes very good at preventing the development of any viable, coherent opposition movement, usually through a combination of divide and rule tactics and repression.

If the government is overthrown, as it was in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, there is very little left to take its place. New governments were brought to power by external forces, therefore lacking indigenous legitimacy, with little experience in politics (especially democratic politics).  What inevitably results is rampant instability, with more people as time goes on willing to accept the return of authoritarianism if it will keep the lights on, the grocery stores stocked, and suicide bombings at a minimum.

In Syria, the Assad government had more legitimacy than most gave it credit for—or at the very least it was adept at convincing a number of groups in a war weary population that it was their best bet moving forward.  This was particularly true of minority groups in the country as the Sunni Arab-dominated opposition became more jihadist as the war deepened.  Although the top echelons of the Syrian military and intelligence apparatus are disproportionately composed of Alawites, there are also a number Greek Orthodox, Druze, Sunnis, Catholics, and Armenians in decision-making positions, offering and reinforcing in practical terms to many Syrians an alternative model to the monotone jihadist one. Compared to many other armies under pressure from the Arab spring uprisings, the Syrian military remained relatively cohesive and continued to fight. And perhaps it is not so much that the Assad government had more legitimacy then we imagined from the outside, it is that the largely fractured opposition had less. Recall that the Syrian government recognized by most in the West (and in the Arab world) in the early days of the civil war was led by the Syrian National Council, made up mostly of exiled Syrians who lacked any sort of legitimacy inside the country among the armed opposition actually doing the fighting and dying.  This seemed to mimic the famously disastrous playbook the US employed in Iraq, i.e. relying on exiles who lacked standing among the real power brokers in the country itself.

In addition, the Assad government had a myriad of existing patron-client networks, network building knowledge, and well-honed co-optation tactics, especially with prominent Sunni families and tribes established over decades of constructing a neo-patrimonial state. It will be difficult for the Syrian government to re-establish and maintain its patrimonial position in a clientelist network altered by the socio-political landscape of over seven years of war—and the concessions it made to keep many Syrians on its side—but this networking dynamic proved to be vital in terms of the scores of local reconciliation agreements the government entered into with opposition elements, largely negotiated by members of the government’s intelligence apparatus.  The longer the state hung on and provided even a modicum of state services, and the more it advanced militarily after the Russian intervention, Assad’s perceived legitimacy began to grow simply because he was seen as the only viable alternative to many Syrians. And he is being increasingly seen as the only viable alternative by the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and others, who are now more focused on making sure the Iranians are kept at bay in Syria rather than removing Assad.

Officials in these countries have been taking a diplomatic beeline to Putin to accomplish this. On this issue, all roads lead to Moscow. Instead of having to create a government out of a jumbled mess as the US attempted to do in Iraq and Afghanistan (and to a lesser degree in Libya), a halfway functioning state is already in Syria through which Russia has regained a central position in the country and in the region. This is not to say that the US should always back the entrenched state in similar circumstances, but recent history clearly suggests it should better understand the challenges of going against it.

David W. Lesch is the Ewing Halsell Distinguished Professor of Middle East history at Trinity University in San Antonio, TX, and author of the upcoming book Syria (Polity Books, 2019).

Kamal Alam is a Visiting Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, England.

Helsinki Meeting Does Little to Clarify America’s Syria Policy – By Joshua Landis 

Helsinki Meeting Does Little to Clarify America’s Syria Policy
By Joshua Landis
For Syria Comment – July 16, 2018


Washington analysts were fearful that President Trump would declare that the US was withdrawing from Syria at the Helsinki meeting with President Putin. President Trump made no important concessions to or agreements with President Putin on Syria. Although many suggested that some grand bargain might be in the works, little was said to clarify America’s policy in Syria.

On Sunday before the meeting, National Security Adviser Bolton told ABC News that the U.S. was not going anywhere as long as Iran remained in Syria. “I think the president has made it clear that we are there until the ISIS territorial caliphate is removed and as long as the Iranian menace continues throughout the Middle East,” Bolton said.

President Trump did say at the joint news conference after summit talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin. “We also discussed at length the crisis in Syria. Co-operation between our countries has the potential to save hundreds of thousands of lives.” But in order to allay the fears of those interested in rolling back Iran, Trump insisted that the U.S. would “not allow Iran to benefit from our successful campaign against ISIS (Islamic State).” This statement suggests that the U.S. will be maintaining its 2,000 special forces in North Syria for some time to come.

Putin said, “the situation on the Golan Heights must be restored to what it was after the 1974 agreement, which set out the terms for the disengagement of forces between Israel and Syria.”

Trump, for his part, noted that “President Putin also is helping Israel.” He said that both leaders had spoken with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “and they would like to do certain things with Syria having to do with the safety of Israel… We absolutely would like to work in order to help Israel, and Israel will be working with us. So both countries work jointly [for this purpose].”

Trump added that “creating safety for Israel is something both Putin and I would like to see very much.”

Netanyahu thanked the two leaders in a statement for their commitment to Israeli security. He praised Trump, saying “The friendship between Israel and the US has never been stronger.”

Netanyahu “very much appreciates the security coordination between Israel and Russia and the clear position expressed by President Putin regarding the need to uphold the 1974 Separation of Forces Agreement between Israel and Syria,” the statement added.

Most of the pronouncements about Syria from both Trump and Putin involved Israel. Both guaranteed its security and the 1974 Separation of Forces Agreement that Henry Kissinger helped to negotiate. This was good and bad for Assad.

It was bad news for Assad because it means that Russia will do nothing to stop Israel from bombing Syrian military emplacements if Iranian officers or advisers are present in them. Indeed, Israel drove home this point the day before the summit by bombing a Syrian military base on the outskirts of the city of Aleppo. Nine Iranians and even more Syrians were killed. “We will not allow Iranian entrenchment within Syria,” Israel’s Foreign Minister said.

It was good news for Assad because Israel and the United States have accepted that President Assad will stay in power and rule Syria. No effort has been made to stop the advance of the Syrian Army in the south of Syria along Jordan’s and Israel’s borders. To the contrary, both of Syria’s neighbors have expressed their readiness to accept the return of the Syrian Army; they are looking for a return to the status quo ante. That is music to Assad’s ears.

President Trump made few commitments on Syria, but it is clear that neither he nor Russia can push Iran from Syria so long as President Assad needs and wants Iran’s help in defeating the rebels. Assad has stated that he will push both Turkish and American troops from Syria and take back every inch of Syrian soil. In this effort, Assad has explained that he will need Iran’s help. He insists that only he can determine whether or when Iran is to leave Syria.

President Trump has repeated on several occasions that he wants US troops to leave Syria soon. His policy principals have walked back such statements.

The problem with America’s position in North Syria is that it may quickly become a liability rather than a asset. Already fighting between Arabs and Kurds has erupted around Raqqa. Road side bombs have been planted, targeting US special forces. The inhabitants of Raqqa, the major Arab city in the north that was largely destroyed by US bombing against ISIS, are furious because the US is not rebuilding the city and has not committed adequate money for reconstruction. Ethnic and tribal divisions, the lack of jobs or money, and a serious drought in northern Syria are conspiring to undermine local stability and America’s leverage. President Trump and his foreign policy staff seem to agree on little about Syria; consequently little is getting done. Local inhabitants are looking to the US for answers. They want to know if the U.S. will guarantee their autonomy or even independence for the long haul. Should Kurdish authorities begin negotiating with Assad in preparation for a US withdrawal from North Syria? They want to know who is responsible for their future.

The U.S. has set itself up for failure in northern Syria, not only because the region is likely to become ever harder to rule, but also because the U.S. has slipped into the role of champion of Kurdish nationalism in Syria. A mere 2.5 million Kurds live in northeast Syria; the region is the poorest and least developed part of the country; the U.S. is unlikely to get it to stand on its own two feet. What is more, Turkey and Syria are determined to prevent the emergence of a capable or independent Kurdish military. It will threaten the stability and authority of both countries. Trump has repeatedly said he wants to withdraw troops from Syria. He is right to look for a way out before an insurgency begins attacking U.S. troops. The U.S. must seek to secure a better deal for the Kurds within Syria. But to remain in the country for the “long haul” is to set America up for failure.

Those who recommend a permanent U.S. force in Syria argue that it is an American interest to do so in order to roll back Iran, a state they describe as “malignant” and destabilizing for the region. They argue that America must deny the northeast and its natural resources to Damascus, not because they want to build a new state there, but in order to keep Syria weak and divided. A poorer Syria is more likely to become a quagmire for Iran and Russia: a state, they inexplicably believe will serve U.S. interests, not to mention those of Syrians and their neighbors.

Unfortunately, even as Netanyahu, America’s closest ally in the Middle East, is assuring Russia that it does not seek to destabilize or topple the Assad regime, many in Washington are urging Washington to do just that. The United States and Western countries have gotten their policy in the Syria and the broader Middle East in a tangle.

America needs to clarify its policy in Syria. It also needs to sort out its broader foreign policy objectives. The Helsinki meeting did little to help.

The Think-Tanks Bark and the IRGC Moves On

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Discussions of U.S. policy on Syria mostly revolve around two things: counter-terrorism (i.e. combating the Islamic State and other Sunni jihadist groups) and counter-Iran, the latter of which has gained much more prominence since the Trump administration came to power.

Proposals on the counter-Iran angle from many think-tanks largely focus on a policy of containment and/or hurting Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in Syria. At the most ambitious, the policy aim is set at removing the IRGC entirely from Syria, which is similar to Israel’s demands on the matter.

Policy recommendations that come about within these frameworks include:

– Work with Russia to strike compromises so as to bring about an IRGC withdrawal from Syria (the preferred Trump administration approach right now).
Train and support rebel forces to continue the insurgency against the Syrian government and its allies with a view to bleeding the IRGC and its clients.
– Maintain or expand the U.S. presence in northern and eastern Syria as well as the al-Tanf area, in order to prevent a total government recapture of the country and thus limit IRGC access to Syrian territory (e.g. denying a ‘land route’ from Iran to the Mediterranean via al-Tanf).
– Ensure that the IRGC is kept X number of kilometres from the border with the occupied Golan Heights, such as through having a third-party enforce a buffer zone to prevent the Syrian government from retaking all of Deraa and Quneitra.
– Ramp up sanctions and economic pressure against Iran and the Syrian government, including discouraging Jordan from resuming trade ties with Syria.
Join Israel’s air force in strikes against IRGC targets in Syria.
Engage in leaflet drops and psyops targeting ‘pro-Assad militias’ with the aim of warning them not to serve Iranian interests by moving on U.S. positions. For example, the warnings could play up the idea that Iran supposedly does not care about members of those groups as Syrians.

These various suggestions are not mutually exclusive. In general, they boil down to the idea that the U.S. has or can gain significant “leverage” against the IRGC in Syria.

However, it seems to me that much of this policy discussion is based on misconceptions as to how the IRGC has built influence in Syria. A common understanding of the situation sees the IRGC as creating its own system of proxies that are outside of the control of the Syrian government and the Syrian armed forces. Indeed, some U.S. estimates assert that 80% of the forces fighting for the Syrian government are Iranian proxies.* A cruder version of this 80% figure portrays it as representing Iranian-backed foreign fighters, while a more nuanced articulation defines the 80% as including both foreign and local proxies of Iran. In any case, an analytical model has arisen portraying a competition for influence on the ground, with the claim that Iranian influence is ‘rapidly outstripping‘ that of the Syrian government and Russia. Along similar lines are claims that Iran has largely taken control of Syria’s military and intelligence apparatus and that Iran and Hezbollah control, direct and organize all military operations in Syria.

In reality, the nature of the IRGC’s project in Syria is not one of dominating and taking control of the system, but rather integrating so as to become an indivisible part of the system. This is best understood in the Local Defence Forces (LDF) project, which should not be confused with the more familiar National Defence Forces (NDF) and rarely receives mention in all these policy discussions. Unlike the NDF, the LDF is on the registers of the Syrian army and armed forces, while being affiliated at the same time with the IRGC. Thus, the LDF can be described as a joint project of the Syrian military and the IRGC, with officers from both sides featured in the command structure. The LDF, it should be noted, incorporates many of the groups familiarly known under the brand of ‘Syrian Hezbollah/Islamic Resistance in Syria’, such as Liwa al-Sayyida Ruqayya (Damascus), Liwa al-Baqir (Aleppo and other areas) and Fawj al-Imam al-Hujja (Nubl and Zahara’). The LDF also interacts with the political system, which is recognised as something led by Bashar al-Assad and the Ba’ath Party rather than something to be subverted and overthrown.

Below is a series of photos I have compiled to illustrate various aspects of the LDF further.

Haitham al-Nayef, a Syrian army general originally from al-Fu’a (one of two Shi’i villages in Idlib besieged by the rebels). He was chief of staff of the LDF and died in a traffic accident in early May 2018.

Colonel Ali Yunis, who heads the LDF’s Homs sector.

The LDF also has a civil society aspect to it, as embodied in the Defenders of Aleppo Legion, which presented this certificate of commendation to the administrative and teaching staff of a school in relation to Teacher’s Day. The overall commander of the Defenders of Aleppo Legion is al-Hajj Mohsen, whose signature appears on this certificate (bottom right) alongside that of Haitham al-Nayef. al-Hajj Mohsen is in fact an Iranian (compare, for example, with al-Hajj Ayoub, an Iranian who heads the Latakia sector of the LDF). Even so, Syrians also feature in the command structure of the Defenders of Aleppo Legion, such as Colonel Sha’aban Soomaf who heads the legion’s Third Square division.

Example of interaction between LDF groups and the Ba’ath Party: an event in summer 2017 set up by Fawj al-Imam al-Hujja to commemorate the ‘martyrs’ of al-Hikma school during the Aleppo fighting. The event was carried out under the supervision of Fadhil Najjar, head of the Aleppo division of the Ba’ath Party. Representing Najjar at the event was Abd al-Qadir al-Abu Na’so, head of the al-Tarbiya al-Thalitha branch of the Aleppo division of the Ba’ath Party. Army officers, LDF commanders and notables of the al-Nayrab neighbourhood also attended the event.

In 2016, Liwa al-Baqir campaigned successfully for the election of an independent MP to the Syrian parliament. However, the group also interacts with the Ba’ath Party. For example, the head of the Ba’ath Party’s Aleppo division carried out a tour earlier this year visiting the wounded of families of Liwa al-Baqir. He was accompanied on that tour by Jum’a al-Baqir, a prominent figure in Liwa al-Baqir.

Members of the 101 Battalion in Deir az-Zor. The 101 Battalion is an LDF unit that has functioned within the Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi conglomeration of ‘Syrian Hezbollah’ units in Deraa and Quneitra. The 101 Battalion is also notable as the military wing of the Quneitra branch of the Arab Socialist Movement, a party that supports the Ba’ath-led government of Syria. The Arab Socialist Movement is also linked to the military intelligence via Forces of the Fighters of the Tribes.

Maher Qawarma is a member of the Ba’ath Party and MP of the Syrian parliament. He also heads the LDF in the Christian town of Mahrada in Hama province. The Russians, as part of their desire to be seen as protectors of the Christian community of Syria, have visited Qawarma.

Commendation from the Latakia/’Coastal’ LDF to Naser Suleiman, an MP from Tartous province and member of the Ba’ath Party. Naser Suleiman has provided assistance to the Latakia LDF formation Saraya al-Muqawama.

The point here is not to provide an exhaustive list of data points on the LDF. One could get into a discussion, for instance, about Liwa al-Quds, one of the most well-known formations with Syrian-Palestinian roots. The group originated in the Aleppo LDF but then became affiliated with the military intelligence. I do not know why that happened, and exploring such opaque avenues will only distract the reader from the big picture, which is that the LDF is integrated into the system of Assad’s Syria and simultaneously maintains affiliation with the IRGC. Thus, when Liwa al-Baqir members (for example) proclaim loyalty to Assad and religious/ideological affinity with Iran, there is no contradiction. They have certainly not been shy about their relations with the IRGC.

It should be noted that Assad himself is involved in the LDF project. One account from 2017 traces the beginnings of the LDF project to him. In his capacity as the commander-in-chief of the Syrian military, Assad agreed in April 2017 to a variety of measures suggested by the Syrian military’s organisation and administration branch regarding the LDF units working with the Iranians and the status of the personnel in them. The most notable measures involved regularising the status of deserters and draft evaders in the LDF and changing their call-up for duty to the LDF, effectively allowing them to complete their military service within the LDF. Meanwhile, civilians in these LDF units would be offered the chance to take up recruitment contracts in the People’s Army (al-Jaysh al-Sha’abi), which has also taken to using the name of ‘Local Defence’ and is primarily tasked with protecting public installations. It was further decided that the Iranians should bear the burden of combat and material provisions for the LDF units working with them as well as the burden of material entitlements for ‘martyrs’, wounded and missing. The LDF relations with the Iranians are given official sanction until ‘the crisis’ ends or a new decision is made. Though the former provision is vague, one can be sure that a lasting U.S. presence in certain parts of Syria will be considered a continuation of the ‘crisis’.

None of the above means that there is somehow perfect harmony between the various LDF formations and the system itself (cf. here and issues of looting and criminal conduct by armed groups in general). Rather, the point is that all the various policy proposals with the aim of ‘countering Iran’ mentioned at the beginning of this piece do not in fact achieve that goal. Peradventure the proposals make for fun panel sessions, with exchanges of pleasantries and opportunities to enjoy tea and biscuits during intervals. Peradventure the proposals allow for all these think-tanks to look ‘tough’ on Iran and have the honour of boasting that they have briefed the U.S. government. In reality, a certain saying is most appropriate here: the dog barks and the caravan moves on.

To sum up: the way the IRGC has integrated into the system of Assad’s Syria is such that it has become an indivisible part of that system- an extension of the long-standing alliance between Syria and Iran and Iranian intervention in the war to help its ally. Truly countering the IRGC, let alone removing it from Syria entirely, would require the total dismantlement of the system itself, or at least going on the offensive, reducing the Syrian government’s area of control to an insignificant strip of land and then blocking all Iranian access to it.

Of course, none of the think-tanks will seriously advocate a strategy along those lines, nor will the U.S. government engage in such an enterprise. But when various proposals are put forward in the name of a goal that they do not actually realise, the whole paradigm of thinking should be called out. In truth, the proposals are like playing with the remaining pawns on a chessboard after checkmate has already happened. Either redo the game entirely or move on.

That image could also be applied to the wider situation in Syria. For my part, I prefer that U.S. policy be focused on trying to integrate the areas of Syria where it maintains a presence into their wider environments and improve the well-being of their inhabitants. But that’s just me.

*(Appendix note): I find the free use of the term ‘Iranian proxy’ to be problematic in general and have moved away from it over the years. It conjures an image of Iranian control of fighters and groups as though they are robots and have no interests of their own behind their relationships with Iran. Take the issue of the borders with Iraq and the U.S. presence in al-Tanf. LDF units frequently go on assignments to these border areas. Does Iran have an interest in removing the U.S. presence and making sure the borders between Iraq and Syria are secure? Yes. Is that part of the reason behind deployments of LDF units to these areas? Yes. But the LDF units- as well as the Syrian government and other Syrian forces fighting for it- also have important interests as Syrians in removing the U.S. presence and securing the border areas. For one thing, they want to restart land trade between Syria and Iraq in a bid to reboot Syria’s economy. But they also consider the U.S. presence a violation of Syrian sovereignty and genuinely think they are securing their borders against insurgent threats. Accordingly, the idea that the U.S. could keep ‘pro-Assad militias’ away from al-Tanf by trying to warn them not to serve Iranian interests strikes me as absurd.