Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Syria: what has to be done

Syria had everybody's attention when UK parliament decided that Britain would not take part in any action following the chemical weapons attacks on the outskirts of Damascus and the US also backed away from carrying out air strikes (1). Since then, Syria has not exactly been forgotten - how could it be forgotten when atrocities of an almost unimaginable type are brought to light - but there has not been the sustained focus to discuss what can be, or has to be, done. The slaughter continues, obviously, but much of public opinion seems to think that we "avoided war" (2).

Objectively, the non-intervention has been disastrous. The opposition Coalition (3) has lost almost all credibility and influence with those fighting the Assad regime on the ground. In turn, the fighting forces are becoming increasingly dominated by jihadists (Salafis) and some elements are showing a brutality that approaches that of the regime (4). Any opposition body that said it was prepared to enter negotiations, without the precondition of Assad stepping down, would lose even more credibility and influence on the ground (5). So, it is hard to see any such negotiations getting started in any meaningful way.

In the light of this, it is difficult to see a way forward.

One action should be taken unilaterally, by those who support the Syrian opposition. More pressure should be put on Gulf states, such as Kuwait, to cut off funding to the more extreme groups. Also, Turkey should attempt to prevent fighters and supplies for these groups passing into Syria (6). If support continued, through Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to the more "moderate" groups and was channelled more effectively through the Coalition and the SMC/FSA control structure, this could help reconstitute an opposition body that was seen as representative and able to control groups on the ground (7), and thus able to take part in negotiations without the precondition.
The (relatively) moderate elements of the opposition would retain an ambivalent attitude towards al-Nusra, but at least ISIS might be isolated (8).

That Iran should be involved in the negotiations seems to me self-evident (9). The primary concern for the US and its allies (especially Israel) would be the nuclear issue, so this is likely to be a prerequisite, but if, if, a deal can be reached on Iran's nuclear programme, it could open the way for progress on talks over Syria. The Assad regime could hardly survive without the support of Russia, Iran and Hezbollah (which would not continue to support it against the wishes of Tehran), just as the opposition could not continue the fight without support from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, with the tacit approval of the US and other Western powers (10). This is not to discuss the details of any possible agreement or to minimise the difficulty of reaching one, but it is clear that all actors with the real capacity to influence events on the ground need to be involved if a way out of this conflict is to be found (11). 

Otherwise, “A fourth option – in which allies give both sides enough to survive but not prevail – would perpetuate a proxy war with Syrians as primary victims. It is the present stage and the likeliest forecast for the foreseeable future.” (IGC, June 2013, Page i )

(1) This continued a pattern whereby the regime is able to bank "on the international community’s divisions and dithering" (IGC report, 27 June 2013, Syria’s Metastasising Conflicts, p1). As an example of this: 'After weeks of British and French pressure forced the end of an EU embargo on arms supplies to the opposition, UK Foreign Secretary William Hague suggested that material support was necessary because “we’re only going to get a political solution to this crisis if the opposition – the moderate, sensible parts of the opposition – can’t be destroyed”. But less than a month later, UK media reported Prime Minister David Cameron had abandoned plans to provide weapons, partly out of concern some would end up with jihadis. SMC head Salim Idris was incensed, arguing that without Western support “soon there will be no Free Syrian Army to arm. The Islamic groups will take control of everything, and this is not in the interests of Britain”.' (IGC, 17 Oct 2013, Anything But Politics: The State of Syria’s Political Opposition, p17, fn71)

(2) See comments here (11/10)  Syria chemical weapons monitors win Nobel Peace Prize.
(3) the Coalition or National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, which includes the SNC (Syrian National Council).

(4) The Latakia massacres; Assad’s snipers target women and their unborn babies.
(5) "all governments, companies, and individuals should immediately stop selling or supplying weapons, ammunition, materiel, and funds to these groups, given compelling evidence that they have committed crimes against humanity, until they stop committing these crimes ... Turkey should increase border patrols, restrict entry of fighters and arm flows to groups credibly found to be implicated in systematic human rights violations." (HRW, “You Can Still See Their Blood”, p7)

"there should be real commitment by all donor states [..] to adopt a shared framework for militant funding and supplies that bans Gulf-based private fundraising, reaches agreement on authorised recipients and imposes strict rules of behaviour. ... Turkey should disrupt the flow of jihadi fighters and fundraisers transiting the country into northern Syria." (IGC, 17 Oct 2013, Anything But Politics: The State of Syria’s Political Opposition, p29) "Though Saudi Arabia claims to have reined in its clerics’ independent fundraising efforts, such campaigns openly persist in Kuwait and, to a lesser extent, Qatar, attracting contributions from private donors throughout the region." (IGC, Oct 2013, p18, fn76)

(6) This would, in the words of the IGC “make more likely the emergence of a more coherent, structured, representative and thus effective interlocutor”.
(7) See Syria: to negotiate or not?; also Inside Syria, 19 Oct 2013 (Geneva II: The last exit for peace? youtube), discussion with George Sabra, president of the SNC and Farah al-Attasi,  member of the Coalition.
(8) Put bluntly, given the current imbalance of military resources, they need Nusra's suicide bombers, to make an initial breach of defences when attacking military installations. As for ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham or ash-Sham), while they too undoubtedly take part in military operations against the regime, they also concentrate much of their effort on establishing their strict islamic rule in "liberated" areas, thus alienating the population and creating what many see as an "alternative dictatorship". One example is of activists forced to flee from Raqqa (Al Jazeera, 18 Aug).

(9) "The West’s apparent determination to exclude Iran from a peace conference (perhaps under review in the wake of that country’s presidential elections) is short-sighted: keeping Tehran from Geneva will not lessen its role in Damascus." (IGC, June 2013, Page iii )
(10) Israel's government has reacted with scepticism to the possibility of a deal with Iran. But the alternative - not resolving the issue peacefully - is difficult to contemplate. If the US was not willing to carry out even limited strikes against Syria, how would it find the political will for an attack on Iran, of potentially even greater significance than Iraq or Syria, especially when a relatively moderate president has come into office? And could Israel carry out action on its own?

Saudi Arabia is said to have "been angered by the increasing rapport between Washington and Iran", this being one of the possible factors in it saying it would not take up its UNSC seat (Al Jazeera, 19 Oct), but is Saudi Arabia prepared to fight Iran to the death (literally in the case of even larger numbers of Syrians), when there is a possible alternative, through détente with Iran. 
France and the UK, as well as being UNSC P5 members, have taken the lead within the EU in providing direct assistance to the opposition, such as it has been - see note (1).

Iraq's government may also have a role to play. Since recovering to a state of relative peace, after the disastrous period of late 2006 / early 2007, it has slipped back into a state of daily terrorist attacks. This follows a period in early 2013 of peaceful protests, largely unreported (except by Al Jazeera), by the Arab Sunni minority against exclusion by the Shi'a-led Maliki government. Officially, the government says it does not support either side in the Syrian conflict, but Iraqi Shi'a are reported to have taken part in the fighting on behalf of the regime and of course there are linkages between largely rebel-held eastern Syria and Sunni-dominated western Iraq, with probably a two-way flow of fighters / terrorists and weapons.

(11)  "When, in January 2013, Assad presented his vision of reconciliation, power sharing and reform, he avoided any discussion of possible negotiations over the regime’s core (the ruling family, praetorian guards and security elite). Instead, he spoke of potential changes in the fictional realm of the state – via a national unity government, revised constitution and democratic elections, all of which essentially will remain irrelevant for as long as real power is vested elsewhere." (IGC, June 2013, p21)

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Syria: to negotiate or not?

On  Inside Syria, 5 Oct (youtube), Colonel Abdel-Hamid Zakaria, spokesman for the FSA said: "what happened is that certain units declared they are opposing the Syrian Coalition [under] the misconception that the coalition will head to Geneva to conference without clear conditions - namely the departure of al-Assad." This presumably refers to the news of 29 Sep - see Jaish al-Islam.

Sure enough, on 14 Oct the BBC reported (Syrian National Council rejects Geneva peace talks):
The largest group in Syria's opposition coalition says it will not take part in proposed peace negotiations in Geneva. Syrian National Council leader George Sabra said the group would pull out of the umbrella coalition if it took part in the talks. He said his faction would not negotiate with the Syrian government, adding that conditions for talks were not right while Syrians continued to suffer. ...  Mr Sabra told French news agency AFP that the Syrian National Council (SNC) "had taken the firm decision... not to go to Geneva under the present circumstances (on the ground)". "Ghouta (agricultural belt around Damascus) is under siege and it is forbidden to even bring in bread. Are these the conditions that will allow us to achieve [..] a democratic transition in Syria?" he asked. Mr Sabra was also fiercely critical of the international community, accusing it of failing to punish the Syrian government after the 21 August poison gas attack ... near Damascus. ... "The international community has focused on the murder weapon, which is the chemical weapons, and left the murderer unpunished and forgotten the victims," he added.
Posted 24 Oct 2013

Assad’s snipers target women and their unborn babies

Can this get any worse?

The Times, front page, 2013-10-19 ...
Assad’s snipers targeting unborn babies (Subscription required), Lucy BannermanLast updated at 12:01AM, October 19 2013 - Pregnant women in Syria are being picked off by snipers in a sickening war game in which their unborn babies appear to be used for target practice, according to a British surgeon. David Nott, who has just spent five weeks volunteering in a Syrian hospital, said that he and his despairing colleagues started to notice a disturbing pattern among the women and children who were being shot as they ran the daily gauntlet across a divided zone to buy food and supplies in a major city. “One day it would be shots to the groin. The next, it would only be the left chest. The day after, we would see no chest wounds; they were all neck [wounds],” he said in an interview with The Times. “From the first patients that came in in the morning, you could almost tell what you would see for the rest of the day.

"We heard the snipers were winning packets of cigarettes for hitting the correct number of targets"  Syria was the only place in which he had witnessed civilians, in particular pregnant women, being targeted. One day half a dozen pregnant women ... they were "shot through the uterus, so that must have been where they were aiming for."

Actually, this story appeared first on BBC WS, Outlook (Podcast): Surgery on Syria's Frontline, Mon, 14 Oct 2013 surgeon David Nott is back from Syria. He says there's no doubt health workers are being targeted and wonders why don't they go for head shots, but then explains that a lot of resources were then being used, to treat them (+6:00).

Back on BBC News - Syria snipers 'shoot at pregnant women,' UK doctor claims. Also BBC WS Newsroom,  19/10, 12:06 and Newshour, 21:32).

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Latakia massacres

2/10 Syria: massacre reports emerge from Assad's Alawite heartland
11/10  HRW condemns rebel atrocities ( BBC R3, 8:00; WS, 8:30) Alawite villages attacked by rebels, say rights group -- Syria rebels executed civilians, says Human Rights Watch:
Rebel forces in Syria killed as many as 190 civilians and seized more than 200 hostages during a military offensive [on 4 August, HRW] says. A report by the US-based group says the deaths occurred in villages inhabited predominantly by members of President Bashar al-Assad's minority Alawite sect near the coastal city of Latakia.
HRW says about 20 opposition groups took part in the offensive and that five were involved in the attacks on civilians - the al-Nusra Front, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), Jaysh al-Muhajirin wa al-Ansar, Ahrar al-Sham and Suqour al-Izz. None are affiliated to the Western-backed Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army, though SMC chief Gen Salim Idris did say at the time that fighters under his command participated in the assault. The report says ISIS and Jaysh al-Muhajirin are holding the hostages.
The government launched an offensive to retake the Sheikh Nabhan area on 5 August, ultimately regaining full control on 18 August.
 Syrian Civilians Bore Brunt of Rebels’ Fury, Report Says  By ANNE BARNARD.  Human Rights Watch said it had documented for the first time that rebel groups in Syria “systematically” targeted civilians in a massacre in August that left 190 dead.
Syria’s government placed many survivors of a reported rebel attack in Latakia and other villages in this schoolhouse. Investigators say 190 were killed. 
Andrea Bruce for The New York Times - Syria’s government placed many survivors of a reported rebel attack in Latakia and other villages in this schoolhouse. Investigators say 190 were killed.
HRW:  “You Can Still See Their Blood”  . Of particular interest are pages 61-73 (IV. Opposition Groups Involved in August 4 Attacks) and   87-92 (VI. Financial Support to Operation):
Ahrar al-Sham (or Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya) was founded late in 2011.141 On December 21, 2012, in a video statement Ahrar al-Sham announced that it would be one of the founding members of the Syrian Islamic Front.
Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar was formed in February 2013. It is led by Omar al-Shishani, a Chechen and is made up of several nationalities including Chechens, Turks, Tajiks, Pakistanis, French, Egyptians, and Moroccans.181 Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar is affiliated with ISIS, although it is not clear to what extent ISIS commanders have command and control over the group.
The leader of Suquor al-Izz is Sheikh Saqr al-Jihad from Saudi Arabia. A photo posted on Twitter on August 4 purports to show Sheikh Saqr standing on a tank in Latakia countryside as he oversees the attack on the villages.
Largely based on information posted by individuals in the groups who participated in the “Operation to Liberate the Coast” and their supporters on social media sites, [HRW] has identified several individuals, principally from Gulf countries, who actively fundraised for the operation and for support to the groups involved. There is no evidence that the fundraisers and financiers knew at the time that they gave their support about the
abuses that would [be] or were taking place in Latakia countryside.
On April 16 Sheikh Hajjej al-Ajami, a Kuwaiti, announced the beginning of the operation to “Rescue the Syrian Coast” on what is believed to be his Twitter account. He would later become one of the most prominent donors to the operation.
On August 4 Shafi al-Ajami, another Kuwaiti and prominent fundraiser for the campaign, tweeted that 40 distinct groups met to discuss the “Operation to Liberate the Coast” and voted to have 13 among them represent them in the battle. He further explains that Ahrar al-Sham operating in the coastal region was chosen to lead the battle
Through his Twitter account, Sheikh Saqr also thanked individual donors, primarily from the Gulf, for supporting the operation by donating to the  operation room, including Sheikh Hajjej al-Ajami, for donating 400,000 Euros to the campaign.
  Hajjej al-Ajami also appears in videos posted on YouTube in the coastal area before the campaign, making calls for support to the operation. There are several photos of Hajjej al-Ajami in Latakia countryside after the “Operation to Liberate the Coast” as well. He posted a photo of himself in Latakia countryside on September 15 with a man that he identifies as a French jihadi fighter. A second photo was posted of him on Twitter on September 20 with Omar al-Shishani, the leader of Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar. He also reportedly met with wounded fighters from Suquor al-Izz and Sheikh Saqr, the head of Suquor al-Izz, in September.
  Sheikh Saqr also had exchanges with Saed al-Suwan al-Ajami (also known as Abu al-Hassan), a Kuwaiti, on Twitter. On August 3 he retweeted a Tweet by al-Suwan calling for donations to buy weapons for the fighters in Syria. On August 3 al-Suwan tweeted that he supports the Islamic brigades in Latakia countryside. On August 5 and 7, al-Suwan tweeted a thank you to donors from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Qatar which was then retweeted by Sheikh Saqr. [..] Al-Suwan tweeted on August 29 that he was in Latakia countryside and that they had received weapons and supplies but needed more. “Comprehensive Military Library” tweeted on September 6 that al-Suwan is one of the supporters of the coastal operation and that he distributed the weapons he collected in person. On August 14 Sheikh Saqr also thanked one Abu Nasser al-Subayi for donating 150,000 Euros for the “Operation to Liberate the Coast.”
Update (18 Oct):  from the IGC's latest report (Anything But Politics: The State of Syria’s Political Opposition):
SMC influence is further weakened by independent funding campaigns managed by ultra-conservative, Gulf-based Salafi clerics who channel money to a range of groups, including factions whose leaders nominally hold positions within the SMC. (n49 - Salafi fundraisers, such as Kuwaiti clerics Shafi and Hajjaj al-Ajmi, provide hundreds of thousands of dollars to a range of armed groups and use their leverage to help organise joint “operations rooms” to coordinate offensives. Such fundraising is openly promoted on social media and occasionally includes fundraisers’ visits to militant leaders ...)
  The growing strength of hardline groups has put the SMC in a difficult position. Sensitive to charges from fighters and activists alike that it has given undue priority to its ties to the West and Arab states at the expense of the struggle within Syria, the SMC has sought to tout its military achievements. At times, it has gone so far as to take credit for operations conducted by the very jihadi forces that reject its legitimacy.
  The perils of this became apparent in August, when Salim Idris belatedly claimed an SMC role in the campaign to “liberate” the regime’s Alawite stronghold. (n59 - Facing criticism that the SMC had not materially supported fighters in the coastal mountains and amid charges it had sought to prevent or halt the offensive, Idris visited the area on 11 August, a week after the campaign was launched. He addressed these criticisms and announced SMC support for the campaign in a video allegedly filmed near the front.) The offensive, the largest to date in the mountainous Latakia countryside overlooking the coast, generated tangible excitement within an opposition desperate to break the military stalemate and extend the fight to the regime’s heartland that, unlike opposition strongholds, has largely been spared destruction. The SMC, eager to appear relevant, was at pains to demonstrate involvement. Yet, by all accounts, jihadi factions and Ahrar al-Sham led the campaign from the outset. Idris’s claims placed the SMC in an uncomfortable position weeks later ...

Regime gains around Damascus, rebels fight (each other) in Aleppo

The last few days have not been the best.

10/10 Fierce fighting broke out at another front close to Damascus, pitting government troops backed by the Lebanese Hezbollah and pro-regime fighters against rebels in Bueida and Dyebiye. The State news agency, SANA, said that the army was able to seize control of Dyebiye and Husseiniyah, another nearby district.  Troops had also seized nearby villages of Sheikh Amro and Bassatine. Syrian Observatory for Human Rights  - AFP

11/10 Syrian army troops and Shia fighters loyal to President Bashar al-Assad captured two southern suburbs of Damascus on Friday, killing at least 70 people, opposition activists said. The fighters, including some from the Lebanese Shia movement Hezbollah and Iraqi Shias backed by Syrian army tanks, searched al-Thiabiya and Husseiniya, a Palestinian refugee camp, for pockets of resistance after overrunning them, the sources said. The capture of the two districts, located between the two main highways leading to Jordan, strengthens Assad's hold on major supply lines and puts pressure on rebel brigades under siege for months in areas adjacent to the centre of Damascus. [Reuters] -

13/10 Thousands flee Damascus suburbs of Moadhamiya and Daraya. Activists, though, claimed that this was a publicity stunt by the regime and many more thousands remained trapped within the town of Muadhamiya  (C4News, ). BBC : "On Saturday, the Syrian government began the evacuation of around 1,500 civilians, mainly women and children, from a rebel-held Damascus suburb besieged by the army for months. Many of those coming out of Muadhamiya, south-west of Damascus, were said to be exhausted and traumatised." (Red Cross workers kidnapped ...)

A rebel fighter in Deir al-Zour. Violence has continued across Syria, with seven aid workers abducted Saturday in Idlib Province. In Rare Cease-Fire, Hundreds Evacuate Rebel-Held Syrian Town By ANNE BARNARD. Hundreds of civilians were allowed to leave Moadhamiyeh, outside Damascus, but aid workers said they were still unable to enter the besieged town, where six people have reportedly died of malnutrition.
: Muslim clerics have issued a ruling - or fatwa - permitting people to eat cats, dogs and donkeys (BBC WS, The Newsroom, 16/10, 00:14). Starving Syrians 'can eat dogs'The fatwa, issued in a video, said people could eat these to prevent starvation  in the besieged, rebel-held Damascus suburb of Muadhamiya.
In a message to coincide with the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha - normally a time for celebration and feasting - the religious leaders authorised those left in the Ghouta agricultural belt around Damascus to eat animals usually considered unfit for human consumption in Islam. The clerics said it was a cry for help to the whole world, adding that if the situation continued to deteriorate, the living would have to eat the dead.
It is not the first such fatwa issued in the Syrian conflict. Similar religious edicts were announced in Homs and Aleppo when the fighting in those cities was at its fiercest. [..] The general director of  [MSF], Christopher Stokes, has described it as an "absurd" situation when chemical weapons inspectors are able to drive freely through areas in desperate need while aid convoys are blocked. 
16/10 Syria army hails recapture of rebel town near Damascus:
Syrian troops recaptured the strategic town of Bweida, south of Damascus, from rebel forces on Wednesday, state media and a monitoring group reported. [..] "The army's advance is part of an attempt to crush the rebels' positions in the countryside south of Damascus, in order to isolate those operating within the southern belt of the capital," [SOHR director] Abdel Rahman said.There was also fighting on Wednesday nearer to the Sayyida Zeinab shrine, and in the Hojeira district of south Damascus.
13/10 the state news agency said two car bombs exploded on Sunday evening near the state TV building in Damascus.The TV headquarters in the capital's Umayyad Square was reportedly damaged in the attack (Red Cross workers kidnapped ...)

Fighting has raged in Aleppo - the air raid on Thursday killed 16 people, including a woman and two children in the eastern village of Safira, which is controlled by armed groups including the al-Qaeda affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)... the regime "bombarded Safira for two days in order to relieve pressure of the supply route to Aleppo". The route is used not only to ferry weapons and reinforcements to troops at the front, but also to deliver food and medical supplies to civilians in regime-controlled areas. Another six people, including a woman and child, were killed in air raids on Menbej, a village east of Aleppo controlled by ISIL and other armed groups. SOHR  - AFP
11/10 A French Muslim, fighting with rebels in , has carried out a suicide bombing against an an army position in Aleppo province ... The man killed 10 soldiers in the bombing during a Wednesday attack on the village of Al-Hamam, southeast of the northern city of Aleppo [SOHR]  told AFP. The attack was carried out by Al-Qaeda-linked groups - the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and Al-Nusra Front. ... the bomber - nicknamed Abu al-Qaaqaa after one of the companions of the Muslim Prophet Mohammed ..

13/10 Scores die as rebel factions fight in Aleppo:
Clashes between rival rebel factions left at least 44 fighters dead in battles to control neighbourhoods in the city of Aleppo, according to an activist group. The three days of fighting was between al-Qaeda's Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) and a rival group formerly known as Ghurabaa al-Sham. ... (SOHR) said on Saturday 14 of the dead belonged to ISIS, which was able to control three neighbourhoods in Aleppo.
In the Deraa, eight people, including two children were killed in air raids on Nawa village between the army and rebels. The General Commission of the Syrian Revolution said that there were many people wounded and in serious condition, indicating that the toll would rise. SOHR  - AFP
10/10 New suspect indicted in Hariri death The UN-backed tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri indicts a fifth suspect.

Hezbollah 'execution' video sparks online outrage: Al-Arabiya television said it may have been filmed during the battle for Qusayr, a strategic Syrian town near the Lebanese border that Syrian troops recaptured from rebels with the help of Hezbollah earlier this year.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Syria: events in Azaz

18 Sep    taken over by Islamic State of Iraq and Syria from FSA

18 Sep Contact in #Azaz says #ISIS jihadis now control key #Syria border town, curfew imposed. Media activist: "it is outrageous". 18 Sep Activist in #Azaz #Syria FB post "we will no longer call this city liberated" after #ISIS jihadis take over.

From The New York Times, 3/10 Rebel Feuding in Syria Affects Northern Border Town:
the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, known as ISIS, routed local rebels to take control of Azaz two weeks ago
Rebels who oppose the ISIS jihadists have collected their forces at the Bab al-Salameh border crossing a few miles away and are preparing to protect it should the jihadists advance. Turkey has kept the crossing closed since Sept. 19 because of security concerns, a Turkish Foreign Ministry official said.
Seeking to end the crisis, a group of six powerful rebel brigades released a statement late Wednesday calling for an immediate cease-fire. In a jab at the strict ideology of the ISIS jihadists, the statement told them not “to shed the blood of Muslims and be hasty in calling them heretics and apostates.” It also called on both sides to submit themselves to the Sharia Commission, a rebel-run court in the northern city of Aleppo, within 48 hours to resolve the problem.
It was unclear if the ISIS fighters would heed the call. 
Aymenn J. Al-Tamimi has a detailed account and analysis of events in Azaz (9 Oct): 
Originally, so the activists behind the anti-ISIS SHA explain to me, ISIS did not have a “military presence” in Azaz. Rather, Azaz had a services office where responsibilities for providing shelter and medical treatment were entrusted to ISIS members, who also used the office as a means to engage in da’wah outreach to the local population.
That ISIS was able to establish itself in Azaz initially through provision of services comes as no surprise. As I have documented elsewhere, the group wields significantly greater financial clout than other rebel factions and can thus more readily provide aid to locals, even as the extent of social services do not quite match that of the other al-Qa’ida affiliate in Syria Jabhat al-Nusra.
ISIS gunmen entered the hospital demanding that the German doctor be handed over, and when the “workers and doctors refused to have him arrested, they opened live fire on the doctors and the people, striking terror in them. So one of the civilian sick came to them and said: ‘How can you open fire on us when we and you are Muslims?’ They said: ‘You are infidel dogs.’ And they fired at his chest, and there were not two meters between the killer and the one slain.”
[On 3 October], the town of Azaz saw some anti-ISIS demonstrations, with calls for the removal of ISIS from the town. In response, ISIS appears to have used gunfire to disperse protestors.
A number of the signatories of the 3 October statement are members of what has been termed the ‘Islamic Coalition’ in media in rejection of the opposition-in-exile and in favor of Shari’a as the main source of legislation in a future Syria. Pace the widespread narrative such as in this Washington Post article, it is not a formal coalition of any kind and is not led by Jabhat al-Nusra,
The key to understanding the inaction [of Liwa al-Tawheed] lies in the decision of the Aleppo Shari’a committee, whose authority is taken seriously by ‘Islamic Coalition’ battalions like LAT, at the end of September to condemn Northern Storm as a criminal organization and bar it from bearing arms, on the grounds of spreading fitna (discord) between FSA-banner battalions and ISIS. This condemnation was no doubt partly bolstered by Northern Storm’s well-established reputation for banditry, similar to the image problem suffered by the Northern Farouq brigades, whose criminality facilitated their expulsion from northern localities like Manbij and Tel Abyaḍ.
Northern Storm’s prior actions reflect a wider problem for FSA-banner battalions of generally non-ideological leaning in the north of the country: namely, a reputation for criminality contrasting with the outreach efforts of Islamist groups. Aware of the trends, these FSA-banner groups have tried to assert a more Islamic face, as when Northern Storm declared support for the ‘Islamic Coalition’ saying that Shari’a was its goal all along.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

More on Jaysh al-Islam

Syria’s Top Five Insurgent Leaders by Joshua Landis (with help from the SC experts) October 1, 2013: 
2. Zahran Alloush, the general Commander of  or Islam Army, a group of more than 50 brigades. He is the son of a Saudi-based religious scholar named sheikh Abdullah Mohammed Alloush. Syrian authorities released him from prison in mid-2011. He was incarcerated for his Salafist opposition activities in Sidnaya prison along with #1 and #3. He states that the external opposition does not represent him or his group and that there is no chance at negotiations with the regime. His Islam Army flies the black flag and not the Syrian flag.
Any discussion of Geneva II talks to end the Syrian conflict will be sterile without these commanders at the table. The top four say they are unwilling to sit at the negotiation table with the regime. In fact, their main issue with the National Coalition is that the NC is considering negotiating with the regime.
Addendum (Oct 2, 2013): Hassan Hassan published an important article “The Army of Islam Is Winning in Syria” arguing that the Islamic Army led by Zahran Alloush is probably now stronger than Hassan Abboud’s Ahrar al-Sham. This is hard to tell, but it is worth quoting him at length.
Hassan Hassan:
Liwa al-Islam, which is the central player in the Army of Islam, now dwarfs both the FSA and radical militias such as Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra, which long played a prominent role in the region. These groups had coordinated with each other through a Damascus military council, but Ahrar al-Sham pulled out of the council shortly after the merger, issuing an angry statement that criticized “the hegemony of certain factions and the exclusion of [other] effective ones.” Saudi Arabia appears to be central to the merger of rebel groups around Damascus. Liwa al-Islam chief Zahran Alloush is backed by Riyadh, while both Ahrar al-Sham, which is supported by Qatar, and Jabhat al-Nusra have been excluded from the new grouping. Although Liwa al-Islam had been part of the Saudi-backed FSA, the spokesman of the new grouping told an Arabic television channel that the Army of Islam is not part of the FSA. This is likely because the FSA has lost the trust of many rebel groups, and adopting a religious language will be more effective in countering the appeal of radical groups — which is what happened after the announcement of the merger, as various Islamists and moderate groups welcomed the move.
Tweet from Aron L (@aron_ld):  Landis again:
Zahran Alloush, Liwa al-Islam, who founded the Islam Army a week ago. He [s]peaks of the resurrection of the Omayyad Empire and cleansing of the Majous or crypto-Iranians: Rafida (Shiites) and Nusayri (Alawites) from Damascus (minute 5). He does not have much faith in democracy, claiming that a committee of Islamic scholars will decide on the form of government and the role that minorities will play in a future state.
To quote Hassan Hassan again, at length — this is all highly relevant, in one way or another:
The Saudi effort may just work: Significant grassroots hostility is building in liberated Syrian areas against foreign-funded extremists and al Qaeda affiliates. These tensions do not always develop into sustained clashes — for almost all rebel groups, toppling the regime is the priority, not fighting extremist forces, which have proved indispensable in the battlefield. According to an activist based in the northern city of Raqqa, when clashes erupted between the al Qaeda-affiliated ISIS and Ahfad al-Rasoul in August, local residents threw their support behind one or the other side — but the strongest condemnation was for the infighting itself. “When they see the regime’s warplanes shelling the city without a single shot in their direction, they get angry at the fighters who could do something,” the activist explained.
The size of extremist groups is not an accurate indicator of the support for their ideology within Syrian society. Fighting groups are also not ideologically homogenous, as many fighters join groups for their effectiveness on the battlefield and disciple — not their religious beliefs. Ahrar al-Sham members in Daraa, for example, can be remarkably different in terms of religiosity from members in more conservative northern areas such as Idlib or the Aleppo countryside.
The situation inside the country is more fluid and nuanced than many groups’ hard-line slogans would suggest. Moderates can be members of hard-line groups and vice versa. Some groups, such as Suqour al-Sham, include both secular members and Islamist veterans of the insurgency against the U.S. occupation of Iraq. For example, a former judge at Aleppo’s cassation court, a secular Syrian who does not pray, nevertheless supports an Islamic identity to the state.
For this reason, many moderate fighters are more concerned with the foreign networks and leaders than the rank-and-file members of hard-line groups. “We are not too worried about Jabhat al-Nusra,” said one FSA-affiliated officer in the eastern governorate of Deir Ezzor who said he worked in intelligence operations. “Once the fighting ends, we’ll bring them back. We know them. They’re our brothers, cousins, and neighbors — they’re the sons of our tribes. Our true struggle will be against [ISIS] and the Nusra leaders.”
The FSA is still salvageable as a moderate force. But the way the Syrian battlefield is shifting should be a wake-up call for the opposition and its backers: The project of establishing a counterweight to extremists, which will be necessary to salvage Syria’s future, has so far been feeble. A true alternative would be the creation of a rebel organization that is not a club for vetted seculars, but a structure that includes all actors — of varying levels of religiosity — that can help to curb extremism. If the opposition continues to be disconnected from the dynamics on the ground, however, it will only lead more moderate forces into the extremists’ orbit. 
29/9 29 Sep The Army of Islam forms in . Not sure they'll go to Geneva somehow. MT : First Aleppo Statement, now Jaish al-Islam

Published 25 Nov 2013

Syria's crisis: we have lost ...

(26/9) A powerful piece from Leon Wieseltier ... Really sums it up. And not just US, UK too.
Comrades, we have lost. The only achievement of the Obama administration in the Syrian crisis so far has been to eliminate the humanitarian motive from American foreign policy. [..] Assad’s gassing of children has been a dazzling career move. His most recent, and most brazen, use of chemical weapons has not imperiled him. Quite the contrary. The dead of Ghouta have saved him. The Kerry-Lavrov deal represents an American agreement to deny Assad’s accountability for the atrocity that America’s spokesmen have otherwise been eloquently denouncing. Responsibility, yes; accountability, no. We will hold Assad to account for his arsenal, but not for what he has done with it. Actually, we will hold him to account only for a portion of his arsenal. We have no objection to the weapons that have contributed to the killing of 120,000 people, or with what may still be done with them.
The Kerry-Lavrov deal is premised on a distinction, an analytical gimmick, that is dear to the president, whose brain is where his heart should be. It is that the question of chemical weapons may be dissociated from the question of mass slaughter. The former demands action, the latter (which the president tidily defines as “somebody else’s civil war”) does not. But this is sophistry. The revulsion against chemical weapons is founded in the revulsion against mass slaughter. The crime—the systematic murder of innocents—is the same. In Syria, sarin and the AK-47 [..] have been different means to one end. It makes no sense to lose sleep over the one and sleep well through the other. The crisis in Syria is not chiefly a crisis of arms control. Obama also argues for his specious distinction on legal grounds, citing the various conventions against chemical weapons; but there also exist conventions against crimes against humanity. Why comply with the former and not comply with the latter?
We are also becoming heartless. In the name of “nation-building at home,” we are learning to be unmoved by evil. I will give an example. On Anderson Cooper’s show last week, there appeared a man named Zaidoun Al Zoabi, an academic in Damascus and a prominent anti-Assad activist, who was kidnapped by the Syrian secret police and held in one of Assad’s most notorious prisons. He was pleading for American action to stop Assad’s savagery. “Is the diplomatic path now only about chemical weapons?” Al Zoabi asked, with a look on his face composed in equal measure of dignity and desperation. “What about [Assad’s] massacring us for the past two years?” At which point Andrew Sullivan, who was a panelist on the show, folded his arms, turned away, and sneered: “Chemical weapons is all you’re going to get right now!” Go back to your disgusting little country and die. The blogger giveth and the blogger taketh away. [..] We grow inured to the victims, the way the rich grow inured to the poor. The Syrians, the Libyans, the Egyptians, the Iranians, the politically aspiring peoples of the tyrannized world—they are the global 47 percent, taking, taking, taking. Or they would be, if we were giving. Atrocity fatigue is our fatigue at their atrocity:
On the other hand, when he says, "He must have seen the Arendt movie," I don't quite see the parallel.

See also How Bashar al-Assad Destroyed My Country, 25/9, by Omar Ghabra (@omarghabra), a Syrian-American writer
it is worth looking back to those more innocent days. It seems the world has forgotten that before it was sectarian, it was about equality for all. Before there was Jabhat al-Nusra, there were defectors who refused to fire on innocent civilians
It was Assad who chose to torture, murder and carpet-bomb his way to the sectarian abyss in which Syria now finds itself. It was Assad who knowingly stoked historical tensions to cement the perception that dictatorship was the only way to defend Syria from medieval radicals who will drive out the country’s vulnerable minorities.
Inside Syria, 22/9  The divisions of diplomacy presenter Jane Dutton, guests: Anna Therese Day, an independent journalist, writer and producer; Elias Muhanna, an associate professor of comparative literature and Middle East studies at Brown University; and Saleh Mubarak, a member of the Syrian National Council and a professor at Qatar University.
Rough notes: Kristen Saloomey report: Francois Hollande hopes that even Iran could help broker a deal; Marie Harf, US State Dept. Mubarak (studio): Iranian president moderate, but does not have final say; need to be neutral. Is SNC in position to reject? SNC part of coalition; other side buying time, meantime people getting killed
Muhanna (Providence): I think that you don't go the dialogue table with the sponsors that you want ... Chances low, but real breakthrough.
Day (Washington): opportunity for diplomatic solution. Muhanna: regime master of tactics, diplomatic game, de facto partition, hope, empower more moderate forces. Mubarak: opposition failing to unite? Elected temporary PM, foreign affairs will be handled by leadership; more funding now, maybe as reconciliation after military strikes were ruled out (12:30). 

Published 25 Nov 2013

Monday, October 14, 2013

al-Qa'ida in Iraq and Syria

The Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham's Messages and Self-Presentation in Syria and Iraq, by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, September 9, 2013:
it is apparent that the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham (ISIS) in Syria has enjoyed a degree of success that the group's counterparts in Iraq have never been able to achieve.
The consequence of this level of control is that in images and videos put out by ISIS, its supporters and sympathizers within Syria, the wider ideological agenda of the group is made much more apparent than within Iraq. Thus, below one can see a number of images from Syria circulated among pro-ISIS circles that openly affirm the goal of establishing a Caliphate, which should eventually encompass the entire world.
figure 3We knew this already of course, but it is useful to be reminded so graphically as Figure 3:  while al-Qa'ida eventually want the entire Earth under their banner, first they aim to establish the more immediate "State of the Caliphate" : this includes, of course, the Iberian Peninsula (Andalusia), north and west Africa, as far as, the map is a bit "broad-brush", but as far as a line between Libreville and Zanzibar, southeastern Europe as far as Vienna, etc.

"one of the ISIS muhajireen explains that they have come in order to establish an Islamic state in Arḍ ash-Sham [the Levant] as an extension to an Islamic state in Iraq that is currently fighting the Safavid government and army."
In contrast, ISIS and its supporters within Iraq are not putting so much emphasis on transnational ambitions for a Caliphate. Instead, it is accurate to characterize ISIS' current approach in Iraq as conveying an image of "protector of Sunnis" (as suggested by analyst Joel Wing of Musings on Iraq), playing on the fact that many Sunni Arabs undoubtedly perceive themselves to be a marginalized minority, or even a plurality/majority unjustly usurped of power.
ISIS says that the series of bomb attacks carried out in Iraq is "a response to the recent crime which the Safavid government committed with the execution of a new cohort of prisoners of the Muslims of the people of the Sunnah in Iraq" or a "response to the ongoing security campaigns of the Safavid army and police that have reached the Sunni belt areas of Baghdad" or they allege the encroachment by "sectarian militias": 
While there are no specific names [..], it is clear that the allegations largely concern the actions of Shi'a Iranian proxy groups, particularly Aṣā'ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), which has certainly tried to expand into Diyala. Indeed, recently Sunni protest Facebook pages featured a photo of a purported AAH funeral convoy in Muqdadiyah for fighters killed in Syria , and claimed this to be an indication of the group's expansionist efforts in the town and the wider province. As it turns out, the group in question is not AAH. [..] However, from my perspective of looking at ISIS' projection of itself as protector of Iraq's Sunnis, what matters more here is perception.
In Iraq, ISIS does not control towns, and is still seeking to build up its reputation after many years of being perceived as brutal and heavy-handed- indifferent to local concerns- in pursuit of the grand goal of a worldwide Caliphate. Thus, one will not find pro-ISIS circles within Iraq circulating images like that [showing the entire Earth under the banner of ISIS]. That said, ISIS is clearly able to conduct most of its operations in the Anbar area and wider western Iraq at will [..]. Indeed, in the widely publicized video of ISIS' execution of three Alawites on the Anbar highway, it is noteworthy, as Michael Knights points out, that the mujahideen were in no hurry with their stopping, questioning and killing of the three men, illustrating a severe deficiency in control on the part of the Iraqi security forces.
I do not think in the long-run ISIS in Iraq can enjoy the level of success it has achieved in Syria [..] Sunni Arabs are a demographic minority in Iraq, the government has well-established security forces (however incompetent), and there is the problem that ISIS is undoubtedly continuing to target Sunni Arabs it sees as government collaborators [..]
As for Syria, the overt emphasis on transnational goals may cause a degree of alienation among locals, but there is no evidence that ISIS in Syria has reverted to brutalization of the populace as happened in the Iraq War. [..] the only way its influence could be substantially reduced is in the context of a post-Assad order whereby a large long-term international occupation force (at least a decade or so) is stationed to coordinate an anti-ISIS/Jabhat al-Nusra militia movement, not through vague policies of 'arming moderates.'
Published 21 Nov 2013

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Syria, Hezbollah and collective suicide

Hanin Ghaddar, The collective suicide of the Shiites, 11/9:
Resisting Israel and liberating the land is one thing and killing Syrians in Syria is something else completely. It doesn’t make sense.  ... You’ve known your enemy for years: Israel. It was clear, during the war with Israel, you hide or escape; otherwise you are rather safe. Today, your enemy is like a ghost. You cannot identify it or understand where it is coming from. They tell you it is Syrian takfiris or Islamists who want to kill you just because you’re a Shiite.
Published 20 Nov 2013

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Syria: Lister on 24/9

Charles Lister on the 24/9 statement (27/9, Syrian Militant Islamists Denounce SNC and Form “Islamic Alliance” ): 
 the key Islamist middle-ground players – Liwa al-Tawhid, Liwa al-Islam and Suqor al-Sham – have finally made clear where their allegiances lie, with huge implications for the moderate opposition
ISIS has begun to isolate itself from the insurgent core by way of a series of recent interfactional clashes with moderate and Islamist factions. As such, there has been increasing levels of rumour within Islamist militant circles in Syria this week that moves were under way to isolate ISIS, and this may well represent the outcome of such apparent plans.  With the exception of more extremist front groups in the east, Jabhat al-Nusra has, as an al-Qaida-linked group, largely played its cards right since its emergence in January 2012, and especially since ISIS’s emergence in Syria in April/May 2013. It has poured considerable resources into local-level governance and the provision of social services, and in comparison to ISIS, has adopted a notably measured imposition of sharia. As such, its relations with key Islamist actors across Syria have remained strong, while ISIS has appeared less open to multigroup coordination across the insurgent spectrum.
This is a huge challenge to those currently presenting the view that the majority of the Syrian opposition is liberal and moderate. Such an argument has less to hold it up every week. Certainly, there do remain several key moderate groupings in Syria, but if this development leads to a consolidated Islamic Alliance, the capacity for such moderates to maintain a long-term grip over the future of Syria will be considerably weakened. This can only be interpreted as damaging to U.S. and Western interests in Syria.
UPDATE II: In a series of posts on its official Twitter account late on September 27, Jabhat al-Nusra pulled back from reports it had entered into “a coalition” and insisted that if it had done so, its media wing, Al-Manara al-Bayda, would have announced such a development. In fact, Nusra insisted the statement was aimed solely at condemning the SNC and its foreign-based leadership. As such, Nusra claimed reports of “a coalition” were attempts at instigating divisions between itself and ISIS.
Taken at face value, this statement suggests that Nusra either doesn’t perceive the September 24 statement issued via Liwa al-Tawhid as a particularly significant development, or possibly that the statement itself has stirred up tensions it doesn’t want existing.
Nusra Front militia’s control of Ash Shaddadi, Syria, gives power
In Deir el Zour, to the south, the Free Syrian Army accepted an arrangement under which gas is shipped to the Syrian government, which distributes it throughout the country. The government, in turn, pays the salaries of the employees who keep the plant going. Nusra has no such plans in Ash Shaddadi. “We will not send any gas to the regime. The fighters here will not accept it.”
“I want the whole world to hear us. You, Nusra, you are not elected. You are stealing all that we have,” he said. “We have nothing, no electricity, no running water. And tonight we will demonstrate against you.”

A Nusra officer barked back at him: “We will shoot you.”
Institute for the Study of War  by Valerie Szybala:
It also rejects the Syrian National Coalition and the leadership of Ahmad Tohme – recently elected as the head of the Syrian opposition’s interim government – by name. [..]
The fact that this announcement comes amidst a spike in incidents in which the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has clashed with the Free Syrian Army units and, atypically, Syria’s other al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, raises the possibility that this new coalition is also a move against ISIS by its Syrian nationalist rivals.
23/9 Rebels View Coalition Leadership Outside Syria as Detached From the Suffering By KAREEM FAHIM.  While the main opposition group’s leaders shuttle among fancy hotels, they seem increasingly powerless to affect the course of the war.

A fresh fissure, Maya Gebeily, September 23, 2013
The fissures plaguing the Syrian opposition finally reached jihadi factions on Saturday. The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), an al-Qaeda affiliate battling both regime and opposition in Syria, clashed with its sister organization, Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), in the city of Shaddadi in the Hasakeh province. According to one witness account, the dispute was over the Jibsa oil field in eastern Syria, and resulted in ISIS members storming the city’s JN headquarters and “seizing weapons and oil equipment.”
Further south in Daraa, JN has the privilege of being the sole al-Qaeda representative. [..]According to [Aymenn al-]Tamimi, although the rank-and-file members of ISIS are Syrian, its elite fighters and commanders are “muhajireen,” or immigrants. JN, on the other hand, boasts a majority-Syrian membership and leadership. These personnel differences have significant consequences on the ground, according to Mohammad al-Attar, a Syrian playwright and activist. [..] Al-Attar pointed to an article he had penned in Raqqa, where the local population had expressed fury toward ISIS for its kidnappings – most recently against Father Paolo. In liberated areas, Attar explained, the population is much more receptive to military formations comprised of local members, not the outsiders of ISIS factions.
Tamimi and al-Attar both highlighted ISIS’s markedly more brutal tactics, often ill-received by the local populace. Whereas ISIS regularly films “public executions of ‘apostates’ (e.g., regime soldiers), one does not see JN activists put out footage and photos like that anymore,” Tamimi [said]. [..] On the battlefield, the two Islamists’ relationships with FSA-aligned groups are becoming increasingly distinct. “Broadly speaking, JN has a better relationship with FSA than ISIS does,” Tamimi said.
[..] Neither JN nor ISIS are seeking to highlight the growing rift, however. “On jihadi social media pages, you won't really find denunciation of either group,” Tamimi [said]. “They cheer on both of them.”
[Charles Lister:] “It’s always been clear that in the long term, there was never going to be room in Syria for two self-declared Al-Qaeda affiliates.”
[..]The Shaddadi clashes may not have been the first time that the two jihadi organizations had reportedly butted heads. Unconfirmed reports from the city of Muhassan described the case of a JN commander who refused to pledge allegiance to ISIS and was subsequently executed alongside his men.
Published 19 Nov 2013

Friday, October 11, 2013

Syria's crisis: more curious bedfellows

An interesting sidelight: James Jatras, former US diplomat, was on Al Jazeera (19/9, 00:10).  Given his stridently pro-Assad views, I was curious enough to do a search on the Web. It's not surprising that he has also appeared on PressTV - Hawkish elements in US seek failure of Geneva ...  But I wonder if the Iranian state-controlled broadcaster would be quite as comfortable with the views he expresses elsewhere: "Muslims in the Balkans staged false flag attacks..." ( James Jatras on Canadian TV, Sept. 4, 2013, "Before It's News", 6 Sep 2013).  Or this, delving back a bit further, from Daniel Pipes ("How Dare You Defame Islam", November 1999):
James Jatras, a Senate aide, published in his private capacity a stinging critique of Islam ("a self-evident outgrowth not of the Old and New Covenants but of the darkness of heathen Araby").
See also his previous appearance on Al Jazeera - Making heads or tails of Bashar al-Assad.

14/9 Playing the Al Qaeda card on Syria (continued)  Some great points here:
Robert Fisk: If Barack Obama decides to attack the Syrian regime, he has ensured – for the very first time in history – that the United States will be on the same side as al-Qa’ida.
Not quite the first time, at least not in the fantasy world of the conspiracy theorists and truthers: a few years ago they were saying the US backed Osama Bin Laden in the fight against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980's.

But away from this counter-reality, Channel 4 News had a report on the massacre at Al-Bayda on 2 May.

15/9 Syria hails weapons deal 'victory'  -- Syrian opposition elects new provisional PM

James Rubin: narrow view, chemical weapons; it was mind-boggling, the decision to go for a vote in Congress (C4News)

Obama: Syria lesson for Iran -- Helping hands Footage claims to show Iranians in Syria.

17/9 UN powers discuss Syria resolution --
19/9  Putin 'confident' on Syria plan  -- 'No sectarianism' 

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Syria: chemical weapons and denials

In Syria's crisis, there are many evasions and distortions of the truth, in particular the denial that, in all probability, it was the Assad regime that carried out the chemical weapons attacks around Damascus on 21 August. 

First, some substantive evidence.

New York, 16 September 2013 - Secretary-General's remarks to the Security Council On the basis of its analysis, the Mission concluded that it – and I quote – “collected clear and convincing evidence that surface-to-surface rockets containing the nerve agent sarin were used in the Ein Tarma, Moadamiyah and Zalmalka in the Ghouta area of Damascus.”

UN weapons inspector in Iraq, Dr Alexander Coker says that the use of 122mm rockets does not prove it was the government: they are very common. Asked about the trajectories, he says, "I don't have that kind of expertise to be able to comment on that", but the evidence tends to point to the regime, though it's not conclusive  (BBC WS, Newshour, 16/9,  21:24, +17:55) [mp3 +18:55]

17/9 Syria chemical attack: Key UN findings

Dispatches: Mapping the Sarin Flight Path, by HRW's, Josh Lyons:
the presumed flight paths of the rockets converge on a well-known military base of the Republican Guard 104th Brigade.
“Impact site number 1 (Moadamiya) and impact site number 4 (Ein Tarma),” the inspectors wrote, “provide sufficient evidence to determine, with a sufficient degree of accuracy, the likely trajectory of the projectiles.” They go on to say that 3 of the rockets they inspected had bearings of 34 and 35 degrees for 2 of the rockets that landed in Moadamiya, and 285 degrees for 1 of the rockets that landed in Ein Tarma.
So, at Ein Tarma, the shaft/engine of the rocket pointed precisely to 285 degrees, so that its trajectory was that it was heading in an East/Southeast direction (105 degrees).
At Moadamiya (site number 1), the rocket was heading in a direction of 215 degrees. At site number 2, 65 metres from number 1, the rocket was heading in a direction of 214 degrees.

Site number 1 provides the more conclusive evidence (piercing of vegetal screening etc.) but site number 2 corroborates it (Who Was Responsible For The August 21st Attack?)

18/9 Russia calls UN report biased - 3 other sites (BBC WS, 9:00) Syrian 'proof' of rebel chemical use
U.N. Data on Gas Attack Points to Assad’s Top Forces By C. J. CHIVERS A view of Damascus, Syria, from Mount Qasioun. A report’s data appeared to show a chemical strike originated on the mountain. Details buried in a United Nations report indicate the Syrian military launched the chemical attack from the same ridges it used for firing conventional munitions.
A senior American intelligence official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the United States, via satellite, had confirmed rocket launches that corroborated the United Nations data and the Human Rights Watch analysis for one of the strikes.
The Lede: Russia’s Foreign Minister Cites Questions Raised by Nun in Syria on Chemical Attacks (September 17, 2013)

From The Washington Post, 17/9, Still doubt Assad’s forces were behind Syria’s chemical attack? Look at this map. .. 

The anti-interventionist (or pro-Assad) camp made a point here:
Dr. Elizabeth O’Bagy, Syria expert, made quite an impression on Senator John McCain. During Senate hearings, the former Presidential candidate quoted at length from her recent Wall Street Journal op-ed painting a rosy picture of a mostly secular, pro-Western anti-Assad insurgency. “John, do you agree with Dr. O’Bagy’s assessment of the opposition?,” the Senator asked the Secretary of State John Kerry. “I agree with most of that,” he replied. Except Dr. O’Bagy wasn’t actually a doctor.
But most of the dubious stories are on the other side.

September 21, 2013 Reporter Denies Writing Article That Linked Syrian Rebels to Chemical Attack "Three weeks after an obscure Internet news service claimed that Syrian rebels had admitted responsibility for the deadly chemical attack outside Damascus in August, a veteran foreign correspondent has denied writing the article"

22/9, on claims that the rebels were behind the use of chemical weapons in Ghouta, some brilliant detective work here. The key evidence is nailed down in, of all places,  the comments thread of a column written by Peter Hitchens for the Mail on Sunday. Yahya Ababneh exposed
Barakat then adds some information that wasn't included in the Mint Press story which has done so much to excite Russian officials:  "Some old men arrived in Damascus from Russia and one of them became friends with me. He told me that they have evidence that it was the rebels who used the weapons."

So who is Yan Barakat? [..] All this points to the conclusion that Yahya Ababneh and Yan Barakat are different names for the same person. 
Barakat then adds some information that wasn't included in the Mint Press story which has done so much to excite Russian officials: - See more at:
Barakat then adds some information that wasn't included in the Mint Press story which has done so much to excite Russian officials:
"Some old men arrived in Damascus from Russia and one of them became friends with me. He told me that they have evidence that it was the rebels who used the weapons."
So who is Yan Barakat?
- See more at:
"Some old men arrived in Damascus from Russia and one of them became friends with me. He told me that they have evidence that it was the rebels who used the weapons."
So who is Yan Barakat?
- See more at:
More from Nafeez Ahmed: "The New York Times has investigated the issue further and discovered that Mint Press News' financial backers and advisers included the website editor's father, an ethnic Jordanian of Shi'a persuasion.  [..] the NYT found evidence of vehemently sectarian and anti-Saudi anti-Wahabi sentiments linked to her father's role in Mint Press News."

Nafeez Ahmed on the Syrian nun, Mother Agnes, and her "ramblings and unverifiable claims of rebel atrocities":  "She believes the Assad regime is the only thing that can save Syria from a takeover by Al-Qaida, and that most Syrians support the present regime."

A Chemical Weapons Expert Responds To The Article "Questions Plague UN Report on Syria" (25/9). The article in question was published by Al Akhbar. Dan Kaszeta, one of the chemical weapon experts quoted in the article, responded to various points. For example:
Q: The article claims "not a single environmental sample in Moadamiyah that tested positive for Sarin." - What is your reaction to this?
I consider this statement to be a misleading half-truth that “cherry picks” from the UN report.
Even Le Monde diplomatique concluded, with regard to another oft-quoted document blaming the rebels (Special report: fixing intelligence on Syria?, via , 29/9): [ +1 MT : Highly recommended - ]   
So at first glance, the VIPS memo’s core contention that U.S. intelligence is being politicized over Syria, as happened in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq War, appears compelling. But a deeper look reveals that the VIPS memo fails to withstand the same level of scrutiny and verifiability it demands from the Obama administration.
VIPS do not have on the ground sources in the Middle East or among the Syrian opposition at all. Rather than learning the lesson of the plagiarized British dossier on Iraq [..], the VIPS memo replicates it in a misguided effort to oppose an intervention.
Yet still some people go to considerable lengths to dispute the regime's responsibility:
30 Sep For some excellent debate on the UN Report on see: AND AND
(Cf. Eritrea; Harry’s Place also has an interesting analysis of this lady's views.)

Syria crisis: As it happened (29/8)

 Published 14 Nov 2013

Wednesday, October 09, 2013


I've been meaning to write about Eritrea for some time.

On 3 Oct., a boat carrying migrants sank off Lampedusa with the loss of hundreds of lives. Migrants attempting to reach Europe are said to come from Somalia (which has been much in the news recently, following the attack on the shopping-mall in Nairobi), from Syria (of which again much has been written, not least by me) and from Eritrea.

But who knows or cares much about Eritrea? As Léonard Vincent said in an interview on RFI, ça ne mobilise pas les foules (24/5/2013, 18:47). This was on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of its independence from Ethiopia. There was great joy at first, but its seems Eritrea has turned into one big prison camp. Its leader, Issayas Afeworki, learned his authoritarian methods from Mao Zedong.

This view does not go unchallenged, though. Strangely enough, some of the dissenters appear to be the same as those who deny that the Bashar al-Assad regime carried out the chemical weapons attack on Ghouta on 21 August. The problem, apparently, is that all the accounts come from Eritrean refugees, who are biased (Intervention in the name of human rights is the emerging tool of imperialism ).

L'Erythrée a vingt ans, comme ceux qui la fuient -- Érythrée: un système pénitentiaire «d'une cruauté inimaginable» - In English, Amnesty International report --

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Syria's conflict: some realities

Al-Qaeda presence in Syria worries US Good Guys and Bad Guys ...

An article by Charles Lister, Syria's insurgency beyond Good Guys and Bad Guys, is a "must read", as Josh Landis says.
The most "extreme" portion of the insurgency is represented by the two al Qaeda-affiliated groups: Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Combined, these groups command an estimated 7,000 to 10,000 fighters [..]
While much attention has been given in recent weeks to newly delivered weapons supplied to "moderate" groups under the command of Idriss -- such as Chinese HJ-8 anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) -- these appear not to have been delivered to some of the largest groups purportedly under SMC command but rather to smaller units perhaps more tightly under SMC control. These seemingly avoided larger groups are all members of the SILF: Liwa al-Tawhid, Liwa al-Islam, and Kataib al-Farouq [..]. [These three additional groups have] a combined estimated force of between 24,000 and 26,000 fighters.  
While all three groups are certainly less hardline than Suqor al-Sham, HASI or SIF, ISIS, and Jabhat al-Nusra, they have all on separate occasions rejected democracy in the Western-accepted sense as a concept and expressed a desire for the establishment of an Islamic state in Syria. [..] Liwa al-Islam is a critical player in the battle for Damascus and Liwa al-Tawhid is an essential source of authority in Aleppo. Whether a decision has been made not to direct (as much or any) overtly valuable resources to these three groups is impossible to confirm  adding them to the potential "bad guys" list would result in the total reaching between 56,000 and 68,000 fighters, or 68 to 80 percent of the insurgency. However, there is a noteworthy chance that such groups could in the future be co-opted more closely under SMC command, should certain carrots be waved their way.
Lister concludes: 
This might all appear as an attempt to present Syria's insurgency as a melting pot of extremists -- but it is most certainly not intended as such. [..] I have spoken with members of all groups mentioned in this article and as shocking as it may sound to some, the large majority of them seem, outwardly, to have what they perceive to be Syria's best interests at the forefront of their minds, at least for now. However, the tactics and rhetoric employed by many are clearly unpalatable by most Western standards.
While it is incontrovertibly the case that jihadists (or "extremists") represent a minority of the total insurgent force, true genuine "moderates" -- by Western standards of supporting the establishment of a non-religious, liberal state preferably founded on democratic principals -- also do not represent a majority. The largest portion of insurgent fighters in Syria is in fact represented by "Islamists," some less socially and politically conservative than others. Crucially, this does not preclude them from being potentially valuable leaders of a future Syria or even as future friends of the West, but it is important that this crucial element of the opposition is included within the minds of today's policymakers.
Charles Lister, in his , with Aron Lund, 22/9, said that even supposedly moderate elements of the FSA/SMC are using increasingly more sectarian rhetoric; that they would continue to cooperate with the jihadists, due to the necessities of the battlefield, not only because they are well-organised and well-funded, but because of the effectiveness of the tactic of the suicide bomber, in making an initial breach of defences. External support could strengthen "moderate" elements, he also says, but it could also lead to increased in-fighting (via ).

Updated: 4 Oct. 00:15