Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Gaza and Israel

From the ICG:
The U.S., by agreeing to work with the new Palestinian government, has set a positive precedent. Along with the EU and its regional allies, it should encourage the [Palestinian Authority (PA)] to return to Gaza, per the reconciliation agreement, and discourage Israel from getting in the way. None of these parties need publicly to reverse its policy of trying to isolate and topple Hamas – though all would be well advised to, because that policy is misguided and has been counterproductive since it was adopted in 2007 – but each should give the reconciliation deal a chance to work.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

ISIL in Syria and Iraq

In The Times, 23/6, Melanie Phillips, former columnist for the Daily Mail, writes in support of the position of the paper's leader, that now is not the time to make "an ally" of Iran. The Times piece is behind its pay wall, but similar arguments could be found in The Jerusalem Post, another newspaper in the Murdoch stable (With Iran, my enemy’s enemy is still my enemy, Jun 20, 2014):
the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a savage terrorist army previously known as al-Qaida in Iraq, has routed the Iraqi army and now controls territory from the outskirts of Aleppo in Syria to Fallujah and Mosul in Iraq, even threatening Baghdad.
Leaving aside the fact the whole of the Iraqi army has not collapsed, only 2 divisions, this is somewhat misleading as to the amount of control ISIL (ISIS) has (or had) in Syria and ignores the extent to which they had been pushed back by other rebel groups. Charles Lister, in a paper from May:
By late January 2014, ISIS had lost control of 28 separate municipalities across Aleppo, Idlib, Hama, al-Raqqa and Deir Ezzor governorates. Rather than suffering total defeats in these positions, however, ISIS strategically redeployed its forces into better-defended and more valuable positions, presumably preparing for its next move. This came on February 2 when a large ISIS force unexpectedly attacked and captured the financially valuable Conoco gas field (said to be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars per week) from Jabhat al-Nusra and allied tribal forces in Deir Ezzor. This surprise attack [..] prompted a major counter-attack by Islamist militants (including Jabhat al-Nusra), FSA-branded fighters, and local tribesmen, resulting in ISIS’s near-total expulsion from the governorate by February 11. Meanwhile, continued pressure against ISIS in northern Syria saw the group withdraw from its positions in northern Aleppo on February 27 and redeploy eastwards, while by March 13 it had completely withdrawn from the northwestern governorates of Latakia and Idlib. This left ISIS in control of parts of eastern Aleppo and, crucially, the key transport routes leading to the jewel in ISIS’ crown: the city of al-Raqqa. There, the true face of the organization has since become clear with harsh punishments now being meted out, including the March 22 crucifixion of a man accused of murder.
Even where it lost control of territory, though, ISIL continued to play a destructive role against forces fighting the Assad regime. It "has been blamed for several car bombings at rival group headquarters, checkpoints, and at the Bab al-Salameh and Bab al-Hawa border crossings with Turkey" and for the assassination of leaders from rival groups Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra.

Jeremy Bowen reports from Aleppo (16 Jun), "Islamist fighters of different levels of radicalism dominate the rebel side in Aleppo. In rural Aleppo, east towards Iraq, Isis territory begins."

From a later piece by Charles Lister for the BBC (27 Jun): "[Isis] controls large swathes of territory - stretching from al-Bab in eastern Aleppo province in Syria to as far as Suleiman Bek 415 miles [..] away in Iraq's Salahuddin province." The map, as used on many other BBC web pages, shows 3 towns in northern Syria under complete ISIL control, without naming them. According to a map shown on CNN, they are, leading North-East from Aleppo, al-Bab, Manbij and Jarabulus, near the Turkish border (*).

On 28 Jun, Al Jazeera English (AJE) reported that there had been clashes around Deir Az Zor between ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra and that 2 JN commanders had deserted to ISIL.

Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) is al-Qaeda's affiliate in Syria, Yemenis from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula may be in northern Syria, collaborating with JN, passing on bomb-making skills (**). According to a report by Paul Wood from Idlib (3 June 2014), the black flag of the Islamic Front is almost indistinguishable from that of ISIL, though IF's ideology is considerably more moderate.  

So, the West may have legitimate concerns that are not limited to ISIL. But purely from a Syrian point of view, ISIL must be distinguished from all the other groups. For the Syrian people, who in the overwhelming majority still want to be rid of Assad,  ISIL is not on their side. Objectively, it is an element that is against the revolutionary (anti-Assad) forces. When people talk about "infighting among the Syrian rebels" (***), let us be clear: fighting between the other groups is minimal; nearly all the "infighting" is between ISIL against the rest.

AJE, Listening Post, 5 Jul, +07:00; see also the map from @deSyracuse.

** Richard Barrett, formerly of MI6, C4 News, 3 Jul; Chris Yates, BBC WS, Weekend, 5 Jul; Frank Gardner, BBC.
*** See, for example, this discussion on C4 News, 1 Jul (2nd video).

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

'The End of Iraq' (revisited)

Jeff Weintraub writes on signs of a shift in Turkey's position towards accepting the creation of a Kurdish state out of northern Iraq.

The Kurds and their advisors have long advocated the partition of  Iraq, as here in 2006,  where it is described as "self-serving ... Kurdo-centric", involving the creation of "two entirely artificial and highly unstable “Sunni” and “Shiite” regions".

There are many now who seem to welcome,  or accept as inevitable,  the division of Iraq into 3 states,  but few who see its drawbacks or who are prepared to discuss in detail what it would mean.

One of the main problems, it always seems to me, is Baghdad,  with its mix of Shi'a and Sunni Arabs (and others).  We are told that after years of "ethnic cleansing" Baghdad now has a strong majority of Shi'a,  but there are still large areas in and around the city that are heavily Sunni and any break-up of Iraq would require,  if not the partition of Baghdad,  then further huge removal of people from minority groups.

US policy seems to be to try to persuade the Kurds to stay onboard as the 3rd leg of the stool in Iraq,  as Secretary of  State John Kerry,  as well as British Foreign Secretary William Hague,  doubtless argued in recent visits to Irbil.  However, they face the defection of key allies, Turkey, as discussed above, and Israel,  from this position.  And now the president of Iraq's Kurdistan Region has said he is planning to hold a referendum on independence,  the result of which would appear to be a foregone conclusion.

Incidentally,  nobody now seems to remember that Kurdish forces were deployed to Baghdad in early 2007 along with the US surge,  which helped to rescue Iraq from chaos (*).

* See New York Times, 16 Jan 2007 "Top U.S. General in Iraq Says New Plan to Pacify Baghdad May Take Months to Show Results"

Update (3 Jul):
From Jeff Weintraub's post:  
The Turkish spokesman being quoted here expresses anger at the US for having, in his view, "created a Shia bloc to the south of our country."
Of course the US is always to blame, "100% or more",  as one AJE interviewee put it  (Ayad al-Qazzaz of California State University, 28/6).

I subsequently came across this opinion piece from Leslie Gelb in the NYT:  Iraq Must Not Come Apart.  While his suggestion that we should abandon the Syrian opposition and ally with Assad to fight against ISIL I find extraordinary,  what he says about federalism is certainly worth considering.
In 2006, [Joe] Biden and I [..] proposed instead that Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite regions “each be responsible for their own domestic laws, administration and internal security.” Baghdad would be declared a federal zone, and the central government there would be tasked with controlling defense, foreign affairs and the equitable distribution of oil revenues.
Let me offer a strategy that prioritizes fighting the jihadis now and pushes for federalism later. [..] If the jihadis can be halted, then smashed [..] the Iraqis must turn back to politics and the principle of powersharing that they spurned not so long ago. [..] if the Iraqi Humpty Dumpty is to be made whole again, it can be only through a federal power-sharing formula.
Jeff Weintraub (via e-mail): 
Back during the negotiations that led to the 2005 constitutional settlement, the major party representing Shiite Arabs, SCIRI, favored comprehensive regionalized federalism.  The representatives of Sunni Arab political forces were strongly committed to a centralized and unitary political structure--which united the Kurdish and Shiite representatives against them.  But some other Shiite political forces also favored centralization and opposed decentralized federal structures--including the Sadrists and Maliki's Dawa Party.)
Another thing you hear now is that "the Americans imposed a sectarian system on Iraq" (blame the US again).  Jeff's recollection of the period is clearly much more detailed than mine,  but what I recall in broad brush terms is that while it is undoubtedly true that the US imposed various things during the period when Paul Bremer was "viceroy",  in the 2004-5 process of creating a constitution and getting an elected government,  with Ayatollah Sistani (who has recently re-emerged from the shadows) playing an important role,  Iraqis,  as a majority,  got what they wanted.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Syria: the fight against ISIL

The rise and fall of ISIL in Syria, Robin Yassin-Kassab (19/1):
ISIL should not be considered part of the revolutionary opposition. It has fought Free Syrian Army (FSA) divisions as well as Kurdish groups; it has assassinated FSA and more moderate Islamist commanders and abducted revolutionary activists. It serves the regime's agenda by terrifying minority groups, deterring journalists, and influencing the calculations of men like the former US ambassador to Syria Ryan Crocker who wrote (from a deficit of both information and principle, and with stunning short-sightedness): "We need to come to terms with a future that includes Assad - and consider that as bad as he is, there is something worse."
Indeed, many Syrians are convinced that ISIL is an Assad creation, or even a collaborative work of Assad and the great powers. Why else, they ask, does Turkey, a NATO member, make it so easy for foreign militants to cross the border? Why has the regime bombed the schools and marketplaces of Raqqa (a city held by ISIL for half a year), but not the well-known ISIL headquarters?
This alliance of seven leading Islamist factions [the Islamist (or Islamic) Front, fighting against ISIL] was cobbled together last fall, and so far seems much more disciplined, certainly better armed, than the FSA ever was. Its eclipsing of the secular FSA happened not despite Western policy (as many journalists insist on misleadingly describing them as "Western-backed") but because of it. The vanishing of Obama's "red line" and his handing the Syria file over to Putin after the mass Sarin gas attacks of August 2[1], catalysed the Islamist realignment, and probably a burst of Saudi largesse. 
I think I agree with most of this. I should point out though that the anti-ISIL forces do not seem to be doing very well lately (this map is a useful summary) and, as Charles Lister points out, ISIL could be a big nuisance for some time to come, as they are in Iraq

As an update to what I posted, regarding the Latakia massacres last August:
Ahrar al-Sham, the largest organisation in the [Islamist] Front, was implicated by Human Rights Watch in the slaughter in Lattakia province in August 2013 - so far the only documented large-scale massacre of Alawi civilians. The organisation denies involvement. 
That ISIL carries out horrific abuses, that are as bad as the regime's, is well-documented. One of the most-detailed accounts, in a recent article by Isabel Hunter about events in Jarabulus, illustrates both this and the fightback by ISIL:
[..] scenes of medieval violence in Syria's northern border-town [..] Fighting came to a head on January 17, between rebel groups Liwa al-Tawhid Brigade and [ISIL] in the town, when reinforcements arrived from Raqqa and reclaimed the city in a brutal four-hour battle. By nightfall, at least 10 men had been beheaded, their heads mounted on spikes, and more than 1,000 refugees fled the 3kms across the border to Turkey.
It's a shocking turn of events for residents and Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters alike, who just a week ago believed they were hours away from expelling the al-Qaeda group from their city altogether after surrounding the last 40 fighters in the city's cultural centre.

Al-Qaeda's [ISIL's] extreme tactics goes a long way to explain how they have reclaimed much of the territory in northern Syria. Despite being fewer in number than the opposing rebel factions, their use of terror and increasing use of attacks on civilians is winning out. (Al-Qaeda slaughters on Syria's killing fields, 21/1)
The brutality of ISIL in regaining control in some towns in the North seems to exceed even that with which they established control in September (see, for example, events in Azaz).

Update: more (gruesome) details here - La ville syrienne de Jarablus, de la révolution à l’horreur, Cedric Labrousse (21/1).  

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Turkey, Erdogan and the Kurds

Some reflections on the crisis in Turkey.

Turkey is one of the few friends Morsi and the MB have left in the region. Here we might be seeing the collapse or implosion of another Islamist government, but before we cheer too loudly, remember that the alternative could be the return of the "deep state", i.e. the army, which might be some way off in Turkey, but is certainly back with a vengeance in Egypt.

Secondly, Okan Altiparmak and Claire Berlinski (via Jeff Weintraub), on the views of the U.S. Ambassador in January 2004, as revealed by Wikileaks: 
These observations [such as the influence of Islamic brotherhoods and groups (including the followers of Fethullah Gulen)] would, logically, give a rational observer pause, but instead lead Edelman to assert [..] that the AKP is therefore the only party capable of “advancing the U.S. vision of a successful, democratic Turkey integrated into Europe.”
According to this analysis from Yavuz Baydar
the friction started to develop between the two men in 2010. And it has always had to do with two clashing views within the sphere of Islam stemming from the old traditions of Turkey. The first element had to with Erdogan's deviation away from Turkey's European Union membership aspiration. When Gulen, who has been vocal in supporting a civilian constitution, saw delays in the process, his patience grew thin.
Thirdly, the Kurds. In Syria - this is a largely unreported dimension of the war - it seems Turkey will support the most extreme jihadist elements of the opposition fighters, just as long as they fight the Kurds. But it appears that it does this for "Turkish", not "Islamist" reasons. With regard to the Kurds in Turkey itself, Yavuz Baydar argues that this lies at the heart of rift between the AKP and the Gulenists:
 a deep division emerged on Erdogan's choice to conduct the so-called "Kurdish Peace Process". Erdogan's methodology was to negotiate directly with the PKK, both with its leader Abdullah Ocalan, and its "military command" in Iraq's Qandil Mountains.

But, Gulenists, who see the PKK as the main adversary in the mainly Kurdish regions - as the PKK considers them - were discreetly dismayed. They argued reasonably, that Erdogan could and should focus on broader political reform, push for a civilian constitution and grant all the rights the Kurds of Turkey demand, such as recognition of ethnic identity, education in their mother tongue, and endorsement of local governments - without talking to the PKK. This approach, Hizmet's supporters argued, would weaken the PKK, because it would "disarm" the armed movement from all the reasons it continued to wage guerrilla warfare.
Also  Erdogan Agonistes – Is this what a panicked Erdogan looks like? (Michael Koplow)

Update: 2 Jan 2014
I had a quick skim of another opinion piece from Al Jazeera, by Yüksel Sezgin, Erdogan-Gulen-Gul rivalry: All the Sultan's men. From this, it appears purely as a struggle for power (without any great ideological issues).

Jeff Weintraub, in another post, has some comments about the previous piece from Al Jazeera, including
I couldn't help noticing a curious little detail about the photo at the head of Baydar's article [..]  Someone on the Al Jazeera staff (who probably didn't know Turkish and wasn't paying close attention) decided to illustrate this article with a photo of demonstrators from Turkey's Communist Party, carrying posters with pictures of both Erdogan and Gulen and condemning them en bloc.  Some people who do know Turkish were kind enough to help me out with a translation of the slogan on the poster. What it says (roughly) is:  "We will destroy the reign of thieves."

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Thailand, Ukraine, ... Egypt

A bad example can be dangerous.

Kasit Piromya, a former Foreign Minister, who also makes his anti-government views clear here, on Al Jazeera English (2/12 13:33), or Tunisia, and speaks of what The Economist calls "zombie democracy" or majoritarianism. The Economist did indeed have a piece, 22/6, called Zombie democracy, but it references not or Tunisia (let alone ), but Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey.

On the BBC's  "World Have Your Say" somebody says that he is more an expert on rather than , but he sees striking parallels between the two: "you have to make up your mind, do you want democracy or not?" (podcast, 2/12 listen).

In  the protests aim to replace the government with an unelected "People's Council" (  , ). One protester said, "We don't want to dissolve parliament, we don't want new elections because we will lose anyway. We want [the Shinawatra family] to leave the country."

The case against the Shinawatras (Yingluck and Thaksin) seems to boil down to this: that they enacted populist policies to "buy votes". One commenter on Piromya's piece responded, "please, stop insulting your fellow Thai rural poor that they are so stupid and so cheap that they can be so easily bought off with Thaksin money."

seems to be a similar case, he opposition not only have a stronger cause for complaint - President Yanukovych promised to take the country closer to the European Union and then backed away from a trade deal under pressure from Vladimir Putin; they also seemed willing to enter into talks proposed by the speaker of parliament and sought a no-confidence vote against the government (now lost). Their aim seems to be to get the government and president to resign, to be followed by early elections which they are confident of winning. Even if that does not happen, reports indicate that Yanukovych has lost support, which would lessen his chances of reelection in 2015. But the "Orange revolution" opposition is notoriously divided and has rapidly lost popularity once in office.

Not much has been heard so far in this crisis of Viktor Yuschenko. Wikipedia reminds us that Yushchenko gained 5.45% of the vote in the 2010 presidential election and his  party won 1.11% of the vote in the 2012 parliamentary elections; In 2008 his popularity as president plunged to less than 10%.

Yuschenko, along with 2 other former presidents, has now backed the anti-government protests (4/12).

 Updated 6 Dec 2013.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Israel and the Iran deal

If Israel is the loser from the recently concluded interim deal over Iran's nuclear programme, it is because Benjamin Netanyahu has made it so.

Iran will stop enriching uranium beyond 5% and neutralise its stockpile of more highly enriched uranium, either by diluting it to less than 5% or converting it to a form which cannot be further enriched; leave many of its installed centrifuges inoperable; halt work on the construction of its heavy-water reactor at Arak and not attempt to produce plutonium there. As The New York Times concludes, cited by Hamid Dabashi, the deal means that: "Iran retains the technology and material to produce fuel for a weapon for now, [but] the deal adds time to an Iranian nuclear "breakout", [while] Iran will receive some financial relief, but most sanctions will remain."

And yet Netanyahu calls it a disaster. His claim that other countries in the region take the same view as Israel is largely delusional. Saudi agreement with an: 
"The government of the kingdom sees that if there was goodwill, this agreement could represent a preliminary step towards a comprehensive solution to the Iranian nuclear programme," the cabinet said in a statement.
Channel 4 News had a graphic showing just how isolated Israel is (Photo 2).

No doubt Netanyahu will continue to try to get his allies in the US Congress to block the deal. For the first time, I am glad that Barack Obama is in the White House, not John McCain (as regards foreign policy). A couple of Tweets from him:  My stmt today on negotiations with : ( "We therefore urge the [...] Committee to mark up its bipartisan sanctions legislation as soon as possible.”) Must-read on deal: "Worse Than Munich" (

Even Harry's Place has a reasonably balanced post (Not a bad deal, 25/11, cross-post by Marc Goldberg):
The incentives provided to the Iranians are many and particularly difficult to swallow considering how many tens of thousands of innocent civilians their forces have been murdering in Syria and Iraq right now. But the point is they just agreed not to build nuclear weapons.
It's not clear that the Iranian people are happy about the role their forces are playing in Syria. (And, as far as I can see, it's the al Qaeda franchise, the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham, that's doing most of the murdering in Iraq at the moment.)

24 Nov - From : I'm happy that I voted.. I'm satisfied.. Thank you People.

Or, as Hamid Dabashi puts its:
Agency and confidence for future actions are confirmed among the Iranian people whose ballot box option in June's presidential election put into office a president and a foreign minister who are far closer to their aspirations than the previous government.
Meanwhile, Israel gave the go-ahead for some more settlements in the West Bank, that had previously been put on hold while the Iran talks were ongoing. On Al Jazeera, the construction of the settlements (which involves the demolition of some Palestinian  homes) was described as "payback" for the Iran deal (1). 

The trouble with recent actions and statements by the Israeli government is that it gives so much ammunition to Israel's enemies, to those who would question the basis of its existence. Hamid Dabashi again:
The exceptionalism on which Zionists so adamantly insist, in fact works against them - it proves that they are no legitimate sovereign state - that they are what they are: a settler colony.
So called "peace activists", such as Pam Bailey, speak of "the struggle against war in  and ". Ms. Bailey: I don't think you should conflate "struggle against war in Syria" with "struggle against war with Iran".  And, in case you hadn't noticed the war in Syria is still going on.

Also, from Kate Hudson of CND (19/11): "Just two weeks after a vote in the British parliament derailed a United States attack on Syria, the US and Russia were signing an agreement to destroy Syria's chemical weapons. It took just three days of talks in Geneva, between John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov, to arrive at that agreement." Ditto (the war in Syria is still going on).

(1) Mike Hanna on Al Jazeera English,  Newshour, 26/11 13:40 approx.)  Also, "Children wade through raw sewage in Gaza". 

Update: Israeli settlements expand after Iran deal, Mike Hanna from Qaryut, the West Bank, Al Jazeera, uploaded 28/11 10:35.
BBC WS News, 8:00 - deal  Yes !!! 4:57 PM

BBC News -  agrees to curb nuclear activity at Geneva talks -
BBC News - As it happened:  nuclear deal
BBC News -  nuclear deal 'reached' at Geneva talks, James Reynolds 2:37 GMT
BBC News - Analysis:  deal limited but important, Jonathan Marcus: "Netanyahu sees it as a "historic mistake". Others argue that it changes the face of the Middle East: Hyperbole on both counts."

Shifting focus: Impact of  nuclear deal - nuclear deal sparks war of words - 
US and : Seven questions beyond the nuclear deal, Marwan Bishara
The Arabs'  dilemma, Salah Nasrawi
Diplomats strike deal in  talks, Al Jazeera's Jonah Hull reports from Geneva:

ICG (26/11) The Iran Nuclear Accord: First Step in a Long Journey -

The big deal about the Iran nuclear deal, Hamid Dabashi, , updated: 26 Nov, 09:44
AIPAC no match for the 'sleeping giant'
, Pam Bailey
From Iran to Syria: diplomacy, not war, can bear fruit
, Kate Hudson, (19/11)
Update: 27/11 12:01 'This is Iran. Everyone is happy.' Khosrow Soltani: expressions of joy were reported mostly by reformist and moderate newspapers.
(12:11) What does Saudi Arabia want? Shashank Joshi

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Iran: the prize and the key

But the main road-blocks to a deal could be in Washington.

 An Iran deal offers an alluring prize, editorial in The Financial Times, 9/11:
Details of any deal [..] could see temporary curbs on Iran’s uranium enrichment, perhaps in return for the partial unfreezing of Iranian assets abroad seized after the 1979 revolution. [..] It would require only an executive decision by President Barack Obama, enabling him to bypass a US Congress sometimes more alert to Israel’s concerns than US national interest.
The defenders of detente also need to make a convincing case that getting Iran inside the tent can only improve the worst problems of the surrounding region – the Syrian civil war, of course, but also Lebanon, Israel-Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan. If diplomacy is a bit like lock-picking, then this deal has the potential to spring quite a few regional locks, including some that have rusted shut. War with Iran, which Mr Netanyahu all but threatened before Mr Kerry dropped by on his way to Geneva, would fatally convulse a Middle East already close to the limits of turmoil. The Israeli prime minister is right – in the wrong way. Handled right, this could be the deal of the century – not for Iran but for the region as a whole.
From The Guardian: Rouhani's diplomatic progress in Geneva keeps Iran's hardliners at bay:
A Tehran University professor, Sadegh Zibakalam, said by telephone that he anticipated a historic moment in Iran's relationship with the west. "We didn't expect this, but it seems that Rouhani's 'key' is opening many doors and a historic agreement may be under way," he said, referring to the key Rouhani adopted as the symbol of his election campaign.
The Guardian also has this (Iran nuclear deal: Q&A):
The Obama administration would be able to arrange for the unfreezing of Iranian assets without having to go to Congress, but it would still have to convince the Senate not to pass the further raft of sanctions that are currently being prepared. If those were passed, it could derail the deal.
See also White House ambitions on Iran deal face challenge from hawks in Congress:
Congressional distaste for an Iran deal is likely to be fueled by the outright fury to it voiced by Israel's prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an influential figure on Capitol Hill.
And Hawks squawk even before Iran nuclear deal is sealed:
Israel's ill-tempered opposition – even before anything has been formally agreed – looks set to further strain its already tense relations with [Washington]. "Netanyahu unwise to challenge US so openly/dismissively on possible Iran nuclear deal," tweeted Nicholas Burns, a former senior US diplomat. "Netanyahu's outburst was a serious tactical error." [..] It is still hard to imagine, however, that Israel would attack Iran – even if it has the military capability to do so alone – while a prolonged and internationally backed agreement is in place.
Iran nuclear deal hopes rise as foreign ministers fly into Geneva and Iran nuclear negotiations at crucial juncture over Arak reactor.

Going back to The Guardian's Q&A (If a deal is signed, does that mean sanctions work?):
Analysts also argue that the west could have clinched today's deal several years ago, but had used sanctions in an abortive attempt to get Iran to stop enrichment altogether. That bid has clearly failed, as acceptance of Iranian enrichment at some level will have to be a part of any workable long-term agreement.
Update (10 Nov, 00:30): the talks have finished without agreement. France appears to have been the stumbling block. From the initial reactions, there is some resentment towards the French, for example that FM Laurent Fabius was the first to announce the "failure of Geneva"  (tweets from Kim Ghattas and Trita Parsi ‏at 00:12 and 00:30). Talks are to resume on the 20th, but not at such a high level as the last day or so, and again there is the danger that further sanctions imposed by the US Congress could torpedo any deal.

Nuclear Talks With Iran Hit a Snag as France Questions Deal By MARK LANDLER and MICHAEL R. GORDON 4:19 PM ET: " France questioned whether a deal would do enough to curb a nuclear reactor that would produce plutonium, the first sign of division among the major powers negotiating a deal."

Thursday, November 07, 2013

la presse assassinée

Photo: RFI

Ghislaine Dupont, RFI journalist who, with her sound engineer, Claude Verlon, was abducted and murdered in Kidal, Northern Mali on 2 Nov. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb are subsequently reported to have claimed responsibility for this.

Just catching up on this, first from the BBC website then from RFI themseves. As someone who listens to RFI, I remember hearing her reports and I'm really quite shocked.

« Ghislaine, c’était une journaliste chevronnée, un chien renifleur, qui ne se contentait jamais de l’info qu’elle avait. Elle voulait toujours creuser, creuser plus. Et elle partageait cette passion avec nous parce qu’elle nous encourageait à aller toujours plus loin », says Nicolas Champeau.

«la presse assassinée» is the headline from Libération, 4 Nov. 

There's much more, notably Kidal, où règne l'anarchie.

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