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Rime Allaf recaps 20 years of Bashar’s rule


I wrote this thread of 30 tweets on the occasion of Bashar Assad’s ascent to the Syrian throne 20 years ago. Thank you for reading. (For retweets, Twitter link Rime Allaf @rallaf)

20 years ago today, I was at a Damascus hair salon when an assistant rushed to tell us Hafez Assad had died. What I saw and lived in the next days and years is set in stone in my memory. This thread is but a glimpse of life in #Syria then and the slow descent into implosion. /1

Hafez started preparing the ground for 2nd son Bashar in 1994 when original heir Bassel was killed in a car crash. While Bashar’s meteoric rise in army ranks and early public appearances in late 90s prepared people, Hafez was busy clearing regime ranks of potential contenders. /2

Big names Syrians had grown up fearing, from Hekmat Shehabi to dreaded head of intelligence Ali Douba, were officially retired to ensure only the most loyal and least ambitious men stayed. Bashar never had to fight an “old guard” in later years as some clueless media claimed. /3

Within an hour of Hafez’s death, parliament held a special televised session to amend the constitution. In 5 minutes, the required age for the presidency was lowered from 40 to 34, Bashar’s age. We all watched in stunned silence: we expected it, but it was still humiliating. /4

When Bassel died, Hafez Assad forced the entire country to shut down & mourn for 40 days. So when Hafez died, Syrians went into self-preservation mode: within a couple of hours, streets emptied & shops closed, with people at home glued to TVs, trying to interpret developments. /5

Turns out Bashar couldn’t care less if people grieved “the eternal leader” as long as they cheered “the hope” – the cute moniker his folks spread for us to repeat. Bashar was devoid of emotion, even flippant at the funeral, a bit ungrateful considering his hefty inheritance. /6

The formalities of Bashar’s “election” took place the following month, and many would have wanted the story to end with “and we all lived happily ever after” … but we didn’t. To begin with, the personality cult imposed under Hafez paled in comparison to what Bashar demanded. /7

Hafez liked being feared but Bashar was desperate to be admired. Over the years, he sidelined any Syrian personality who came even close to being popular or, God forbid, to outshine the king. Old wooden Baathist dinosaurs are still his core ministers & advisors for a reason. /8

To be admired, Bashar strived to be cool. The rumors about work ethics, love of technology and humble demeanor, the wife, the living quarters, the interviews, the cafes, the modernity, the posters magically appearing “against his will” – all meant to drip with coolness. /9

Before Hafez died, I was one of the first few thousand Syrians to buy a mobile phone. For that privilege, in addition to the cost of the phone (illegal to bring one from abroad) + various fees, I paid $1,200 to Syriatel just to have a number. That’s how Rami became cool too. /10

As portfolio manager of the Assad and Makhlouf clans, Rami was the most visible and most powerful “businessman.” But all the children of the Hafez buddies became the new business people of the Bashar era – not that it’s a feat of entrepreneurship with no competition allowed. /11

The so-called economic opening was merely an erratic crony capitalist economy so a few could live it up. As they watched mounting obscene wealth around them, Syrians were beginning to face rising prices, diminishing means, a dismal housing situation and a transport nightmare. /12

From the start, Bashar claimed the economy would be reformed; if this was reform, imagine the rest. There were a couple of private banks, some media, a few private schools – none of which had an effect on the lives of ordinary Syrians. On the political front, empty words. /13

Some dared to call Bashar’s bluff. In September 2000, 99 brave Syrian intellectuals signed a statement asking him to lift the state of emergency (in place since 1963), free political prisoners, allow freedom of speech … if you know Syria, you know where this is going. /14

Syrians waited for these basic freedoms and rights for an entire decade, and paid dearly for it. While Rami scooped up every possible penny made in or coming into Syria, Bashar was scooping up Syrians who dared to speak out and populating jails with prisoners of conscience. /15

The Damascus Spring, as we call it, turned rapidly into a Damascus Winter. Many old opposition figures who the world discovered in 2011 had been prisoners of conscience for years – under father and then son – for “weakening national sentiment.” Defying Bashar was verboten. /16

Abroad, Bashar played statesman with disastrous effect, giving absurd interviews pontificating on world affairs. A mansplainer of the first order, he tediously denied claims about any action by saying “it’s not logical.” He riled up the US by sending fighters to Iraq … /17

… even though he voted for Resolution 1441 on his Security Council stint, giving the US the unanimity it had sought and the justification it needed to invade Iraq a few months later (Bashar always wants to be wanted, and if that doesn’t work he makes trouble to be noticed). /18

And then there was Lebanon, which he had been messing up since the day he inherited his realm. In 2004, he forced the Lebanese parliament to extend then-president Emile Lahoud for 3 years (unconstitutionally), and in February 2005, with his ever stronger ally Hezbollah, … /19

… he killed Rafic Hariri, setting in motion a sequence of further assassinations and upheaval, and the forced retreat of Syrian soldiers who had been there since the 1970s. When brave Syrians dared to stand with their Lebanese counterparts, he threw them in jail, again. /20

Syrians watched Lebanese protesters publicly insult Bashar, shaking the regime for the first time. That is when the “menhebak” (we love you) posters started appearing, and when the regime began peddling Syrianism (basically, Syria First) to replace Baathist Arabism. /21

After the hasty Lebanon retreat, Bashar promised Syrians big changes were coming. We were not holding our breath, but when he then convened a Baath Party Congress (the first since 2000), some again dared to hope the regime had finally learned its lesson. Silly them. /22

The Congress declared that the economy (officially socialist for people, capitalist for ruling elite) would henceforth be known as a “social market economy,” whatever that means. Poverty continued to rise, the velvet society continued to sip frappuccinos at the Four Seasons. /23

Ostracized by the entire region and the world, Bashar was saved by Hezbollah’s infamous May 2008 assault on Beirut which led to a reconciliation agreement sponsored by Qatar, leading itself to his reintegration into the international community and an invitation to Paris. /24

The bigger Bashar’s head got on a regional level, the more his actions increased Syrian despair and disparity. And when he declared in early 2011 to WSJ that Syria was immune to the Arab spring, the children of Deraa pointed to the naked emperor and wrote: it’s your turn. /25

Syrians endured suffocating hardship over decades of Assad tyranny before they started the revolution – a revolution in every sense of the word. To understand this seemingly sudden unleashing of the free Syrian spirit, you need to know about the decade that preceded it. /26

This thread merely scratches the surface of the trajectory of Bashar Assad and Syria, which I researched for years at Chatham House, and wrote and spoke about in hundreds of articles, talks and interviews. Expertise on Syrian affairs is needed, above all from Syrians. /27

Hafez Assad bequeathed him a hereditary republic; Bashar took this massive trust fund and destroyed it over the course of 20 years, little by little at first through reckless abandon, and then with every weapon of mass terror and destruction. /28

This gluttonous, incompetent, barbaric regime is unreformable, proving repeatedly it will use all means at its disposal to maintain its violent power, 50 years on and counting. Since March 2011, most Syrians have sacrificed everything to liberate themselves, with little help. /29

As the world rethinks its selective commitment to fighting injustice and upholding human rights, after the exposure of horrific crimes on unarmed civilians, it should help Syrians get justice too. For that to happen, Bashar Assad’s 20th anniversary in power must be his last. /30


Assad Henchman: Here’s How We Built ISIS

The Syrian regime’s collusion with the terrorists of the so-called Islamic State goes back a decade.

In his first interview after winning the presidency, Donald Trump hinted that he will shift policy in the Syria conflict from one of support for the moderate opposition to collaboration with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. “Syria is fighting ISIS, and you have to get rid of ISIS,” Trump said. As for the rebels that the U.S. has backed fitfully for the past three years, he said: “We have no idea who these people are.”

But the president-elect appears to be ill-informed about Assad’s key role in the rise of the so-called Islamic State.

This three-part series documents the Syrian dictator’s sinister contributions to this tale of terrorism and horror. First, he tried to ingratiate himself with Western leaders by portraying the national uprising against him as a terrorist-led revolt. When that failed, he released jailed Islamic extremists who’d fought against U.S. troops in Iraq, then staged phony attacks on government facilities, which he blamed on terrorists. Far from fighting ISIS, Assad looked the other way when it set up a state-within-a-state with its capital in Raqqa, and left it to the U.S. and others to counter the Islamic extremists.

ISTANBUL—After spending a month in an Aleppo prison at the start of the Syrian uprising, political activist Abdullah Hakawati thought he knew what to expect when Bashar al-Assad’s military intelligence arrested him for a second time in September 2011.

He was hanged by his hands for four days. They beat him with clubs and iron bars, and used electric prods on his genitals, he says. Then came the surprise: After a staged trial and a conviction for terrorism, he was sentenced to a lockup where his cellmates were hardcore al Qaeda veterans, newly transferred from Syria’s political prisons.

“It was the first time I saw someone from the al Qaeda movement face to face,” said Hakawati, an actor who’d played the lead role in an anti-regime play that spring and had helped organize demonstrations in Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city. “They threatened to slaughter me because I’m an atheist and I do not pray.”

After weeks in the same cell with the al Qaeda veterans, who were “practically the managers of the prison,” five of Hakawati’s colleagues joined the extremists, many later taking up arms against Assad.

Mixing civic activists with al Qaeda veterans was no accident.

The Syrian president had alleged that armed terrorists had led the national uprising in 2011, which seemed preposterous at the time. So Assad used his security apparatus to make the reality match his propaganda. Claiming to be the victim of extremism, he in fact played the principal enabling role in its rise in the region, a two-year investigation by The Daily Beast shows. The scene at Aleppo Central Prison was part of a concerted effort to radicalize and discredit the nationwide revolt.

As President-elect Donald Trump weighs closer military cooperation with the Assad regime in fighting ISIS, the story of Assad’s role in the rise of the so-called Islamic State could come home to haunt him. Critics say that any U.S. collaboration with Assad or his Russian protectors will backfire, leaving the Syrian leader in power as he continues to play his long-running double game with terrorists.

John Kerry, the outgoing secretary of state, said in November 2015 that ISIS “was created by Assad” and by former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, both of whom released al Qaeda prisoners in their respective countries. Assad’s aim was to tell the world, “It’s me or the terrorists.”

This series charts Assad’s major role in the rise of Islamic extremism from the inside. Based on exclusive interviews with high-level defectors from the regime’s security apparatus, it sheds new light on key decisions—like sending volunteers to fight the U.S. occupation of Iraq, which helped establish the forerunner of the Islamic State, releasing more than 1,000 former al Qaeda militants from Syrian prisons in 2011, and rarely fighting the Islamic State militants.

It also reveals how:

— the regime likely staged bombings of its own security facilities in 2011 and 2012 to foster the impression that al Qaeda had an armed presence in Syria long before it did.

— Syrian intelligence received orders to stand by when al Qaeda fighters crossed from Iraq into Syria in 2012.

— Syrian intelligence has penetrated the leadership of extremist jihadist groups and at critical moments can influence their operations.

Remarkably, several high-level former Syrian security officials who spoke on the record with this reporter said that U.S. intelligence agencies never debriefed them. The ex-officials viewed this as a major lapse, not only because they were privy to, and complicit in, the inner workings of Assad’s role in organizing a terrorist insurgency against U.S. forces in Iraq, but also because they were well-placed to advise on the establishment of a new state security apparatus should Assad’s police state collapse or be overthrown.

The Obama administration apparently wasn’t interested. A former top U.S. diplomat said the CIA had little interest in Syrian defectors and debriefed them only if the diplomat insisted.

The CIA declined to comment but did not dispute the validity of the question. “I looked into this, and there is nothing we can add,” a spokeswoman said.


Assad’s relations with the jihadists traces back to the seminal role his regime played in helping foment the Iraqi insurgency following the U.S. invasion in 2003.

A trove of al Qaeda personnel records uncovered by U.S. forces in 2007 in the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar showed that more than 600 fighters from Saudi Arabia, Libya, and other Muslim countries had crossed into Iraq from Syria between August 2006 and August 2007. “It is almost inconceivable that Syrian intelligence has not tried to penetrate these networks,” a report by the West Point Combating Terrorism Center (PDF) stated in 2008.

Internal State Department cables released by WikiLeaks confirm that the U.S. had intelligence showing that almost all foreign al Qaeda volunteers entered Iraq via Syria and that Assad and his top aides were fully aware. In 2010, they acknowledged as much to visiting U.S. officials, a WikiLeaks cable showed. “In principle, we don’t attack or kill them immediately,” Gen. Ali Mamluk, now Assad’s top intelligence advisor, said of al Qaeda operatives. “Instead, we embed ourselves in them, and only at the opportune moment do we move.” Mamluk offered cooperation in arresting terrorists in exchange if the U.S. would ease economic and travel sanctions.

But that’s only the half of it. Defected Syrian intelligence officials and former volunteers said the regime encouraged Syrians to volunteer for the anti-American jihadist, and thousands did.

“Syria wanted to prolong the Iraq war and the attacks on U.S. forces, so that the Americans couldn’t come into Syria,” said Anas al-Rajab, a former Islamist from Hama province who fought in Iraq and then, on returning to Syria, served two brief terms in prisons run by the Syrian mukhabarat, or intelligence services.

Mahmud al-Naser, a defected Syrian intelligence officer interviewed for this series, said the mukhabarat estimated 20,000 people crossed into Iraq as the U.S. began its attack in March 2003, but most returned immediately after the fall of Baghdad three weeks later.

But another 5,000 crossed for reasons of religious ideology—and they “are what gave birth to the monster” that now dominates much of Iraq and Syria, said Naser, the former head of political party affairs at the Syrian intelligence station in Ra’s al Ein, in northern Syria.

Naser now works with Syrian émigré lawyers in a major city in southern Turkey collecting data on alleged regime war crimes. Following an introduction by those lawyers, Naser sat down for seven hours of questioning over three sessions this past spring.

Like other security defectors interviewed for this series, several of whom were at general officer rank, Naser said U.S. intelligence had never debriefed him.

“We in Syria intelligence opened all the doors for [the jihadists] to go to Iraq,” he said.

That view is widely held in the region.

“The Syrian government made an enormous mistake in 2003,” said Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government in a recent interview with The Daily Beast at his military headquarters in Suheil, in the far north of Iraq’s Kurdistan region, near the Syrian and Turkish borders. “They opened the door to terrorists in order to put pressure on the American troops in Iraq so they wouldn’t even think of war (against Syria).”

The regime has “of course a very great responsibility” for what has occurred. “Out of that came al Qaeda in Iraq, then Daesh, and the extremists who have spread around Syria. That is the result today.” (Daesh is the Arabic pejorative term for ISIS.)

Volunteers joined the battle knowingly.

Many underwent training and indoctrination, overseen by the Syrian intelligence services, before their departure. One of the best-known figures in the indoctrination operation was Mahmud al-Aghasi, known as Abu al-Qaqa’a, a Muslim cleric in Aleppo, whose al Tawabbin mosque was a recruiting center for Salafists heading to Iraq.

The cleric would stage marches from his mosque to the city center and lead the chant: “We are going to slaughter the Americans,” said Bassam Barabandi, a former Syrian diplomat who now lives in Washington.

“He would give guarantees that foreign fighters would have no problems if they came,” Barabandi said. It was clear he had a top-level sponsor. “He could not function in a police state like Syria without very high-level approval,” he said.”

Barabandi also was never asked for his insights. ”Nobody ever debriefed me,” he told The Daily Beast. “I took the initiative and contacted friends at the State Department, and we had a lunch or dinner. That was it.”

In fact, Syrian intelligence had recruited imams as agents during their study of Sharia at university facilities.

“We commissioned some of the imams who work for Syrian intelligence. Abu al-Qaqa’a was only one of dozens,” said Naser.

Raed Ilawy, an Islamist recruit from Hama, was among the Syrians who traveled to the mosque. Some of the trainers, he recalled in an interview at an Istanbul café, came from Assad’s intelligence services, and some accompanied them to the Iraqi border in what the recruits called “Bashar Assad caravans.”

The Syrian government was kept informed throughout, said Awad al-Ali, a former general in Assad’s police apparatus. Abu al-Qaqa’a, who was assassinated in 2007, possibly by the mukhabarat, also provided Assad’s intelligence services with lists of names of those who’d been trained.

Syrian intelligence “kept a census” of those who left, because on their return, “everyone would be followed” by the Department of Religious Intelligence in the Management of General Intelligence, one of Assad’s numerous spying agencies, said Naser.

About one quarter never came back, either joining al Qaeda in Iraq or dying in battle, he said. Of those who returned, about 1,500 were viewed as Islamists arrested as arrested on terrorism-related charges.


Sednaya, north of Damascus, is Syria’s most notorious political prison. Diab Serriya, a civic activist who served five years in Sednaya, and was released in 2011, said the number of Islamic fundamentalists imprisoned with him rose from about 300 when he arrived in 2006 to some 900 when he was released. Almost all had seen time fighting in Iraq against the American occupation, almost all were Salafist-jihadists, or hardline violent Islamists, and most were sentenced from five to 15 years for terrorist activities or association with terror groups, he said. Serriya was interviewed in late 2014 after delivering a speech about his experiences before a Syrian cultural club in Istanbul.

Sednaya was not a site for correction and rehabilitation but functioned as an incubator for jihadism, according to former prisoners and intelligence defectors. Some former detainees called it a “five star” prison.

According to former intelligence officials and prisoners, detainees were sorted according to their ideology. Two cellblocks were reserved for the most extreme Islamists, many of whom are now in leadership positions in ISIS. Two were reserved for less extreme Islamists, many of whom are now in the al Qaeda affiliate formerly known as Jabhat al Nusra, and three for more moderate Islamists, many of whom wound up in another prominent Syrian Islamist faction known as Ahrar al Sham. The other three were occupied by moderate Islamists and “democrats” such as Serriya.

The religious fundamentalists organized as if in a caliphate, with groups pledging loyalty to emirs, just as extremist Islamist groups do today, he said.

They wrote slogans on the walls, setting out their goals upon their release, Serriya said. “Some even had the illusion that upon their release, they would go straight to Damascus and establish a caliphate there,” he said.

When the Syrian uprising began in mid-March 2011, Assad began releasing religious extremists from Sednaya.

The regime said it was a response to activists’ demands to free political prisoners. U.S. intelligence officials, who spoke on background, offer a similar explanation. But sending known al Qaeda extremists into a country seething with unrest was also a cynical ploy to use extremists to further his political ends, according to Naser.

“The reason the regime released them at the beginning of the Syrian revolution was to complete the militarization of the uprising,” said Naser, who defected in late 2012, “and to spur criminal acts so that revolution would become a criminal case and give the impression that the regime is fighting terrorists.”

Syrian intelligence formed links in prison with the extremists, allowing them closely to track their rise in the rebel movement, according to Serriya, al-Ali, and former intelligence officials. “Every extremist group is penetrated by the regime,” Serriya said.

The regime not only had penetrated the networks but often ran them. That was by design. As Gen. Ali Mamluk told U.S. officials in 2010, the regime as a practice would “embed ourselves” among Islamic extremists in order to turn on them later. Mamluk is currently Assad’s senior intelligence adviser.

Nabeel Dendal, former director of political intelligence in Latakia, the Assad family’s ancestral home, said he twice led security forces in raids on al Qaeda cells, only to learn that the cell leader he was working for was supported by the Syrian intelligence.

“They were preparing them to be leaders,” the defected colonel said, referring to the Assad regime. An example is Nadim Baloush, an al Qaeda cell leader he arrested in Latakia in 2006, and told him “don’t do anything. I am working for Assef Shawkat,” Assad’s brother-in-law who served as the deputy defense minister. Baloush was arrested after he traveled to Turkey about a year ago and is reported to have committed suicide in prison.

Dendal was introduced to this reporter by a former regime judge from Aleppo who deserted to the opposition. Interviewed in a café in Istanbul’s popular Fatih district, which is now packed with Syrian refugees, he estimated that half the commanders in ISIS are working with the regime today; other defectors from the security sector say it’s about one third. According to Naser, most of the top commanders of Daesh in Raqqa are linked with Syrian intelligence.

Certainly in Aleppo’s Central Prison, the extremists had a “very smooth” relationship with their guards, in contrast with the civil prisoners, who had no privileges at all, civil protester Abdullah Hakawati said.

There were six inmates from Sednaya, and others from other major political prisons, Tadmor (in the ancient city of Palmyra), the Palestine Branch and “291”—altogether 15 al Qaeda members in the cell at Aleppo Central Prison with 15 civic activists such as Hakawati.

The al Qaeda members had privileges, Hakawati remembers, including smartphones, access to the internet, freedom to grow beards and dress in the Afghan-style shalwar kameez, and to order carry-in meals. They held daily religious lessons and prayed for the health of al Qaeda leaders. Hakawati said that while in the prison, he heard “one complete speech by Bin Laden,” who’d been killed by U.S. forces a few months earlier.

If a civil activist ran afoul of the authorities, al Qaeda members stepped in to protect him.

“They were practically the managers of the prison,” Hakawati said. “It was a paradise for them.” And after several weeks with them, five of his colleagues joined the extremists.

Hakawati recounted the time that the prison warden, a general, sat with all the prisoners. “On that day, one of the al Qaeda prisoners, Mahmoud Manigani said to the general, ‘When I am released, on the second day, I will kill you.’” The general responded: “This is something only you can decide.”

But when a civic activist complained that the food was inadequate, the warden threatened: “Would you like me to play with your testicles?”

The relationship between the civic activists and the extremists could be hostile. Hakawati recalled that after a long philosophical discussion with Manigani about the meaning of God, the Islamist beat him up. But not every encounter was hostile. One jihadist thanked Hakawati for helping organize the popular uprising. “It’s due to your demonstrations that we are all comfortable now,” he said.

Former Sednaya prisoners took top positions in Islamist forces. For example, Abu Lukman, one of the founders of Syrian al Qaeda branch Jabhat al Nusra, is now the emir, or administrator, of Raqqa. Mahmoud al-Khalif, another Sednaya graduate, works in the security area and Haj Fadel al-Agal is responsible for social relations. One former prisoner, Abu Abdulrahman al-Hamwi, is the emir of Nusra in Hama province. Other leaders include Abu Naser Drusha, a cousin of Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, the founder and principal leader of Nusra, Abu Hussien Zeniah, now in charge of Nusra operations in Qalamoun area near Damascus, and Abu Hafs al-Kiswani, a Nusra commander in Dara’a, southern Syria.

A Sednaya “sheikh” heads the Syrian Islamic Front, an umbrella group for Islamist fighters not affiliated with al Qaeda, and others became leaders of lesser Islamist groups, including Zahran Alloush, who led the Islamist faction Jaysh al Islam until he was killed in a Russian airstrike last Christmas, and Ahmed Issa al-Sheikh, leader of another rebel group, Suqoor al Sham.

Hassan Abboud, who founded Ahrar al Sham, the largest Islamist fighting group in Syria, also served time at Sednaya and was released during the demonstrations. Abboud was killed along with most of Ahrar al Sham’s leadership in a mysterious explosion in September.

They rose rapidly to leadership positions, said al-Ali. Having spent time at Sednaya was the equivalent of a graduate degree with honors. “If someone is a ‘graduate’ of Sednaya, he is indisputably a ‘Sheikh,’” he said. “People will say ‘he paid a high price’ serving in Sednaya.”

Syria’s intelligence apparatus was the big winner. With intimate knowledge of all the ex-detainees, it had a file on every one of them and was positioned to maintain its contacts with them.

Civil activists see those releases as part of Assad’s plan to ruin the revolution.

And it worked, activist Diab Serriya said. “The regime was very successful in distorting the image of the revolution,” said Serriya. “Now the battle is portrayed as being between the secular regime and extremist Islamic groups.”

—with additional reporting by Mousab Alhamadee


Is Assad Delusional?

Photo: A vehicle drives near a road sign that shows the direction to the historic city of Palmyra in this picture provided by SANA on March 24, 2016. REUTERS/SANA/Handout via Reuters

In a matter of months, Bashar Assad’s reading of the Syrian war was transformed. In a June 7 speech to Syria’s Parliament, he vowed to retake “every inch” of Syria, dismissing negotiations with the opposition as a trap. In contrast, less than a year ago in July 2015, Assad gave a very different speech. Then, having lost a great deal of territory to the insurgency, he admitted his forces had to cede some areas of Syria to save more important ones. US State Department spokesperson Mark Toner said Assad’s latest speech “[showed] once again how delusional, detached, and unfit he is to lead the Syrian people.” Unfit he may be, but is Assad misreading his situation so severely? What did his speech reveal about his calculations and prospects in Syria?

The single most significant military development between the two speeches is Russia’s entry into the war. Russian air power, artillery, and training helped stabilize key frontlines near the Alawite heartland in northwest Syria. Aided by Iranian forces, Russia nearly destroyed the rebels in critical Aleppo province, weakened the insurgency around Damascus, and halted a rebel offensive in the south. The resulting respite allowed the regime to finally attack the Islamic State (ISIS) in earnest, retaking the strategic city of Palmyra and advancing on Tabqa. Capturing the latter would place regime forces within an hour’s drive from ISIS’s capital in Raqqa city, possibly beating Kurdish and Arab forces to the claim of destroying the ‘caliphate.’

Thus, Assad’s strategic situation improved dramatically between speeches, without his making any serious concession to either his foreign patrons or Syrian rivals. Fighting ISIS might convince foreign governments to embrace or at least tolerate him as a partner against terrorism. It also makes the United States a de facto partner in that effort, since US policy is to fight ISIS but not the regime. Presently the groups succeeding most against ISIS are the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a handful of increasingly-beleaguered insurgent groups in Aleppo province, and now the regime. The United States is allied to the first, ambivalent toward the second, and will tolerate the third.

Of course, Assad is a long way from winning the war. The insurgency remainsadaptable and dangerous in key geographies. Assad still does not control all or even the majority of Syria. Rebels are particularly strong in Idlib, but are also a significant force in southern Syria and Damascus suburbs. The regime will struggle to uproot an entrenched ISIS from Raqqa and Deir al Zour cities as well, especially if the anti-regime insurgency remains active elsewhere. These challenges, as well as limited manpower and resources, a destroyed economy, and a deeply aggrieved population, do seem to indicate that Assad might be out of touch.

It is indeed difficult to imagine the regime ruling over all of Syria, and if Assad truly believes this will happen he is likely mistaken. Less delusional however is his nearer goal of ending the insurgency as a strategic threat to his regime. For this to happen, insurgent supply lines would have to be severed; foreign rivals distracted, divided, or deterred; major pro-opposition areas depopulated; and at least one generation of largely-Sunni Arab Syrians terrorized into submission. Additionally, at least one capable foreign patron would need to stay committed to the regime’s survival, and face no decisive international resistance or competition. This summarization is of course a good approximation of today’s realities. The opposition is not beaten yet, but it will be unless both the rebels and their backers shift their strategy dramatically.

Assad is not the only or even the strongest actor in the pro-regime coalition of course. Iran and Russia saved the regime from defeat, and are still responsible for its survival. Iran and Hezbollah presumably do not want to maintain an expeditionary force in Syria until Assad reconquers the entire country. Russia is in Syria only to break the opposition’s will and force it to make terms with Assad, not reconquer the country for him. These differences explain Mr. Toner’s statement that “[The United States] still believe[s] that Russia, and Iran can at least appeal to those in the regime who still have influence on him to refrain from letting this political process, this cessation of hostilities, fall completely apart.”

One would think Assad’s reliance on Iran and Russia would prevent him from dictating the mission or strategy to either, seeing as his forces can neither take nor hold territory without their support. Oddly enough however, Assad seems to be doing exactly that. For example, Russian air power led to a cessation of hostilities early this year that favored the regime. This began a political process that, while stacked against the opposition, nonetheless served Russian interests by creating a vehicle for translating the regime’s military gains into political ones. Yet Assad’s forces simply ignored the ceasefire, along with Russian commitments to facilitate humanitarian aid flows to besieged populations.

Even as Russia presents a limited agenda (a pro-Assad one, to be sure) with narrow goals, Assad’s statements and his forces’ actions confirm his maximalist aspirations to reconquer Syria. Differences are real enough that on at least one occasion, Russian air support appeared to waiver amid regime overreach in Aleppo. Yet this support always resumes when the regime’s position appears in danger. Russia does not believe Assad can win Syria, but it cannot allow him to lose the war either. The practical result for Assad is the same: he does not need to budge on his goals. 

Assad—weaker than both Iran and Russia—seems to play a spoiler role in the regime coalition, and perhaps a leading role in a sense. The most likely explanation for this is that Iran and, to a lesser degree, Russia simply cannot allow Assad to fall, lest their regional security architecture collapse with him. By pushing harder and farther in the war, Assad does raise the costs and risks to his allies. However, by placing his own forces in danger, he compels his patrons to back him up or risk losing what is, after all, also their war. Thus, the often-cited gaps between the positions of Assad, Iran, and Russia are analytically interesting but, at this stage of the war, not decisive or policy-relevant. 

The Assad regime is probably not going to rule all of Syria again. On this point, Assad is both overestimating his capabilities and underestimating much of the population’s hatred for him. Per Mr. Toner’s remarks, he is certainly unfit to lead the Syrian people, but local, regional, and international realities show he is not losing the war on the insurgency, and he is not at a stalemate either. The Assad-Iran-Russia coalition is on course to ending the rebellion as a strategic threat to regime survival. The delusion is not Assad’s confidence, but the belief that his deep dependence on foreign patrons doom him to failure. They will not and cannot deliver all of Syria to him, but without foreign intervention on the opposition’s side they may well deliver enough of it.

Faysal Itani is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

see also Assad is a delusional madman: Khalid Khoja

Assad’s Strategy Is To Create Refugees

“They want to empty the country.”

Refugees wait at a bus terminal in Istanbul. Ahmet Sik / Getty Images

ISTANBUL — The 53-year-old father of two was convinced that Bashar al-Assad wanted him to flee Syria.

More than two years after he buried the bodies from a massacre in his village near Damascus by forces loyal to the Syrian president, he sat in an Istanbul park alongside dozens of other refugees, waiting with their life jackets to make the journey to Europe by sea.

“They want to empty the country,” he said, sitting with his wife and two children as he described how government soldiers had bombed the village of Jdeidet al-Fadel and then executed residents in their homes, suspecting them of rebel sympathies. Some, he said, were “beheaded like chickens.” After helping with the burials, he snuck his family into Turkey.

The refugee crisis isn’t just a by-product of the brutal civil war in Syria, according to many of those fleeing, as well as Western officials and analysts tracking the conflict. It’s part of a concerted effort by the Syrian government, which has killed the vast majority of civilians in a war that has left more than 200,000 people dead.

Assad has lost control over more than three-quarters of the country, and targeting civilians in those areas has been part of his strategy from the start of the four-year-old civil war. His forces work to make opposition-held areas unlivable for rebels and civilians alike — a tactic guaranteed to create masses of refugees. “The rationale behind [the government’s military] strategies is to leave no other choice to the populations: Either you come back to us and recognize our authority, or you will die,” said Pierre Desbareau, the emergency coordinator for Syria at Doctors Without Borders. “In many besieged zones, you really can see the level of brutality rising year after year. So, at the end there is no choice for the population in opposition areas. They have to leave the country.”

A city block in Aleppo destroyed by government bombings. Provided by Melad Shehabi

International attention on the conflict has focused on ISIS ever since it surged to prominence last summer, overrunning cities in Iraq and Syria and beheading Western journalists. ISIS is also the priority for the U.S., which is fighting the militants with airstrikes. Yet as refugees, most of them Syrian, pour into Europe in a growing humanitarian crisis, it’s Assad’s forces who have done the most to fuel the exodus. Refugees heading to Europe and the smugglers who send them — as well as Western officials and analysts — say the human tide promises to persist as long as the Syrian government continues attacking civilians.

“This is about the only reason for the refugees,” said a smuggler in Istanbul, who spoke on condition of anonymity because his work is illegal. Based in the refugee-crowded neighborhood of Aksaray, he guessed that 90% of the thousands of Syrians he’d sent to Europe were fleeing Assad. He’d arranged the journey for many of those huddled in the park on Tuesday night. Some were recent arrivals in Turkey, which hosts 2 million Syrians. Others were long-term refugees who had lost hope in the idea of returning home. Buses idled nearby. They are packed nightly with refugees before driving to the port city of Izmir, where the refugees board boats bound for Greece. “It will never end,” the smuggler said, his three cell phones ringing relentlessly with business calls. “People will keep trying to get out.”

“As long as Assad is in power and he continues to use these tactics, more and more refugees will be created.”

The Obama administration recognizes that Assad’s war efforts are driving the refugee crisis. “It’s fair to say that the regime is likely using indiscriminate attacks to make it very difficult for people to live in opposition-controlled areas,” said an official with the U.S. State Department, who declined to be named discussing the subject. “As long as Assad is in power and he continues to use these tactics, more and more refugees will be created.”

Yet the refugee issue is unlikely to change U.S. policy toward Assad, which has centered from the start on modest support for carefully selected rebel groups and strongly worded critiques. “The way it’s been teed up for the American public is that we’re not supposed to care and it doesn’t concern us,” said Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The attacks on civilians continue: airstrikes against schools and markets, barrel bombs dropped from helicopters onto hospitals and homes, artillery barrages, sieges that choke off access and food to opposition-held areas, massacres like the one witnessed by the man on the park bench.

Destruction from government attacks in the province of Idlib. Provided by a resident, Abdulkader al-Husain

Assad’s attacks on civilians play into the sectarian war raging in Syria and across the Middle East, Tabler added. Assad’s government is dominated by the country’s Alawite religious minority, which is an offshoot of Shiite Islam. It is propped up today by its Shiite ally in Iran, as well as Russia.

Most Syrian refugees are from the country’s Sunni majority, often hailing from areas that have slipped out of Assad’s control. “That’s his intention: to move Sunnis from those areas and fortify his state,” Tabler said. “The more Assad holds on, the more he strikes civilian areas, and the more refugees we have.”

In a recent interview with Russian media, Assad blamed the West for the refugee crisis, citing its support for the opposition.

According to the U.N., there are now more than 4 million Syrian refugees, the bulk of them based in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. Desbareau, of Doctors Without Borders, said that many are giving up on going home — and leaving their overburdened host countries in hopes of starting fresh in Europe. “It’s endless violence inside and no sign of a peace agreement, so they’re saying there is no way they will come back to the country,” he said. “And they’re in these camps for sometimes three or four years, with tensions around them from hosting populations that are saturated, and [they’re seeing] no future for their kids.”

In February 2014, the U.N. Security Council adopted a new resolution to increase humanitarian access in Syria and stop indiscriminate attacks. The government has ramped up its sieges on opposition-held areas since then, Despareau said, and its attacks on besieged zones have become “even worse.” Doctors Without Borders estimates that there are about 2 million people living under siege in Syria, he added, “and the level of intensity of bombing they are facing is just incredible.”

A video showing the destruction of Aleppo, mostly from government attacks, filmed by Syrian photographer Melad Shehabi. Via YouTube

In interviews from Syria — speaking by cell phone, Facebook, and Skype — civilian residents described Syrian government attacks.

In the northern province of Idlib, Abdulkader al-Husain, 28, said he was visiting his sister on Sept. 1 when he heard a helicopter hovering overhead. Then the ground shook under his feet as he heard an explosion “like the sound of the god of death.” The chopper had dropped a barrel bomb, a crude and indiscriminate explosive. Husain ran outside to see blood and bodies in the street.

There were five civilians killed and 20 wounded, he said, adding that more than two-thirds of the village had already fled as refugees due to constant government attacks. “The regime is trying to take revenge on the cities and villages that came out against him,” he said. “The strikes are almost daily.”

Yamma al-Sayed, 21, a journalist with an opposition TV station based in the Damascus suburb of Douma, said he had seen three massacres in just the last month. The first was a notorious incident on Aug. 16, in which the government bombed a marketplace, killing more than 100 people, according to Human Rights Watch. “Most of them were women, children and the elderly, trying to secure food for their families,” he said. “I saw people turned into pieces.” Six days later the government attacked an apartment building, Sayed said, and two days after that airstrikes killed another 10 civilians in their homes.

The aftermath of a government bombing in the coastal province of Latakia, provided to BuzzFeed News by a local photographer.

In the southern city of Daraa, a young mother said her home had been destroyed this summer over the course of “daily” government attacks; a freelance photographer from the coastal province of Latakia recounted pulling bodies from the rubble of a market bombing last month. Melad Shehabi, 26, said the last bombing he witnessed in Aleppo came on Tuesday, when the government fired a rocket into an apartment building, killing four people and wounding 15. “It’s a scorched-earth policy,” he said.

The director of a hospital in the central province of Hama, Hassan al-Araj, said the latest attack on his village came on Wednesday, when four barrel bombs destroyed three homes. “The goal of the regime is displacement,” he said. “People are waiting for death.”

Mike Giglio is a correspondent for BuzzFeed News based in Istanbul. He has reported on the wars in Syria and Ukraine and unrest around the Middle East. His secure PGP fingerprint is 13F2 AD33 403F E72E 7C4E 5584 3E3B 2497 EEE9 DF7A
Contact Mike Giglio at
Munther al-Awad is a journalist based in Istanbul.
Contact Munzer al-Awad at

The ‘Afghanization’ of Syria: A Fallacy

In 2011 Assad gave an interview to a Western journalist in which he made the following statement:

Syria is the hub now in this region. It is the fault line, and if you play with the ground you will cause an earthquake … Do you want to see another Afghanistan, or tens of Afghanistans?

Since then there has been a growing narrative which not only blames the West for the instability that we see in Afghanistan today, but which equates Western support for Syrian rebels, especially the Free Syrian Army under General Salim Idriss, as akin to the support given to the Afghan mujahideen during the eighties.

This is wrong. Those who draw comparisons between Afghanistan and Syria in order to discourage foreign intervention in the latter are either ignorant or conveniently ignore a very important fact – it was the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union in 1979 which caused the disintegration of the Afghan state today, and it is the Russian (along with Iranian) support of Assad today that is leading to the disintegration of Syria.
Lessons from History

Most people today look at Afghanistan as some formless mess. Somehow the arming of the mujahideen during the eighties led to the formation of al Qaeda and then we had 9/11 and after that the world went crazy. There is nothing factually wrong with that narrative, and states, like people, do make mistakes, however, it is conveniently missing one crucial element – what were the Soviets doing in Afghanistan in the first place?

In 1979 the Soviets overthrew the then ruler of Afghanistan, Hafizullah Amin, for fears that he might have been moving the country away from the Soviet orbit. Amin had previously deposed his opponent, Nur Mohammad Taraki, who had been staunchly pro-Soviet but whose policies were causing widespread unrest and rebellion in the country. Though they were both members of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, the country’s main Marxist opposition before the toppling of Muhammad Daoud Khan’s government in 1978, the Soviets did not think Amin was reliable enough. On October 31st 1979 the Soviet Union launched a series of coordinated attacks, landing their troops in Kabul, to ouster and eventually kill Amin.

A government under a former Afghan diplomat to Czechoslovakia, Babrak Karmal, was formed, but he could not control the country and came to rely on the Soviet troop presence almost entirely owing to the desertion of large parts of the Afghan army. Although the mutinying Afghan military units were quickly crushed owing to Soviet airpower and ground troops, resistance continued in the country against this occupation. By the start of the eighties the Soviet Union was controlling the urban parts of Afghanistan but could not control the countryside.

In order to subdue the population, a deliberate Soviet strategy was pursued to utterly decimate villages and rural areas that were outside their control. Afghans that did not flee were killed by Soviet aerial attacks, ground assaults, and bombardments of these civilian areas. In total it is estimated that about 1.5 million Afghans died during this conflict.

When the West, as well as China and Muslim countries like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, provided support to the loosely organized mujahideen, it was in reaction to this ongoing national trauma that the Afghans were enduring.

Anybody who reads about the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and its aftermath will quickly note parallels with Russia’s involvement in Syria today. There are even stark similarities to the way Assad’s army is dealing with the Syrian revolution. This is hardly surprising owing to the fact that Syria’s army, like that of most Middle Eastern potentates, relies heavily on Soviet and Russian military tactics and training, as well as weapons.In Syria today large swathes of the country that are outside the regime’s control are rendered uninhabitable and indiscriminate attacks on civilian centres have resulted not only in massive casualties but an enormous refugee problem.

Continued Russian assistance and diplomatic cover for Assad’s brutalization of the Syrian people, and with the direct support of Iran and the Shiite militia Hezbullah, parallels with the Soviet Union’s meddling in Afghan affairs over three decades ago.
Granted, the instability in Afghanistan resulted in the rise of the Taliban and al Qaeda, but it is disingenuous to suggest that the West created these monsters to defeat Communism and then forgot about them. Arguably, the real mistake of the West in Afghanistan was not that stinger missiles were given to the Afghan mujahideen, but that the mujahideen were left alone to pick up the pieces of the Soviet invasion of their country. They were abandoned, and when the ferocious Taliban arose to take over the country in 1992 they strung up the country’s president, Muhammad Najibullah, from a lamp post. Ironically Najibullah had himself been a member of the PDPA and would later become the head of the Afghan equivalent of the secret police.  His death marked the final nail in the coffin for the Soviet Union’s adventure in Afghanistan, but the final dismemberment of the Afghan mujahideen that had fought the Soviet Union’s occupation happened on the eve of 9/11, when the Taliban assassinated the charismatic Ahmed Shah Masoud.

Shah Masoud was an engineering graduate from Kabul university who rose to prominence fighting against the Soviet Union and who rejected the Taliban’s strict interpretation of Islam. People today ignorantly equate the mujahideen who fought the Soviets with the Taliban, ignoring the fact that the remnants of the mujahideen were themselves targeted by the Taliban and eventually destroyed. If anything, we can see in Masoud’s death a severance with an Afghanistan that was a normal country, and its final descent into the madness we now see it in.

Rather than helping the mujahideen that had fought the Soviet Union to a standstill to consolidate and help in maintaining the cohesion of the country, the West left them to their own devices. The abandonment of Afghanistan by the West following the Soviet withdrawal also created the vacuum that allowed the “Afghan Arabs” to coagulate into al Qaeda, and from here the rest of the story is known.

The death of Ahmed Shah Masoud is highly symbolic because it marked the  severance of Afghanistan from its “normal” past, a time when the country had functioning universities and government structures. We have not reached that point yet in Syria, but if Assad is allowed to continue his scorched earth policy, a policy inspired directly by the Soviet treatment of Afghanistan, then that link will be broken. Eventually Syria will run out of university graduates and defected professional soldiers willing to lead its rebellion, and we will reach a stage where we have angry religious men who cannot read continuing to fight for reasons they can no longer remember.
It was the Soviet Union which bore the ultimate responsibility for meddling in Afghan affairs, and for creating the conditions that allowed the Taliban to rise to power. Today Russia is doing the exact same thing when it meddles with Syria by aiding its dictator in crushing a popular rebellion and brutalizing the Syrian people.

Assad is responsible for the worst humanitarian crisis since the Cold War and he cannot be allowed to continue destroying the country with Russian and Iranian assistance. It is inconceivable that a regime like his be allowed to continue ruling the country for fear of an “Afghan alternative” when the reality is that aiding the Free Syrian Army will actually lead to the exact opposite. If we are going to make comparisons with Afghanistan, then we should at least do so for the right reasons, and with a clear understanding of history. To do otherwise will condemn us to repeat it.


The Two-faced Propaganda of the Damascus Regime

  • [An edited translation from the Azmi Bishara Arabic facebook page]

    The Syrian regime has been hosting American journalists as part of its propaganda campaign targeted at the West. It explains to its guests that Damascus’ is the only government capable of combatting global Islamic terrorism, and invites them to view the pictures of the “foreign fighters” who have come to Syria. Of course, they neglect to mention here how the Syrian regime is committed to the resistance, nor do they deign to mention the occupation of the Golan Heights. In its propaganda targeted at the Arab public, meanwhile, the same regime has deafened all of our ears with claims that it stands up for the resistance, and that this is what motivated the American-Arab conspiracy that is the Syrian revolution.

    In the regime’s propaganda directed to the Arab public, the foreign jihadists who have arrived in Syria are depicted as products of US intelligence and American-allied Arab governments. There’s no mention of that in what is said to the West, however. In the image the Syrian regime projects to the West, the emphasis is always on “terrorism” and “Islam”. Here, the Syrian regime presents itself as a victim of “Islamic terrorism”, in the same boat as the US in the wake of the Boston Bombings.

    The sordidness needed to carry out such a feat of duplicity is boundless. A separate fact is that, regardless of their motives, the presence of foreign fighters in Syria has harmed the Syrian people’s national revolution.

Assad’s reforms in the field

Rime Allaf : Assad reform: mortar shells, missiles, barrel and cluster bombs all over Syria and equal rights to destruction.

The Fall of the House of Asad

steve bell’s asad
by Robin Yassin-Kassab

This review of David Lesch’s book was written for the Scotsman.

Until his elder brother Basil died in a car crash, Bashaar al-Assad, Syria’s tyrant, was planning a quiet life as an opthalmologist in England. Recalled to Damascus, he was rapidly promoted through the military ranks, and after his father’s death was was confirmed in the presidency in a referendum in which he supposedly achieved 97.29% of the vote. Official discourse titled him ‘the Hope.’

Propaganda aside, the mild-mannered young heir enjoyed genuine popularity and therefore a long grace period, now entirely squandered. He seemed to promise a continuation of his father’s “Faustian bargain of less freedom for more stability” – not a bad bargain for a country wracked by endless coups before the Assadist state, and surrounded by states at war – while at the same time gradually reforming. Selective liberalisation allowed for a stock market and private banks but protected the public sector patronage system which ensured regime survival. There was even a measure of glasnost, a Damascus Spring permitting private newspapers and political discussion groups. It lasted eight months, and then the regime critics who had been encouraged to speak were exiled or imprisoned. Most people, Lesch included, blamed the Old Guard rather than Bashaar.

“I got to know Assad probably better than anyone in the West,” Lesch writes, and this is probably true. Between 2004 and 2008 he met the dictator frequently. His 2005 book “The New Lion of Damascus” seems in retrospect naively sympathetic. He can be forgiven for this. Most analysts (me included), and most Syrians, continued to give Bashaar the benefit of the doubt until March 2011.

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Robin Yassin-Kassab | October 11, 2012 at 10:12 am | Tags: David Lesch | Categories: book review, Syria | URL:

DNA Nadim Koteich 17-09-12.mp4/خطاب نصرالله عن الاساءة الى الرسول

In Arabic, but the images are telling.

Assad the great defender of the faith and of Palestinians

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