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Somebody Interviewed Assad. Chill out.

Many people I know were quick to jump on Jonathan Tepperman’s throat because he interviewed Assad. The interview itself was remarked upon widely for the insane comments that Assad made, completely divorced from reality and quite clearly an attempt to portray himself as a reasonable, sensible man that the West can do business with against ISIS. The result of this interview, however, was very different; Assad simply came across as deluded or a pathological liar, something that was confirmed by Tepperman himself when asked about his impressions of that man. So the crisis is averted and we can all stop beating ourselves into a social media frenzy.

There’s a strong tendency amongst Syrians supporting the revolution for group think, and we need to stop that. It doesn’t help our case, it doesn’t help Syrians, and it just alienates people who might be trying to help us in their own way. Not everybody needs to have exactly the same view. We don’t all need to have the same friends, talk the same way, and use the same language. I myself find plenty of pro-revolution Syrians who use ridiculous terminology and say the stupidest things when referring to the Syrian conflict and I bite my tongue and shut up because it’s negative and counter-productive. That’s the price I’ve agreed to pay for supporting freedom of speech in Syria, I’m learning to deal with the fact that stupid people will say things and other people will agree with them sometimes. We all just have to have believe in each other a bit more. I want Assad’s regime to be dismantled, and while I do worry that the world is forgetting us and that it might even forget about the horrible things that his dictatorship has done to Syria, I also know it is enough that I won’t forget.




Bashar as helpless plumber

On the Myth that is “Assad is here to stay”



Jim Muir recently wrote that “Bashar al Assad and his leadership are there to stay” and explained why. Hassan Nasrallah also declared triumphantly that the danger facing Assad’s regime in Syria has now passed, and Assad himself said that the war has reached a “turning point“. What most people forget as they get carried away by headlines like this is that the number of “turning points” we have had since the start of the revolution leave us all exactly where we started.

A little bit of perspective would not go amiss here. What kind of turning point is it for Assad when he had said exactly the same thing as he “toured” the Baba Amr district in Homs two years ago. That was supposed to be a big deal. And remember that three months into the conflict the popular regime slogan was “it’s over” and yet here we are three years later. The world lampooned President Bush for his “Mission Accomplished” slogan on an aircraft carrier and yet they still take Bashar al Assad seriously. With hindsight we know now that the Syrian revolution was always going to be a near impossible task. It should not have succeeded, and by all rights Assad’s fearsome intelligence services and the cast-iron support of his international allies should have stamped out the Syrian people from the very first days of protest. And they tried, very hard.

The fact is, and I agree with Muir on this, the war of attrition is the only reality we have in Syria. But we shouldn’t confuse the ebbs and flows of the war with turning points, the reality is far more fluid, and it shows us that the water has been creeping closer and closer to Assad’s power base with each successive new tide. He pushes back constantly, and sometimes he pushes back harder when an influx of arms and troops from his allies helps him, but where his soldiers patrol during the day, the rebels come back at night. The old adage, “the situation is critical but not serious” sums up everything about the “Assad is here to stay” mantra.

The Syria rebels continue to consolidate their positions in the north of the country, his stronghold in Western Aleppo came under serious attack only recently, and in spite of their war against the Assad regime the Syrian rebels have also managed to push back the much hated extremist group “The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” ISIS. They spent the first months of the year fighting ISIS, then a few weeks ago they took over Kassab and the last stretch of Syrian territory under Assad’s control that borders with Turkey. They are constantly assassinating and killing his commanders. A few days ago they assassinated Major General Salim al Sheikh, and earlier they had killed yet another of his cousins, Hilal al Assad, as they pushed closer into his hinterland.

Assad’s posturing and the buttressing of his image abroad as “here to stay” is really all a matter of timing. As is the case with his Iranian tutors, Assad pays very close attention to the political calendar. Whether it was his forces shelling Hama on the eve of Ramadan in 2011 or today as he “campaigns” in Damascus by visiting Syrians displaced because of the fighting, what Assad is doing is trying to shape perceptions. He wants the world to believe he is there to stay. But if that were true he wouldn’t have to do that. He would simply just crush his opponents and take a walk down the streets of his capital, something that he cannot do. After all the strongest kid on the block does not need to keep telling people what he is. He simply does what he needs to do.

Then there is the matter of the help he’s been getting. It’s true that he has maintained his grip mainly with Hezbullah and Iran’s aid, but to say he is here to stay misses a crucial fact. He is there only as long as there are Iranian and Hezbullah fighters propping him up. When they leave, he leaves. Machiavelli once said that only an invader who has come to live in a country can ever maintain his grip on it. I don’t see the families of Shiite fighters from Hezbullah, Iraq or Iran bringing their families to live in Syria any time soon. In fact recent tensions over coverage by the Hezbullah propaganda channel (Al Manar) and the pro-Assad channel al Mayadeen have highlighted what could be cracks in the alliance with Assad. He is still under immense pressure, domestically and abroad, and he is haemorrhaging soldiers and equipment while his economy is losing billions of dollars a year. He also has to pay at some point for all the support that Iran and Russia are giving him. There comes a time when the tab gets too big for you to get another drink and you must pay the bartender.

What is really holding back real change in Syria hasn’t been Assad’s tenacity or the resolve of his allies, but the weakness and division in the opposition against him. This too has changed in leaps and bounds. People noticed the professionalism of the Syrian National Coalition in Geneva 2 in contrast to the demagoguery and hysteria of the Syrian regime’s entourage. The current head of the coalition, Mr Ahmad al Jarba, has been constantly engaged in quiet diplomacy since then and the Syrian opposition today is certainly not the same confused, disjointed opposition that blinked its eyes into the light three years ago. It is a completely different beast and it has formed, stormed and normed itself into something that is proving far more agile at playing the diplomatic game whilst also strengthening connections with units on the ground. Only recently Jarba toured the front in Lattakia – always a big publicity boost for the Syrian revolution and a matter of hysterics for regime apparatchiks. This is because such visits by heads of the opposition inside Syria, and in areas that Assad only recently controlled, are direct snubs to his power and authority and the Stalin-esque nature of his regime is pathologically incapable of accepting such new realities. So really the slogan “Assad is here to stay” should be read “Assad is here for now” and he’s only keeping the seat warm in Damascus

Syria : Suspects into Collaborators


Peter Neumann argues that Assad has himself to blame

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Three years ago, it was hard to find anything significant about Syria in books about al-Qaida. Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower, which many consider the definitive history of al-Qaida, contains only five references, while Fawaz Gerges’s The Rise and Fall of al-Qaida mentions Syria just once, as the home of Osama bin Laden’s mother. Today, by contrast, Syria is widely – and correctly – seen as the cradle of a resurgent al-Qaida: a magnet for jihadist recruits, which offers the networks, skills and motivation needed to produce a new generation of terrorists. How did this happen? And why did it happen so quickly?

For Bashar al-Assad, the blame lies with outsiders – especially Turkey and the Gulf monarchies – who have used their money and influence to sponsor the uprising, arm the rebels and supply foreign recruits. This is certainly the case, but it’s only part of the story. In the years that preceded the uprising, Assad and his intelligence services took the view that jihad could be nurtured and manipulated to serve the Syrian government’s aims. It was then that foreign jihadists first entered the country and helped to build the structures and supply lines that are now being used to fight the government. To that extent Assad is fighting an enemy he helped to create.

To make sense of his policy, it is important to understand the long history of confrontation between Islamists and the Baath Party governments of Bashar and his father Hafez. Violent clashes between the government and the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood broke out in 1964 – less than a year after the Baath Party seized power. From the Islamists’ perspective, the country had been taken over by people who were diametrically opposed to everything they stood for: the Baath Party’s stringent secularism ruled out the creation of an Islamic state; its socialism threatened the interests of the small traders and businessmen who were the Brotherhood’s main constituency; and its strong support among minorities – especially Christians and Alawites – meant that the Sunni majority was going to be ruled by ‘unbelievers’ and ‘apostates’.

It was not until 1976, however, that a sustained uprising took shape. Initiated by the so-called Fighting Vanguard (an aggressively sectarian group on the Brotherhood’s fringes) it eventually gained support from all factions of the Brotherhood, parts of the secular opposition and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The confrontation culminated in a three-week battle in the city of Hama in February 1982 during which government forces killed thousands of people and caused virtually every known supporter of the Brotherhood to flee the country. This marked the end of the Muslim Brotherhood inside Syria and explains why its voice and presence during the current conflict has been so marginal: the Syrian Brothers, unlike their Egyptian counterparts, have had no organisation, no structure, and most of their (surviving) leaders haven’t set foot inside the country for decades.

The ruthless elimination of the Brotherhood didn’t mean that the country was exempt from the ‘religious turn’ which many Arab societies experienced during the 1990s. Fuelled by economic and political grievances, widespread corruption and a sense that Syrian society in its existing state offered no hope, direction or opportunity, many Sunnis embraced Islam and adopted more religious lifestyles. Conscious of what was happening, Bashar, who succeeded his father in 2000, sought to co-opt and control this revival. In the first years of his presidency, he spent much of his time grooming religious leaders, controlling mosques, and making sure that the burgeoning Islamic sector was playing by the regime’s rules. He also funded religious institutions, created Islamic banks and loosened government regulations on public displays of piety, such as the wearing of headscarves in public buildings and prayer in the armed forces. InIslamic Revivalism in Syria (2011), the academic Line Khatib noted that Bashar’s conciliatory attitude towards Islam stood in marked contrast to the Baath Party’s original doctrine, which regarded any mention of religion as politically deviant and denounced Islam as a ‘reactionary ideology’.


Bashar’s more accommodating approach towards Islam did not, at the time, extend to the jihadists, who had quietly gained a following among Salafist communities in Syria’s deprived suburbs and the countryside: places like Dara in the south, Idlib in the north, and the outskirts of Aleppo. In late 1999 a jihadist ambush resulted in four days of clashes and prompted a nationwide crackdown, resulting in the arrest of 1200 suspected militants and their supporters. Following the 11 September attacks, Bashar offered his government’s assistance in the war on terror. Though wary of his motives, the Bush administration agreed to co-operate, rendering ‘high-value’ jihadist suspects to Syria until at least 2005.

The Syrian government’s ‘secret weapon’ against jihadists was to infiltrate their networks and turn suspects into government collaborators – a technique that had been used with great success against the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1970s and 1980s. The director of one of Syria’s intelligence services told visiting US officials, according to a WikiLeaked US State Department cable, that ‘we have a lot of experience and know these groups.’ He went on: ‘We don’t attack or kill them … We embed ourselves … and only at the opportune moment do we move.’ This approach, he said, had resulted in ‘the detention of scores of terrorists, stamping out terror cells’.

The American invasion of Iraq in March 2003 caused outrage among Syrian Salafists, who considered the occupation of ‘Muslim lands’ a legitimate reason to take up arms. The regime’s well-honed strategy for dealing with such events – organising staged demonstrations, allowing people to vent their anger on state television – was no longer an option: the Salafists were unappeasable, they wanted to go to Iraq and kill Americans. For Assad and his intelligence chiefs, this presented a serious challenge; after weeks of hesitation, they decided to embrace a bold new strategy: rather than suppressing the Salafists’ rage, they would encourage it.

Allowing the Salafists to go to Iraq was thought to be a good idea for two reasons: first, it got rid of thousands of the most aggressive Salafists with a taste for jihad, packing them off to a foreign war from which many would never return to pose a threat to Assad’s secular, minority-dominated government; second, it destabilised the occupation of Iraq and thwarted Bush’s quest to topple authoritarian regimes (everyone in Assad’s inner circle feared that Syria would be next). According to Assad’s biographer David Lesch, ‘Damascus wanted the Bush doctrine to fail, and it hoped that Iraq would be the first and last time it was applied. Anything it could do to ensure this outcome, short of incurring the direct military wrath of the United States, was considered fair game.’

Practically overnight, Syria became the principal point of entry for foreign jihadists hoping to join the Iraqi insurgency. Inside the country, Assad’s intelligence services activated their jihadist collaborators. The most prominent among them was Abu al-Qaqaa, a Salafi cleric from Aleppo who had studied in Saudi Arabia and whose sermons attracted hundreds – sometimes thousands – of people. Before the invasion of Iraq, Abu al-Qaqaa’s followers acted as religious vigilantes, meting out punishments for ‘indecent behaviour’ and stirring up hatred against the infidel governments of Israel and America. After the invasion, his group turned into a hub which provided Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaida in Iraq with Syrian recruits. Qaqaa’s efforts were so successful that for most of 2003 Syrians constituted the largest foreign fighting contingent of the (emerging) insurgency. Four years later, when the political calculus had changed and the Syrian government wanted to slow down the traffic, Qaqaa was shot dead in mysterious circumstances. His funeral was attended by members of the Syrian parliament along with thousands of Islamists. According to a Lebanese media report, ‘his coffin was draped in a Syrian flag and the affair had all the trappings of a state occasion.’

Qaqaa was important, but he was not the only person involved in sending foreign fighters to Iraq. According to records captured by the US military in the Iraqi border town of Sinjar, the logistics were handled by an elaborate network of at least a hundred facilitators, who were spread throughout the country and maintained weapons caches and safehouses in Damascus, Latakia, Deir al-Zour and other major Syrian cities. They, in turn, worked closely with tribes along the Iraqi border whose smuggling business had suffered as a result of the war and for whom facilitating the flow of jihadists was a welcome substitute.


Less than a year after it had been set up, the Syrian pipeline was so well established that it started attracting jihadists from countries like Libya, Saudi Arabia and Algeria, who flew into Damascus or travelled via one of the Palestinian camps in Lebanon. In 2007, the US government estimated that 90 per cent of suicide bombers in Iraq were foreigners, and that 85-90 per cent of the foreign fighters had entered Iraq through Syria. The jihadist networks in Syria had, in essence, become an extension of those in Iraq and operated without the Assad government’s active support, though almost certainly with its knowledge.

By 2005, it was already obvious that Operation Iraqi Freedom was in trouble and that the Syrians wouldn’t have to worry about being next on the list. The constant flow of refugees from Iraq put a heavy burden on the Syrian economy (by 2008 it was clear that Syria wanted to see stability, not turmoil, in Iraq). Moreover, al-Qaida in Iraq – the group with which Abu al-Qaqaa had collaborated so closely – was turning its attention away from fighting the US towards the possibility of a civil war with the Shiites, a prospect the Syrian government, dominated by Alawites, viewed with horror. There was, however, no chance of simply turning off the tap. The jihadist networks had expanded so quickly, even Abu al-Qaqaa, who was told to call for ‘moderation’ when the insurgency started turning into a sectarian war, had lost much of his influence; and the smuggling of fighters had become so lucrative and deeply ingrained that it would have taken a full-scale conflict with the tribes to stop it. The regime had created a phenomenon it could no longer control.


For some of the jihadists who started returning to Syria after 2005, Assad’s intelligence services came up with what seemed like an ingenious plan. Once again, they sought to externalise the jihadist threat while turning its protagonists into the (unwitting) tools of Syrian foreign policy. This time the target was Lebanon, where Syria had recently been forced to end a 30-year military occupation and was held responsible for the assassination of the prime minister, Rafik Hariri. As a result, many of the foreign jihadists who had entered Iraq through Syria were now told to return to the Palestinian camps near Sidon and Tripoli where they had started their journey into Iraq. Neither Fatah al-Islam nor Usbat al-Ansar, the local jihadist groups, were fully controlled by Syrian intelligence, but both were corrupt enough to serve its purposes in Lebanon, where they hoped to destabilise the political order, stir up sectarian conflict and derail the investigations of the special tribunal set up to investigate Hariri’s assassination.

It soon transpired that sending jihadists to Lebanon didn’t solve the problem. A good many jihadist returnees decided to stay in Syria, where they embarked on a terrorist campaign. This included high-profile attacks against government buildings, state television, the US Embassy and a Shiite shrine, all reported by the international press. But there were hundreds of smaller incidents and failed attacks which the government kept secret, and outsiders had little way of knowing about. Representatives of European intelligence services stationed in Syria at the time say that they received reports about terrorist incidents ‘on a monthly basis’. The leaked State Department cables mention bombings and numerous shoot-outs in the years 2004 and 2005; a suicide bombing and several armed clashes and attempted bombings in 2006; more gun battles, several attempted car bombings in Damascus and the seizure of ‘suicide belts, vehicles and 1200 kg of explosives’ in 2008; as well as the bombing of a bus carrying Shiite pilgrims in March 2009.

The first wave of these attacks, from 2004 to 2006, was claimed by Jund al-Sham, an obscure group which experts believe had been started by Zarqawi, while the second, from 2008 to 2009, was the work of ‘rogue members’ of Fatah al-Islam. Whatever the label, the people responsible were, without exception, former foreign fighters who had been part of the Iraqi insurgency and fetched up in Syria, where they used their fighting experience and combat skills to attack the government and, increasingly, the Shiite population.

One of the most dramatic illustrations of the way in which Assad’s policy backfired were the Sednaya prison riots. After the Iraq invasion, Syrian intelligence officials offered Islamist inmates at this notorious facility just outside Damascus the chance to receive military training and fight against Coalition forces in Iraq. According to a leaked State Department cable, of those who accepted the offer and subsequently managed to return to Syria, ‘some remained at large … others were sent to Lebanon, and a third group were re-arrested and remanded to Sednaya.’ The ones who went back to prison felt ‘cheated’: they ‘had expected better treatment, perhaps even freedom, and were upset over prison conditions’. In July 2008 they rioted, taking a number of prison staff and military cadets hostage. Despite the deployment of special forces, the prisoners maintained control over part of the prison for several months. In January 2009 the long stand-off was resolved in a ferocious battle, which cost the lives of a hundred prisoners and dozens of soldiers. For the military, the episode was a ‘black mark’. The Syrian media never mentioned it.


The transfer of former fighters to Lebanon also caused problems for Assad. The leader of Fatah al-Islam, Syria’s main jihadist ‘partner’ in Lebanon, was widely believed to be a Syrian intelligence asset, and the original idea was for Damascus to turn the group into its own jihadist faction in Lebanon, rivalling efforts by the prime minister, Saad Hariri (the son of Rafik Hariri) and his Saudi allies. According to the French academic Bernard Rougier, an expert on Lebanon’s refugee camps, the Syrians succeeded beyond their wildest expectations. In addition to foreign fighters, the group attracted aspiring jihadists from across Lebanon. Based in the Palestinian camp Nahr al-Bared, Fatah al-Islam quickly grew to more than five hundred men, with money coming not just from Syria but from the Gulf and even from Hariri’s supporters (whose influence it was originally meant to counter). In Rougier’s words, ‘it took on its own life. It had a magnetic effect on Islamists in the country.’

By early 2007 the group had declared its intention to establish an Islamic emirate in the north of Lebanon and sparked a confrontation with the Lebanese army, culminating in a three-month stand-off and the group’s eventual defeat. The surviving members found refuge in the tightly knit Salafi communities of northern Lebanon or went straight back to Syria, where they launched attacks against Shiites and the Syrian government. During the current conflict, Fatah al-Islam emerged as one of the first rebel groups to adopt a jihadist agenda, and its supply routes and recruitment networks in Lebanon continue to be used by other jihadists.

The most significant, long-term consequence of Assad’s policy arose from the opening up of Syria to international jihadist networks. Before he turned his country into a transit point for foreign fighters, Syrian jihadists had been largely homegrown. If international links existed, they were to neighbouring countries. Al-Qaida had always had prominent Syrians as members – the strategist Abu Musab al-Suri, for example, or Abu Dahdah, who was sentenced to a lengthy prison term in Spain – but they had fled the country in the early 1980s, and there is no evidence that they directed jihadist activities inside Syria, sought to organise them, or even showed any interest in doing so. The terrorism experts were not entirely wrong, therefore, in believing that – for some time at least – Syria was outside al-Qaida’s orbit.

This changed in 2003 when Assad allowed the jihadists in his country to link up with Zarqawi and become part of a foreign fighter pipeline stretching from Lebanon to Iraq, with way points, safehouses and facilitators dotted across the country. With the active help of Assad’s intelligence services, Syria was opened to the influx – and influence – of experienced and well-connected jihadists from Libya, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Tunisia, Yemen and Morocco, who brought with them their contact books, money and skills. Within a few years, the country ceased to be a black spot on the global jihadist map: by the late 2000s it was familiar terrain to foreign jihadists, while jihadists from Syria had become valued members of al-Qaida in Iraq, where they gained combat experience and acquired the international contacts and expertise needed to turn Syria into the next battlefront.

When the current conflict broke out, it was hardly surprising that jihadist structures first emerged in the eastern parts of the country, where the entry points into Iraq were located, and in places like Homs and Idlib, which were close to Lebanon; or that it was jihadists – not the Muslim Brothers – who could offer the most dedicated and experienced fighters with the skills, resources, discipline and organisation to hit back at the government. They were also the ones who found it easiest to prevail on international networks of wealthy sympathisers, especially in the Gulf, to supply weapons and funding. The clearest example is the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), a viciously sectarian player in the current conflict, descended from Zarqawi’s al-Qaida in Iraq, which draws on the same networks and supply lines that enabled the transfer of fighters from Syria to Iraq – except that now, of course, the traffic flows in both directions.

Given the history and genesis of groups like ISIS, many Syrian opposition figures now claim that the jihadist groups in Syria are puppets of Assad, and that they continue to be used and manipulated by Syrian intelligence in its efforts to discredit the revolution, divide the opposition and deter the West from intervening on their behalf. Indeed, there can be little doubt that many of the older and more senior figures in groups like ISIS will have records with Syrian intelligence, and that some are likely to be collaborating with the regime. Nor is there any question that the Syrian government, which is fighting large numbers of secular defectors from its own forces, has an interest in portraying the opposition as crazy fanatics, or that some of its actions – such as releasing more Islamists from Sednaya prison, or sparing ISIS-controlled areas from attack – have been designed to strengthen the jihadists vis-à-vis their rivals. There still is no solid evidence, however, that the jihadists as a whole are controlled by the regime, despite repeated announcements by opposition figures that such evidence would be forthcoming. No one doubts that jihadist groups in Syria draw on external support and international networks, including foreign fighters from across the Middle East and even Europe. But the reason they were able to mobilise them – and mobilise them quickly – is that Assad’s government had helped to set them up.

28 March



Rape and ransoms: Hilal al-Assad’s ‘thug’ legacy

Some accuse the regime of orchestrating the death of Assad’s cousin, Hilal al-Assad (L), to diffuse the Alawite sect’s growing resentment. (Photos courtesy: Facebook and Reuters)

Tuesday, 25 March 2014
“The lout and lowlife‪,‬ Suleiman al-Assad‪,‬ the son of Hilal‪,‬ the head of Military Housing in Latakia‪,‬ was arrested on Monday from the Meridian of Latakia after receiving a beating from the good boys ‪….‬ they said he cried and screamed‪. Among his entourage, was an official’s son called Amjad Aslan, also a friend of the Latakia Military Security Chief…‬ they are all a group of louts and low lives who have wreaked havoc and infested corruption in the city‪ …”‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬

Such statements, critical of the practices of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s clan, appeared on regime loyalist Facebook pages to the surprise of many Syrians. With loyalist calls for their arrest, Suleiman and his father Hilal al-Assad were perceived as a liability in the coastal region.

Hilal al-Assad. (Photo courtesy: Facebook)

SANA, Syria’s official news agency, announced the death of Hilal, the 47-year-old second cousin of Syria’s president on Monday, with some already accusing the regime of orchestrating his death to diffuse the Alawite sect’s growing resentment.

Certain reports claimed his death in the newly launched Alanfal campaign, a joint Islamist military operation against Syria’s coastal region. An Islamist group declared that Hilal, among other Allawite figures, died in a rocket attack on the city of Latakia.

Hilal is the grandchild of Ahmad al-Assad, the older half-brother of Hafez al-Assad, the late Syrian president. Following the revolution, he and his son were known for their thuggish practices, namely ransom kidnapping and rape, surpassing the reputation of his two notorious brothers, Haroun and Hail.

Suleiman with Shabiha at a Latakia, according to loyalist Facebook pages.

“Suleiman was dubbed ‘the President of the Syrian Coast’s republic; he acts in that capacity, a thug since his teenage years,’” according to an Alawite Latakia resident, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals. “They are notorious for rape and ransom kidnappings, and their headquarters at sports city is a Bermuda Triangle for their detainees.”

The rise of Shabiha

The Shabiha is a term originally used to describe the Assad clan’s smugglers and racketeers and their Allawite henchmen in the late 1970s. They exploited the high demand for foreign goods, especially cars and cigarettes, following newly imposed government restrictions on imports. Malek al-Assad, the son of Ibrahim, Hafez’s half-brother, was a pioneer in smuggling; he became a liability for his involvement in weapons’ smuggling, according to this detailed account of the rise of Shabiha by Syria Comment. Hafez imprisoned his nephew for days. Years after losing his lucrative business, he ended up a taxi driver on the Latakia–Damascus route, dying in car accident.

Suleiman sometimes drove Syrian army tanks to ‘show off’. (Photo courtesy: Facebook)

Fawwaz al-Assad, being Hafez’s full nephew, enjoyed better immunity than Malek. He led a successful career in smuggling cars and cigarettes, gaining increasing notoriety for rape, driving in a multi-car convoy, and ransom kidnappings.

Hafez reportedly intervened occasionally to curtail his excesses. As the other nephews and cousins grew older, they competed for power and wealth, often parading their brand new cars, with tinted windows and bodyguards brandishing their Kalashnikovs. The Shabiha were notorious for their gangster looks, tattoos, funky haircuts, massive biceps and beards.

Orwa Nyrabia, a Syrian filmmaker and former Latakia resident, believes that Hafez, a cunning leader often praised for his Machiavellian tactics, intentionally left his extended family uneducated, paving the way for their thuggish behavior.

“There was an interest in repressing the coastal region through the clan. Hafez’s eldest son, Bassel Assad, periodically curtailed and unleashed their activities in a semi-organized manner,” said Nyrabia.

The Assads, originally peasants from the Latakia Mountains, mostly took the easy illicit road to fortune and power, the Tashbeeh. They moved to the city of Latakia, a mostly Sunni coastal city with a few hundred thousand residents. Sectarian tensions hid some class hatred, according to residents from both communities, as Allawites often cited their history as discriminated against peasants and servants of urban Sunnis.

The Shabiha instilled fear among the population, while amassing fortunes from smuggling; the regime kept them at bay to fulfill the regime’s two pillars of control: demoralization and fear. After the revolution, and as the regime’s dependency on local militias grew, their power was unleashed. They repressed demonstrators in the coastal region, tortured and humiliated them, like in this infamous video from Bayada, a town in the Banyas province.

After Hilal’s death

Syrian activists recently reported that Suleiman, Hilal’s son, harassed a girl at a DVD store in Latakia; when the owner confronted him, he was forced to lick his shoes, then get naked, and dash around the many squared meters of his shop.

Following news of his father’s death, Suleiman and his Shabiha indiscriminately shot at Sunni neighborhoods. “Young Sunni men were left with little choices in Latakia,” according to a half Alawite, half Sunni city resident.

“Either they stay in the city and risk arrest, conscription and harassment, or join the rebels in the mountains”, he said. “Most chose the latter.”

Last Update: Tuesday, 25 March 2014 KSA 12:24 – GMT 09:24

One Day, it Will be an Alawite Who Finally Kills Assad

In the runup to the Geneva 2 peace talks, there was widespread speculation that the opposition team at the negotiations lacked the leverage and influence among rebel brigades on the ground in Syria, to make any agreement meaningful (a point that became moot as the talks concluded with no agreements whatsoever having been reached).

Assad is trapped by the limitations imposed by his own rhetoric. It cant end well for him.

Assad is trapped by the limitations imposed by his own rhetoric. It cant end well for him.

And yet recent events on the ground in Homs, where a UN and Red Crescent aid convoy to besieged rebel areas was shelled and shot up by regime shabihas in the city, and the murder of the British doctor Abbas Khan, just mere hours before his scheduled release from the regime jails, clearly indicate that far from being a president in firm control of his intelligence services and militiamen, Bashar Assad is a man who finds himself trapped by a narrative of his own making.

By failing to defeat an opposition he has consistently painted as posing an existential threat to his own Alawite constituency, a narrative that has also made impossible even minor confidence building measures such as permitting aid to the besieged rebel areas, and the release of high profile prisoners such as Dr Khan, measures which could have been built on to eventually ensure a political arrangement to end the conflict, Assad has trapped himself in a course of action that can only end in one way; his death at the hands of his fellow Alawites.

That there should be bitter opposition to even such minor compromises among the regime’s supporters will come as no surprise to anyone closely following events in Syria. In June 2013, when the Syrian army, backed by units from the Lebanese terrorist organization Hizbollah invaded my home town of Telkelakh, the army and mukhabarat went door to door, ransacking homes and arresting people pretty much at random. A relative of mine in the town at the time, whose son had for years enjoyed close ties to very senior regime officials, thought that his family’s well known relations with the regime would protect him.

When regime shabihas burst into his home, this relative immediately held up a picture of his son shaking hands with none other than El Presidente, the Eye Doctor himself. “Look, look!” he said, “my son with el-doktor Bashar”.

The shabihas took one look at the picture, and broke my relative’s jaw. “Kess emak ‘ala em el doktor Bashar!”

Ouch. Being as close to an honest opinion poll as you are going to get in Assadstanian Syria, that pretty summed up much of the regime rank and file’s feelings towards Assad, an attitude I found confirmed time and again while living in Tartous. Assad has created a narrative where the only acceptable outcome from his constituency’s point of view is a total and crushing defeat of the “takfiri” opposition, a result Assad has found it utterly impossible to deliver on. If you have painted your enemy as nihilistic savages, hell bent on the subjugation of the entire country under an “Islamist emirate”, then the only way the Alawite communities in Homs, Damascus and the coast will be preserved is by the complete and total annihilation of these “takfiris” and their supporters.

What then, ya doktor, are you doing giving up the country’s chemical weapons? The shabihas, who have died in their tens of thousands over the course of the conflict, don’t want to see deals made giving up sarin gas in exchange for the regime’s survival. They want to see that sarin unleashed in massive quantities on rebel areas still holding out in Homs and Damascus.

The mukhabarat, who have no illusions as to what awaits them should the regime fall, do not want to see high profile prisoners such as Dr Khan released just to make Assad look good. Dr Khan’s savage and brutal murder a mere hours before his scheduled release was as much an F-U to Assad as it was an act of revenge against the British. Galloway? Who is George Galloway? If it is Galloway’s dream to become the world’s first Scottish Ayatollah, the mukhabarat, who have also died in their thousands during the war, apparently don’t feel obliged to give up anything to grant him any PR points.

And ya doktor, you have spent months convincing the Alawites of Zahra in Homs that are they besieged on all sides by savage “takfiris” and their NATO-Wahabi-Salafi-Zionist backers. Why then are you allowing aid convoys into their besieged areas? The only surprise of the day wasn’t that the UN and Red Crescent convoy came under attack; it’s that anyone in their right mind actually thought that such a deal could be carried off without a bitter and immediate backlash from the shabihas in Homs.

In Tartous, there was an undeniable air of exasperation and impatience with Assad. On numerous occasions, I heard pining for the perceived wisdom and experience of the father Hafiz, whom it was felt would never have allowed things to reach the stage they did. The regime’s supporters want someone to execute the war efficiently and win it decisively, something Bashar has utterly failed to do despite massive foreign backing from Hizbollah, Iran and Russia.

As the war grinds on, there is an increasing sense of anger towards a man many see as being out of his depths. Whereas Winston Churchill would be out and about visiting parts of the UK hit by Germany bombing raids, Bashar’s continued isolation and seclusion from the world outside of Damascus, is as much about protecting him from his own Alawites as it is from attempts on his life by the opposition.

Of course the Geneva talks failed! Waleed Muallem and Buthaina Shaaban et al would have been lynched by the regime’s own supporters among the delegation if they had uttered so much as a compromising word, let alone discussed any deal to transition to shared power. One does not share power with “takfiris”. In the absence of a clear and decisive military victory by one side over the other, the only way to end the war in Syria would have been a political settlement. Both are outcomes Bashar Assad cannot possibly deliver on. Trapped by his own rhetoric, he is doomed to continue pursuing a course of action which has no hope of ending in a triumph for the regime.

As Alawites continue to die in their thousands, expended by a president who regards them as expendable as rounds of ammunition or liters of tank fuel, as increasingly barbaric barrel bombings and starvation tactics fail to bring the rest of the country under heel once again, Assad’s position will become increasingly untenable among his own constituency.

Failing to deliver on a military victory, and unable to take any steps towards a political settlement, his ability to exert control over elements within his own regime will continue to be undermined. Today, he can’t even deliver a prisoner alive and well to a friendly pro-Iranian British MP, or ensure the safety of a UN aid convoy. In the not too distant future, his inability to influence events will become clearer and more apparent, until his very life will be in danger from those closest to him, looking to replace him with someone who in their view can execute the war more efficiently, and not pussyfoot about unleashing every single drop of chemicals in the regime’s arsenal. The regime’s supporters haven’t died in such numbers only to share power with perceived “takfiris”. “Kess em el doktor Bashar” indeed.

Assad today is a liability, to both his own constituents, the country in opposition to him, and to the region as a whole. His room for political maneuver is almost non-existent, his ability to deliver a military victory completely impossible. Unable to bring the war to a conclusion, incapable of orchestrating a decisive victory in any shape, way or form, the most extreme elements among the regime will dispose of him. Assad’s own rhetoric has made his demise at the hands of his own Alawites inevitable.


Yarmouk Camp “with the Syrian People against the Regime.”

January 3, 2014

People in Yarmouk camp, Damascus, express their hatred for Assad, Khamenei, Nasrallah, and Mahmoud Abbas who is ignoring their plight.

“Where are the women they took at the checkpoints? Where are the young men?… Khamenei, come and slaughter us. We’re ready for death. We die of hunger, we die under shelling. At the start when a mortar fell everyone ran to hide like mice. Now the shells fall and the people walk in the street. Nobody bothers asking about it…. Not just in the camp – this is the situation in all the suburbs. We Palestinians are with the Syrian people, not with this regime.”


Free Syrian Army sets terms for Geneva peace talks

BEIRUT – The mainstream rebel Free Syrian Army has laid out the conditions for its participation in Geneva peace talks, including the demand that a transitional authority be given full powers.

The international community has been seeking for months to convene a Syria peace conference in Geneva, but proposed dates have come and gone with no progress towards talks.

In a statement issued on Monday night, the FSA’s military command high council welcomed “any political solution [to the conflict] based on clear objectives.”

The so-called Geneva II conference, it said, should “announce precisely that its objective is the formation of a transitional national government with full powers.”

It called for an “agreement in principle on the abdication of [President Bashar al-] Assad.”

The Free Syrian Army also sought a “specific timetable” for negotiations under Chapter VII of the UN Charter which authorizes use of force.

It demanded the formation of an “independent judiciary charged with bringing to justice the perpetrators of crimes against the Syrian people” and the release of prisoners.

In addition, it called for an end to “killings and bombings” carried out by the Assad regime and the “opening of humanitarian corridors” to areas besieged by government forces.

It also said that fighters from neighboring countries that back Assad’s forces should leave Syria, including those from Iran, Iraq and the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah.

And it said the opposition should be represented in Geneva by a “single delegation” made up of the National Coalition and the FSA’s military council.

The announcement coincides with a similar declaration by the umbrella opposition National Coalition, which has threatened to spurn the conference to end Syria’s 32-month conflict unless the FSA backs the initiative.

Opposition figures have long demanded that Assad should step down and have no role in any political transition, but the regime insists his departure is not up for discussion.

Rebels fighting Assad’s forces are split between the FSA and guerrillas linked to Al-Qaeda.


Al-Assad No Longer an Acceptable Negotiator

Hassan Haidar
Thursday 29 August 2013

The size and targets of the imminent Western military strike against the Syrian regime forces are linked to the main political message it will address, i.e. that Bashar al-Assad is no longer an acceptable party to negotiate over his country’s future during the Geneva 2 meeting. This means that the anticipated settlement conference might never take place if Al-Assad remains in power and abstains from surrendering it to another person or side.

An international ruling was issued to condemn Al-Assad and hold him responsible for the killing of hundreds of civilians using chemical weapons, which clearly implies his classification as a war criminal, who should be prosecuted and not negotiated with, and whose opinion in regard to the new Syria should not be heard.

The Western and Arab states waited a long time to achieve consensus inside the Security Council over the containment of the Syrian regime and the halting of the daily killings committed by its military machine, and after numerous initiatives and mediations – all of which failed to convince Al-Assad there was a popular opposition with which he should negotiate to stop the destruction of Syria as a country. It has now become necessary to undertake a military action from outside the United Nations to achieve that goal, thus paving the way before a settlement after the use of Weapons of Mass Destruction.

The world previously witnessed similar sanctions, through which major states decided to punish tyrants without a UN mandate. This was seen for example in the raids launched by the United States against the Bab al-Aziziya compound in Libya in 1986, after it held Muammar Gaddafi’s regime responsible for the bombing of the La Belle discotheque in Germany and the killing of American soldiers. But after these raids, Gaddafi remained in power until he was toppled by a popular uprising in 2011, despite his famous 2003 political turn which he thought would save him.

The current situation in Syria is different than the one which prevailed in Libya at the time due to the presence of an armed political opposition controlling more than half the Syrian territories and threatening Damascus and other main cities. However, the Western political and military planners should take into account the fact that Al-Assad’s stay in power following the intended strike would practically mean its failure, despite the repeated statements saying it does not aim to topple the regime. This is due to the fact that the limited military operation will not be enough in itself, if it does not undermine the system upon which Al-Assad is currently relying to preserve the loyalty of most of the Syrian regular army.

In other words, the American, British and French missiles and aircrafts should address well targeted and truly painful blows, thus leading to the subsequent fall of Al-Assad’s regime which will be responsible before the senior army officers for the great harm caused to their troops and for the pretext it provided for these strikes after it decided to use chemical weapons.

But what if this does not happen? What if the Syrian army – although exhausted – remains attached to its command? At this point, there would be no choice but to go back to the demands of the Syrian opposition ever since the regime started using violence against the peaceful demonstrators, before moving to heavy artillery and the targeting of areas outside its control with aircrafts and rockets, i.e. impose no-fly zones, establish safe corridors for relief purposes, and most importantly, relinquish the exaggerated Western reservations and adopt a decision to provide the opposition with weapons allowing it to fix the flaw affecting the balance of powers and win the battle by itself.


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Thursday 29 August 2013

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