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Lure of the Caliphate

Art Resource

Tombs of the Caliphs in Cairo, Egypt, circa 1880



It has now become clear that Barack Obama is under enormous pressure to intensify the campaign against ISIS. Last week, as the White House held a summit on countering extremist violence in which Obama declared, “we are at war with people who have perverted Islam,” sources at the Pentagon told reporters that the retaking of Mosul, possibly with significant US military support, had been planned for as early as April. This followed the president’s recent announcement that he is seeking formal authorization from Congress for an all-out assault on ISIS in western Iraq and eastern Syria and that “our coalition is on the offensive” and the group “is going to lose.”

But the challenge of defeating the Islamic State is a huge one. The group is formidably armed, having captured large quantities and varieties of weaponry from Syrian and Iraqi forces. Its senior commanders include former officers of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime in Iraq, a battle-hardened Chechen Islamist and former Georgian army sergeant, and veterans of the conflict in Libya. Above all, it has been able to attract unprecedented numbers of young recruits from the West itself—not least by drawing on apocalyptic currents in Islamic culture and thought in which the region of Greater Syria, known as Bilad al-Sham, is given paramount importance.

According to Europol, some five-thousand European nationals—mainly from the wealthier countries of northern Europe—have now joined the group, with around one thousand each from Britain and France. Among them are hundreds of young men and women still in their teens. Meanwhile, the caliphate’s tentacles now stretch from Afghanistan, to Yemen and to Libya, with Sunni affiliates and tribal groups making their allegiance (baya) to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-styled caliph of ISIS. As Sarah Birke has recently written in The New York Review, US officials are wondering why “ISIS has attracted so many fighters—the most rapid mobilization of foreign fighters so far, outstripping recruitment in the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan and the war against Saddam Hussein in Iraq.”


Should We Oppose the Intervention Against ISIS?

Kurdish fighters in the besieged Syrian city of Kobani prepare to fight against ISIS on November 7. The Kurds are receiving U.S. military aid. (Ahmed Deeb/AFP/Getty Images)
Kurdish fighters in the besieged Syrian city of Kobani prepare to fight against ISIS on November 7. The Kurds are receiving U.S. military aid. (Ahmed Deeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Most U.S. leftists say yes. But voices we rarely hear—Kurds and members of the Syrian opposition—have more ambiguous views.


To consider ending the war, which is what all of us want, without considering what’s at the root of this entire monstrosity—which is the Assad regime itself—is unacceptable.

ISIS (or ISIL, or the Islamic State) sent shock waves through the Middle East and beyond in June when it seized Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. The organization has now laid claim to a swath of territory “stretching from Baghdad to Aleppo and from Syria’s northern border to the deserts of Iraq in the south,” in the words of Patrick Cockburn, author of The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising.

In August, the United States assembled an international coalition (eventually including more than a dozen countries) to conduct a campaign of air strikes on ISIS positions in Iraq, coordinating with Iraqi and Kurdish Peshmerga forces. Then, in October, the coalition expanded the intervention into Syria, coordinating with Kurdish fighters on the Syrian-Turkish border and Free Syrian army forces.

American progressives have been relatively uniform in opposing the intervention against ISIS. But to most Kurds and many Syrian activists, the intervention is more welcome. Turkish and Syrian Kurds along the border watch the battles against ISIS from hilltops, breaking out in cheers and chanting, “Obama, Obama.” Within the Syrian opposition, one finds a range of perspectives—some support intervention, others oppose it, and many, like the Syrian leftist intellectual Yassin al-Haj Saleh, are torn. In late September Saleh told me,

On the one hand, I would like to see this thuggish gang wiped from the face of the earth. ISIS is a criminal organization that has killed thousands of Syrians and Iraqis while leaving intact another criminal organization—the Assad regime—that is responsible for the deaths of close to 200,000 people. ISIS has destroyed the cause of the Syrian revolution as much as the Assad regime has destroyed our country and society. On the other hand, an attack against ISIS will send a message to many Syrians (and Iraqis and other Arabs) that this intervention isn’t about seeking justice for heinous crimes, but is rather an attack against those who challenged Western powers. This will lead to more resentment against and suspicion of the outside world, which is the very nihilist mood on which ISIS capitalizes and profits.

Some Syrian activists question how committed the Kurds are to toppling the Syrian dictator. The Kurds, for their part, distrust Turkey, which supports the Syrian opposition. These debates and dynamics are mostly unknown to American progressives.

Given that ISIS and the intervention against it directly impact the peoples of the region, it behooves us to know what they have to say about it. So when In These Times asked me to convene a roundtable discussion on the ISIS intervention, I saw it as an opportunity to bridge this gap—to explore some of these contending perspectives and stimulate a conversation between U.S. progressives and some of our Syrian and Kurdish counterparts.

Richard Falk has been one of the leading voices of peace and human rights over the last half century. He was the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Palestinian Human Rights and a member of the Independent International Commission on Kosovo. His blog, Global Justice in the 21st Century, is a constant source of thought-provoking and self-reflective analysis. His essay in The Syria Dilemma, the book I co-edited with Nader Hashemi, is among the most thoughtful and challenging arguments about the Syrian tragedy I have read.

The Kurdish region of Rojava in northern Syria has been likened to the Zapatista autonomous territories of Chiapas and has inspired  international solidarity efforts with its experiment in democratic autonomy . The anarchist writer and activist David Graeber has written a forceful plea to stand with the beleaguered Kurds as they fight for their lives. With Graeber’s help I reached out to Alan Semo, the UK representative of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), to get his perspective on the ISIS intervention.

I also deemed it essential to include a Syrian opposition voice in the discussion. There has been and remains deep confusion about the Syrian conflict amongst many leftists. So I reached out to Rime Allaf, who serves on the board of directors of The Day After Project, an international working group of Syrians building toward a democratic transition in Syria. She is a former advisor to the president of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces and former Associate Fellow at London’s Chatham House think tank.

There are few people I hold in higher regard than Rafia Zakaria, a lawyer, board member of Amnesty International USA, columnist for Al Jazeera America and the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, and the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (forthcoming in February from Beacon Press). Rafia brings both an international human rights perspective and the painful knowledge of what U.S. military intervention, in the form of drone strikes, has wrought in her part of the world.

Richard, with only one or two exceptions (notably Kosovo), you have opposed U.S. military interventions for the past 50 years. As someone who has opposed those interventions as a champion of self-determination—especially self-determination for formerly colonized peopleswhat do you make of the current U.S. intervention against ISIS? And specifically, the siege of Kobani and the Kurdish resistance against ISIS along the Turkish-Syrian border?

Richard: It’s a tough question. We need to contextualize this a bit further. In my view, there is no basis for the United States to play a constructive role in this region. Its role in Iraq and Syria—much less, Israel, Palestine, Egypt and elsewhere in the region—figures into an overall strategy of dominating the region and supporting highly reactionary forces in the Gulf, particularly Saudi Arabia. The notion that the United States can be a liberating actor by narrowing the focus to one specific battle site isn’t convincing to me. The plight of the Kurds in Kobani and their courage in resisting ISIS poses a tragic predicament that does challenge the kind of anti-interventionism that I feel is justified overall, particularly in the Middle East. But to overcome the presumption against military intervention, especially from the air, one needs very powerful evidence. And one needs a full-fledged diplomatic initiative, which I see lacking so long as Iran continues to be excluded from any effort to resolve the Syrian conflict. Like the drone attacks, the ISIS intervention doesn’t seem designed to actually deal with the problem. Rather, it looks like a projection of U.S. power in the region.

Where do you stand on the intervention, Rafia?

Rafia: I oppose it. Look at what the U.S. has done in South Asia in the past ten years. As someone who has covereddrone attack after drone attack in Pakistan, I can tell you that the dynamics are very similar. When the U.S. began its drone campaign in north and south Waziristan, where the Taliban were headquartered, there was a lot of support from Pashtun tribal leaders, similar in a way to the current situation between the Kurds and ISIS. The narrative was that the drone attacks were empowering the indigenous people of area who were facing incursions from the Taliban. It’s been beyond a miserable failure. The drone attacks have led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people. Whenever you have communities that are displaced—and this is precisely what is happening in Syria and Iraq as a result of ISIS incursions and the airstrikes against ISIS—their social mechanisms, their political allegiances, their forms of governance all collapse. Once that happens, those populations are far, far more vulnerable to being recruited by groups like ISIS. Or they become disenchanted with any effort to rebuild or organize. The consequence of intervention is displacement. And the consequence of displacement is further civil war, which is what you have in Pakistan right now.

Syrian activists have expressed a range of views on the intervention against ISIS. Rime, how do you see it?

Rime: I very much share the ambivalence of Yassin al-Haj Saleh. Many of us in the Syrian opposition do. Everything that has happened in Syria was predictable—and indeed was predicted. The rise of these Islamist terror groups…before they became an organized entity calling itself ISIS, they were smaller groups fighting in various areas in Iraq but mostly in Syria, where they had free reign because the only forces fighting them during roughly their first year on the scene [2013] were the Free Syrian Army. The FSA—the bulk of the Syrian armed opposition to the Assad regime—thus found itselffighting two very brutal forces, the Assad regime on one side and these Islamist groups on the other—and those two forces were not fighting each other. This is an essential point. It was inevitable that this would weaken the opposition and strengthen the regime. Because the Assad regime was not attacking this Islamist plague, it was to be expected that these terror groups would gain ground. They had help from al-Qaeda type groups in Iraq. Plus they had the advantage of their enemies [the FSA] being bombed relentlessly by the Syrian regime. So they gained strength.

Let’s be very clear that for the longest time, the Syrian opposition was not asking for a “boots on the ground”-style intervention, or even for a bombing campaign led by the U.S. What was being requested early on was the establishment of humanitarian corridors with the help of a “no-fly-zone” and/or weapons for the FSA to defend liberated areas from the relentless barrel bombing campaign of the regime. Since none of this happened, it was to be expected that these Islamist groups have been able to gain so much ground and find themselves with a weakened opponent in the FSA. Now the Assad regime doesn’t even need to worry about ISIS because it’s got the U.S. fighting [ISIS].

Alan, where does the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), which you represent, stand on the U.S. intervention against ISIS? The PYD has opposed external military intervention in the Syrian conflict, but hasn’t the Kurdish struggle against ISIS benefited from the coalition airstrikes?

Alan: I think the American-led international intervention against ISIS has been efficient. The Americans realized that the expansion of ISIS is serious and threatens the region—it has to be stopped and eliminated. The U.S. has been relying on air strikes alone, and they know they need troops on the ground. The forces on the ground fighting ISIS in northern Iraq and now in Kobani, in northern Syria, are Kurdish troops. They have been defending themselves very efficiently against ISIS, which is a real threat to the region. So I think eliminating this threat is the right step, both for the Syrian people and for regional security and stability.

Rime: From January roughly until the summer, what happened is that ISIS was allowed to spread its terror throughout the Jazira region of Syria without any intervention of any kind from outside Syria—or within Syria. The only people fighting them were the Free Syrian Army—alone, without ammunition. So I agree with Alan that the intervention is proving useful, but only up to a point. It is proving useful in a very limited area, and—this is critical—it is not tackling the origin of this plague, which is the Assad regime.

Alan: Now, Kurdish forces are working together with some sections of the Free Syrian Army and other forces in northern Syria.

The Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, a Geneva-based organization, has recently put forward a proposal to end the Syrian conflict that includes the creation of a Peace and Reconstruction Authority that would implement local ceasefire agreements and serve as an interim governing authority. The report also suggests that once a deal has been struck, the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition could focus their energies on fighting ISIS. What do you make of this idea?

Rime: It’s an absolutely obscene proposition because it takes the position that anything is better than ISIS, whereas most Syrians view ISIS and the Assad regime as being on an equal level of savagery. Many Syrians will tell you the Assad regime is actually worse than ISIS and has killed far more people.

To consider ending the war, which is what all of us want, without considering what’s at the root of this entire monstrosity—which is the Assad regime itself—is unacceptable. To propose that in order to end ISIS we have no choice but to work with Assad is not a solution at all.

Alan: At the end of the day, we have to end Syria’s war. To end the war requires a solution on three levels: the internal balance on the ground inside Syria; the regional circumstances; and the international level. I believe the will of the Syrian people has been hijacked by regional powers and by global powers—America and Russia. But the Syrian people have to determine their own destiny. The Syrian opposition has to be united. And they have to have a clear vision of how they can end this war. I do not agree with Rime’s statement that you have to fight the regime before fighting ISIS.

Rime: I did not say that. I said that you can’t just get rid of ISIS. You cannot just get rid of Assad. You have to get rid of both.

Alan: The Syrian people are defending themselves. They are fighting against ISIS. The people of Kobani have been protecting themselves for two months with their limited resources.

Rime: But the coalition’s airstrikes are helping them. For three years Assad has been dropping barrel bombs on civilians and yet no help has come from anybody. But now you have the coalition bombing ISIS, which helps the Kurds in Kobani to defend themselves.

Richard, what do you think of the idea of a Peace and Reconstruction Authority?

Richard: I think that a proposal of this sort is somewhat suspect given both how it originated and what it’s proposing, because it’s really a plea to, in effect, enlarge the anti-ISIS military coalition. I agree with what Rafia said earlier, that bombing only contributes to destabilizing the whole underlying reality. And we still have to address why Iran hasn’t been brought into the process as a major political actor that needs to participate in any kind of diplomacy to resolve the Syrian crisis.

I think there are desirable elements [in the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue proposal], such as trying to respect the ceasefire, but it overlooks the complexities and contradictions that have emerged in the Syrian conflict. To try to solve the problems of the Middle East from above is very unlikely to have constructive effects.

Finally, there’s an absence of political imagination. The American approach has become so militarized over such a long period of time that it’s just about incapable of thinking outside of the military box. It therefore keeps reinventing a military solution to essentially political problems—and is undeterred by a record of failure because it’s the only way it knows how to project its power. The U.S. is so addicted to hard-power ways of behaving in the world. It has very little credibility in my view—even when you narrow the focus and it looks like it’s better to help those beleaguered in Kobani than to ignore them. That’s why I say it’s a tragic predicament: Every alternative is repugnant under these conditions. I’ve always felt that when all alternatives are repugnant the one point of moral clarity is, don’t add to the killing. And, echoing what Rafia said, don’t add to the displacement, which is subverting any possibility of benevolent political reconstruction.

Danny Postel is Associate Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver and co-hosts its series of video interviews with leading scholars. He is the author of Reading “Legitimation Crisis” in Tehran  and co-editor of The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Iran’s Future and The Syria Dilemma, which was named one of the best books of 2013 in The Progressive. He is a co-editor of PULSE and blogs for Truthout, Critical Inquiry and the Huffington Post. He was a member of Chicago’s No War on Iran coalition, communications coordinator forInterfaith Worker Justice, and communications specialist for Stand Up! Chicago, a coalition of labor unions and grassroots community organizations.

source via PULSE

Black Holes and Media Missionaries

A boy walking in a street in Bab Amr, Homs. Daniels and 3 other journalists were holed up for days is behind the building at rightA boy walking in a street in Bab Amr, Homs. Daniels and 3 other journalists were holed up for days is behind the building at right. Photo: Freedom House. This image is licensed under Creative Commons License.

The lights are going off in Syria. Peter Kassig is only the most recent witness that succumbed to the darkness. David Haines, Steve Satloff and James Foley went before him. They had all gone there to assist and bear witness. A measure of the Islamic State’s (IS) monstrosity is the nobility of the people it has killed. International media has rightly condemned these horrific murders.

For IS murder is a political act. But is also a performance–a spectacle as a means to amplify its message. The ritual act of murder, especially of a westerner, is certain to receive media coverage. IS uses this to rudely force attention.

The emergence of IS has been a godsend for the regime. IS is the monster that the regime always claimed it was fighting. Ideologues who echoed and amplified this regime line over the years have proclaimed IS the true face of the opposition.  Left unmentioned is the fact that until recently IS fought its biggest battles against the Syrian opposition. Indeed, earlier in the year, rebels had driven it out of Idlib, Deir Ezzor, much of Aleppo and areas around Damascus. It was only after its successes in Iraq and its newly acquired arsenal that it returned to Syria in triumph. But for many western ideologues, IS is part of an undifferentiated radical opposition to the secular regime of Bashar al Assad.

In fact, IS has a lot more in common with the regime. It is a totalitarian force that uses terror as a means of control. The regime kills but is loath to take responsibility; IS revels in murder. The regime kills more, but IS better amplifies its acts. The regime’s audience is domestic; IS has transnational ambitions. Significantly, where IS proudly rejects the international order, the regime presents itself as its indispensable, if ruthless guardian. For the media, IS is a more exciting story.

The media is selective elsewhere too. Foley and Satloff aren’t the only journalists IS has killed: there have been many more—Iraqis and Syrians—whose names remain unknown to the world. And IS isn’t the only force in Syria killing journalists and aid workers: Bashar al Assad’s regime has been doing it far longer.

The Syrian nightmare has unfolded with such pace and intensity that each day’s horror displaces the one preceding it. With IS dominating the news it might be hard for audiences to remember that the killing of western journalists in Syria is as old as the conflict itself. It began long before any jihadi had alighted on Syrian soil.

Years before anyone had heard the name IS, the regime killed Marie Colvin of theSunday Times along with the French photographer Rémi Ochlik when, in the first major escalation of the war, it used artillery on the Baba Amr district of Homs. A month before that it had killed Gilles Jacquier of France 2.

Since the beginning, Damascus has tried to control the narrative by making it too dangerous for journalists to report from Syria—unless they embedded with the regime. Some have embraced this arrangement; unwilling to compromise their objectivity, others have accepted the perils of independent reporting. But most have stayed clear, relying instead on stringers, activists, or citizen journalists.

Leaving aside the courage of the few who have risked much to report from outside regime-controlled Syria, reporting on the conflict has been gernally dismal. While some have used new technologies, including Skype, Youtube, Twitter, to gather material for reportage; others have forgone such exertions to deduce reality from pre-existing notions, ignoring the specificities of the situation in favour of ideological formulas that are impervious to time and place.

With multiplying dangers and fewer reporters willing to enter the killing fields of Syria, it is the ideological types that have come to dominate reporting. This type has also found it easier to embed with the regime. They visit Syria not in search of stories but bring stories to Syria in search of validation.

Beyond the ideological type, however, there is also the hack. If the ideological types are defined by their dogmas, the hacks are defined by procedures. All journalists aspire to be objective; and objectivity for most journalists is encoded in certain practices. To be objective is to be fair, impartial and balanced. But fairness and impartiality are harder to demonstrate; balance is measurable. For this reason, hack reporters use balance as an indicator of their objectivity. Balance is useful in many cases. But where there is a severe imbalance in the underlying situation, imposing balance distorts the picture.

In Syria, the hack reporter’s need for balance has created a misleading picture of the conflict. One often hears the bien pensant liberal lament how “both sides” in the conflict are just as bad as the other. But “both sides” in the conflict are not equal. One side is a state with its hierarchies, chains of command and coercive apparatus intact; the other side is a diffuse, uncoordinated and disorganized opposition. The crimes of the former reflect policy; those of the latter only reflect on the group or individual perpetrating them. The regime’s crimes have been sustained and wholesale; the crimes of the opposition are retail and sporadic.

That is not to excuse any crime. All criminals—rebel or regime—must face justice. But one must be wary of false notions of balance that undermine a sense of proportion.

On September 11, 2013, Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, special investigator for the UN Human Rights Council, concluded that before the August 2013 chemical massacre, the Assad regime had perpetrated at least eight major massacres while the rebels had been responsible for one. The rise and extreme brutality of IS hasn’t changed this equation. In a report concluded a year later, Pineheiro noted that the despite IS’s extreme violence, the Assad regime “remains responsible for the majority of the civilian casualties, killing and maiming scores of civilians daily”.

This isn’t all that surprising if one considers that the Assad regime has a monopoly on airpower, armour, heavy artillery, ballistic missiles, and unconventional weapons—and it hasn’t hesitated to use them against civilians.

But monstrous as the regime’s actions are, it has always managed to find people willing to give it the benefit of doubts. Refracted through ideology, each of the regime’s ruthless acts of repression becomes a strike against western imperialism or Islamic fundamentalism (the contradictions between the two notwithstanding). This is achieved by zooming out from actual events to an imagined context: Assad is not at war with his own people, we are made to understand, but against the proxies of an imperial force trying to undermine the “axis of resistance” of which he is a part.

Only such creative reimagining could allow a veteran journalist like Charles Glass to present Assad as the underdog and his most heinous crime—last year’s chemical attack on Ghouta—as something positive. Consider these words:

“The introduction of chemical weapons, which have been alleged to have been used not only by the government but by the rebels as well, was only the most dramatic escalation by combatants who seek nothing short of the annihilation of the other side”

After using the benign “introduction” to describe a major escalation, Glass immediately retreats into the passive voice with “alleged to have been used” which doesn’t require him to identify the alleger. The UN and OPCW have alleged no such thing. The regime perhaps?

But things get worse: Glass next tells us that the attack “unexpectedly led to hope for a way out”, because the Russians compelled Assad to give up his chemical arsenal. Glass then goes on to laud Russian which “delivered President Assad” at Geneva, but condemns the US for being “slow to persuade the militias it funds” along with its allies.

By this reckoning when the Syrian regime uses chemical weapons against its people, it is delivering hope; the real aggressor, it turns out, is the US.

Glass is not even the worst of them. The Independent’s celebrated foreign correspondent Robert Fisk, who has also chosen to embed with the regime,reported shortly after the chemical attack, that “information is now circulating in the city”—furnished by the Russians and corroborated by “a former Special Forces officer” operating with the Syrian Army’s 4th Division, who is “considered a reliable source” (by whom?)—that Assad wasn’t responsible for the attack. Fisk’s reliable source—the regime—tells him that it was indeed the rebels that were responsible for the attack.

Fisk’s credulity is matched by his ethics. In August 2012, after a massacre in Daraya had left between 400-500 people, Fisk rode a Syrian Army armoured personnel carrier into the city to interview survivors and concluded that it was “armed insurgents rather than Syrian troops” that were responsible for the massacre. It somehow did not occur to this veteran journalist that people might not be very forthcoming being interviewed by a journalist “in the company of armed Syrian forces”. Indeed, Human Rights Watch came to very different conclusions after its investigation into the massacre. And when the veteran war correspondentJanine di Giovanni visited the town unaccompanied by regime troops, she received detailed testimony on how the Syrian military had carried out the massacre.

Patrick Cockburn, Fisk’s colleague at The Independent, is another veteran correspondent, a winner of many awards. His book, The Jihadi’s Return, is enjoying great success. For Cockburn, IS  has little to do with the Syrian regime; it is a by-product of the West and its Gulf allies’s decision to support an uprising against Assad. Cockburn finds it absurd that the West should try to strengthen the Iraqi government against IS while simultaneously trying to weaken the Syrian one. For Cockburn the Syrian regime is the only force capable of confronting IS. More controversially, he has portrayed the Free Syria Army as being in cahoots with IS, attributing this incendiary claim to an “intelligence officer from a Middle Eastern country neighbouring Syria”. (Note that this is the only instance in which Cockburn doesn’t reveal the name of the country. His most frequent source is the intelligence service of Iraq—Assad’s closest ally).

Cockburn’s problems go beyond sourcing. Like Fisk, he also takes liberties with facts.

On page 76 of his book, he writes: “I witnessed JAN forces storm a housing complex by advancing through a drainage pipe which came out behind government lines, where they proceeded to kill Alawites and Christians.”

If he witnessed this, then it would be major scoop. Since other than the regime, the only source to make this claim was the Russian state broadcaster RT. However, RT had used fake pictures to support its claim. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have found no evidence of this alleged massacre.

However, when one looks at Cockburn’s original report on the incident in his January 28, 2014 column for The Independent, he attributes the story about rebels arriving through drainage pipes to “a Syrian soldier, who gave his name as Abu Ali”. In that version, Cockburn wasn’t a witness.

By far the most egregious incident of journalistic malpractice comes from one of the most celebrated names in journalism: the Pulitzer Prize-winner . In two frontpage articles for the venerable London Review of Books, he claimed that it was the rebels rather than regime that carried out August 2013’s chemical massacre. Hersh attributed this claim to an unnamed “former intelligence official”. Hersh’s theory was contradicted by extant data collected by the UN and OPCW (as I have shown in an extended investigation for the Los Angeles Review of Books). But the story that Hersh was retailing had already been circulating on the internet. It’s authors were a group of former intelligence officials, some of whom are Hersh’s frequent sources. Their main claims were attributed thus:

There is a growing body of evidence from numerous sources in the Middle East — mostly affiliated with the Syrian opposition and its supporters — providing a strong circumstantial case that the August 21 chemical incident was a pre-planned provocation by the Syrian opposition and its Saudi and Turkish supporters.

The date was September 6. But on September 1, the Canadian conspiracy site published an article by one Yossef Bodansky implicating the Obama administration in the chemical attack. It began thus:

There is a growing volume of new evidence from numerous sources in the Middle East — mostly affiliated with the Syrian opposition and its sponsors and supporters — which makes a very strong case, based on solid circumstantial evidence, that the August 21, 2013, chemical strike in the Damascus suburbs was indeed a pre-meditated provocation by the Syrian opposition.

The intelligence officials had plagiarized. Their claim was the figment of a conspiracist’s imagination.

Syria has been a deadly conflict for journalists – it has claimed the lives of 70 so far. Few journalists are willing to venture there any longer—except as guests of the regime.  Those who have made this compromise in turn have acquired influence despite the compromised nature of the journalism that they are producing.  In turn they are shaping public opinion and even policy. We have to be wary of those who see Syria as an opportunity to settle old ideological scores.

An abridged version was first published in “die tageszeitung” on November 25, 2014


First dog On The Moon


We Can’t Destroy ISIS Without Destroying Bashar al Assad First


By Fred Hof

On Wednesday evening, President Obama took 14 minutes to articulate, in clear and persuasive language, a counter-terrorism strategy “to degrade and ultimately destroy the terrorist group known as ISIL.” Yet the problem presented by an ersatz caliph and an amalgam of criminals, terrorists, executioners, and foreign fighters goes far beyond one of counter-terrorism. The Islamic State—just like its parent, Al Qaeda in Iraq—cannot be killed unless the causes of state failure in Syria and Iraq are addressed and rectified. Although such a task cannot be the exclusive or even principal responsibility of the American taxpayer, the president’s strategy, its implementation, and its outcome will be incomplete if it remains solely one of counter-terrorism.

The essential problem that has permitted the Islamic State to roam freely in parts of Iraq and Syria amounting in size to New England is state failure in both places. Redressing this failure is far beyond the unilateral capacity of the United States, as occupation in Iraq and ongoing operations in Afghanistan demonstrate. Still the fact remains that until Syria and Iraq move from state failure to political legitimacy—to systems reflecting public consensus about the rules of the political game—the Islamic State will remain undead no matter how many of its kings, queens, bishops, rooks, and pawns are swept from the table. And yet a strategy that does not address how America and its partners can influence the endgame—keeping the Islamic State in its grave—is simply incomplete.

Iraq and Syria are extreme examples of the fundamental grievances embodied by the 2011 Arab Spring.  Since the 1920s, much of the Arab World has been struggling to answer one fundamental question: what is it that follows the Ottoman Sultan-Caliph as the source of political legitimacy? The answer suggested by protesters in Tunis, Cairo, Deraa, and elsewhere was compellingly correct: the consent of the governed. That autocrats should reject the answer and push back is hardly surprising. Today only Tunisia seems to be on a clear path to legitimacy. Other Arab Spring countries—notably Libya and Yemen—teeter on the brink of state failure. Syria has taken the plunge. Iraq, though not an Arab Spring country per se, is likewise in the pit.

The Obama administration’s strategy, though counter-terrorist in its essence, hints at the broader problem. In a fact sheet issued on September 10, the White House cites “Supporting effective governance in Iraq” as a key pillar of the president’s strategy. It argues, quite correctly, that “only a united Iraq—with a government in Baghdad that has support from all of Iraq’s communities can defeat ISIL.” An important obstacle to legitimate governance in Iraq will be Iran’s arming and financing of Shia militias, which see Iraqi Sunnis—all of them—as supporters of the Islamic State. Interestingly, however, the fact sheet makes no mention of promoting effective, legitimate governance in Syria.

Today’s crisis—that which obligated the President to speak on September 10—has its roots in the March 2011 decision of Syrian President Bashar al Assad to respond with lethal violence to peaceful demonstrators seeking his protection from police brutality. The Assad regime initially escorted Al Qaeda in Iraq operatives from Syria to Iraq between 2003 and 2011, but its violently sectarian response to peaceful protest drew much of what was left of the seemingly beaten Al Qaeda in Iraq back to Syria, where it was joined by foreign fighters and split into two groups: the Islamic State and the Nusra Front.  Both groups compete with the nationalist opposition to Assad—indeed, the Islamic State engages in de facto collaboration with the regime in western Syria to erase the nationalists, even as Assad and the caliph clash in eastern Syria over oil fields and air bases. And it was from secure bases in eastern Syria that the Islamic State launched its recent assault into Iraq, taking advantage of the depredations of yet another illegitimate, sectarian leader: Nouri al Maliki.

Indeed, if sidelining Maliki was the essential first step to getting to legitimate governance in Iraq, what about Assad in Syria? He is the face of Islamic State recruitment around the world. He is the author of war crimes and crimes against humanity that are breathtaking in scope and consequences.

President Obama decided, correctly if belatedly, to seek more robust assistance for beleaguered Syrian nationalists fighting in two directions: against the Islamic State and the regime. Will it work? It would have been easier two years ago, but now there is no choice. Airstrikes will not suffice in executing the counter-terrorism strategy. A ground element is essential, as it has been in Iraq. Indeed, airstrikes in Syria should focus first on Islamic State targets in western Syria, where nationalist forces are desperately trying to repulse the caliph and his forces.

Over three years ago, President Obama called on Bashar al Assad to step aside. Moving this murderous regime offstage will be neither easy nor quick. Yet unless it is a major facet of American strategy, the Islamic State will not be killed. It has been a gift to the Assad regime, one that will keep on giving so long as that regime exists. Legitimate governance in Syria will require much more than removing Assad. But regime removal is the first step, and without legitimate governance in Syria (as well as Iraq) the undead Islamic State will continue to march.

Fred Hof is a Resident Senior Fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. He worked on Syria-related issues in the State Department from 2009 through 2012.



History Repeating Itself? U.S. Bombing Iraq While Jockeying to Oust Leader It Once Favored



Contradictions of the Post-Revolution Assad Regime in Syria’s Protracted Anti-Fascist War


The Leviathan built by Hafez al-Assad, a fascist state stretching from Daraa in the west of Syria to Deir Ezzor in the east, has been shattered irrevocably by thepopular upsurge of the March 15 revolution. Born as a peaceful protest movement for dignity and political reform, the Syrian uprising painfully and organically developed into a revolutionary war to liberate the country from the misrule of Bashar al-Assad’s fascist clique and dismantle his regime’s barbaricinstitutions.


Like all wars, this war in the final analysis is a class war. Suburban and rural (mostly Sunni) farmers, laborers, small merchants, and elements of big businessfight to overthrow their enemies, the urban-based Alawite-dominated state apparatus, that apparat‘s junior partners — the Alawite, Sunni, and Christian bourgeoisies — as well as its Iranian, Iraqi, and Hezbollah enablers. Unfortunately, these enemies do not fight alone: educated professional urban Sunnis constitute the backbone of the civil service bureaucracy that keeps the regime running and some 15%-20% of the adult male Alawite population servein the military-security services. Those who have nothing to lose find themselves in combat fighting those who have nothing to lose but their chains. The have-nots fight for freedom while the have-littles fight for fascism.

“Who do you feel best represents the interests and aspirations of the Syrian people?”

full article here

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



Syria : Sigh of relief after ISIL retreat

Withdrawal of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant fighters from northern Syrian town gives residents hope.

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant recently withdrew from the town of Azaz [Emma Beals/Al Jazeera]
Azaz, Syria Residents of parts of northern Syria say they are breathing easy again after living under the rule of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) fighters, who hastily retreated from the area after the threat of attack from other rebel groups.The eight-kilometre stretch of road from the Turkish border to the small town of Azaz in Aleppo province is now cleared of ISIL gunmen. The hardline group’s main checkpoint at the town’s entrance – under ISIL control since early August – has been abandoned.ISIL insignia still cover a concrete barrier jutting out across the road, but the tanks that demonstrated the group’s military strength have vanished. Only a solitary sofa remains on the gravel roadside – where, until late last month, ISIL armed guards were stationed around the clock, restricting all movement in and out of the community.

“It feels like the town is smiling, laughing, happy,” Azaz resident Abu Bilal told Al Jazeera.

Battles between ISIL and its rival, al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, that began in early January have killed thousands of people – the deadliest fighting among opposition forces since Syria’s civil war began three years ago.

At first united in their opposition against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, the two groups fell out with one another due to ISIL’s brutality and its demands for strict adherence to its ideology. In late February, Jabhat al-Nusra leader Abu Mohammed al-Golani warned ISIL to end the infighting among rebel groups or be “expelled” from northern Syria.

Before making the surprise retreat on February 28, ISIL had expanded its control north to just a few hundred metres of the Bab al-Salam camp for internally displaced people, which sits next to the border crossing into Turkey.

In mid-February, the group detonated a car bomb in the camp, killing at least two dozen people and terrifying the already traumatised residents.

Abu Ahmad was living right next to the spot where the vehicle detonated. His family’s tent was destroyed in the explosion. “Thanks to God, none of my family were inside at the time. All the children play near the road,” he said.

As Ahmad speaks, his eight-year-old son clings to his mother like a much younger child would, his eyes a steely blue-grey. But now, with the ISIL fighters gone, the family feels some relief from the constant fear, Ahmad said.

ISIL had demanded strict adherence to Islamic law with public beatings and executions for those who disobeyed. “Now that [ISIL] left, we feel better,” Ahmad said.

Appalling conditions

The camp – erected hastily in late 2012 and not long after eastern Aleppo fell into rebel hands – used to have 6,000 residents, but it now houses 17,000 people. Having fled bombings and ISIL rule in Azaz, the 17,000 residents have been living in appalling conditions while they wait for the chance to return home.

Living next to the border crossing has not been easy for the camp’s residents, and any imagined safety because of its proximity to Turkey is just that. A huge battle between other rebel groups and ISIL took place here last September, in which 4×4 vehicles mounted with heavy machine guns surged towards Azaz to try to capture the town.

Since then, northern Syria has grown much more dangerous. Local and foreign journalists have been kidnapped and executed, NGO workers have been targeted for being “spies”, and residents have gone into hiding from ISIL’s unforgiving rule.

The ISIL abandoned Azaz, but signs of the hardline group remain [Emma Beals/Al Jazeera]

The border crossing, a vital supply route to the camp and the north of the country, has been closed periodically, depending on the perceived threat of ISIL.

With inconsistent access to supplies and a situation so dangerous that many NGOs and journalists have stopped coming, the camp and its residents have largely been left on their own for survival.

The stench in the Bab al-Salam camp is overwhelming at times. A combination of a lack of toilet facilities and waterlogged, swampy ground creates pools of green water and mud next to small dry patches of dirt where children play.

“We don’t feel any safety here. We are always afraid, afraid of [ISIL],” said Abu Muhammad, a father of two young sons from Aleppo. They have been living at the camp for more than a year.

‘Tactical withdrawal’

ISIL has retreated to an area spanning from al-Bab in the west through Manbij and Jarabalus towards its stronghold in Raqqa, in Syria’s northeast.

“Azaz eventually had little strategic value to [ISIL] because it was cut off from the rest of its contiguous territory… and they were constantly under siege from rival factions. So the withdrawal was tactical,” explained Aymenn al-Tamimi, a fellow at the Middle East Forum who studies jihadist groups.

Azaz was home to an estimated 50,000 people before the war, but about 10,000 have fled, many because of the ISIL’s harsh rule.

“They were manipulating the religion, they forced people to do the prayers,” said Abu Bilal, a driver who works in the town. “They’d bring the people and chop their heads off in public. I mean that’s a person with a soul, right?”

Many residents were evasive when asked about life under ISIL, fearful of the group’s return and suspicious of a journalist’s questioning. Despite its retreat, ISIL has left behind loyalists and spies.

Liwa al-Tawhid, the rebel brigade now in control of Azaz, continues to root out support for the group. Loud explosions could be heard recently as ISIL booby-traps left behind were detonated.

A year ago, the town’s main street was desolate as Assad’s forces shelled Azaz with Scud missiles, a form of collective punishment against those who supported rebel fighters who took control of the Mennagh military airport a few kilometres away.

Today the town is bustling. Women walk freely along streets, and fruit and vegetables are available for sale in small shops. A man in a wheelchair sells cigarettes from a card table surrounded by a flock of children. Tobacco products had been banned by ISIL.

Supplies are also making their way back into the Bab al-Salam camp. The day ISIL left town, 200 trucks were waiting at the Turkish side of the Oncupinar border crossing when it opened for the day.

Yet maintaining the high spirits may not be easy. With high expectations for life after ISIL, the challenge for Liwa al-Tahwid and Jabhat al-Nusra will be maintaining order and ensuring access to supplies.

But for now, residents are enjoying their small victory. “It’s cheerful. You can leave town without any troubles. Thank God,” said Abu Bilal with a smile.


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