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Russia Plays 'IS Threat' Card To Rehabilitate Assad's Feared 'Shabiha'

  • Joanna Paraszczuk

In Mizakh's world view, it's either President Bashar al-Assad or the Islamic State (IS) group who will rule Syria. There is no room for an alternative government.

In Mizakh's world view, it's either President Bashar al-Assad or the Islamic State (IS) group who will rule Syria. There is no room for an alternative government.

"In Syria, a war is going on not against Assad, but against civilization as such."

True to his conviction in his words, 25-five-year-old dual Russian-Syrian citizen Michel Mizakh has gone to Syria to fight.

But Mizakh, who gave a lengthy interview this week to Russian daily Moskovsky Komsomolets, has not chosen to fight alongside the Kurdish Peshmerga or the People's Protection Units (YPG) in his zeal to take on the Islamic State (IS) group.

Instead, he has joined the "Shabiha," aka the National Defense Force -- the unofficial militia fighting on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad's regime that the opposition blames for some of the worst atrocities of Syria's civil war. (In response, Shabiha fighters claim they joined the group to protect themselves and fellow members of the country's Alawite minority from rebel violence.)

Mizakh says the reports of Shabiha violence against civilians are untrue. "It's not our job to organize genocide, but to unite the country," he tells MK.

Fighting For Assad -- And Humanity?

The Russian daily's interview with Mizakh portrays the Shabiha as a militia that is fighting not just to save Assad -- but basic human values as well.

IS is presented as the No. 1 enemy of the Syrian people, with Mizakh describing some of the atrocities the militants have perpetrated. "IS enslaves people, crucifies them, introduces medieval taxes for Christians, and kills Shi'a and Alawites on the spot," he says.

Mizakh says there are Shi'ite fighters from Lebanon and Iran who have also joined the Shabiha. "All the Shi'ite axis of evil supports us," the Shabiha fighter jokes, while adding that the Russian Embassy in Damascus does not agree with Russian fighters joining the militia.

Mizakh's squad consists of 21 fighters, including two Syrians who fled from IS, he says.

His Shabiha group is actually fighting against IS directly, Mizakh claims. As evidence, he cites an incident that he says occurred during clashes with "Islamists" in the Syrian capital.

Mizakh' says his group "captured this one militant, he was a Syrian from Aleppo who admitted he was IS." Before his capture, the IS militant had "killed an Armenian family, a woman and her 4-year-old daughter," Mizakh adds. "He beheaded them."

Are Shabiha groups in Damascus fighting IS? There are reports that IS militants have pushed through into a southern Damascus suburb recently. IS also controls the Yarmouk and Palestine refugee camps in the southern outskirts of the capital.

But Mizakh says that the militant they captured was trying to reach Douma, a town 10 kilometers northeast of Damascus, suggesting that he was not in the south of the city.

IS Bad, Assad Good

In contrast to IS's brutality, Mizakh portrays the Assad government as benevolent. "[Assad] even continues paying the salaries of officials who are now working in IS," he says.

In Mizakh's world view, it's either Assad or IS who will rule Syria. There is no room for an alternative government.

If Assad falls, Mizakh believes IS will overrun Damascus and turn it into another Raqqa, IS's de facto capital in Syria. "Buses run between us [and Raqqa] so we know very well about the alternative to Assad," Mizakh warns.

Perhaps in an attempt to make his comments more interesting to his Russian audience, Mizakh points out that as well as committing atrocities against Syrians, IS militants also hate Russians. And not just Russians, but Slavs in general.

"If IS finds out you're a Slav or have a Slavic wife, then you'll be killed for sure," Mizakh says. "Because after the war in Chechnya, Russia is one of the main enemies of the Islamists."

FSA, IS, Whatever

MK's interview with Mizakh is part of a well-established Russian narrative in which the Syrian civil war is reduced to a battle between IS and the Assad government.

In keeping with a consistent strategy to block moves to remove Assad from power, Moscow has painted the Syrian armed opposition -- even the moderate, Western-backed Free Syrian Army -- as foreign jihadi militants and "terrorists."

MK addresses this issue by asking Mizakh whether Syrians see any difference between IS and other Islamist groups. "How can it make a difference who cuts your head off?" Mizakh retorts.

Mizakh admits -- albeit grudgingly -- that the Free Syrian Army does exist. "Well, there is the Free Army of Syria, but they are a maximum of 10 percent of all rebel forces," he tells MK. "Locals don't want to talk to them about anything either."

Why Promote Shabiha?

While promoting the narrative that Syria is overrun with Islamists who are predominantly IS and in any case not supported by the Syrian people, Moscow has slammed the U.S.-led coalition against IS.

Russia claims U.S.-led anti-IS strikes in Syria are unlawful because Washington and its allies have not asked permission from Assad to carry out military operations on Syrian soil.

According to Moscow's narrative, the United States and its allies must cooperate with Assad and the Syrian Army in order to defeat IS. In Russia's view, "Saving Assad" -- as the headline of the MK interview with Mizakh reads -- is a necessary condition for getting rid of IS.

Mizakh sums up Moscow's stance on Syria in two simple sentences: "In order to counter the Islamists, Assad should establish a dialogue with the people," he explains. "[The Syrian opposition] are demanding that Assad step down. But why, if everyone knows that he would win any fair election?"

About This Blog

"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world. The blog's primary author, James Miller, closely covered the first three years of the Arab Spring, with a focus on Syria, and is now the managing editor of The Interpreter, where he covers Russia's foreign and domestic policy and the Kremlin's wars in Syria and Ukraine. Follow him on Twitter: @Millermena


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