Wednesday, August 24, 2016


The Ultimate Dilemma In Syria's Status Quo

A Syrian woman flashes the victory sign as she celebrates the news of the breaking of the siege of rebel-held areas of Aleppo on August 6.

David Patrikarakos

Good news should be easy to discern in wartime. War, we assume, makes it easy to separate the good guys from the bad; to separate the oppressor from the oppressed; to separate right from wrong.

Sometimes, though, these questions become muddled, and no more so than in the surreally unstable and violent world of the Middle East. Recently, the rebel forces opposing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad made great gains in breaking the regime's siege of the strategically vital city of Aleppo.

The problem remains, however, that the unquestionable success that the rebels have made in Aleppo is, to a large extent, partly down to the efforts of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly the Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Nusra Front -- essentially Al-Qaeda in Syria). The ostensible good guys, the Syrian rebels, who are battling an enemy that has barrel-bombed and butchered them ever since they started out as a peaceful movement merely asking for greater civil rights during the Arab Spring five years ago, are now in debt to jihadists.

The debt is a significant one -- and one that is not lost on Syria's population. As Thomas Pierret, senior lecturer at the University of Edinburgh and an expert on Syria observes over e-mail: "If they [the rebels] manage to keep open the southern access to Aleppo, which was made possible (among other factors) by Fatah al-Sham's [vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices] VBIEDs. If the regime retakes the southern access to Aleppo, things might be different, but Fatah al-Sham would still remain one of the regime's most efficient opponents, which will inevitably reflect positively on its popularity."

Ruthless Bombing

Despite this risk, the breaking of the siege of Aleppo was supposed to bring relief to the citizens who were trapped in the city. That has yet to happen. International aid groups say that it is too dangerous to enter the city without a real cease-fire. While Russia and Assad have nominally accepted those conditions, the Syrian and Russian air forces are ruthlessly bombing the civilian populace in the city, and across much of Syria. The death toll continues to skyrocket.

On August 18, the image of a 5-year-old boy, Omran Daqneesh, became front-page news. Omran had just been saved by a group called the White Helmets, also known as the Syrian Civil Defense Forces, a collection of local Syrians who have been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to help save civilians from the growing pile of rubble and corpses that their country is increasingly becoming. Pictures and video of his tiny face, matted with dried blood and dust, as he and his siblings were loaded into an ambulance and rushed to the hospital, went global. The world was horrified. 

Omar Daqneesh sits bloodied in an ambulance after an air strike in Aleppo.
Omar Daqneesh sits bloodied in an ambulance after an air strike in Aleppo.

But Omran was lucky: he and his family survived, and he has since been released from the hospital. Meanwhile, more than 80 people were killed across the country that night, nearly two dozen of whom were children.

There have even been reports that the United States may join with Russia -- which unequivocally backs Assad -- in a joint military effort to stop the rebels' progress in Aleppo. Such a scenario remains unlikely, but it is a testament to how precarious the situation is in Syria -- and how utterly confused it is.

So why has a major responsibility in the war against butchery been handed to butchers?

The answer is depressingly simple: No one country is willing to risk getting involved in a major war in the Middle East to stand up to the Syrian and Russian governments. For five years, Assad has been allowed to kill with impunity -- literally in the vicinity of U.S. jets that looked on helpless to act. Washington is in an admittedly tricky situation. A war-weary American public elected Barack Obama in 2008 partly on his promise to end the U.S. military's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The people were sick of dead Americans, Afghans, and Iraqis. The last thing Obama wanted to do was to get sucked into another Middle East nightmare. And there is a valid logic to that line of thought.

Root Cause Of Insurgency

Obama's decision not to intervene in Syria -- to avoid having to once more expend American life and resources at a time when the country is still recovering from the 2008 financial crisis -- is considered by many to be the right move. But not all agree with that assessment. As Pierret once again observes, "critics of Obama generally reproach him for backtracking on his 'red line' with regard to the use of chemical weapons in 2013, but perhaps an even bigger mistake was the decision to intervene alongside the Syrian Air Force in September 2014 while not moving a finger to curtail daily attacks against civilians." Syrians saw more bombs drop from the air, this time from the United States as well as Assad; and yet more civilians, not merely members of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group, were killed in this process.

"At the time there was no Russian air force around, and it would have been very easy for the overwhelmingly superior USAF [United States Air Force] to make it clear to the decaying Syrian Air Force that it wasn't allowed to bomb the USAF's zone of operations, i.e. the northern half of Syria. This has of course contributed to the perception by many Syrians that the United States is in fact complicit with Assad…hence to anti-Western radicalization," he says.

But this fact does not in any way detract from the root cause of the rebel insurgency, which is Assad's barbarity, which began during the first days of the uprising when the regime arrested, killed, and tortured the then-peaceful protesters. And the more it increased its barbarity, the more radicalized the insurgents became. The more the world ignored their plight, the more they were forced to turn to anyone who would help them.

This month, while Russia bombed Aleppo's hospitals -- and then boasted about it on state media -- the victorious rebel groups, let by jihadists, brought fruit to its starving population. Brutal they may be; jihadist they most certainly are; but they know how to do public relations -- especially in a field where due to the timorousness of the onlooking world they have little competition.

Nonetheless, the jihadists don't have it all their own way. Again Pierret is on point: "The level of distrust towards jihadists among the rest of the opposition (including non-jihadi Islamist insurgents) is frequently understated (if known about at all) in the West," he writes. And he is right. Assad and his acolytes deny that such a thing as a "moderate" opposition exists but the rebels continue to form a kaleidoscopic mix of elements -- from the secular to the extreme. This past week, as U.S.-backed rebels liberated Manbij from IS, videos showed residents celebrating: men cut their beards, while women burned their niqabs and smoked cigarettes, as they celebrated their freedom from their oppressive theological overlords.

"It has long been assumed by many Western observers and decision-makers," Pierret concludes, "that there are no good guys in Syria, or at least that the good guys are irrelevant. Yet, this assumption is proven wrong by the fact that we still see them dying every day after five years of conflict. The problem is, good guys are dying fast, and in such apocalyptic circumstances, [and] are increasingly replaced by radicalized people."

And herein lies the ultimate dilemma of the status quo in Syria. The more the rebels succeed, the more the democrats among them face ultimate defeat. Those fighting Assad are fighting to defeat visceral barbarism; to defeat a tyrant with absolutely no regard for the democratic process; to defeat a man who is responsible for slaughter on a massive scale. And in that endeavor our natural reactions should be to wish them every success.

The inescapable problem is who and what exactly are the Western countries supporting? If Assad goes -- and we must hope that he does -- what comes next? The answer to that question will define the Middle East for generations to come.

David Patrikarakos is a contributing editor at the Daily Beast and the author of Nuclear Iran: The Birth Of An Atomic State. He is working on a book on social media and war. The views expressed in this piece are the author's own

With Use Of Iranian Base, Russia Is Trying To Send Clear Message

Syrian rescue workers carry a victim on a stretcher following a reported air strike on the rebel-held northwestern city of Idlib on August 17.

James Miller

On August 15, Al-Masdar News, an outlet with close ties to the Syrian government’s security apparatus, released photos of a Russian TU-22M3 long-distance strategic bomber, which were reportedly taken at the Hamadan airfield in Iran. By the next morning, Russian state-run media was running reports that Russian strategic bombers had taken off from the Iranian base and struck targets in Aleppo, Deir ez-Zor, and Idlib provinces in Syria.

Syrian activists and citizens posted videos of the massive devastation and reportedly high casualty rates on the ground as the result of air strikes, some of which were presumably the work of Russia’s TU-22M3s. While a statement from Russia’s Defense Ministry said the August 15 strikes had killed militants from the Islamic State (IS) extremist group and Jabhat Al-Sham (formerly the Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Nusra Front), Colonel Christopher Garver, a spokesman for the U.S. military’s Operation Inherent Resolve, told reporters that "we don't see concentrations of ISIS" in the areas of Aleppo and Idlib, where the majority of the Russian air strikes hit.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner told Voice of America that Russian jets appear to have continued their pattern of “continually, predominantly target[ing] moderate Syrian opposition forces.”

Since September 2015, the Russian Air Force has been conducting air strikes across Syria. Most of the aircraft used in these operations have been launched out of the Russian air base in Latakia, in northeastern Syria. TU-22M3s have been used by Russia in Syria, but they are too large for Russia’s air strips in the country, so they have flown from bases in Russia. The use of the Iranian air base shortens the length of the bombers’ sorties, which would potentially save the Russian Air Force time, fuel, and maintenance costs, although those savings could be at least partially offset by the expense of operating in a new country.

It is also questionable whether the strategic bombers add much to Russia’s operational capabilities. The anti-Assad rebels they appear to be targeting aren’t holding the kinds of heavily fortified ground positions or using sophisticated tanks that the missiles fired by the TU-22M3 were designed to destroy. Instead, Russia has mainly used strategic bombers in Syria to carpet-bomb cities and towns, a tactic that is devastating to civilians below. Russia has also used strategic bombers to launch cruise missiles, a move which many experts consider to be symbolic, rather than tactical, in nature.

The use of Russian strategic bombers, however, is not without purpose. First, when Russia starting using cruise missiles in the fall of 2015, those missiles had to travel through Iranian and Iraqi airspace, which meant those countries had to approve the flight plans. This week, once again, Russia sought clearance to use the airspace over Iran and Iraq to launch cruise missiles. Thus, Russia was signaling to its adversaries that its mission in Syria had legitimacy and had been approved by other countries. 

Second, as so many of Russia’s air strikes have targeted armed groups that have fought IS and have received backing from the United States, the Russians were sending a message when these bombers first appeared, to Syrians -- and indeed the world -- that Moscow was willing to back its allies with the entire might of the Kremlin, and there was nothing anyone could do to stop them. 

During the summer of 2015 that preceded the start of Russia's air campaign, the military of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had lost significant ground to anti-Assad rebels who were cutting deeper and deeper into government territory. Russia's intervention, thus, was designed to reverse their momentum and crush Assad's opposition. It worked, for a time. Until last month, Syria's rebels were on the retreat in much of the country, as the Syrian government advanced with the help of the Russian Air Force, Russian mercenaries, Hizballah fighters, Shi'ite militias from Iraq, and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commandos.

A still image taken from video footage released by Russia's Defense Ministry shows a Russian Tupolev Tu-22M3 long-range bomber based in Iran dropping off bombs at an unknown location in Syria.
A still image taken from video footage released by Russia's Defense Ministry shows a Russian Tupolev Tu-22M3 long-range bomber based in Iran dropping off bombs at an unknown location in Syria.

In the last month, however, Syrian rebels have broken the siege of Aleppo and have potentially reversed the momentum of the war once again, a testament to the weakness of the Assad military. Russia may once again be ramping up its direct involvement in the conflict in order to push the rebels back.

Third, not only did Russia prove that it, too, was still capable of waging a war beyond its immediate borders, it also demonstrated several previously untested weapons systems, with the potential to make lots of money in arms sales in the process.

Russia might also have more malign aims. In the fall of 2015, at the start of Russia’s bombing campaign, Raed Fares, a well-known Syrian activist living in Kafranbel, in Idlib Province, told me that despite the fact that the town was controlled by a U.S.-vetted moderate rebel group, the Forsan al-Haq Brigade, and IS had not held positions anywhere near the town in two years, a Russian air strike created the most spectacular and frightening explosion he had ever seen. In Kafranbel, a symbol of the anti-Assad revolution that has been heavily bombed by Assad since 2012, that’s saying something. 

The result, for Fares, was a feeling of hopelessness.

“Assad has been killing us for five years, then Hizballah, and Iran, then Russia...All of them are killing us, but no one in the world cares for us,” he told me then. It seems that a key component of the pro-Assad coalition’s strategy is to chase people like Fares from Syria. If no one is left in the country but jihadists and Assad supporters, because moderates have either been killed, turned into refugees, or radicalized, then the Russian narrative that all those who oppose Assad are terrorists will finally become the truth. 

Furthermore, the sowing of further chaos and the creation of yet more refugees also benefits Assad and Russia. Many more refugees will flee to Assad’s regional adversaries, making them weaker in the process. Others will flee to Europe, where far-right, sometimes pro-Kremlin, Euroskeptic political parties are helping trying to weaken the European Union from within.


Failed Coup Just Latest Crisis Pushing Turkey Away From West

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan greets supporters during a rally against the failed July 15 military coup in Istanbul on August 7.

Ilhan Tanir

The effects of the July 15 coup attempt in Turkey continue to ripple through the country, and indeed far beyond. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has placed blame for the coup attempt squarely at the feet of cleric Fethullah Gulen, who is living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania. The coup attempt is just the latest event to stress the relationship between Turkey and the West, and as that alliance deteriorates it will have serious repercussions for regional security in the Middle East, the crisis in Syria, geopolitical balance, and the fight against terrorist groups like Islamic State (IS).

The aftermath in Turkey continues, jeopardizing key Turkish state institutions. About 80,000 people who are suspected to be affiliated with the Gulen movement, which Turkey declared a terrorist organization in 2015 under the name Gulenist Terrorist Organization (FETO), have been removed from their jobs at various Turkish state institutions, including about 45,000 workers from the Education Ministry alone. Turkish Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag's latest numbers state that 18,000 people have been formally arrested, while another 6,000 detainees are still being processed.

Reports indicate that Turkey's penal system was already overstretched with crowded prisons and backlogged courts. This spring, Turkey's prisons held 188,000 detainees, around 8,000 more than existing capacity. Now, it faces the added burden of handling an influx of tens of thousands detained in the aftermath of the attempted putsch. Since about 3,000 prosecutors and judges are among those detained, accounting for a little more than 20 percent of Turkey's judiciary staff, challenges at Turkish courthouses and jails are becoming overwhelming. And President Erdogan has declared that these arrests are only the tip of the iceberg, so it is reasonable to expect many more to be arrested in the coming days.

Erdogan is working to shore up his personal control of the country, and any critics of his government may be caught up in his net. Under rules governing a state of emergency, which can only be declared by the president, authorities can detain anyone for up to 30 days without needing to show any evidence or bring any charges. Seventy-seven journalists are currently sitting in jails, 42 of whom are implicated in some kind of involvement with the attempted coup. The true number of arrested journalists may be higher, as the detentions of local reporters often go unrecorded across Turkey.

According to testimonies, jailed journalists have been asked about their writings in their columns, tweets, or books, but were not presented any evidence by authorities that would tie them to the failed coup. They are effectively being held for alleged thought crimes, accused of "embracing FETO" and "excusing the coup attempt," which are very vague accusations. Kurdish reporters are being rounded up as well, even if they have no known ties to Gulen.

A Wide Net

Before the coup, many Turkish politicians, leaders, and high-level bureaucrats were racing to receive Gulen's blessings. As a result, now almost anyone from any Turkish political party can be arrested in Turkey for allegedly being a member of, or associated with, the Gulen movement or FETO. In fact, former Istanbul Governor Huseyin Avni Mutlu -- who was instrumental in quelling antigovernment protests in 2013 over plans for Istanbul's Taksim Gezi Park on behalf of Erdogan -- was arrested for allegedly being a member of FETO, and he has since confessed to speaking with Gulen in 2012.

Meanwhile, some of the jailed journalists and others are having difficulties finding a lawyer because many human rights lawyers are also detained or on the run. In Turkey, lawyers can be detained over the types of suspects they are defending, a brazen attack on fundamental rights and the essence of the judicial institution.

Turkey has never had a free press. However, in the past relatively independent newspapers tied to various powerhouses in Turkey made the country's media environment vibrant and more representative of various segments of Turkish society. As Erdogan consolidated his power and became Turkey's unrivaled political leader, the press's editorial freedom and room for debate narrowed accordingly. According to Reporters Without Borders, Turkey ranked 151th out of 184 countries in the 2015-16 Press Freedom Index, faring even worse than Russia.

Following the coup, things have become much worse. A single decree issued by Erdogan's palace on July 27 effectively banned more than 130 media organizations (TV channels, magazines, newspapers, news portals, etc.). It's true that many of those media outlets are affiliated with the Gulen movement, but many other media outlets on the list are not.

This crackdown, which has been criticized by many Western leaders, is only further distancing Turkey from its Western allies.

The attempted coup, as Erdogan put it in the first hours of July 16 during his Ataturk Airport press conference, was "a gift from God," as it would help him cleanse the military of "members of the gang," or "viruses." However, it seems that there are many others apart from Gulenists who are also being "cleansed" from state institutions. For example, neo-nationalist and secular columnist Emin Colasan complained loudly that many "pro-Ataturk, republican, and secular" citizens also became victims in the guise of the Gulenist witch-hunt.

Syria, A Catalyst For Turkey's Break With The West

When looking back, 2013 seems to be the year when everything started going in the wrong direction as far as Erdogan's international standing is concerned.

Then-Prime Minister Erdogan visited the White House in May 2013, and was given a high-level reception. However, behind the scenes of goodwill and roses (there was a press briefing at the Rose Garden), leaders were unable to agree on the main issue -- how to respond to the crisis in Syria. Only two weeks after the visit, the Gezi park protests started. The way Erdogan quelled the protests attracted worldwide condemnation, including from the United States and others in the West. Erdogan's smiling and reformist face suddenly turned upside down as his image morphed into that of an authoritarian-Islamist leader. Erdogan, despite warnings from U.S. President Barack Obama in the face-to-face meeting, continued his Syria policy of supporting all kinds of fighters against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, including jihadists.

Tension between the United States and Turkey continued over Syria, the fate of Assad, the response to IS, and the stance with regard to Syrian Kurdish groups. After the June 7, 2015, elections, in which Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) failed to get a majority, the Turkish government decided to open the Incirlik air base to the U.S.-led coalition for anti-IS operations.

Many observers thought this could be the turning point for Turkey's relationship with the West. However, the honeymoon did not last long. Turkey resumed its fight against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) -- which is considered to be a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States, and the European Union -- at the same time it opened the Incirlik base to anti-IS operations.

Ankara's stance to the Syrian Kurdish group PYD and its military wing, the YPG -- which the United States has not designated as terrorist organizations and which are major players in Washington's strategy against Islamic State -- also became much more hawkish. Insisting there was no difference between the PYD and the PKK, Erdogan said that one "cannot speak of good terrorists and bad terrorists" and that one terrorist organization "should not be given a cloak of legitimacy" under the guise of fighting IS. Erdogan asked the United States and the West to agree with him. Instead, the United States increased its support to Syrian Kurds against IS with the help of its Incirlik operations. In other words, while Erdogan was condemning the PYD/YPG as terrorist organizations, the United States was expanding its logistical help to the same groups from an air base on Turkish soil.

Erdogan's Syria policy never became popular with the Turkish public. As the crisis across the border turned into a full-scale civil war and millions of Syrians began seeking safe haven in Turkey, Erdogan's Syria policy became a liability. However, since Erdogan has kept increasing his influence in the Turkish private media world, and since as president he controls state TV stations, radios, and news agencies, his ability to shape public opinion, at least among his base, has been left unrivaled. Erdogan masterfully manipulated voters by scapegoating various foreign leaders -- including Syria's Assad; Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who toppled elected President Muhammad Morsi; Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; or Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps commander Qassem Soleimani -- blaming each for various problems over the years that slowly isolated Turkey further, and deeper.

While polarizing the country between seculars and conservatives, Alevis and Sunnis, Turks and Kurds -- at any given time Erdogan has been able to divide and rule. Incompetent opposition leaders were busy consolidating their powers within their own parties by eliminating rivals, working to stay at the helm of their respectful political parties, rather than finding ways to reach out to broader segments of Turkish society to earn the top executive job. Consequently, Erdogan, as unpopular as it has been, has not had to change his Syria policy as president due to the lack of credible challenges coming from opposition forces.

Despite all the power he has accumulated inside Turkey, Erdogan's "erratic" behavior, antidemocratic policies, and anti-Western statements kept alienating both Western and Eastern friends. While Erdogan cut a deal with European leaders to curb the flow of migrants to the EU, the deal did not significantly boost his international standing. Even after Erdogan overcame the coup attempt, Western leaders steered clear of visiting Ankara. As Erdogan has repeated many times, not a single EU member-state leader has visited Erdogan since the coup attempt to offer condolences.

And Then There Is The Fight Against Islamic State

On top of all of Turkey's internal issues and fight with the PKK, IS started bombing targets inside Turkey within the past year. IS militants first hit Kurdish targets before and after the June 2015 elections that elevated Erdogan to the presidency. Then, tourists in Sultanahmet were targeted in January, and Israeli tourists in Beyoglu in March. On June 29, two weeks before the coup attempt, Istanbul's Ataturk Airport was hit by a deadly attack that Ankara says was carried out by IS militants.

Turkey's already-challenged system has become more fragile since July 15. One month since the coup attempt, Erdogan must now make some big decisions both domestically and regionally. The first is how long he will continue his crackdown on democratic institutions, opposition groups, and governmental checks and balances. If he continues down the same authoritarian road, Turkey's economic and political regression, along with the potential collapse of its institutions, could cause further instability.

All indications suggest that Erdogan is extremely angry, to say the least, at the United States and the European Union for their perceived lack of sympathy to Turkey's civilian rulers after the coup. Accusations that the United States was behind the coup, openly and repeatedly stated by state-run media and government ministers, are clues that relations between Turkey and the West have become even further strained. It's anybody's guess how long Turkey can hold to this type of anti-American and anti-Western rhetoric and expect to stay allies with the United States and Europe. Gulen's stay in Pennsylvania surely makes relations thornier.

Will Erdogan turn to Moscow and Tehran instead of Washington and Brussels if he cannot get Gulen extradited? Can Russia and Iran really replace the West? Does Erdogan really want to untie Turkey's hundreds of years of anchorage to the West and 70 years of history with NATO?

These questions are now being asked every day, on TV news shows, and in tea houses across Turkey.

Ilhan Tanir is a Turkish analyst and journalist based in Washington, D.C.

In Syria, Rebel Victories At Ramouseh Come With A Price

A fighter from Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly the Al-Nusra Front, drives a tank through apartment blocks in southwestern Aleppo on August 5. The group used suicide sappers and tunnel bombs to break open the Syrian Army's battle lines and main defenses.

Last updated (GMT/UTC): 06.08.2016 17:39

James Miller

Just one week ago, the rebels who controlled the last few neighborhoods of Aleppo that remain in opposition hands found themselves surrounded and running out of time. The Syrian government and its allies had surrounded what was once Syria's largest city and the country's financial capital. Many feared a humanitarian disaster would unfold, and the regime's recapture of Aleppo would be a devastating blow to anti-Assad forces who do not have full control of a single major city in all of Syria.

Today, the situation is very different.

On August 6, rebel forces broke through the walls of perhaps the most important military base in all of northern Syria. As I explained for The Interpreter on August 1, the Ramouseh artillery base and academy has served as the foundation of the Assad regime's control of Aleppo city -- and with it all of Aleppo Province -- since the city was first attacked by rebel groups in 2012:

The Ramouseh artillery base and academy was the key to maintaining some control in Aleppo for the Assad regime between the summer of 2012 and today. The artillery units there were crucial to [intimidating protesting students], and later in the regime's efforts to flatten the Hamadaniyah and Salah el Din districts just north of the base. The artillery turned regime strongholds into death traps, transforming the battle for Aleppo into a game of inches waged by snipers, artillery, and aircraft. Since regime forces were often outnumbered over the course of those years, this leveled the playing field.

The victory may relieve the humanitarian situation in Aleppo (though this remains to be seen). Furthermore, if the base falls and the regime does not quickly recapture it, Assad could be in danger of losing all of Aleppo. This battle is a testament to how weak the Assad military has become. Even with direct support from the Russian Air Force, tanks, and troops, as well as militants from Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran, Assad may have just snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

How, then, does he ever hope to restore order to Syria?

LATEST: Syrian Opposition Says Government Siege Of Aleppo Broken
 

But this battle also comes at a price -- a key Al-Qaeda-linked group has helped spearhead the attack on the city. Operating under the umbrella organization Jaish al-Fatah, Army of Conquest, the newly rebranded Al-Nusra Front, now Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, used suicide sappers and tunnel bombs to break open the Syrian Army's battle lines and main defenses, through which various rebel groups are now streaming. As David Patrikarakos explained for RFE/RL on August 4, while many more moderate rebel groups also played very important roles, Al-Qaeda's leading role may impact the entire trajectory of the war moving forward.

Fighters from Jabhat Fateh al-Sham in southwestern Aleppo on August 5
Fighters from Jabhat Fateh al-Sham in southwestern Aleppo on August 5

As history has shown us, without a singular leader, and without unified and consistent outside support, whichever group wins battles usually becomes the banner carrier on Syria's battlefields. History shows us that victory is the key for Syrian rebel groups. To see this in action, we should look to the beginning of the crisis.

Protesters first took to the streets against Syrian President Bash al-Assad in March 2011, starting the Syrian chapter of the regionwide protest movement that had already swept through much of the Middle East. At first, the demand was not the removal of the president but instead a series of pro-democratic reforms. Those protests were met with violence. As more cities and towns took to the streets and the protests in each one of them grew larger, so, too, did the violence against the protesters grow more intense.

First, protesters were arrested and beaten, then teargassed, and then they were shot at. As members of the military and police grew disgusted by their orders to shoot unarmed civilians, those who did not follow orders were also attacked by the military. By the summer of 2011, regime defectors were hiding in the deserts and mountains, and the battle for the future of Syria began.

By February 2012, the protest movement in Syria was making its final transition into a full-blown civil war. By this time, Homs, a working-class city in the center of Syria, was in full rebellion. Assad, in direct contradiction to his agreement with the Arab League, deployed his tanks and artillery to the city. The death toll exploded, and even peaceful protesters began to realize that Assad would stop at nothing to kill all those who opposed him. For many Syrians rebels whom I've spoken with over the years, the siege of Homs was the moment they realized that there was no peaceful solution to the conflict. It was time to take up arms.

Despite what Syria has become, it might come as a surprise to many that at this time there were effectively no armed groups that had an obvious jihadist or Salafist ideology. Syria was a secular country with a secular military, most rebels were former military or police, and despite being driven to take up arms, they were not particularly interested in overthrowing their government, much less installing some sort of Islamic caliphate, the stated goal of groups like Al-Qaeda and the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS), which were relative latecomers to this crisis. What Western leaders often refer to now as the “moderate opposition” made up nearly the entirety of the opposition back in early 2012.

But already there were rumors of “bad men” among some rebel groups. Syrian activists whom I consulted at the time, both nonviolent activists and rebels, warned of a group that was increasingly popular with both rebel fighters and some citizens alike – the Al-Farouq Brigade. At a time when most of the armed opposition simply identified as the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Farouq took its own name. It operated under its own orders, often overruling other FSA fighters and commanders in the area around Homs. The rumors quickly spread, some propagated by the Assad regime and others by rival rebel groups or scared civilians, that it was ruling Homs like a mafia state, collecting taxes and intimidating the populace. More than anything, though, the Al-Farouq Brigade was more committed to doing whatever it took to defeat Assad. It was the first rebel group to focus on taking and controlling inhabited cities and towns, and it preferred to take the fight to Assad in offensive battles.

The group's reputation soon grew because it was winning, and because it was taking the initiative. Many FSA fighters saw their leaders as weak and indecisive, and so Farouq was a welcome alternative.

Success bred success. The more battles it won, the more popular the group became.

But the Al-Farouq Brigade was still part of the moderate opposition. Soon, another group was gaining prominence in northern Syria -- the Al-Nusra Front, Syria's Al-Qaeda affiliate. Al-Nusra started as little more than a YouTube video in January 2012. By taking credit for terrorist attacks, some of which it may not have even perpetrated, Al-Nusra soon proved that it, too, was capable of doing what it took to win. Its radical Islamic ideology allowed it to motivate its followers behind a religious objective – the destruction of the government of the Alawite sect and the construction of a Sunni Salafist caliphate. Its adherence to Shari'a law, not pro-democracy ideals, gave it an excuse to dictate orders from the top, rather than seek consensus, which made its leadership, its rule, appear stronger than it really was.

Soon, Al-Nusra had a new rival, Islamic State, which was even more focused, even more brutal, and even more successful on the battlefields of Syria. By early 2014, the most extreme members of the Al-Farouq Brigade, perhaps sensing their own obsolescence, had joined one of these more successful and bloodthirsty groups, while still more members of Al-Farouq joined less radical groups that still had a strong religious identity, reducing the group to one that is now of limited importance. Other Free Syrian Army units are still numerous, but their leadership is more splintered and their ideology, while relatively moderate, is less iconic, less unified, and much harder to define.

After five and a half years of war, the Assad regime, not any terrorist group, is responsible for the vast majority of the deaths in Syria, and an even larger number of the refugees who have fled the constant killing. Groups like Al-Nusra and Islamic State rely on their history of defeating the Assad regime and restoring law and order, even if it is a barbarous order, as their main tools of controlling the people and attracting new members.

When Al-Nusra's suicide bombers opened the way for the opposition to win key bases in Idlib Province, it became the dominant force in that region. When IS's path of bloodshed led to its victories in Syria's east, it was soon able to consolidate territory and declare its caliphate.

There is a real danger that, unless they score a major win soon, moderate groups in Aleppo Province could also give way to groups with more radical ideologies, such as the victorious Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, with all of the problems that such a development would entail.


Analysis: Why The Battle For Aleppo Could Change The Direction Of The War In Syria 

Free Syrian Army fighters fire from the back of a pick-up truck in the Ramous area, southwest of Aleppo, on August 2.

David Patrikarakos

The Syrian civil war is as confusing and opaque as it is sadistic and bloody. On one side stands Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a barbarous tyrant backed by Iran and Russia, Hizbullah, and Shi'ite militias from Iraq, the remnants of the Syrian army, and the odd Kurdish splinter group. 

Against him are arrayed multiple rebel groups including the Islamic State extremist group, Al-Qaeda, and a host of more moderate rebel factions. It is often hard for the observer to make sense of events, let alone understand their true importance. But one thing is clear: the insurgent offensive under way right now in Aleppo aimed at breaking the government siege of rebel-held areas in the east of the city may reshape the direction of the entire war.

On the weekend of July 30-31, the surrounded rebels who held the center of Aleppo city and a larger body of rebel groups to the west of the city tried to reconnect their battle lines, striking at a position in the strategic Ramouseh district. But, as ever, outgunned, the regime fought back: using Russian airstrikes to try to halt the advance. 

Syria's revolution is now unequivocally in the balance. As Kyle Orton,  a research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, points out in an e-mail interview with RFE/RL, Aleppo is the last major urban holding of the mainstream armed opposition in Syria. If the political process is to amount to anything other than a regime victory in all but name, the rebels have to hold Aleppo City. For its part, the regime, with Russian and Iranian help, has severely lessened the strategic threat from the insurgency already -- for them to retake Aleppo City would kill it. Orton is blunt: "In short, the course of the entire war is in the balance with the fate of Aleppo."

If the rebels succeed in breaking the siege then the pro-regime coalition will suffer a serious strategic setback. As Orton further notes, "the pro-Assad forces [are holding] out in northwestern Syria by some relatively tenuous supply lines through Hama and southern Aleppo." If the rebel positions in Idlib Province and southwestern Aleppo are expanded to include areas of Aleppo City, Assad's bases in the north come under serious threat, and with it Assad's chance of crushing the rebellion entirely. 

Detoxifying The Islamist Brand

But there is another more complex and disturbing possibility that encapsulates the problems of Syria in a microcosm. The main rebel players in the offensive are Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly the Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Nusra Front), Ahrar al-Sham, and Free Syrian Army brigades. Al-Qaeda in Syria's renaming of itself as Fatah al-Sham -- officially for the sake of "rebel unity" -- is, in reality, little more than a move to publicly detoxify its brand. 

And this is where a major question about the timing of the offensive comes in. Endless rounds of failed peace talks have yielded nothing for the rebels. Discussions of talks scheduled for late August are likely to yield nothing once again. With Iran and now Russia behind it, the regime is now so strong it has little incentive to compromise. Meanwhile, Russian support is not merely confined to the battlefield. Its diplomatic efforts have deftly changed the conversation from one centering on Assad's removal to the conditions under which he will stay in power.

Food stocks are rapidly dwindling in the besieged city.
Food stocks are rapidly dwindling in the besieged city.

As each cease-fire inevitably failed (almost invariably broken by pro-Assad forces), Al-Qaeda was eventually able to claim, back in December 2015, that the entire peace process was a "conspiracy" against the revolution. And its absurd claims gained traction among an increasingly desperate population who saw little reaction from the onlooking global community. More than this, after each cease-fire ended, Al-Qaeda was the mainstay of much of the rebel fight back -- it was even able to make significant gains in southern Aleppo. In essence, the rebels allowed Al-Qaeda back into the mainstream opposition by their own adherence to previous cease-fire agreements.

Under its new Jabhat Fatah al-Sham banner, the group can now use the Aleppo offensive as a means by which to further integrate into the mainstream rebel alliance. As Orton states, it presents the group with its best chance yet of using "the rebellion as a shield against external attack, annexing what is an objectively good cause -- breaking the nascent terror-siege of Aleppo City…[to] show its utility as the military tip of the spear to act as a kind of special forces for the insurgency -- and…make connections and alliances that can facilitate its vanguardist program."

Short Supplies

Meanwhile, the possibility of (yet another) humanitarian catastrophe becomes increasingly distinct. The UN estimates that some 300,000 people are trapped inside the city with rapidly shrinking medical supplies and, critically, declining stocks of food. The regime is clearly going all-out to capture Aleppo and crush the rebellion once and for all.Thus far, however, it has been slow to respond to the rebel counterattack. This state of affairs will not last. It will rain down destruction from the air and the ground. 

So far reports are sketchy due to an insurgency media blackout in the area, but it does appear that the rebels are making significant steps toward breaking the siege. According to some reports, on August 1, they captured the strategic Al-Mishrefah area, south of the Ramousah air force artillery base. But they still needed to advance another 2.5 kilometers to take the city's artillery base, one of the biggest in all of Syria and a base that has been the linchpin of Assad's defenses in the city.

Achieving this would allow them to reach their fellow rebels on the Aleppo side. Now, according to Orton, "fragmentary reports [say] there has been intense fighting and very rapid and significant gains for the insurgency…coming within several hundred yards of breaking the siege on eastern Aleppo City."

If these reports are true -- or if the rebels are able to make minor gains or at least maintain the status quo in the city -- then once again it will be Jabhat Fatah al-Sham that benefits the most. In leading the charge to rescue the besieged population while the world looks on, it will have irretrievably bound itself to the armed opposition in Northern Syria. 

And that is a scenario that benefits no one -- not the mainstream rebels and most of all, not Syria's long-suffering people.


Islamic State, Nice, And The European Jihadism That Is Here To Stay

Eighty-four people were killed in Nice, France, in an attack claimed by Islamic State. "This is a new type of attack," says historian and Arabist Pieter Van Ostaeyen.

David Patrikarakos

Brussels, Paris (twice), and now Nice: Four crippling jihadist attacks in just over 18 months. The extremist group Islamic State’s fastidious sadism has arrived in Europe, and it looks like our problems are only just beginning.

Last week, on July 14, as evening celebrations for Bastille Day (France’s version of Independence Day) took place on the Promenade des Anglais -- the central promenade of the Mediterranean coastal city of Nice -- Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, a Tunisian living in France, deliberately drove a 19-ton refrigerated truck into the crowds, killing 84 people and wounding more than 300. 

Panic broke out among the thousands that had gathered to watch the evening’s fireworks as the attacker entered the promenade, repeatedly swerving to hit as many people as possible. He exchanged some initial fire with police but was able to continue for almost 2 kilometers before they were finally able to surround the truck, strafe it with gunfire, and finally kill him. By that point, hundreds of twisted bodies and pools of blood littered the seafront. It was a true act of savagery. 

As French security officials scrambled to make sense of the situation, it initially appeared that Lahouaiej-Bouhlel might be a “lone wolf” attacker, one with perhaps psychological problems or unknown grievances. He had, it emerged, a criminal record, mostly for violence and petty theft, as well a history of psychiatric problems. Critically, however, he was not on the French intelligence “fiche S” list of suspected jihadists.

Two days later, however, IS claimed responsibility for the attack, announcing on its Amaq News Agency channel that the “executor of the deadly operation in Nice, France, was a soldier of the Islamic State. He executed the operation in response to calls to target citizens of coalition nations, which fight the Islamic State.”

It does appear that Lahouaiej-Bouhlel may have been part of a wider network. On July 17, two Albanians were arrested on suspicion of supplying him with the 7.65 mm automatic pistol he used to fire on police.

But according to historian and Arabist Pieter Van Ostaeyen, the delay between the attack and IS’s claim of responsibility for it raises doubts over the true extent of his links to the group -- an assessment the French authorities appear to share.

“It seems he became radicalized very quickly," French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said on July 17. "This is a new type of attack. We are now confronted with individuals that are sensitive to the message of [IS] and are committed to extremely violent actions without necessarily being trained by them."

This would be in keeping with IS strategy. As far back as September 22, 2014, IS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani ash-Shami had advised wannabe jihadists who wanted to carry out lone attacks on the various means by which they could strike at the infidel:

“If you are not able to find an IED or a bullet, then single out the disbelieving American, Frenchman, or any of their allies. Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car...”

“This call to kill crusaders has been repeated many times since,” Van Ostaeyen told me by e-mail, and clearly it struck a chord with Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, on whose computer police found many IS videos. 

But perhaps the real clue to all this goes even further back, to 2004, when the Islamist strategist Abu Bakr Naji published, online, The Management Of Savagery, a pamphlet aiming to provide a strategy by which Al-Qaeda could eventually form an Islamic caliphate. Published before IS even came into being (in its present form), it has since become one its guiding principles; it is reportedly read widely among the group’s commanders.

Central to Naji's ethos is that the more military responses Islamic extremists can provoke from the West, the more those powers will become worn down through a process of attrition -- both in terms of resources, public support at home, and anger among the ummah -- the world’s global Muslim community. If nothing else, the Iraq war proved him right on this count.

A more recent example came in November of last year, when, just two days after the Bataclan concert hall attack, which left 130 people dead, France launched its most extensive bombing campaign against IS to date, repeatedly pounding its stronghold of Raqqa. In essence, French President Francois Hollande played right into Naji's hands. But he had no choice. The enraged French public needed to see their leader take clear and decisive action. Thus did France expend military resources and anger Muslims in the Middle East -- without making a significant dent in IS’s capabilities. 

IS has taken Naji's strategy and improved on it -- namely by forcing Western nations into a double bind by the use of terrorist acts carried out by (usually) locally born militants to create divisions, and preferably sow hatred, between minority Muslim communities and the majority in Western countries. The formula is simple yet deadly effective: The more homegrown jihadists appear in France, Belgium, and the U.K., the more their respective governments must monitor their Muslim communities. And the more they monitor them, the more it fuels resentment among them. And the more resentment that is fueled, the more jihadists are produced. It’s the definition of a vicious circle. 

And that this strategy is working is plain to see. The attack was a gift to the French far right. The day after the attack, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the French National Front party, issued a statement urging the country to “declare war” against “the scourge of Islamist fundamentalism.” Several more attacks like Nice could one day see her become France’s president. What comes after that could destabilize the whole of Europe.

In the meantime, one thing is for sure: European jihadism is here to stay. And all Western countries that have participated in international military coalitions in the Middle East are targets.

As Van Ostaeyen explained: “The logic followed is that of qisas or retaliation (an eye for an eye, blood for blood). I'm afraid this climate of terror will haunt us for many years to come."

David Patrikarakos is a contributing editor at The Daily Beast and the author of Nuclear Iran: The Birth Of An Atomic State. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, The Guardian, Politico, Foreign Policy, Spectator, The New Republic, The New Statesman, The Telegraph, and many others.

The ‘Caliphate’ At 2

Iraqi security forces pose with an Islamic State flag that they pulled down in the city of Ramadi in January.

Kyle Orton

The extremist group now known as Islamic State (IS) first claimed statehood, with clear pretentions to a new caliphate, in 2006 -- and eight years later made it explicit.

"Now the dream has become a reality," Taha Falaha (Abu Muhammad al-Adnani) said in his speech on June 29, 2014, declaring that the territory IS held in Syria and Iraq constituted the rebirth of the caliphate. "The State will remain." 

Two years later, this looks like an unsafe proposition. 

After IS openly seized control of territory in northern and central Iraq, adding it to their Syrian domains, in the summer of 2014, it controlled an area roughly the size of Great Britain. Since then, IS has lost about half the territory it held in Iraq and about one-fifth in Syria -- and a further one-tenth overall in the first half of this year. Operation Inherent Resolve managed to hold IS out of Kobani in late 2014 but then in early 2015 suffered a setback: After IS was driven out of Tikrit, the extremist group took over Ramadi and Palmyra. Since then, though, progress against IS has been steady. 

In June 2015, IS lost Tel Abyad, due north of Raqqa on the border between Syria and Turkey, and with it one of its main access points to the outside world. Iraq’s Sinjar Province was finally cleared in November 2015. Large parts of Ramadi were recaptured from the militants in December 2015. IS lost Shadadi (east of Raqqa) in February 2016, Palmyra (central Syria) was retaken in March, and Fallujah (west of Baghdad) in June. In northern Syria, IS-held Manbij is completely surrounded and its fall will precipitate the collapse of IS's position in Aleppo Province, closing off its access to Turkey. And in Iraq, the removal of IS from its last important urban center in Saladin Province, Shirqat -- a development that will further open the road to Mosul -- is only a matter of time, Meanwhile, IS has come under tremendous pressure in Sirte, its de facto capital in Libya.

What reason, then, to call the military campaign against IS anything but a success? 

One reason is that IS has actually been making (modest) gains even as the net result is a loss of territory. While IS is losing its access to the Turkish border via Manbij and soon al-Bab, it is -- albeit in a very fluid situation -- gaining territory around Azaz, another border town. In southern Syria, IS has pulled off the remarkable feat of growing an organic wing of the organization, partly playing off the U.S.-led coalition's foolish decision to stop the rebels in the area fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and to redirect them against the Jihadi-Salafists. This left the rebels vulnerable to charges of being hirelings of foreigners who have betrayed the revolution, and opened the space for the jihadis to position themselves as the banner-carriers of the anti-Assad struggle. And in the mixed Iraqi province of Diyala, from which IS was expelled in early 2015, IS has shown greater activity recently -- not coincidentally after a spate of atrocities by the radically sectarian Shi'ite militias controlled by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). 

More broadly, IS has adapted to its new environment -- with lethal consequences far outside Iraq and Syria. Falaha effectively conceded in both the IS newsletter al-Naba and a major speech in May that the demise of IS's statelet is approaching. The organization is therefore switching back to insurgent and terrorist tactics. The car bombings in the shopping district in Karrada, Baghdad, on July 3 -- which killed 300 people, the second-worst atrocity IS has conducted on Iraqi soil since it arrived in 2002 -- foreshadowed this. So did attacks in Tartus City and Jableh on May 23. IS has nearly doubled the rate at which it employs suicide bombers in the last six months, averaging about three per day.

The reversion to insurgency underlines the question of how IS views territorial control. Doubtless IS ultimately intends to create an Islamist imperium, but it is not operating as if it believes now is the moment it can forge a durable state. 

A study released as IS fell back in Tikrit noted that, while IS "holds out until the last possible moment" in the cities, it "seems more focused on actively defending the rural zones in which urban areas are located. In many cases, the urban center may be the part of the defended zone allocated the smallest proportion of available Islamic State forces."

"The jihadists fight as if they were pirates, with the desert being their sea," Nibras Kazimi has written. "They treat the cities and towns they have captured as ports of call, for booty and resupply. When challenged by superior forces attempting to retake these ports, the jihadists dissolve away into the desert, leaving small and determined bands of fighters to deflect and bleed out the invading force."

IS's strategic thinking is deeply shaped by the work of Mohammad Hasan Khalil al-Hakim (Abu Bakr Naji), the author of the infamous Management Of Savagery, and Mustafa Nasar (Abu Musab al-Suri), whom they personally revile​. Both stress exhausting the jihadists' foes.

"Were we defeated when we lost the cities in Iraq and were in the desert without any city or land?" Falaha asked in May. "And would we be defeated and you be victorious if you were to take Mosul or Sirte or Raqqa or even take all the cities and we were to return to our initial condition? Certainly not!" IS sees this war as cyclical and attritional, and it sees its enemies' will fading. Last time around, there were tens of thousands of Western soldiers on the ground. This time there are only special forces and air strikes. Next time there will be even less, IS predicts.

It is not to deny that IS is heading into a period of hardship: Its leadership has been dented, the flow of foreign volunteers has been restricted, and less territory means fewer people to be taxed. It is to say that, given IS's strategic vision and proven capacity to adjust to conditions in pursuit of it, territorial control per se is not only not the defining metric of the progress of the war, but the focus on it at the expense of all else is dangerous. 

The caliphate is the "driving" force behind IS's recruitment, the U.S. representative to the anti-IS coalition, Brett McGurk, recently said. "So we have to shrink the core". Less than a week later, CIA Director John Brennan said, "Despite all our progress against [IS] on the battlefield … our efforts have not reduced the group's terrorism capability and global reach." The answer to the discrepancy in the two statement lies in the nature of IS's territorial losses. 

In Syria, IS's losses are largely to ground forces dominated by the local branch of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), and in Iraq to IRGC-run militias -- both of which are regarded as illegitimate by the local populations in areas from which IS has been displaced. The PKK clearly intends to use its U.S.-backed campaign in Aleppo to link its cantons in the east of the country to Efrin, encompassing much territory where the inhabitants do not wish to be part of a Kurdish nationalist project. The support to the IRGC-controlled militias is especially toxic given the recent record of the United States and especially in tandem with U.S. overtures to Russia, solidifying the perception in the region that the United States has sided with the Iranian axis against the Sunnis. In the medium term, this has created the political space for IS to return to the cities, but this narrative of IS as the vanguard against a global anti-Sunni conspiracy enables it in the short-term to call on its foreign sympathizers to "punish" the countries engaged against it. 

The foreign terrorism track is not, as some have argued, reactive to the territorial losses; it has always been integral to the state-building project and this increased activity is partly a sign of maturity. "Don't hear about us, hear from us," was IS's mantra. The group developed a mania for pre-emptively infiltrating its near-abroad -- and areas well beyond -- in response to its having been infiltrated and pulled apart during the Surge-and-Sahwa period. The return to insurgency has, however, certainly had an impact on the timing of these strikes by IS. 

Put simply, on the current trajectory the coalition is allowing IS to "convert territorial losses into legitimacy." Unless IS is replaced by an accepted local force, the "dream" that Falaha spoke of will find a larger and larger audience as the least-bad alternative -- ensuring IS's territorial collapse is merely a prelude to another cycle of violence. 

Kyle Orton is a research fellow and Middle East analyst for the Henry Jackson Society.


Islamic State Is Losing Ground, But Is It Even More Dangerous Than Ever?

Iraqi soldiers patrol streets near the city of Fallujah last month during an operation to regain territory from the extremist Islamic State group.

James Miller

If there was any illusion that the fight against the extremist group Islamic State (IS) was nearing its final chapters, that naive notion should have been shattered in the last few weeks.

In the past month alone, IS has suffered major defeats, won major victories, and conducted some of its most impactful and successful terrorist attacks yet, proving that the fight against this group is at least as complicated as the battle to subdue its predecessors in Iraq.

When Al-Qaeda In Iraq (AQI) was formed following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, it had several advantages over the United States. 

For starters, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq started as fairly traditional combat missions against fighting forces (the Taliban and the Iraqi Army, respectively) that were concerned with holding territory, and quickly scattered once this territory was captured by the overwhelming firepower of the U.S.-led coalition. Both wars soon devolved into asymmetrical counterinsurgencies which are much harder to fight. 

AQI, however, had another trick up its sleeve -- the blending of asymmetrical and more traditional warfare. Coalition military commanders quickly learned that it was not enough to capture territory, but that territory had to be held, preferably by local forces which had to be convinced of the worthiness of the cause.

But whereas AQI was successful in briefly holding neighborhoods and even cities like Fallujah while conducting terrorist attacks in other regions of Iraq, IS has taken this blending of war plans to the next level, simultaneously occupying vast areas of land while conducting attacks across the entire Middle East and far beyond while inspiring attacks across the planet. Islamic State is at once a military, a terrorist group, a guerrilla warfare organization, and an idea, and all four of those aspects are proving difficult to fight.

In recent months there has been a lot of speculation that IS the military organization would be the easiest part of the terrorist group to beat. To be sure, IS has lost a series of battles in both Iraq and Syria. According to a newly-published report by experts at IHS, a data analysis company, Islamic State lost 14 percent of its territory in 2015 and another 12 percent in the first six months of this year.

As a result of those defeats, the extremist group is already changing its narrative by focusing more on conducting terrorist attacks abroad than in using propaganda to praise its more traditional military victories. This is undoubtedly a sign of weakness, but a wounded animal is clearly a very dangerous one. 

Furthermore, IS still has the advantage of being able to use the power it derives from holding territory to project terrorism and fear beyond its borders. As a consequence of that dynamic, the faster it is defeated militarily, the better. The recapturing of more than a quarter of IS's physical strongholds in 18 months is certainly an important first step in ultimately defeating the terrorist group. But does this mean that it will take six years to militarily defeat IS? 

Lagging Momentum

There are also indications that the battle is not going as well as many expected. Fallujah has been recaptured from IS after many months of siege and more than a month of nearly-constant combat. But Fallujah was one of IS's most vulnerable positions, originally captured by the militants primarily for its symbolic power. The Atlantic Council's Faysal Itani told RFE/RL that the city likely fell so quickly because Islamic State is overstretched in the region. Battles for places like Mosul and, ultimately, Raqqa, IS's "capital" in Syria, could take much longer.

Elsewhere, in Syria, there have been setbacks for the anti-IS coalition. IS forces launched attacks earlier in the week against the Syrian Defense Force (SDF), a primarily Kurdish group that is key to U.S. efforts to defeat the terrorists. Those efforts may have been reversed.

An Operation Inherent Resolve spokesman, U.S. Army Colonel Christopher Garver, was optimistic in his assessment on July 6, in which he stated that the SDF was resisting IS in Manbij and that other vetted opposition forces were making gains further west, near the hotly contested "Mara Line." 

The SDF now claims that Islamic State is fleeing Manbij. Still, especially near Mara, Western-backed rebel forces are striking back against an IS offensive launched this spring rather than advancing deeper into the heart of IS's territory. Momentum is clearly lagging. 

Worse yet, another key part of the U.S. strategy to defeat IS in Syria has suffered a major setback. In the last week of June, we reported on Russian air strikes against the New Syrian Army (NSA), a group dedicated to fighting IS which is backed by the United States and Britain. 

Consisting largely of former Syrian special forces units that deserted the Assad regime, the NSA is important on several levels.

First, the NSA is made up of predominantly Sunni fighters -- an important symbolic balance to predominantly Kurdish and Shi'ite forces backed by the United States elsewhere. 

Second, NSA's position south of IS's strongholds opens a new front against the terror group. Within a week of the Russian airstrikes, the NSA launched their own offensive against Islamic State in Al-Bukamal, the back door between IS's territory in Syria and Iraq. Despite initial success, the NSA was routed and retreated across 150 miles of open desert. 

Sectarian Dynamic

It's unclear whether the Russian air strikes weakened the group enough to enable its defeat, but the United States also decided to reroute air support for the NSA to Iraq, to target IS in Fallujah. On July 7, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said that the United States had "missed an opportunity" in not providing air support for the NSA offensive. 

Even in military victory there are setbacks, however. As the Associated Press points out, the mission to retake Fallujah was led by powerful Iraqi Shi'ite militias, and their victory has already taken on a troublesome sectarian dynamic. Unfortunately, this is exactly what experts predicted would happen. 

Islamic State will be defeated militarily. It has to be. The world does not have a choice. Even though progress is being made, the slow pace of victory and concerns about worsening regional sectarian tensions are indications that much work remains to be done.
 


The Saudi Bombings And The Legacy Of Bin Laden

The aftermath of the bomb attack on the Prophet's Mosque in Medina.

David Patrikarakos

Osama bin Laden may be dead but if the July 4 bombings in Saudi Arabia demonstrate anything to a global audience forcibly becoming, if not numbed, then wearily resigned to the horrors of jihadist violence, it’s that his playbook is still in full effect -- albeit with some major alterations.

On July 4, in what were clearly coordinated strikes, three suicide attacks targeted the Saudi cities of Jeddah, Qatif and, most stunningly of all, Islam’s second holiest city, Medina, the burial place of the Prophet Mohammed.

In Jeddah, a Pakistani expatriate targeted the U.S. consulate, injuring two security officers in the process. A Shi’a mosque was targeted in Qatif. In Medina, it was a security office near the Prophet’s Mosque. Four guards were killed.

Both the timing of the attacks and choice of targets are vital to understanding their nature. So far, no group has claimed responsibility for them but indicators suggest that they are almost certainly the work of the terrorist group which calls itself Islamic State (IS).

The attacks took place during the end of Islam’s holy month of Ramadan, which, according to Nicholas Heras, a Middle East researcher and the Bacevich fellow at the Center for a New American Security, “fit into the timetable of the would-be Caliphate's ongoing Ramadan campaign.” Islamic State, he told RFE/RL over e-mail, “has declared the month of Ramadan as a time of bleeding [for] what it views to be infidels and enemies -- Muslims and non-Muslims alike.”

Yet more instructive is the choice of targets -- and it is here that bin Laden’s legacy can most clearly be seen. Bin Laden, a Saudi national himself, always denied the legitimacy of the House of Saud, which rules the kingdom, as the rightful custodian of Islam’s two holiest sites for the entire global Muslim community, or Ummah -- Mecca, the birthplace of Mohammed, and Medina. IS’s overriding goal is to establish an Islamic caliphate as far across the world as possible; central to this goal -- in fact, almost an absolute necessity -- would be to take control of Islam’s holiest territory.

In the words of Heras: “ISIS [Islamic State] would be sending a blunt message to the Saudi state, delivering a shot across the bow directed at the Al-Saud monarchy: we are coming for you.”

The Pillars That Prop Up Saudi Arabia

Two primary pillars hold up the Saudi monarchy: The first is the legitimacy it derives from being the custodian of Islam’s two holiest places. But it is a contested legitimacy. The Al-Saud tribe took what became Saudi Arabia by force in 1932. It has no real religious credentials and has only survived since by allowing its clerics to promote a severe brand of Wahhabi Islam across the kingdom in return for which the royal family receives much-needed religious backing. The combination of this backing and the custodianship of Mecca and Medina enhances the kingdom’s influence across the Muslim world accordingly. Not for nothing is the House of Saud called "The Sunni Lion.”

And here is where the attack in Medina comes in. It’s a risky move for IS to say the least. An attack on Mohammed’s resting place was always likely to enrage the Islamic world. Saudi Arabia's highest religious body has condemned the attacks unequivocally. Meanwhile, the hashtag #PrayForMedina has been retweeted across the Muslim world.

But the perpetrators were careful. They didn’t attack the Medina mosque itself, just a security office near it; an attack which can be read as being designed to call into question the Saudi’s monarchy’s claim to be competent “protectors” of the two holy sites. The attack, then, targeted the Saudi state’s security apparatus, not the Prophet.

The second pillar of the House of Saud is U.S. support (irretrievably entangled with the oil riches that financially prop up the kingdom). An IS attack on the U.S. Consulate in Jeddah (which is also Saudi Arabia’s most cosmopolitan city) is a clear strike against its ultimate ideological Western foe, and coming as it did on July 4, U.S. Independence Day, has an inescapable and morbid symbolism that is plain for all to see.

But it is the attack on the Shi’a mosque in Qatif that has perhaps the most dangerous regional consequences. The Middle East is already in the throes of a battle between Sunni and Shi’a, approaching almost genocidal proportions in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. For the Sunni Islamic State terrorist group, the apostate Shi’a are almost worse than the infidel West.

This attack is designed to do two things. First, as Heras told RFE/RL, IS clearly intended “to send a signal to the Shi’a of Saudi Arabia that they are infidels that should go out from the holiest lands of Islam.” The second is to create more divisions between Saudi Arabia’s persecuted Shi’a minority and the government, yet one more way of destabilizing the country. The fact that Qatif -- and the majority of the country’s Shia population -- is located in Saudi Arabia's oil-rich Eastern Province, where the center of the Saudi state-controlled oil industry resides, only further serves to compound the problem for Riyadh.

Beyond Saudi Arabia, Shi’a militias that are now battling IS in Iraq and Syria -- many of which are backed by Iran -- are unlikely to take the attack on the mosque well, to say the least. Brutal reprisals against local Sunni populations in both those countries -- always a distinct possibility if not often a near certainty -- are now likely to increase. In Fallujah, there is already evidence that this retaliation is under way. As history has shown, many Sunnis on the receiving end of such brutality have, with no one else to protect them, joined the ranks of Islamic State.

The planning, the execution (although imperfect), and, most critically, the apparent intended effects of these attacks indicate Islamic State is to blame. The bombings were as cunning as they were designed to be brutal, and their goal, like bin Laden’s, was to send a message to the Middle East’s premier Sunni state. This time, however, the stakes are higher. Islamic State seeks not just to overthrow the Saudi royal family but to conquer the state itself.

Welcome to Jihad 2.0. 

David Patrikarakos is a contributing editor at the Daily Beast and the author of Nuclear Iran: The Birth Of An Atomic State. He is working on a book on social media and war.

Islamic State And The Threat Of WMDs

The gravest threat would come if IS were able to get its hands on nuclear materials. The greatest danger comes from the most unstable countries with the largest amounts of documented radical activity: Pakistan, Russia, and India -- with Pakistan at the top of the list.

David Patrikarakos

From Fallujah to Mosul, Paris to Brussels, the terrorist organization that calls itself Islamic State (IS) murders, maims, and enslaves with wanton abandon, if not exactly impunity. By now the world has woken up to the serious threat that the group poses, not just in the Middle East but also in Europe and the United States.

Islamic State's crimes are horrific enough with its present capabilities, but a question increasingly asked among politicians and military officials is: What if IS were to acquire the unthinkable -- a weapon of mass destruction (WMD)?

Earlier this month I attended the International Luxembourg Forum on Preventing Nuclear Catastrophe in Amsterdam, an NGO set up to tackle exactly this type of problem. And what emerged is that the danger of IS acquiring its most fearsome weapon yet is now a significant one.

According to an expert who participated in the forum, the danger is twofold. The gravest threat would come if IS were able to get its hands on nuclear materials. These would mean, for example, the type of enriched uranium Iran uses in its nuclear program -- from which IS could theoretically make a small nuclear bomb with further enrichment -- or existing weapons-grade plutonium, from which it could do the same.

But the probability of IS being able to do this is slim. The requisite materials are located in only 24 countries and are in highly guarded facilities. Set against this fact, however, have been several lapses in security. In 2012 an 82-year-old nun and peace activist, Megan Rice, broke into the Oakridge nuclear reservation in Tennessee. Rice never got near any nuclear material but a lot of systems had to fail for her to get as close as she did. Likewise, according to a British Ministry of Defense report, guards at one of the U.K.'s nuclear facilities were caught sleeping on the job. And then there is the problem of poor levels of security at a host of nuclear research centers in the former Soviet Union.

The probability of IS taking advantage of these lapses in security is low, but not insignificant. The greatest danger comes from the most unstable countries with the largest amounts of documented radical activity: Pakistan, Russia, and India -- with Pakistan at the top of the list.

Moreover, as retired Major General Vladimir Dvorkin, a chief researcher at the Center for International Security at the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of World Economy and International Relations, told me: "there is a lot of illegal activity, trafficking in illegal natural material...so [IS] could either pull off a purchase for a significant amount of money or intercept illegal trafficking. Plus, they seem to have enough money to recruit scientists to build a rudimentary nuclear device. Not a nuclear warhead, but an explosive nuclear device; it may, in fact, only weigh a few tons but it's still something you could assemble close to an urban area, or on a vessel that could then be brought to U.S. or European shores."

Many Ways To Dirty Bomb

Another problem would be a conventional weapons attack on a nuclear facility, which could conceivably cause a Chernobyl-like disaster or worse. It remains nearly impossible to attack a nuclear power plant, as they have substantial protection, but attacking nuclear-research facilities that have reactors filled with nuclear materials is far easier, and a lot of cities have these. According to Dvorkin even bombing a nuclear-storage facility with a relatively small bomb would mean the destruction of buildings within a 3-4-kilometer radius and fallout covering a much larger area and creating a lasting effect.

The second and far more immediate threat is that of attack with a radiological device. The materials for this are located in over a 100 countries and, critically found not just in specialized facilitates but in hospitals and research centers used, for example, in treating cancer -- places that, unlike major nuclear facilities, don't have gates, guards, and guns. The expert who attended the forum warned me that IS has many such facilities within the land it already controls and that is where the "dirty bomb" (a radiological as opposed to nuclear bomb) threat is now unequivocally real.

One can easily use conventional resources to make a dirty bomb, use agents to plant it in a major urban center, then simply watch it ignite and cause billions of dollars of damage. The loss of life would likely be modest -- only those in its immediate vicinity would die. But the psychological element would be huge; as a nuclear specialist told me, the public hears "radiological" and immediately panics. Then there would be the cost of demolishing and rebuilding the buildings that had been contaminated in a far wider area.

While nothing is certain when dealing with what is clearly a fanatical organization, it is clear that IS is organized and thinks strategically. As Dvorkin points out, the chances of IS using even a rudimentary nuclear device are accordingly slim. First, it would risk alienating even Sunni Muslim communities across the Middle East that might presently have some sympathy with its aims. Second, what is now a fractious coalition fighting against IS would almost certainly unite and bring its combined weight to utterly annihilate the organization.

Nonetheless, as The New York Times reported in February, a man linked to the November 13 Paris attackers was found in possession of surveillance footage of a high-ranking Belgian nuclear official. With IS any horror is possible, even if it is not probable.

The question more realistically facing us is not whether IS can employ a dirty bomb -- most likely in Europe or the United States -- but will it? And experts fear the worst. According to Dr. Moshe Kantor, president of the Luxembourg Forum, "the threat of a terrorist group, such as Islamic State, staging a nuclear bomb attack on a major European city, such as London, is 'high.'"

Given that IS has already carried out numerous chemical-weapons attacks in Syria, its willingness to use a WMD of some kind is clearly present. As Kantor continued "the threat of a so-called 'dirty bomb' attack is at its highest level since the end of the Cold War."

The world should be worried.

David Patrikarakos is a contributing editor at the Daily Beast and the author of Nuclear Iran: The Birth Of An Atomic State. He is working on a book on social media and war

Russia's Unhelpful Game In Syria

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (right) meets with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in Damascus on June 18.

James Miller

On June 16, U.S. F-18 fighter jets scrambled to intercept a group of Russian Su-34 fighter-bombers that had just conducted an air strike against a camp of soldiers who are central to the mission of the United States and the United Kingdom in their efforts to defeat the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group.

The camp that was hit was relatively new, and a British newspaper had just recently broken the news that British special forces regularly operate there, though it's unclear whether British or U.S. soldiers were in the camp at the time. Regardless, the commanders of the U.S.-led coalition believed that the Russian air strikes needed to be stopped, and they sent fighter jets to stop them.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the F-18s reached the Su-34s on emergency broadcast frequencies and told them to cease their activities, a capability the United States and Russia put in place in order to avoid accidental conflicts or midair collisions. But when the F-18s left the area to refuel, the Russian bombers ignored the U.S. threats and conducted a second bombing raid on the same camp.

If this story played out in Afghanistan in 2001, in Iraq in 2003, during the NATO mission to end genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1995 or in Kosovo in 1999, this incident would have made front-page news, with 24/7 coverage of the growing threat of war plastered across every television in the United States.

But since the incident occurred in 2016, in a small desert town in Syria called Al-Tanf, near the border with Jordan and Iraq, the Western media and political apparatus does not seem to care. Perhaps some are confused by the complicated conflict and don't know who to trust on the topic of Syria. Perhaps some have bought the Russian line, echoed by some Western politicians, that Russia is fighting IS. For sure, everyone is tired of headlines about war in the Middle East.

To be sure, the Pentagon addressed the issue with both the Russian Defense Ministry and the press, expressing its "strong concerns about the attack." A U.S. official told the Los Angeles Times that this was "an egregious act that must be explained." The unnamed source continued: "The Russian government either doesn't have control of its own forces or it was a deliberate provocative act. Either way, we're looking for answers."

It appears Russia is continuing to focus exclusively on preserving the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, even if that means drawing out the conflict, or even allowing terrorism to flourish. I argued previously that Russia's bombing campaign, which started in September 2015, was nearly exclusively focused on bombing anti-Assad rebel groups, including groups that were backed by the United States and which played a major role in ejecting IS from northeastern Syria.

In May, Russia did indeed assist the pro-Assad coalition in recapturing the ancient city of Palmyra from IS. As I noted, those actions served to accomplish three aims, all of which strengthen the Assad regime: to consolidate territory, to secure access to the energy-rich fields of central Syria, and to propagate the myth that Russia and Assad are primarily locked in a battle against terrorists.

That was six weeks ago. As my new analysis of the work done by the Institute for the Study of War shows, since then there has been a significant increase in Russian air strikes, almost exclusively against civilians or rebel groups that have been trained and armed by the United States. Russia has largely returned to its pattern of ignoring IS. Russian air strikes, by crippling Western-backed rebels that oppose IS, have allowed the terrorist organization to expand into new territory.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Frederic Hof, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and former special adviser for transition in Syria at the U.S. State Department, says that "Russia's decision to bomb an anti-[IS] unit trained by the U.S. and the U.K. illustrates two points: the low priority Moscow places on fighting [IS]; and the contempt in which today's Russia holds the U.S."

He continues: "Assad and the Russians see [IS] as Assad's ideal adversary: a horrific organization that may serve as Assad's ticket back to polite society, notwithstanding all of the regime's war crimes.... Moscow's assessment of American leadership emboldens it and encourages it to act in ways that may prove -- during the time left to this administration or in the next -- reckless, destabilizing, and dangerous."


Lost And Looking For A Cause: The Threat Of Islamic State’s Lone Wolves

The Orlando gunman, Omar Mateen, was a lone wolf. And he is also exactly the kind of person Islamic State wants to encourage.

James Miller

Details continue to emerge about the man who killed 49 people and wounded 52 others at an Orlando gay nightclub on June 12. While we cannot say with confidence what the killer’s motivations were, we are learning more about what he told emergency dispatchers when he called 911 in the midst of the massacre.
 
According to FBI Director James Comey, Omar Mateen professed allegiance or affinity toward a wide-ranging group of disparate and often-opposed terrorist organizations. The Associated Press reports:

The Orlando gunman professed allegiance during the attack on a gay nightclub to the leader of the Islamic State militants, even as he called the Boston Marathon bombers, who had nothing to do with the extremist group, his homeboys. Before that, the FBI said, he claimed family connections to Al-Qaeda and boasted of ties to Hezbollah, organizations deeply at odds with the Islamic State extremists.

“Deeply at odds” to say the least.

The Islamic State (IS) extremist group has significant disagreements with Al-Qaeda and the Al-Nusra Front, Syria's Al-Qaeda affiliate. The two groups have even fought heavy battles against each other. Al-Nusra and IS, both radical Sunni groups, are literally at war with Hizballah, a radical Shi'ite militia and terrorist group based in Lebanon and a staunch ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
 
Furthermore, the online media presence of all of these groups -- their publications, Twitter accounts, YouTube videos, and blog posts -- often focus on these internal divisions. Dabiq, the slick English-language magazine published by IS, focused their entire last issue on internal divisions between Muslims. Just this month, supreme Al-Nusra Front religious official Sami al-Oreidi released a video statement that stressed the need to destroy Alawites, the sect of Shi’a Islam to which Assad and many of his supporters belong and to which Hizballah is allied. 
 
In other words, it is clear that the Orlando gunman may not have been particularly indoctrinated in even the basic tenets of the radical groups he pledged allegiance to. Far from being a devoted apostle of a particular form of radicalized Islam, the gunman was described by U.S. President Barack Obama as a self-radicalized example of “homegrown extremism.”
 
The Orlando shooter was a lone wolf. And he is also exactly the kind of person Islamic State wants to encourage.
 
Whereas Al-Qaeda prefers to strike landmarks and symbols of Western decadence or imperialism, while largely avoiding civilian casualties, IS believes there is no such thing as collateral damage. Everyone who does not accept their narrow and radical prescription of Islam, whether they be in the West or in the Middle East, is a worthy target. Whereas Al-Qaeda prefers its “soldiers” to have some sort of ideological and theological foundations, IS will welcome all sinners as long as they are willing to die for Islam. 
 
In many ways, this is the natural evolution of a concept spread in the preachings of infamous jihadist Anwar al-Awlaki, who told the story in his online propaganda of Usairin, a non-Muslim who fought for the Prophet Muhammad at the battle of Uhud and died just after accepting Islam. Crucially, he was granted acceptance into Jannah (paradise) without having followed the rest of the path set out by the Prophet. Usairin's story, popularized in propaganda videos, is perhaps the perfect example of the kind of person IS is so eager to inspire -- those who are lost, seeking a cause and identity, rather than those who are already committed to one.
 
Hassan Hassan, a journalist and expert on IS who hails from the first town in Syria that the terror group took over in 2014, wrote in The Financial Times that this issue is yet another dividing line between Al-Qaeda and its syndicate Al-Nusra Front on one side and IS on the other:

Al-Qaeda presents itself as a vanguard movement whose aim is to rally the Muslim masses to the cause of jihad. The very existence of sympathisers means its project is working and so is regarded as a gain in and of itself.
 
Isis, on the other hand, views sympathisers as potential recruits to its army. Al-Qaeda has also done so from time to time, but Isis is different in that it views the mobilisation of its sympathisers strategically, rather than as a revenge tactic or a short-term call for action.

But just who are these “lone wolves” who are fighting and dying for IS's cause? That, too, is evolving, in perhaps the most disturbing way.

Six days before the attack in Orlando, I wrote that IS's version of terrorism is an evolution from what Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda envisioned just 15 years ago. I contrasted the 9/11 attacks -- which the official U.S. government commission report estimates cost Al-Qaeda between $400,000 and $500,000 -- with the Paris and Brussels attacks, which were conducted by a terror cell using simple nail bombs and guns. 
 
Yet the Orlando attack was orders of magnitude less complicated than what took place in Paris and Brussels. From what we know now, Islamic State extremists based in the Middle East never coordinated with the attacker, nor spent a single dollar to facilitate the attack. Instead, Mateen, with his half-cooked radical jihadist ideology, legally bought a gun that typically costs $500 to $600 and takes less than an hour to purchase.
 
In many ways, this could be a worst-case scenario -- IS can now potentially inspire terrorists who appear to have little indoctrination, limited religiosity and, based on what we know so far about the Orlando shooter, plenty of personal problems.

The haunting and ultimately unanswerable question is whether Omar Mateen ever would have committed such a horrifying act if it were not for the existence of the Islamic State militant group.


Al-Qaeda Speaks The Language Of Syrian Sectarianism

A screen grab of supreme Al-Nusra Front religious official Sami al-Oreidi.

Sam Heller

As the extremist group Islamic State (IS) and its rival Al-Qaeda have captured pieces of Iraq, Syria, and other countries in the region, they have had to balance their global aims with the specific local concerns of the communities under their control. Al-Qaeda's latest attempt to do so shows that its leaders believe they can rally Syrians to their cause by appealing to a deadly, particularly Syrian form of sectarianism.

All Salafi jihadists reject the idea of al-qutariyyah, or Muslims' division into what they consider artificial states. This is part of why Islamic State has been so fixated on the destruction of state borders, like the one separating Iraq from Syria. But while IS has relentlessly suppressed local difference and impressed its supranational identity on its subjects, Al-Qaeda has proved more willing to accommodate local priorities. Unlike IS, which has deployed its conquered territories and peoples in the service of its own universal war, Al-Qaeda and its affiliates like Syria's Al-Nusra Front have sought to install themselves as the vanguard of Sunnis' existing national or regional armed struggles.

These organizations' goals are all, ultimately, global. Yet Al-Qaeda has advanced its aims by speaking the language of local conflict. Now, with the latest video address from supreme Al-Nusra Front religious official Sami al-Oreidi, we can hear an example of how Al-Qaeda argues for jihad in Syrian vernacular.

Oreidi's speech comes after Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahri's May 8 audio message, titled Hasten To Syria, in which Zawahri emphasized the centrality of Syria within the global jihad.

Sami al-Oreidi's June 3 Ramadan video address, titled When The People Of Al-Sham [Syria] Have Been Corrupted, Then There Is No Good Left In You, is a sort of companion piece to Zawahri's message. But where Zawahiri directed a message about Syria's factional rebel politics to a narrow audience of militants and fellow-traveling Islamists, Oreidi seems to have made an appeal for jihad to Syria's Sunni public on Syrian terms.

Fueling Jihad

In the video, Oreidi situates Syria's war within an overarching struggle between truth and falsehood. Yet he argues for that war in terms of Syria's special religious significance, Syrian history and, in particular, Syria's specific sectarian resentments. It turns out that, when the Al-Nusra Front and Al-Qaeda want to tap into an indigenously Syrian sentiment to fuel their jihad, they look to toxic -- even genocidal -- sectarianism.

First, though, Oreidi opens by pointing to Syria's religious symbolism, citing instances in which the Prophet Muhammad attested to Syria's importance. The title of the video has itself been relayed from a saying of Muhammad. According to Oreidi, "God on high made the devotion of the people of Al-Sham, or their corruption, the measure of the state of the Islamic nation."

Oreidi recounts how Syria and Damascus were the center of the Umayyad Caliphate, a period he says was "akin to a historical miracle," and one that witnessed the spread of Islam and a flourishing of scholarly and economic life.

Syrians today are restoring that historical prestige, Oreidi says:

Here is Al-Sham today, shaking off the dust of humiliation and shame, and attempting to return to its glorious history -- after the Nuseiri sect [a derogatory term for Alawites, the sect to which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad belongs] first surrendered Muslims' land to the Jews and then seized the system of rule and power in Al-Sham – to begin a new stage in the struggle between the people of Truth and the people of Falsehood.

As a model, Oreidi holds out Marwan Hadid, who founded the militant Muslim Brotherhood splinter group the Fighting Vanguard and agitated for Sunni rebellion before dying in a Syrian prison in 1976. Hadid remains a symbol of Syrian Sunni militancy and, posthumously, has been adopted as one of the forefathers of jihadism. In Oreidi's telling, Hadid recognized the "Nuseiri" [Alawite] plot to wipe out Syria's Muslims. Thus, Oreidi relates:

He spoke the truth. He argued for the illegitimacy of the infidel's rule over Muslims and argued for jihad against this infidel regime, and he worked to spread the spirit of jihad in Muslims' hearts and those of his followers.

The Al-Nusra Front has set itself apart mostly with its comparatively reasonable treatment of fellow Sunni Muslims -- not heterodox Islamic sects like Shi'a or Alawites.
The Al-Nusra Front has set itself apart mostly with its comparatively reasonable treatment of fellow Sunni Muslims -- not heterodox Islamic sects like Shi'a or Alawites.

Much of the upper tier of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime, bound together by intermarriage and kinship networks, hails from the Alawite sect, and Alawites have historically been represented heavily in the country's elite military and intelligence services. Over the course of the country's ongoing civil war, the regime has rallied support from the country's Alawite community -- as well as members of the country's other sects, including the Sunni majority -- to defend the Syrian state against what it has argued is the threat of oppressive Islamist theocracy and genocidal terror.

And the verdict on Syria's Alawites, Oreidi makes clear, is death.

Oreidi cites medieval Islamic jurist Imam al-Ghazali, who wrote, "Proceed with [the Alawites] as you would with apostates.... The land must be purged of them." He also quotes Islamic scholar Ibn Taymiyyah, himself Syrian and among the formative influences on modern Salafism:

This people called the "Nuseiriyyah" [Alawites], along with all types of esoteric Qarmatians [a Muslim sect that fused elements of Shi'a Islam and Persian mysticism], are more infidels than the Jews and the Nasara [Christians]; more infidels, in fact, than many polytheists. Their harm to the nation of Muhammad, peace be upon him, is greater than the infidels waging war on it.

To conclude, Oreidi warns that the struggle ahead will be costly and divisive, but that this price must be paid to distinguish the righteous. Lastly, he calls for the Islamic country's scholars to speak the truth, as Ibn Taymiyyah once did.

Oreidi's call for the extermination of Syria's Alawites was the speech's most attention-grabbing element, but in many ways it was nothing new. The Al-Nusra Front has gained a reputation for "moderation" in large part thanks to the comparison with the hyperextreme, murderous Islamic State. Yet the Al-Nusra Front has set itself apart mostly with its comparatively reasonable treatment of fellow Sunni Muslims -- not heterodox Islamic sects like Shi'a or Alawites.

'Expect An Ugly Death'

Al-Nusra Front leader Abu Muhammad al-Jolani actually commented on Syria's Alawites in a May 2015 Al-Jazeera interview:

Even after all the massacres [the Alawites] have committed against us, our religion is one of mercy, and we're not criminals or murderers. We fight those who fight us, and we fight to stand up against oppression. Even the Alawites, if we clarify their mistakes to them and how they've left their religion [Islam], and they renounce [Alawism], lay down their arms, and wash their hands of the actions of Bashar al-Assad, then we would consider them safe. In fact, we would take responsibility for protecting and defending them.

Some mistakenly interpreted Jolani's remarks as newly tolerant or conciliatory, but implicit in what he said is that Alawites are apostates from Islam. The message was that if they do not repent and convert en masse to Al-Nusra's vision of Islam -- another sort of cleansing -- they can still expect an ugly death.

This sort of hostility to Alawites and other heterodox Muslim sects goes beyond jihadism, of course. Given Ibn Taymiyyah's foundational influence, it is arguably hardwired into Salafism, and it has resonance even among some who subscribe to less austere varieties of Sunni Islam.

But in Syria, anti-Alawite antipathy is also tangled up in decades of oppression by a regime dominated by a single, largely Alawite clique. When Jolani listed Sunni Syrians' grievances against Syria's Alawites, they were temporal, not theological: barrel bombs, torture, and rape.

Oreidi's latest address puts a scholarly sheen on the same sort of sectarian anger. Oreidi has attempted to build a bridge between Al-Qaeda and Syria's Sunni public. And between global jihad and Syrian concerns, he seems to have calculated that sectarian revanchism is the common ground.
 


The Evolution Of Terrorism Since 9/11

Smoke billows out of the burning World Trade Center towers before their collapse in New York on September 11, 2001.

James Miller

The pretrial hearings for Khalid Sheikh Muhammad and his four co-defendants resumed in the last few days of May. The accused mastermind of the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States has been held in Guantanamo Bay's detention center since March 1, 2003, and he and his fellow detainees have become the focal point of a debate about how the U.S. deals with terrorism suspects in a post-9/11 world.

Thirteen years after his detention, there is still no indication of when his trial will be held. The Guantanamo hearings were suspended in 2015 when one suspected terrorist, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, relayed messages back home to his family in Yemen through his defense council, raising concerns that the detainees could still be sending coded messages to Al-Qaeda. But as Public Radio International's Arun Rath points out, this was hardly the first delay, and the proceedings at Guantanamo Bay have revolved around the debate about the legal status and treatment of the detainees more than they have focused on the 9/11 attacks.

"The court had to deal with the discovery of hidden microphones in rooms where the defendants had confidential talks with their lawyers; authorities "ransacking" the defendants' cells while they were in court; and a mysterious, invisible censor shutting down audio feeds from the courtroom, to the confusion of the judge."

Rath also suggests that the narrative on the trial may be shifting. This week prosecutor Ed Ryan petitioned Judge James L. Pohl to let the court hear statements from the victims' families -- before the trial even begins. This is an unusual step, since court statements would be public and would hypothetically be accessible to potential jurors. Rath explains:

"In an impassioned delivery, prosecutor Ed Ryan referenced two witnesses whom he said the government had intended to call, but who passed away in the last several months. 'Passages of life are happening, and can happen quickly,' Ryan said, arguing they needed to record witness testimony now, rather than to "just sit back waiting for bad health to arrive.' He went on to list 10 potential witnesses with advancing age and health concerns.

"More broadly, it sounded like Ryan was trying to change the narrative of the hearings. The court had heard 'much about the treatment of the accused...the word "torture" used over 500 times,' he said, while noting the phrase '9/11' had only been used about 200 times."

Despite the complicated legal and moral issues at play in Guantanamo Bay, the prosecutor appears to be trying to remind the court, and perhaps the American people, that the entire purpose behind the infamous prison was to house those who are most capable of bringing about another nightmare like 9/11.

But we have not witnessed another attack of similar magnitude anywhere, much less on U.S. soil, in the 15 years that have followed 9/11. What are the chances of another 9/11-style attack occurring, and is it possible to measure the importance of the detainees who are still locked up in Guantanamo Bay?

There are many reasons why we have not seen another 9/11. The Al-Qaeda that Osama bin Laden built in the late 1990s does not resemble terrorist organizations that exist today. Terrorist groups are hunted wherever they try to settle. U.S. drones hunt terrorists from Africa to Asia, and raids like the one that led to the death of bin Laden demonstrate that even international borders cannot keep terrorists safe. It is not that terrorists have no place to hide; it is that there is no longer any country in the world where they can live without hiding. This is one reason why these groups have focused on establishing their own state-like organizations in places like Yemen, Libya, and of course Syria and Iraq: No sane government in the world would openly harbor these terrorist groups the way the Taliban did in Afghanistan.

The good news is that 9/11-style attacks have become more logistically difficult. In an interview with RFE/RL, Nicholas A. Heras, Middle East researcher at the Center for a New American Security and an associate fellow at the Jamestown Foundation, said that U.S. intelligence is now shared and counterterrorism efforts are coordinated at the federal, state, and local levels. Aggressive intelligence sharing, security procedures at air and sea ports, and if necessary counterterrorism operations, are also coordinated with overseas partners.

According to Heras, sophisticated attacks like 9/11 require too much coordination among the attackers at various levels, and so they are more likely to be disrupted by the United States and its allies. Both Heras and another expert we consulted, Kyle Orton, a research fellow with the Henry Jackson Society, agreed that there remains the strong possibility that a bomb could be detonated on an airliner; but 9/11-style hijackings and complex coordinated attacks are likely a thing of the past. Heras also pointed out that blind luck has played a role in thwarting some of these attacks.

But terrorism is very much alive. Terrorist groups have traded fantastic weapons for familiar ones. Large and relatively expensive operations like 9/11 have been replaced by less sophisticated attacks that utilize homemade bombs and readily available guns like the attacks in Paris, Brussels, and before that in 2008 in Mumbai. The 9/11 attacks gave Al-Qaeda the aura of an almost mythical all-powerful international terrorist organization, like Cobra from the fictional world of G.I. Joe. For months, or years, every jet airliner in the sky was cautiously eyed as a potential threat, every high-rise building and landmark was seen as a potential target. Sadly, terrorism has evolved. The smaller-scale attacks of the last decade are simultaneously harder to stop and more terrifying, since anyone capable of carrying a gun could be a threat and every shopping mall, coffee shop, or movie theater is a potential target.

Worse yet, terrorist organizations have proliferated in recent years, and while they have focused on developing state-like organizations in the Middle East and elsewhere, rather than launching attacks on the West, they have also adopted a strategy of appealing to those who already live in the United States and Europe to launch attacks for them. Heras explains:

"The global jihadist movement as a whole is more widespread and controls more territory than it did prior to 9/11/2001, and this includes the recent rise of the ISIS organization in Syria, Iraq, and Libya. Many of the affiliates of the global jihadist movement, whether they identify with Al-Qaeda or ISIS or another organization, are generally more focused than bin Laden's Al-Qaeda was on controlling local territory, and building statelets that can then be used for community cover for global jihadist networks to plan attacks on the United States, or, increasingly, on Europe.

"In particular, ISIS has developed a more advanced form of strategic deterrence threat against the United States Coalition partners in Europe, and from the Middle East, from its territorial base in Syria and Iraq, than al-Qaeda ever enjoyed in Sudan and Afghanistan, or what it has in Yemen, and what it is trying to build in northern Syria's Idlib governorate. ISIS's network in Europe that conducted the Paris and Brussels attacks are an example of ISIS' increasing realization that even as it loses territory in Syria and Iraq, it can present a real and deadly strategic deterrent threat to use against the West, if not the United States as directly."

Kyle Orton, research fellow with the Henry Jackson Society, agrees. Islamic State (IS) "has been able to inspire true 'lone wolves' in a way Al-Qaeda largely failed to do, and IS is happy to claim credit for these attacks by people who are basically fanboys -- low-skilled and with no direct connection to the organization," he told RFE/RL. "This is a microcosm of the differences between Al-Qaeda and IS in their conceptions of jihad: For Al-Qaeda, it is an elitist pursuit of a vanguard; for IS, it is a more 'democratized' endeavor."

In many ways this is harder to stop -- a speech given in Syria or Yemen, echoed through the Internet, can inspire terror attacks on the other side of the globe without having to be coordinated and financed by Middle Eastern terrorists.

Virtually no one would argue against the notion that the dismantling of Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda has made the world a safer place to live, but the ideology of terror has not yet been defeated. Guantanamo Bay's inmates still pose a threat. Both Heras and Orton stress that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence estimates that about one-third of the prisoners who have been released from Guantanamo Bay and returned to their home countries have conducted terrorist attacks.

This is why the Obama administration, even while it has pushed to close Guantanamo Bay, has not advocated returning all of the detainees to their home countries. Most of the remaining prisoners at the facility are said to be the "worst of the worst," who may eventually be transferred to the mainland United States to serve out their sentences in super-max prisons, but in all likelihood none will ever be sent to their home countries.

But as a result of the "democratization" of terrorism, the fate of those detained in Guantanamo Bay is unlikely to have a larger impact on the war on terror.


The Hidden Dangers Of The Fight Against Islamic State

Iraqi forces help civilian families in Iraq's Anbar Province after they fled Fallujah during a major operation by pro-government forces to retake the city from Islamic State militants.

James Miller

The fight against extremists from the Islamic State (IS) militant group is heating up on two fronts. 

Since May 23, a coalition consisting of the Iraqi army and primarily Shi'ite militias, backed by U.S. air strikes, has advanced towards Fallujah, 40 kilometers west of Baghdad. 

There are estimates that between 50,000 and 100,000 civilians remain in the city, and some residents told USA Today that IS fighters are using them as human shields. 

"The Islamic State began moving families living in the outskirts to the center," resident Salem al Halbusi said by telephone. "They are locking some families down inside the hospital building," added al Halbusi, who did not want other information about him disclosed to protect his safety.

The civilian populace could slow Fallujah's liberators down, but those who have successfully fled the city told Reuters that the trapped population could starve before Islamic State is defeated, or be killed while they are trying to flee. Either way, all eyes will be on the coalition that the United States has helped build. 

As David Patrikarakos wrote earlier this week for RFE/RL, even if the IS militants are defeated quickly in Fallujah, there is a risk that sectarian tension could be inflamed further in the process. Defeating IS militarily is just the first step toward healing Iraq's and Syria's sectarian wounds and ensuring that another, similar group does not emerge. 

A similar pattern is playing out in the battle for Raqqa in northeastern Syria, the capital city for the self-declared Islamic State. As Wladimir van Wilgenburg explained earlier this month, efforts to defeat IS on the Syrian side of the border are being led by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition that includes both Arab and Kurdish fighters. But while the SDF is diverse -- and becoming more so -- it is still dominated and led by the People's Protection Units (YPG), the fighting branch of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is closely associated with Turkey's outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). 

Escalation In Turkey

The problem with this is that the PKK -- which is designated as a terrorist organization by both the United States and Turkey -- is effectively at war with Turkey, a NATO ally and a major stakeholder in the outcome of the war in Syria. In April, U.S. State Department spokesperson John Kirby told the press corps that "YPG's not a designated foreign terrorist organization. PKK is. Nothing's changed about that."

Crucially, however, Turkey does not see a distinction between the PKK and the YPG. Neither do several experts whom RFE/RL consulted in researching this article. One source in territory controlled by the Kurds, who wished to remain anonymous due to security concerns, told RFE/RL that there is no doubt that the YPG reports directly to the PKK's guerrilla leadership. 

A report by The Atlantic Council's Aaron Stein and Michelle Foley has established the link between the YPG and PKK, and Kurdish fighters have also confessed that the two are part of the same organization. That report suggests that Turkey was willing to tolerate the YPG as long as IS and the Kurdish group were fighting each other, but that tolerance has reached its end as the fighting between Turkey and the Kurds has heated up.

U.S. soldiers are supporting the YPG on the ground in Syria. Photos taken this week by an AFP photographer show U.S. Special Forces soldiers operating alongside Kurdish fighters near the front lines in Raqqa Province. Some of those soldiers are wearing patches of the YPG and their all-female battle unit the YPJ -- patches that, as Syrian expert Michael Weiss points out, are derived from the PKK's flag. 

On May 27, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told journalists that "wearing an insignia of a terrorist organization by U.S. soldiers, who are our ally and are assertive about fighting against terrorism, is unacceptable. Our suggestion to them is that they should also wear Daesh [IS], al-Nusra, and al-Qaeda insignias during their operations in other regions of Syria. They can also wear the Boko Haram insignia when they go to Africa.”

Hours later, U.S. Army Colonel Steve Warren, the spokesperson for Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), the U.S.-led coalition against IS, announced that the soldiers had been instructed to stop wearing the patches, a reversal from statements made by the military just the day before.

Images from the AFP news agency appear to show U.S. soldiers in Syria wearing the patches of local Kurdish fighters
Images from the AFP news agency appear to show U.S. soldiers in Syria wearing the patches of local Kurdish fighters

Fighting between the PKK and Turkey has escalated in recent weeks. 

On May 13, a PKK fighter shot down a Turkish AH-1W Super Cobra helicopter with a Russian-made shoulder-fired SA-18 missile. Experts at The Aviationist and in Turkey said this was the first time the PKK has successfully used an antiaircraft weapon against a Turkish aircraft. 

While the source operating in Kurdistan told RFE/RL that the PKK have had such weapons for some time, the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War suggested that, while the weapon could have come from Syria or Iraq, "more likely that the PKK acquired the weapon from an external actor." 

A likely candidate for supplying the weapon is Russia, which has seen its relationship with the Turkish government disintegrate since the Russian air campaign in Syria began last September. Tensions rose when the Turkish air force shot down a Russian jet in November following several warnings from Turkey that Russian jets were violating its airspace. 

The idea that Russia -- or its allies in Syria and Iran -- could be arming the PKK has been amplified through the Turkish press. The Anadolu Agency has reported that, according to its sources, such efforts began sometime in December after the Russian jet was shot down. Regardless of whether this is true, such accusations could fuel a proxy war between Turkey and Russia, which could further inflame the region.

Pyrrhic Victory?

But which side of that proxy war does the United States take if its main allies in the fight against IS in Syria are the very fighters that Turkey says are waging war against them across the border? 

In February, there were heavy clashes between YPG fighters in northwestern Syria and multiple rebel groups, which had been backed and trained by the CIA and Turkey. One now-infamous video showed a rebel group, Liwa' Suqour al-Jabal‎ (The Mountain Hawks Brigade), firing a U.S.-made TOW antitank missile into a YPG tank in the town of Azaz. This led some analysts to conclude that the United States was "in a proxy war with itself" in Syria since it supports some Syrian rebel groups and, via the SDF at least, the Kurdish YPG. 

This has two potentially dangerous consequences. The first is that Turkey is a NATO ally that is already under immense pressure. Turkey has signaled that it feels abandoned, or even betrayed, by U.S. policy in Syria, a sentiment which could weaken the NATO alliance. But Turkey is also a Sunni state, and the Sunnis already feel that they have been the victims of U.S. policy in Iraq and Syria. Both of the major offensives against IS, in Syria and in Iraq, could further exacerbate this dynamic. 

The sectarian tension between groups that the U.S. currently backs -- whether it's the Shi'ite/Sunni tensions in Iraq or the Kurdish/Sunni tensions in Syria -- should not be easily dismissed. One should remember that it was sectarian tension in both Iraq and Syria which gave rise to Islamist extremism and sectarian violence there, and the Islamic State militant group is just the newest and most radical incarnation of that tension. Victory over Islamic State is important, but if it weakens the NATO alliance or sets the stage for future sectarian conflicts, it could only be a Pyrrhic victory.
 


Will The Battle For Fallujah Heal Or Exacerbate Iraq's Sectarianism?

Iraqi Shi'ite fighters from a Popular Mobilization unit use mobile artillery near the city of Fallujah as part of an assault aimed at taking back the city of Fallujah from Islamic State.

David Patrikarakos

The battle for Fallujah has begun. Late on May 23, Iraqi troops, comprising a combination of the government's Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and a combustible mix of Shi'ite militias, backed by U.S. air strikes, attacked the city, seeking to wrest it from the control of the extremist group Islamic State (IS).

Fallujah is one of the last remaining large cities under the Iraqi part of what IS calls its "caliphate." Lying only 65 kilometers from Baghdad, it is also of considerable strategic importance. An attack was inevitable. But its timing is interesting.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi needs a win. He is perceived as weak. Since taking over from Nouri al-Maliki, who fractured Iraq's already fragile political unity with his vicious sectarianism, Abadi has been unable to bring either political stability or security to Iraq. This is painfully highlighted by the recent spate of bombings in Baghdad -- the latest coming only last week, 
when Sunni terrorists associated with IS killed at least 70 people in a largely Shi'ite district. 

But there is a broader issue at work here. While the ISF has been taking the fight to IS, it is the Shi'ite militias -- notably those under the main umbrella group, Al-Hashd Al-Sha'abi (The Popular Mobilization or PMU) -- that have dominated the fight against the terror group over the past couple of months or so, specifically the conflict around Fallujah.The infighting between the ISF and PMU is intense and some form of de-escalation is needed, but it's not clear whether this battle will help accomplish that or just make things worse.

Phillip Smyth, a researcher at the University of Maryland, uses the example of World War II's Operation Market Garden -- in which a mixture of British, American, Polish, and Dutch troops were parachuted into the Netherlands under the command of British General Bernard Montgomery, with U.S. Lieutenant General Lewis H. Brereton also taking a leading role.Like Market Garden, the battle for Fallujah features parallel command structures with a mix of troops on the ground. And the diversity of the fighting forces is not just a question of the ISF and the militias. 

Iraq In Microcosm

The Shi'a militias themselves are far from homogeneous, with many overtly Iranian proxies like Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq, Harakat al-Abdal and, most prominently of all, Kata'ib Hizballah in the field alongside militias like Firqat al-Abbas and Liwa Ali al-Akbar – which are loyal to Iraq's top Shi'ite cleric, Ali al-Sistani, who rejects Iranian influence in Iraq. 

Iraq's other leading Shi'ite cleric is the infamous Muqtada al-Sadr, whose militia, Saraya al-Sala'am, is also involved in the battle for Fallujah and has also fallen out with the Iranians. Perhaps no figure in Iraq is more synonymous with sectarian tension that Sadr, who in 2013 described Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) commander Qasem Soleimani as "the most powerful man in Iraq."

According to Smyth, it's clear from open-source materials that it is the Iranian proxies calling the shots in the advance on Fallujah, but the other organizations do have a degree of independence. The result is, of course, a mess: it's Iraq in microcosm, with a seemingly endless number of sectarian groups with varying networks of external allegiances vying for control. 

But there is a potential positive: When you have a mix of different, often opposed, forces then one way you can de-conflict these groups is through a concerted, combined campaign against a common enemy. While it failed to achieve its ultimate objective, Market Garden is an example of the coordination of such a mix of commanders and troops -- although they were not hostile to one another. The battle to take Fallujah is a strategic necessity but it's also an attempt to deal with the sectarian and logistical problems facing Iraq's armed forces. 

And this problem will have to be dealt with. As much as the Iraqi government and Washington would love to rid themselves of the problem of the Shi'ite militias, they simply can't. The militias have proved to be one of the most effective 'pro-government' fighting groups on the ground -- far better than the ISF. In addition, they have infiltrated many government units and are also strongly present in the social and political spheres -- the militias have everything from popular songs to their own NGOs to members in the Iraqi parliament. They have built a diverse multitude of support bases within Iraq. 

Beat Them Or Join Them

For the Iraqi government it's either beat them or join them; and it is not going to be able to beat them any time soon. But the fact that so many of these groups answer to the Iranians makes governing the country even harder. 

Abadi and the United States badly need a win in Fallujah, but so do the militias. The ISF needs to show the Iraqi population that it is a strong national force -- it is not -- and Washington is desperate for them to prove this as well. 

Meanwhile, the militias want to continue to demonstrate that they are in fact the forces that are saving Iraq from Islamic State. This is a narrative that the Iranians are also strongly pushing: it's good geopolitical propaganda for them across the Middle East. According to Smyth, the Iranian message is clear: "It's our proxies' forces that are defeating [IS]. The United States says it wants to fight IS but what has it really done? In fact it has an ulterior motive, and that is simply to get more Iraqis killed.”

Along with their fighting prowess, the Shi'ite militias bring with them their own sectarian baggage, which complicates the process of re-taking Fallujah – a staunchly Sunni city. The animus between Sunni and Shi'a, exacerbated by Maliki, has only increased due to the often brutal tactics of the militias towards their Sunni fellow Iraqis. When the militias retook Tikrit from IS late last year they deliberately set about destroying hundreds of homes and shops in the city as well reportedly abducting 200 Sunni residents -- 160 of whom still remain unaccounted for. 

The Sunnis don't forget. Indeed, part of the reason that IS gained so much traction in Iraq in the first place is that the anti-Sunni policies of the Iraqi government and behavior of the Shi'ite militias drove many Sunni Iraqis into its arms. 

The residents of Fallujah are trapped. Islamic State is using them as human shields against the air and ground attacks that began on May 23, but they also know that if Islamic State is defeated then what is coming may be almost as bad. 


Al-Qaeda's Ayman Al-Zawahri Plays Politics

Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahri has made it clear that Syria is now the center of the jihadist world.

Sam Heller

When the self-proclaimed Islamic State declared the establishment of a global Muslim “caliphate” in 2014, the move accelerated a race for legitimacy within the international jihadist movement. IS’s rival Al-Qaeda -- which had long held out a righteous Islamic state as a far-off ideal, not something that could be realized in June 2014 in the Syrian desert -- faced new pressure to deliver on jihadist aspirations and shore up its own credibility.
 
Yet, unlike IS, Al-Qaeda could not do it alone. IS has imposed jihadist unity at the point of a sword, crushing its militant rivals and monopolizing control within its “caliphate’s” borders. In contrast, Al-Qaeda and its affiliates, like Syria’s Al-Nusra Front, have attempted to manage a complex set of relationships with local factions and, wherever possible, rally them behind Al-Qaeda’s leadership.

This was the impetus for Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahri’s May 8 audio message called Hasten To Syria, in which he urged Syria’s “mujahedin” (holy warriors) to unify, calling it “a matter of life and death.”
 
While Zawahri used the recording to speak to various constituencies, his primary audience seems not to have been the Al-Nusra Front or the Salafi-jihadist hardcore. Rather, Zawahri was apparently addressing Syria’s other Islamist rebels -- chiefly opposition faction and Islamist movement Ahrar al-Sham -- groups which have rejected IS but which have been wary of Al-Nusra Front’s affiliation with Al-Qaeda.
 
Syria, Zawahri made clear, is now the center of the jihadist world.

“Syria today is the hope of the Muslim nation,” he said, “because it is the lone popular revolution of the Arab Spring revolutions that has adopted the correct path.”

Syria’s fighters are on their way to erecting a righteous Islamic state -- not IS’s tyrannical, false “caliphate,” he suggested. But he warned against the conspiracies of what he termed Crusader enemies and their Arab puppets. 
 
Zawahri did deliver at least one message aimed at the jihadist base, affirming that the IS’s members are “Khawarij,” a historical Muslim sect of hyper-extremist deviants. Labeling the Islamic State group as such has been controversial within Salafi-jihadism -- theorist Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi has resisted it -- in part because it requires jihadists to act on the Prophet Muhammad’s prescription for dealing with the Khawarij: “qatl Ad,” or total extermination. Zawahri has now come down firmly on one side of this intra-jihadist debate.
 
But much of the rest of the recording was implicitly directed at Syrian rebels outside the narrow circle of Salafi-jihadism, whom Zawahri attempted to reassure about Al-Qaeda’s intentions. Zawahri emphasized that Al-Nusra Front and Al-Qaeda are not interested in monopolizing power in Syria but rather in championing God’s law and an Islamic state chosen by Syria’s people. “We are not -- by the grace of God -- seekers of power, but rather seekers of the rule of God’s law,” said Zawahri. “We do not want to rule Muslims; rather, we want to be ruled, as Muslims, by Islam.”
 
And if it were necessary to establish this righteous Islamic government, Zawahri said, then “organizational membership (i.e., Al-Nusra Front’s Al-Qaeda affiliation) would never -- God permitting -- be an obstacle to these great aspirations.”
 
Some in the media thought this meant Zawahri was giving Al-Nusra Front the green light to cut ties with Al-Qaeda. But, in fact, Zawahri was laying out a trade: The dissolution of Al-Nusra Front’s Al-Qaeda affiliation is conditional on the erection of an Islamic government that meets Al-Qaeda’s purist standards.
 
This was no real concession, but rather an endorsement of Al-Nusra Front’s existing stipulations for breaking its Al-Qaeda link. In fact, Zawahri’s arguments were entirely in line with those of Al-Nusra Front and its chief, Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, who made the same point in an interview with Al-Jazeera in June 2015:

“We’ve said to all the [rebel] factions: When we really come together and create an Islamic government -- and these are not my words, these are the words of Dr. Ayman [al-Zawahri] himself -- he said that when Syria has a righteous Islamic government approved by the consensus of its factions, when it is governed by consultation, when the law of Greatest God is the authority, then we will be the first soldiers of this righteous government.”

Short of this condition, Al-Nusra Front has refused to break with Al-Qaeda. That is what apparently scuttled rebel merger talks in January, when Ahrar al-Sham’s insistence on breaking the Al-Qaeda ties and Nusra’s refusal brought negotiations to an impasse.
 
With that in mind, Zawahri’s discussion of an Islamic government seemed mostly theoretical. He was speaking broadly about the mujahedin’s ultimate aim in Syria, not issuing an urgent call for the creation of an Islamic emirate.
 
Zawahri did not say this explicitly, but there are a number of obstacles to the declaration of an Islamic emirate in the near term, including rebels’ current preoccupation with a defensive battle against the Syrian government and its allies. But -- more pertinent in this case -- an emirate also requires the consensus endorsement of Ahl al-Shoukeh (the People of Influence), including Syria’s most important rebel factions. So long as Ahrar al-Sham and others continue to object to Al-Nusra Front’s Al-Qaeda link and refuse to jointly declare a jihadist emirate (and thus become international pariahs), then an emirate is off the table.
 
In the meantime, Zawahri seemed unperturbed by the controversy over Al-Nusra Front’s Al-Qaeda link, which he dismissed as the product of foreign dictates, “an attempt,” he said, “to distract the mujahid Muslim community in Syria from its real enemies.”
 
Just as Al-Nusra Front’s leader Jolani did in his June 2015 interview, Zawahri questioned what good it would do if the group somehow split from Al-Qaeda. Would that be enough, Zawahri asked rhetorically, or would these “Crusader criminals” extract a series of more and more humiliating concessions from its members before ultimately tossing its members in prison, as happened with the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in Algeria and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
 
Geneva talks, truces -- all of these are conspiracies, Zawahri said. And he warned rebels who have been partnering with regional patrons and tentatively engaging in the political process not to listen to “the whispers of these subservient, puppet, apostate governments.”
 
Zawahri instead called on rebels to emulate the Taliban’s Mullah Omar, who famously sacrificed his emirate rather than surrender Osama bin Laden to the West. According to Zawahri, this steadfastness is what defeated the “Crusader” military apparatus, first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq.
 
And therein lies the tragedy when Al-Qaeda has adopted your cause: Al-Qaeda operates in a frame of reference in which Syria has been the lone success story of the Arab Spring, not an insane bloodbath; in which Afghanistan and Iraq were victories, not permanently destroyed countries and societies.
 
Now, Zawahri said, Al-Qaeda has wed its fortunes to that of the Syrian revolution.

“Your victory is our victory,” he said, “your honor is our honor, and your empowerment is our empowerment.”

And while he may ultimately aspire to an Islamic state -- not more butchery and death -- he and Al-Qaeda are clearly ready to pay a terrible human cost along the way.

Sam Heller is a Beirut-based freelance writer whose work has been published by VICE News, The Daily Beast, World Politics Review, War on the Rocks, IHS Jane's, and elsewhere. Follow Sam on Twitter at @abujamajem


Why Islamic State Militants Care So Much About Sykes-Picot

IS's English-language propaganda outlet, Al-Hayat, released a video called The End Of Sykes-Picot, which showed the destruction of the border between Iraq and Syria. An IS fighter provided a video tour, in clear English, of the border crossing that Iraqi soldiers had abandoned.

James Miller

One hundred years ago, on May 16, 1916, representatives from the United Kingdom and France (with the agreement of Russia) met in secret and signed what has come to be known as the Sykes–Picot Agreement. The pact, signed amid World War I, divided the Ottoman Empire into spheres of imperial control, and is often held responsible for establishing the current borders of the Middle East.

The agreement has been widely criticized in recent years, particularly after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, because to many its borders are not just a symbol of foreign imperialism but also reflect what they see as the lack of understanding of the Middle East -- then and now -- demonstrated by world leaders. Ethnic groups were split across borders and when sectarian violence erupted in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, many blamed Sykes-Picot for pitting ethnic groups against each other.

Understanding Sykes-Picot is also central to understanding the ideology (or at least the propaganda) of the Islamic State (IS) militant group. In the summer of 2014, the terrorist organization had seized large amounts of territory in both Iraq and Syria. The group had recently pronounced that it was changing its name from Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (Greater Syria) to just "Islamic State."

According to IS's well-crafted message, it was no longer an organization operating within two countries: It was its own state, and by establishing an Islamic caliphate in the region, it was actively destroying the vestiges of foreign imperialism. IS's English-language propaganda outlet, the Al-Hayat Media Center, released a video called The End Of Sykes-Picot, which showed the destruction of the border between Iraq and Syria. An IS fighter provided a video tour, in clear English, of the border crossing that Iraqi soldiers had abandoned. The "so-called border," according to the IS fighter, was established by Arab leaders and Western imperialists. There is no border, he said, the world belongs to Allah, "we are all one country," and IS-held territory should not be divided. He quoted IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as saying he was "the breaker of barriers."

In the propaganda video, IS was echoing and amplifying the sentiment that Sykes-Picot is a symbol of foreign meddling, but the militant group was also modifying this message for their own purposes, and crucially accusing Muslim leaders of complicity in these crimes, a key theme of IS propaganda.

The reality, however, is much more complicated. There's an argument to be made that the agreements made at the 1920 San Remo conference -- attended by leaders from Britain, France, Italy, and Japan -- rather than the Sykes-Picot deal, are ultimately responsible for the internal borders we know today. Regardless, those agreements didn't actually establish the internal borders -- only the larger imperial ones. As such, Sara Pursley, a historian who works on the modern Middle East, has pointed out that the map drawn by Sykes-Picot actually more closely resembles the map used by IS than the current geopolitical borders we're familiar with. The internal borders were established over a long period of time and the process had a great deal to do with local power struggles, rather than simply foreign imperial meddling.

There's another major flaw in IS's logic: Sykes-Picot actually placed Deir-ez-Zour -- the regional capital in eastern Syria and an IS stronghold -- outside of the territory that we now know as Syria. Pursley points out that it was actually an internal conflict that eventually landed Deir-ez-Zour in Syria. Pursley writes that the then-Ottoman province was placed on the French side of the border, but after a conflict with the Arab army in Syria local leaders appealed to the British to annex the region, which they did, but locals soon petitioned Damascus to reincorporate the region in Syria.

"Ironically, it was the Iraqi nationalist officers of al-Ahd al-Iraqi who were ultimately responsible for the inclusion of Dayr al-Zur within Syria. They hoped to use the region as a base for launching attacks from Syria on British occupation forces in Iraq -- and that is what they did, thereby helping to spark the 1920 revolt. In 1923, Baghdad-based Iraqi nationalist Muhammad Mahdi al-Basir explained the Dayr al-Zur decision: 'Iraqis [in Syria] were working for the liberation of Iraq, even if that required annexing much of its land for the Syrian government.' Leading British officials, including Acting Civil Commissioner in Iraq at the time, A.T. Wilson, later asserted that Britain's acquiescence at Dayr al-Zur -- i.e., the evacuation of its troops and relinquishing of the province to the Arab army in Syria -- helped precipitate the entire 1920 revolt, not only by providing the Iraqi nationalist officers in Syria a base for cross-border military operations but also by giving other opponents of the British Mandate within Iraq a sense of Britain's vulnerability."

In other words, discord between Muslims living in the heart of what is now IS territory led to the border being established where it is now. Western imperialism played a key role, but only in so much as they were reacting to political realities on the ground.

Crucially, however, IS's message is not working. If the militant group's goal is to inspire others to break down these borders and unify under a single Islamic state, there does not seem to be any sign IS is tapping into a wider collective desire.

Anthropology professor Jon W. Anderson of the Catholic University of America says that the borders established after World War I are widely accepted by those in the Middle East, and with each passing generation they become more firmly established.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Anderson said that, save for the wishes of Islamic State militants, "there doesn't seem to be much sentiment for revision" of the borders. He points out that "the longest-running internecine conflict, the Lebanese civil war, was over dominance within those boundaries and resulted in a settlement affirming them." Jordan and Israel are not going anywhere, either. Neither is Syria -- in fact, the Syrian opposition that opposes IS has also vocally opposed the breaking up of Syria, as has Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Despite IS's propaganda, and 100 years after Sykes-Picot, it seems there is little appetite to rewrite the map of the Middle East.


Putin Is Selling A Narrative On Syria And Some Media Organizations Are Buying It

Russian conductor Valery Gergiev leads a concert in the amphitheatre of the ancient Syria city of Palmyra earlier this month, an event which was covered uncritically by a number of Western news outlets.

James Miller

It's been a banner week for the Kremlin's propaganda machine. At home, and across the border in the parts of Ukraine held by Russia-backed separatists, Russian military hardware was out on display for the May 9 Victory Day parade marking the defeat of the Nazis in World War II. 

But the biggest propaganda victory for Russian President Vladimir Putin may not have been broadcast by his state-run propaganda outlets like RT, but by Western news outlets which accepted Russia's offer to report exactly what the Kremlin wanted them to in Syria.

Earlier this year, the Russian military and Russian private mercenaries played a key role in helping the Syrian government recapture the central Syrian city of Palmyra, a fabled and ancient city known for its historic ruins, from the hands of Islamic State (IS) extremists. 

In the first few days of May, the Russian military escorted teams of international journalists across the war zone to observe a concert in Palmyra's ancient amphitheater. The reporters were treated to a magnificent performance of famed musicians conducted by Valery Gergiev, the conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra and a fierce supporter of Putin. 

The Washington Post's Andrew Roth detailed the entire trip, focusing on the steps that the Russian government took to ensure that the journalists who participated in this guided tour only wrote positively and on the subject that their Russian minders desired. Other news agencies seemed more than happy to toe the Russian line.

Glowing Reports

CNN's article on the event nearly glows, highlighting the significant military operation needed to get the journalists to a concert near the front lines of the battle against IS fighters. It notes that just this past July, IS militants filmed themselves executing 25 prisoners in the same theater. There is only one line in the article that even resembles criticism -- that famed cellist Sergei Roldugin, "who was recently named in the Panama Papers as having moved hundreds of millions to offshore companies, a claim he denies," played in the concert. 

Euronews posted a similar story, though the French news outlet did note a caveat: its media facility in Syria is "provided by the Russian Ministry of Defence and our reporting is not subject to any military control." That article carried a quote from the head of St Petersburg's State Hermitage museum who told the audience that the UNESCO heritage site could have been saved.

Without naming names he appeared to criticize the US-led coalition.

"Look at its geographical situation. The battle for Palmyra went on for so long and many of the exhibits were able to be smuggled out. [The militants] approaching Palmyra could have been bombed into the ground in an instant, but they weren't. Well our guys weren't there back then!" said Mikhail Piotrovsky, the museum's director.

Curiously that quote was published without noting that Palmyra's "geographical situation" is at the center of the country on a key road between the Syrian government's capital city, Damascus, and Iraq -- far from the U.S.-led coalition's campaigns against IS strongholds in northeastern Syria and western Iraq. 

Neither CNN nor Euronews note that, according to new documents obtained by Sky News, the Russian-led offensive to retake Palmyra culminated in a deal between the Syrian government and IS forces that allowed the terrorists to remove their heavy weaponry in exchange for the retaking of the city.

Neither report notes that the main target of both Russian and Syrian air strikes are groups that have fought IS, not IS itself. And neither article mentions the fact that, according to the detailed database maintained by the Violations Documentation Center in Syria, at least 100 civilians were killed by the Assad regime in Palmyra prior to IS's arrival, most of whom were killed while in detention. 

No Wider Context

Instead, both articles read exactly how the Russian government would like them to read -- Russia helped Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad liberate this ancient city from the most brutal terrorists. 

Worse yet, the wider context of events in Syria is completely missing from both the CNN and Euronews reports. While Russian cellos were playing mournful tunes for those killed by Islamic State terrorists, at least 30 refugees were killed as bombs tore through a camp for internally displaced persons near the border with Turkey. Activists said air strikes -- possibly Russian -- were to blame. Euronews, however, ran a special report on how Russian soldiers are demining the ruins. That report does not ask the question that Reuters asks -- if IS planted the mines so that they would explode when the Syrian and Russian soldiers captured the city, why didn't any of them go off? 

CNN also reported that the Russian mission in Syria is much larger than media reports had previously suggested. The CNN correspondent noted that he was impressed by the "professionalism of the troops and the pristine state of the equipment they were using," and concluded that "while the exact size of Russia's military presence in Syria is still unclear, the things we saw while embedded with them indicate that it is bigger and more sophisticated than most believe." 

That the Russian government is brazenly showing off its forces in Syria should come as no surprise. Independent analysis conducted by our team at The Interpreter, an RFE/RL partner, advanced the argument months ago that, when Putin was claiming that he was withdrawing from Syria, large numbers of Russian forces were staying to fight.

When Putin announced his withdrawal from Syria, he wanted the world to think he was serious. He wasn't. Now Putin wants to send a different message: he's not going anywhere. And uncritical reports from the front lines only help him to underscore this message.
 


The Syrian Kurds Could Be A Key Ally In The Fight Against Islamic State 

Kurdish fighters celebrate taking control of an area in Syria's Raqqa region last year.

Wladimir van Wilgenburg

QAMISHLI, Syria -- The Kurds have never been lucky with geography, being landlocked and divided between Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. However, due to the Syrian crisis and the threat of an Islamic caliphate bordering Kurdish areas in Syria, the Syrian Kurds have become one of the most reliable coalition allies against the Islamic State (IS) militant group. Most likely they will play a prominent role in capturing the IS capital of Raqqa. 

The Kurds seem to fit perfectly into the current U.S. strategy of focusing on defeating jihadist groups and not Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is the focus of most moderate rebel groups. Supporting some moderate rebel groups presents problems for Washington as those groups have partnered with the Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front and the Salafist Jaish al-Islam to fight against Assad. Some rebel groups have also given U.S. supplies to jihadists. 

While IS fighters have recently defeated rebel offensives in northern Syria, the Syrian Kurds have been more successful on the battlefield, having proven themselves able to fight IS near the Turkish border. "They've been courageous. They have been successful," U.S. State Department spokesperson John Kirby recently said in Washington. Battered by Syrian and Russian air strikes, the rebels were quite successful in defending their territory for years, but have been unable to make many in-roads against IS.

While anti-Assad rebels have been losing battles near the Turkish border, the Kurds have been on the advance in northeastern Syria. Colonel Talal Silo, the official spokesperson of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), says they have three possible directions for campaigns after finishing the Shadadi operation last February: west toward Manbij, south to liberate the countryside around Raqqa, or southeast toward Deir el-Zour. Some critics have suggested that the SDF is unwilling to expand beyond traditional Kurdish areas, but when I asked Silo about the subject he rejected this, saying: "Our goal is not only Kurdish cities. The target of the SDF is not only to liberate Kurdish regions, because for example the countryside of Shadadi and the southern region of Hasakah that were liberated, were completely Arabic." "Our forces do not only contain Kurds, but also Arabs, Christians, Turkomans. It's for everyone," Silo said. 

One of the main goals of the SDF is to take control of northern Syria, including opening a corridor from Kobani to the Kurdish enclave of Efrin. This conflicts with the goals of Turkish-backed Syrian rebels that want to use the countryside of northern Syria as a supply line to Aleppo, currently besieged by Syrian regime forces. Recently, fierce clashes erupted again when Aleppo's rebels tried to recapture Tel Rifaat from Kurdish-led SDF forces, leading to the deaths of dozens of rebels, especially from the Jaish al-Sunna group that originates from Homs.

Multiethnic Ideology

The Syrian Kurdish fighters are dominated by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is close to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the militant left-wing organization which is banned in Turkey. That is a problem for Turkey as Ankara is against any form of coalition support for the Syrian Kurds, even more so after the cease-fire between Turkey's Kurds and the Turkish state collapsed in July 2015. Therefore, Turkey has tried to back rival rebel groups and even jihadist groups to defeat the PYD and the People's Protection Units (YPG) in northern Syria, without any real results. 

In February, Turkey started to shell Kurdish-led groups in Aleppo,  after the Kurds took advantage of Russian bombings of Syrian rebel groups near Azaz and took the Menagh air base. Turkey has also shelled the YPG-allied forces trying to cross the river into the IS-held city of Jarabulus in July 2015. Off the battlefield, Turkey managed to exclude the Kurdish PYD from the peace talks in Geneva. 

However, the PYD, unlike the Iraqi Kurdish parties, follows a multiethnic ideology and its leaders have realized that it's better to also recruit Arabs in a region that is not predominantly Kurdish. In March, the PYD announced its desire to establish a federalized Syria, where all of northern Syria, not only Kurdish "Rojava" -- Syrian Kurdistan -- would be represented. Therefore, they have appointed Mansour Saloum, an Arab from Tal Abyad, as the co-head. "We are all people living in this area, and all the ethnic groups will work together to achieve this project," Saloum said. 

The move was condemned and rejected both by the Syrian opposition and the Assad government. This plan also contrasts with the approach taken by the rival Kurdish National Council (KNC), which is part of the Syrian opposition and wants a Kurdistan region, similar to the one in Iraq. As a result the KNC condemned the recent announcement by the PYD and its allies and accused the PYD of seeking "Syrian federalism," instead of the establishment of a Kurdistan federal zone.

The support for federalism may have gained the YPG new enemies. In the mixed city of Qamishli, where there were clashes between the Syrian regime and the Kurds in late April, many of the local fighters are Arabs not Kurds. There have been low-level clashes before between the regime and Kurds in Aleppo, Hasakah, and Qamishli, but this was the first time that the clashes spread throughout Qamishli and the surrounding countryside. Kurds there think the Syrian regime attacked them because the regime feels stronger due to Russian support and to show the Kurds that they reject any form of federalism.

Strong And Diverse Coalition

The PYD's cooperation with Arabs is not new. They have focused on working with Arab tribes since they captured the Syrian-Iraqi border with fighters from the Shammar tribe in October 2013. Relations with the United States were established later, when IS tried to capture Kobani and were pushed back, losing hundreds of fighters due to U.S.-led coalition air strikes and ammunition supplies. After receiving U.S. support, they have achieved several victories, such as defeating IS in Tal Abyad, Al-Hawl, Al-Shaddadi -- all of them Arab areas.
 
From my observations, the SDF is focusing on recruiting more Arabs for future operations. Although U.S. officials have spoken about the Syrian Arab Coalition, in reality these are the Arabs that have joined the SDF. So far, I haven't met anyone who claims to be representing the Syrian Arab Coalition in northern Syria. "What's the Syrian Arab Coalition?" asked Bandar al-Humaydi, from the Arab Sanadid forces allied to the YPG. Arabs most likely join the SDF for financial reasons, or due to the fact that it is the strongest force in northern Syria. Moreover, it's one of the few forces that can really confront Islamic State in northern Syria -- having both a strong ideology and military force. Nevertheless, the command and control of the SDF is still dominated by Kurds from the YPG, and Arabs do not play a large role in the military leadership.

In the former IS-stronghold of Al-Shaddadi, two Arab members of the local police whom I interviewed told me they receive a salary of around $80 per month. "I joined to liberate the city from Daesh [IS]," said Xalaf Mohammed, a 23-year-old Arab. Although human rights organizations have accused the SDF of rights violations against Arabs, in many Arab regions of Hasakah, local civilians have welcomed the SDF forces.
 
"In the beginning the Kurdish percentage [of soldiers in the SDF] was like 60 percent, now it's changed, because the people that are joining the SDF now are mostly Arabs," Silo said. 

At a former government-controlled prison in Alaya, Arabs who have joined the Kurdish security police, are now protecting the facility. "Arabs are working against the regime, because the regime has oppressed them, and they have seen humanity from our side," said Bave Egid, a Kurdish police officer stationed at the prison.

The SDF is a strong and diverse coalition and one that, for the foreseeable future, will likely be a key partner in the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State in Syria.

Wladimir van Wilgenburg is currently in Qamishli, in northern Syria, conducting a research project for the Iraqi Institute for Strategic Studies (IIST), funded by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) on Syrian Kurds.
 

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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