Syria’s pro-democracy jihad?

SYRIA THE DAY AFTERIn the spring of 2011, it would have been impossible to predict that in Syria, in a few years’ time, many of the pro-democracy activists who built a peaceful movement to bring down President Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship would be turning to jihadist groups, note analysts Vera Mironova, Loubna Mrie, Richard Nielsen, and Sam Whitt. Over the past year, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), once regarded as a force of moderate, secular democratic reformers, has partnered with—some members have even defected to—various moderate and radical Islamist groups, including the al Qaeda–linked al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), they write for Foreign Affairs:

This trend is perplexing given the fundamentally incompatible values of jihadists and democratic revolutionaries, especially on the basics: human rights, tolerance, and political pluralism. To understand this paradox, we conducted a survey of 50 Islamist fighters from Ahrar al-Sham and al-Nusra, along with several sheiks, who were educated in Saudi Arabia. These surveys were conducted as part of our broader Voices of Syria project, which includes over 500 interviews with Syrian civilians, rebel fighters, and refugees in Syria and Turkey. ….

Based on our research in Syria from late April to early May 2014, the Islamist fighters we interviewed were surprisingly supportive of democracy. In the long-besieged province of Idlib, about 40 miles west of Aleppo, we found that 60 percent of the Islamist fighters we interviewed from Ahrar al-Sham and the al Qaeda–affiliated al-Nusra agreed that “democracy is preferable to any other form of governance.” Further, 78 percent of these Islamists also strongly agreed that “it is essential for Syria to remain a unified state,” which seems to contradict the goal of building a more encompassing Islamic caliphate. Although this finding may seem at odds with the theocratic aims of Islamist groups, we suspect that Islamists are rethinking their position on democracy in order to widen their ideological net and recruit more fighters. 

By reframing the struggle for jihad as a quest to preserve the right of religious expression, Islamist groups have also bolstered their recruitment efforts inside Western democracies, the researchers conclude.

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Obama seeks Syria strategy review, Alawites question support for Assad

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President Barack Obama has asked his national security team for another review of the U.S. policy toward Syria after realizing that ISIS may not be defeated without a political transition in Syria and the removal of President Bashar al-Assad, senior U.S. officials and diplomats tell CNN:

The review is a tacit admission that the initial strategy of trying to confront ISIS first in Iraq and then take the group’s fighters on in Syria, without also focusing on the removal of al-Assad, was a miscalculation.

Rep. Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Thursday on CNN’s “New Day” that he had also heard that the White House was shifting its strategy, in part because Turkey and other Gulf states — which are hosting refugees from Syria — were pushing for the removal of Assad.

“What really tipped this into a more vigorous reassessment was hearing from our coalition partners that they are not convinced by the Syria part and this strategy only works if there is a more coherent Syria piece,” said a senior official.

The Alawite backbone of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime shows signs of wobbling under the strain of Syria’s civil war, The Washington Post’s Hugh Naylor reports:

Members of the minority group have become more critical of the regime’s handling of the conflict on social media and during rare protests, according to activists and analysts. They also say Alawites, who form the core of Assad’s security forces, increasingly have avoided compulsory military service in a nearly four-year war where their community has sustained huge casualties relative to Syria’s Sunnis, who lead the rebellion….

Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert and senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, partly attributed this sentiment to demographics: Syria’s Sunni majority vastly outnumbers the Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam who formed about 12 percent of the country’s prewar population of 24 million.

“People are realizing that the war is not going to go away any time soon and that you can’t shoot your way out of this problem — not with Syria’s demographics,” he said. “There are too many Sunnis.”

SYRIA THE DAY AFTERThe Day After civil society group has published a new Field Guide on Elections which presents principles and recommendations for free and fair elections, the electoral process, as well as elections in Syria: currently (on local councils in rebel-held areas), past elections, and suggestions for the future.
Accompanying the release of the Field Guide, a campaign will take place inside Syria, in areas outside regime control, sharing suggestions and principles from the Guide with citizens through radio and TV spots, distribution of the Guides, as well as wall-paintings and civil society activities. 

Brokered  transition could take months

“It’s not going to be tomorrow and I don’t think anyone even believes that is physically possible. But even if it is a six- or 12-month plan, as long as it has an exit for Assad,” one senior Arab diplomat told CNN. “But we are glad that we finally see a meeting of the minds with the U.S. that there needs to be a rethinking of the strategy.”

American officials and Arab diplomats said that while Russia has tacitly endorsed the idea of a Syria free of al-Assad, Moscow has done little to effect change on the ground.

“The Russians are not our friend here,” one of the senior administration officials said. “They have given vague expressions of empathy but that is not exactly the same as saying we are with you and are going to rid of him. They are still arming Assad and providing him direct support.”

Officials pointed to a debate within the Iranian regime about al-Assad’s fate, but there is little sign that the supreme leader or the powerful Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps are interested in getting rid of him.

“The moderates are not calling the shots in Syria,” an official said. “The Iranians have come up with plans like constitutional reforms and ultimately an election, and it is better than nothing, but it still doesn’t include Assad going and it is not the basis for an agreement.”

A blueprint for de-escalation & transitional governance in Syria.

CNAS SYRIAThe current U.S. strategy to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) must be integrated with a comprehensive political strategy for Syria, according to How This Ends: A Blueprint for De-Escalation in Syria.

This strategy should involve a slow, gradual freeze of fighting between the regime and the opposition in Syria,  local level truces, and the implementation of transitional governance frameworks based on power-sharing arrangements, says the brief, published by the Center for a New American Security:

The United States and its allies must take advantage of the current moment, when international actors can exert maximal influence on the Syrian revolutionaries,  to encourage the growth of a new and improved civil-military Syrian opposition coalition. In order to achieve a freeze in the conflict and a negotiated end to the Syrian civil war, the Syrian armed opposition will have to develop and accept a political platform, one that is synchronized with the ideas espoused by existing political opposition groups. Syrian rebels organized under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) must view themselves as the nucleus of a new national army that will uphold and protect an inclusive and pluralistic Syria after Asad. In the short term, a negotiated transition process can begin even as Asad continues to rule parts of Syria.

“The solution in the short term is neither transition nor power-sharing but freezing the war as it is, and acknowledging that Syria has been decentralized at the barrel of a gun,” argues a report prepared by a European mediation group, the Washington Post’s David Ignatius reports. The report urges that the cease-fires should be followed by local elections and eventual national elections.

“Cease-fires will allow us to move towards a political solution and a negotiated political transition,” and bolster the embattled moderate opposition to President Bashar al-Assad, argues the report. It says the regime “knows it cannot take back the whole country or turn back the clock.”

Assad regime, Islamic State committing war crimes in Syria, U.N. says

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A report presented by the United Nations today paints a pretty grim picture of Syria, NPR reports:

It tells the story of a country mired in a ruthless civil war in which all sides are indiscriminately killing and torturing civilians. It presents a laundry list of human rights violations and war crimes undertaken by both the forces of President Bashar Assad and non-state armed groups, such as the Islamic State, that are fighting to topple the regime.

The Guardian encapsulates the 45-page report like this:

“Syrian government forces have dropped barrel bombs on civilian areas, including some believed to contain the chemical agent chlorine in eight incidents in April, and have committed other war crimes that should be prosecuted, they said in a 45-page report issued in Geneva on Wednesday.

” ‘Violence has bled over the borders of the Syrian Arab republic, with extremism fuelling the conflict’s heightened brutality,’ said the report. …

” ‘Executions in public spaces have become a common spectacle on Fridays in [Isis power-base] Raqqa and in Isis-controlled areas of Aleppo governorate,’ said the commission, which includes former war crimes prosecutor Carla del Ponte. ‘Bodies of those killed are placed on display for several days, terrorising the local population.’

The BBC says that about 200,000 people have been killed since the conflict began in 2011

The airstrikes reportedly being considered by the Obama administration will not be enough to shift the balance of power on the ground, analysts suggest.

“In Iraq we seem to seem to have been able to find some very good targets. In Syria, the question is what exactly we are targeting,” Elliott Abrams, a Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council for Foreign Relations, told FRANCE 24.

Abrams [a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy] points out that successful strikes on the IS in Iraq take place when they are travelling, often in US-supplied armored vehicles stolen from Iraqi state forces.

In Syria, where the militants have been able to flourish without fear of sophisticated air power, larger operations, such as military bases, might also be open to attack.

“IS militants are different from traditional terror groups because they don’t hide out in the desert, they control and seek to govern territory,” explains John McLaughlin, former deputy director of the CIA and senior fellow at the Brookings Institute’s Center for Middle East Policy and US Foreign Policy program.

“By virtue of administering territory, they have to have somewhere to gather fuel; to repair equipment and to train. For now, they can do this in Syria which remains a safe haven. But once the US expands operations across the border, their structure could be their downfall.”

Robust and timely aid for Syrian nationalist rebels fighting both the regime and ISIS is a must, says Frederic C. Hof, a Resident Senior Fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. He worked on Syria-related issues in the State Department from 2009 through 2012.  

Relevant security assistance for a Syrian National Coalition trying to set up an alternate governing structure in non-Assad, non-ISIS Syria is mandatory, he writes for the New Republic.

“Building an all-Syrian national stabilization force in Turkey and Jordan for eventual anti-regime and anti-ISIS peace-enforcement is essential. American leadership in creating mechanisms that can one day bring Bashar Al Assad and his principal enforcers to trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity is vital,” says Hof, who worked on Syria-related issues in the State Department from 2009 through 2012.  

The notion of partnering with the Syrian government against the IS is just silly at every level, says Hussein Ibish, a columnist at NOW and The National (UAE), and a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine:

First, his forces show no interest or ability in actually or effectively fighting these lunatics. Indeed, they just lost control of the Tabqa airfield, 25 miles outside the IS’s stronghold and capital of Raqqa. This means that Raqqa Province is the first region of Syria to fall entirely out of the control of the regime, and it should surprise absolutely no one that it has fallen to the IS.

Second, for the Damascus dictatorship, the IS is the perfect enemy. It’s not as if there won’t still be an uprising afterwards, should the IS be defeated or badly degraded. On the contrary, it’s likely that opposition forces would be greatly strengthened and the arguments and appeal of the regime profoundly weakened….

Finally, the IS cannot be successfully countered by sectarian non-Sunni troops, either in Syria or Iraq. Anyone who imagines that an Alawite-dominated Syrian army or extremist Shiite militias in Iraq can be the solution to crushing or profoundly degrading the IS has failed to understand how and why the group has risen to prominence. It feeds off of the deepest Sunni Muslim rage, both locally and internationally.

The sordid history of Assad-AQI/ISIS collaboration was neatly encapsulated in a short but invaluable essay by Peter Neumann in the London Review of Books last April, Ibish notes:

As the uprising gained steam, the Syrian dictatorship released the most notorious Salafist-jihadists they were holding from prison. They concentrated their fire power on the Free Syrian Army and other nationalist groups that actually threatened to potentially overthrow the regime successfully, while ignoring the steady gains of ISIS. As Hassan Hassan has pointed out, “When [ISIS] Islamic radicals took over Raqqa, … the regime did not follow the same policy it had consistently employed elsewhere, which is to shower liberated territories with bombs, day and night.” Instead, it did nothing. Except purchase large quantities of oil from ISIS, fattening their coffers even further.

“Air strikes against Isis targets without any coherent plan to boost mainstream rebel forces means we’re, in effect, acting as Assad’s air force,” said Shadi Hamid, a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

The battle for Aleppo is an “existential moment” for the rebels. “If they lose Aleppo, it is going to be one of the worst events in recent months,” he tells the Financial Times.

Syria – How Many More?

syria how many moreOn August 21, concerned citizens will gather to read the names of the 1429 Syrians who were killed on August 21, 2013 in the sarin gas attack in the Damascus suburbs of Ghouta. The chemical weapons attack was a gross violation of international law and President Obama’s “red line.” Over half of the victims of the Ghouta attack were women and children who died in their sleep. Since last year, the Syrian regime has launched other attacks on Syrian civilians using chemical weapons including chlorine bombs. 

The reading will take place in front of the White House in protest of the international community’s failure to protect Syrian civilians for over three years from the indiscriminate attacks of a ruthless regime. Readers will recite the names from lists compiled from the Violations Documentation Center (VDC) in Damascus and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) in London.

RTWT