A Trip Report (Turkey, August 10-30) | Syria in Transition Series
The trip was arranged for the purpose of helping an independent American film company do a documentary on the Syrian Revolution. Khawla Yusuf and I were invited as advisers and interview subjects. But while the film crew made their rounds, Khawla and I had ample time and opportunity to meet with important activists and conduct our own interviews.
The trip included visits to Istanbul, Antakya and Ankara, and our interviewees included free Syrian army officers in Antakya as well as rebel leaders and political activists from Syria. Many of the latter came specifically to meet us. Khawla was already a known person to them as she has been in communications with them for the last year.
We also met with a number of foreign correspondents covering the Syrian Revolution in Antalya, as well as western officials based in Ankara. Coming at the end of our visit, these meetings served as a good opportunity to share our impressions of the people we met and current developments.
* The average daily death toll across Syria has now risen to 200 martyrs, most of whom civilians, including many children. Massacres in certain places, especially in Damascus Suburbs, now routinely claim the lives of 50 locals and more. On August 25, one particular heinous massacre in the Damascene Suburb of Daraya claimed the lives of 510 locals by latest counts, but up to the date of writing this report, local residents keep stumbling on new corpses in basements of building and nearby fields.
* Summary executions by pro-Assad militias operating in and around restive towns and suburbs occur daily and seem part of a systematic effort to subdue rebels and drive a wedge between them and local populations. But while some criticism of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and its tactics can occasionally be heard in local circles, the plan may backfire. As sectarian sentiments increase and more people with scores to settle with regime militias and supporters emerge on the scene, more local FSA brigades will likely form but will await further influx of arms before they start operating at earnest. These new groups will likely be more sectarian in both character and creed.
* Pounding cities and towns using helicopter gunships and fighter jets is now a commonplace occurrence throughout the country. All major towns and cities, including Damascus and Aleppo, are not targeted. But due to a recent though limited influx of more advanced weapons, local rebels are rising up to the challenge. Over the last two weeks, several helicopter gunships and two fighter jets have been downed. More significant, however, is the recent move to attack local military airports, a trend that began in Idlib Province with attacks on the Taftanaz and Abu Al-Zouhour Airports where a number of helicopters were destroyed. Still, the pounding of restive towns and villages continues. Meanwhile, the stinger missiles and MANPADs which had been sent to the rebels are still on hold in warehouses controlled by Turkish authorities.
State of the Internal Opposition
* For many months, rebel groups were on their own when it came to procuring weapons and supplies. The situation changed six months ago, with the establishment of a special Turkish-Qatari-Saudi “operations room” that supervised all arms flow to the rebels. However, and over the last few weeks, the situation changed again. A reported dispute between Saudi and Qatari officials put an end to the tripartite cooperation and Qatar and Saudi Arabia are acting separately, albeit still under Turkish supervision. The specifics of the dispute are not clear, but the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and its role seem to lie at the heart of it. The main task of the operations room is to supervise the distribution process of supplies. With backing from Turkey and Qatar, the Brotherhood prefers to take control over the entire process, a development that will leave many groups unsupported, including the largest and most effective fighting units on the ground, but it will give the Brotherhood the ability to control military operations to match its ability to manipulate the political processes in the oppositional scene abroad. To date, the largest rebel groups are still unwilling to endorse a strict Islamist agenda, irrespective of who is in charge: Salafist groups or Brotherhood types. These groups are completely reliant on support from the operations room as well as on supplies they can procure for themselves inside Syria. MB control will starve them out, or push them into a brittle alliance that will not survive the test of time and which will increase mutual animus. In an effort to appease all sides of the divide, Turkish authorities seem willing to let each side run their own supply network. So, the Saudis will continue to back their room, Qatar will back the Brotherhood, and Salafis will receive backing from both while continuing to have their owned independent sponsors from all over the world. For now, however, the main operations room is the one receiving Saudi backing.
* The way operations were managed in the beginning make clear that Turkish, Saudi and Qatari intelligence and military experts were not involved in providing any operational advice, beyond broad strokes. Recent developments on the ground, however, indicate that this is now changing, though it is not clear who is providing the advice. Still, much improvisation remains involved in the decision-making process by rebels. Recently, and following a take-over by rebels of a missile base near Damascus, one of the people affiliated with the old operations room encouraged rebels to claim that some missiles had chemical warheads in the hope that this will show the Americans that their redline was being challenged. The claim, of course, was ludicrous. A statement from the FSA denying this development was made. But the damage was done. The lack of consistent expert advice continues to plague the opposition in every effort they undertake.
* Leaders of local rebel groups are fast acquiring all the usual traits and characteristics associated with warlords, their intentions notwithstanding. The ethos driving the devolution towards warlordism is fed mostly by international inaction, now increasingly perceived in conspiratorial terms, as well as lack of trust in existing political opposition groups and their growing disunity. In separate interviews, different rebel leaders articulated the same thought: we will give up our weapons and resume our normal lives only when a democratically elected government that we can trust takes over. Emphasis on trust, which remains in short supply. Many left us with the impression that they expect to be involved in future governance, if only on the local level. For people like them to develop such ambitions is neither surprising nor illegitimate, but in the absence of a political process that can bring these figures on board, such expectations and ambitions will likely pave the way towards eventual confrontations and internal struggle. Signs of that are already appearing on the ground.
* The divide between Islamist groups advocating, openly or quietly, the establishment of an Islamic state, and other rebel groups, who represent the majority of rebels and still cling to the more inclusive concept of a civil state, is now wider than ever, with the two sides openly competing over acquisition and control of the meager logistical support trickling across the Turkish and Iraqi borders, and at occasions, Jordanian and Lebanese borders. Though occasional hijackings of supplies intended to other groups have been reported, the competition between groups remains for the most part nonviolent in nature and restricted to intrigue behind closed doors. This is not likely to last for long, as groups continue to compete over supplies, territory and glory with many groups tending to take credit for the same operations.
* Competition is also manifested in attempts at hijacking initiatives launched by other parties in the opposition or the international community at large. The most recent example is the fate of a Libyan ship, Benghazi Al-Khair, carrying millions of dollars’ worth of humanitarian supplies meant for rebel communities. The Brotherhood reportedly attempted to take over the whole shipment, but the leader of the Libyan delegation refused to cooperate and called on his government to step in and intervene with Turkish authorities. After weeks of being stuck in regional waters, the dispute was finally resolved in early September and supplies were finally released to the Libyan benefactors who have been allowed to supervise the distribution process themselves.
* The Brotherhood and Salafist groups have also managed to control coverage of the Revolution in most Arabic media channels through their sympathizers already employed there, and through outright purchase of smaller channels operated by the opposition. They also used their larger financial reserves to establish control over most media teams operating inside the country, irrespective of the actual ideologies of the founding members. This allows the groups to appear as much larger and more influential over the processes on the ground than they actually are, at least at this stage. In truth, Islamist groups of all stripes, but especially those affiliated with MB, remain the smaller, albeit more organized actors, on the revolutionary scene. The Islamists are emerging as the real beneficiaries of international foot-dragging on intervention.
* The potential for warlordism is not going unnoticed by rebel leaders which continue to strive towards greater unity and coordination. Recent developments are particularly telling. In Idlib, and parts of the rural areas of Hama, Homs and Aleppo, most fighting groups, ideology notwithstanding, are now coming together under the banner of the Brigades and Fighting Units of Syria’s Martyrs (Kata’ib wa Alwiyat Shuhada’ Souriyya). The key figure behind this development is one Jamal Maarouf, AKA Abu Khalid. A pious man and a husband of three (polygamy is pretty common in rural areas throughout Syria), Abu Khalid in essence stands for traditional values, a mixture of Islam and rural mores rather than political ideology. In the absence of operational political and judicial structures in his territory in Jabal Al-Zawiyeh, he reportedly relies on Sharia to resolve disputes, but remains willing to let such matters be decided by a local government should one be established. Abu Khalid does not advocate the establishment of an Islamic State, is wary of Salafi groups and hates the Brotherhood. But, in operational matters, he cooperates with all. Syria’s Martyrs Brigades currently include 45,000 strong. But not all major rebel groups are willing to join the Syria Martyrs Brigades. Many, especially the more Islamist-leaning ones, like Al-Farouq and Farouq Al-Shamal, have chosen to come together under a different coalition that was provisionally called Al-Jabha Al-Islamiya li Tahrir Souriyya or The Islamic Front for the Liberation of Syria, led by Ahmad Abu Issa, a rival of Abu Khalid from Jabal al-Zawiyeh. Until recently, Abu Issa has led the Suqur Al-Sham Brigades, which operates mostly in Jabal Al-Zawiyeh. By the time of its public announcement on September 10, however, the coalition had metamorphosed into the Front for the Liberation of Syria. Suqur Al-Sham, Al-Frouq Brigades (Homs, Hama), Ansar Al-Islam (Damascus and Suburbs) and the Revolutionary Council of Deir Ezzor, all joined the Front. On September 3, a group of FSA officers in Antakya announced the formation of the National Syrian Army meant as replacement of the FSA and hoping to unite all groups. Initial reports claimed that rebel groups in Daraa and few in Lattakia and Damascus have rushed to join it. Some also claimed that Al-Tawhid Brigade currently operating in Aleppo City and the rural areas to its north has also joined the NSA. But officers in Antakya say that these reports are not accurate and that, at this stage, no group has confirmed their readiness to officially join the NSA. Indeed, Al-Tawhid recently joined the Revolutionary Military Council of Aleppo, a local front the Muslim Brotherhood, as evidenced by the fact that its political wing, dubbed the Provisional Transitional Council, includes the likes of Hamzah Ramadan and Ghassan Al-Najjar. The officers say that NSA basic aim is to provide a command structure for the future, and that at this stage, and for operational purposes, decision-making will still be made by rebel leaders on the ground. As such the move seems meant more as a coup against current FSA leaders in Antakya than an attempt to create a real on the ground unified army. In other words, the NSA at this stage is no more than another brand in search of customers and investors. The NSA is led by Brigadier General Muhammad Hussein Al-Haj Ali from Daraa. Another major group operating in Central Syria is Al-Farouq Brigade, run by a charismatic young defector, Captain Abdurrazzaq Tlas, guided from behind the scenes by a Salafi scholar by the name of Amjad Bitar. Al-Farouq officially joined the recently announced Front for the Liberation of Syria. As for Al-Tawhid Brigades, their Salafi orientation is known to all, but their funding comes from both the MB as well as Salafi sympathizers in the Gulf. They are led by four men, Abdulaziz Salameh, AKA Hajji Anadan after his hometown in northern Aleppo Province, and the more strict in terms of his Salafi orientation, Abdulqadir Saleh, AKA Hajji Marei, also after his hometown in northern Aleppo. Other Al-Tawhid leaders include Hajji Tal Rif’at, AKA Abu Tawfic, and Hajji Eizaz, AKA Ammar Dadikhi (more on Ammar below). In Deir Ezzor, Daraa, Damascus and the coast, rebels still operate in small units that, for a variety of reasons proven hard to knit together into larger groups, although the MB-affiliated Ansar Al-Islam (AKA Ansar Al-Sham) seems to be slowly emerging as the larger group. The picture emerging on the ground, then, is one of regional as well as ideological differences, with personalities of certain figures playing a major role in shaping the scene as well. As things at this stage, ongoing attempts at unification in the hope of avoiding warlordism are in fact contributing to it as phenomenon by consolidating power in the hands of few specific groups.
* Leaders of larger rebel groups have been able to provide a measure of security in areas under their control, but they have so far failed to provide any solid governance structures, other than token support to committees started by civil activists to ensure that basic services are provided. Meanwhile, and as we have noted above, even non-Islamist leaders tend to fall back on the Sharia as the main source of law when dealing with local informants, troublemakers and captives, due to lack of knowledge of the civil code and inability to recruit civil judges.
* The divide separating Islamists and non-Islamists is not the only one that is expanding. The divide between defectors and local civilian leaders of rebel groups is also increasing. Since most high ranking defectors opted for the safety of refugee camps in Turkey and since most have so far provided little logistical support to local communities, their influence on events on the ground remains quite limited, and their image and legitimacy have suffered. Civilian commanders continue to distrust army officers and are often unwilling to take their advice even on military operations. Some rebel leaders, however, do have a few officers under their command and do want officers in Antakya to come back to Syria and join their groups as advisers. But army officers, for the most part, have little appreciation for the field experiences that civilian commanders have gained and are unwilling to accept civilian oversight. A new command structure for the FSA will have to include figures from both worlds, and will have to act in coordination with political activists and a selection of established opposition figures in order to gain any legitimacy and relevance.
* The FSA: In Antakya, the head of the High Military Council, Brig. Gen. Mustafa Al-Shaikh, originally from the town of Rastan in Homs Province, is emerging as the go-to figure for rebel leaders. Col. Riad Al-Ass’aad is fast becoming irrelevant and is distrusted even by people from his own hometown in Idlib Province. Col. Abdul Jabbar Al-Oqeidi from Aleppo is emerging as another credible figure. Both Al-Shaikh and Al-Oqaidi are secular-leaning and pay regular visits to towns inside Syria, a tactic designed to boost their credibility. Col. Qassim Saadeddine (Al-Shaikh), also from the town of Rastan, is emerging as another key figure mainly because he remains stationed in Rastan and supervises her defenses directly. He rarely leaves town, but he has reportedly paid a visit to Antakya and Istanbul in early September. With the establishment of the NSA, Brig. Gen. Muhammad Hussein Al-Haj Ali is also emerging as a potentially influential figure, but that will eventually depend on how the NSA fares as a franchise. In addition to all these men, there are a few high ranking officers who defected over the last few months and who continue to shun the spotlight. Some have been briefed by Turkish and, at occasions, western security officials, but their intentions and plans remain unclear.
* The SNC: on the ground, the Syrian National Council remains irrelevant. No one was surprised by Secretary Clinton’s recent snub of its leaders, but, for all its problems, people on the ground don’t want to see it go into that good night until an alternative is agreed. In other words, the SNC serves now as a placeholder, no more, no less. The Brotherhood and, behind them, Turkish authorities, continue to back the SNC and is reportedly planning a major restructuring effort in the next few weeks. A member of the Executive Council, Basma Kodmani, has already been forced to submit her resignation, eliminating the only female presence at this level and weakening the representation of the secular element. The Brotherhood is already looking for a replacement. The old SNC leader, the Sorbonne Professor, Bourhan Ghalioun, is reportedly planning a comeback, but current leader Abdelbassit Seida is said to have gown attached to his position as well. Some see him as a more unifying figure for Arabs and Kurds, and for Islamic and secular elements, than Ghalioun. His leadership style is also far less abrasive and more modest than Ghalioun’s and he seems far more committed to leading by consensus. Some argue that empowering Seida rather than replacing him might be what the SNC needs to do at this stage in addition to agreeing a program for action. Still, few are holding their breaths when it comes to SNC’s ability to become viable. On the other hand, SNC leaders are also planning to form a transitional government in response to a request from France who promised to recognize such government when formed. The French did not clarify what their criteria for recognition will be. Other efforts for forming a transitional government are also underway.
* The National Coordination Body (NCB): formed inside the country by traditional opposition figures from the secular left, this particular opposition coalition, for all the good intentions of most of its founders, has served only one purpose so far: to illustrate how cut off traditional opposition groups are from the grassroots. From the onset of the revolution, NCB founders have done nothing but call for an impossible dialogue with an ignoble regime, ignoring its very nature, its history and its tactics. Obsessed with retaining the moral high ground, NCB leaders keep advocating moral stances and proposing rational solutions that have little connection to the realities around them. They say and do things that make them seem saintly in their own minds and disgusting caricatures in the view of most people. They have done everything in their power to consign themselves to the margins and to irrelevance. Though most of its members resides inside the country, the NCB has proven no less isolated from the people than its main rival, the SNC, and no less fractious. The only apparent difference between the two groups is that the SNC often tries to pander to the people, and fails, while the NCB tries to pander mostly to itself, and fails. Their international outreach efforts have turned both into mere pawns in the hands of different powers: Turkey, Qatar and Saudi for the most part in case of the SNC, Russia and Iran in the case of the NCB. The NCB is said to be planning a major opposition conference to take place in Damascus before the end of September, but as is the case with SNC and its upcoming restructuring, few are holding their breaths.
* The Islamists – the Muslim Brotherhood: Salafi and MB-affiliated groups in Syria and the Syrian diaspora are carrying out their activities with the expected messianic zeal of a people who believe that their moment under the sun has finally come. Indeed, ever since the beginning of the Revolution and benefitting from its good relations with Turkish authorities, the Brotherhood has been busy buying, bullying and intriguing its way into relevance. In many ways, it seems that the lesson MB leaders drew from history is to emulate Hafiz Al-Assad’s own tactics in controlling the political scene in the country. These tactics include: infiltrating every political and rebel movement, controlling every civil and humanitarian initiative, and hording access to the media. It’s no wonder, therefore, that the SNC is quite reminiscent of the National Progressive Front, the coalition created by Hafiz Al-Assad and maintained by Bashar and used to officially rule Syria while projecting a false commitment to political plurality and openness even as the Ba’ath Party’s and the Assad Clan manipulate the decision-making process. The Brotherhood has many Salafi-leaning members in its larger base. So, by pandering to Salafists, it is hoping to become an umbrella organization for most Islamist groups in the country. Indeed, the MB is already providing financial support to many Salafi-oriented rebel groups, including Al-Tawhid (Aleppo), Al-Farouq (Homs and Hama) and Ansar Al-Islam (Damascus), but that does not necessarily translate into political allegiance, at least not on the longer run. Indeed, at this stage, it’s hard to know who is manipulating whom in the ongoing interactions between Salafi groups and the Brotherhood. On the other hand, not even under the banner of the Syrian National Council has the MB deigned to provide assistance to groups that refuse to espouse an Islamist agenda. This renders dubious any claim that the Brotherhood makes regarding commitment to the establishment of a civil state. Indeed, for all its public declarations in support of a civil state, the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria is emerging as the more ideologically committed to the establishment of an Islamic state than all MB branches in the region. Moreover, and in addition to being disliked by most actors on the ground, the Brotherhood’s schemes are further hampered by their own internal splits, along regional (especially between the Aleppo and Hama groups), ideological (the old line Qutubists vs. the Salafists) and generational lines. Indeed, the rising younger generation of MB members can often be heard voicing displeasure with the shenanigans of the Old Guard, their backroom intrigues and the total lack transparency in the decision-making processes.
* The Islamists – the Salafi Groups: Unsurprisingly, rebel leaders have shown a significant degree of distrust vis-à-vis the Brotherhood and its agendas, and have shown a greater preference for dealing with Salafi groups. For all their calls for the establishment of an Islamic state, Salafi groups seem more willing to accept that the best that they could have at this stage is the creation of Salafist enclaves, or, in civil parlance, Salafist electoral districts. Salafi groups might accept funding from the Brotherhood, but their commitment to an MB agenda, as we noted, is unclear to say the least. Leaders of Salafist groups are emerging from amongst the grassroots, rather than the rank-and-file of the exile community, they feel rooted in the local communities and are more tuned to local realities and aspirations. Salafists might have received their initial inspiration from the Gulf, but since ideas have no borders, they have long become a homegrown phenomenon representing the desires and aspirations of constituencies in towns and regions all over Syria. The ideological and psychological predilections of the Brotherhood might prove quite a distraction and too much of a burden for them down the road.
* Confessional Minorities: For all the talk about the anti-revolutionary attitude of the Alawite and Christian communities, there are many Alawites and Christians taking part in the revolution both as political activists and as rebels. Their basic attitude towards working with various political and rebel groups could provide certain clues as to future political alliances and on-ground dynamics. Most Alawites and Christians fight with smaller units with clear secular tendencies, such as Unit 111 based in the town of Bdama in Idlib Province. But when it comes to a choice between working with MB-affiliated or Salafi-affiliated groups, most Alawites and Christians prefer MB. The MB is more familiar to them, and by adopting Assad and Ba’ath tactics, the MB is presenting a more familiar political style as well: one based on back room deals and manipulation of the political scene. By comparison, Salafi groups seem more alien and threatening: they openly call for the establishment of an Islamic state and, in rebel areas under their control, they sometimes seek to implement certain sharia regulations, such as the ban against alcohol consumption. Still, the Salafists, as we have noted above, have a greater on-the-ground presence and relevance than the MB. Any lasting arrangements or accommodations that need to be made will have to be made with them as well. They cannot be excluded from the political process, no matter how difficult it will prove to be with them on board. As for the Druzes, their concentration in a particular geographical spot, namely in the Suwaidi Province in southern Syria, have afforded them the luxury of assuming a somewhat neutral stance. Many Druze officers have nonetheless being taken part in the ongoing crackdown, but that is offset in the minds of the rebels by the many activists who are also taking part in the revolution. But tensions between the Druze population in Suwaida and the Sunni-majority in the Daraa province continue to wax and wane in correspondence to developments on the ground. The Druze community in the suburb of Jeramana in Damascus is coming under increased pressure both by pro-Assad militias and by pro-revolution activists to take a firm stand with either camp. The few Druze villages in Idlib province are providing shelter to refugees from rebel communities. With a population of less than 150,000, the Ismailites of Syria have from the very beginning showed greater sympathy with the revolutionaries and have organized numerous anti-Assad rallies in the town of Salmiyyeh. But they are virtually besieged by loyalist villages, Alawite and Christian, and are unlikely to get more involved.
* Foreign fighters, mostly from Gulf States, Libya, Tunisia, Chechnya, Somalia and Sudan, now number as much as 3,500 by some estimates, and operate out of their own bases in northern and central Syria. Working with a comparable number of Syrian recruits they are at occasions clearly affiliated with Al-Qaeda or similar Jihadi organizations, although the role of Jabhat Al-Nusrah (The Succor Front) in this is not clear. There are also quite a few “foreign” fighters who seem more motivated by Arab nationalism than Jihadi agendas. According to activists based in Antakya, individual members of the Brotherhood seem to be implicated in smuggling Jihadi elements into the country. Some local rebel commanders, while wary of their presence, are, nonetheless, coordinating some operations with them. The groups have already been implicated in hostage taking, torture of captives and mutilations, especially of Alawite prisoners. Although we are only talking about a handful of cases at this stage, the trend is alarming.
* Relations between rebel groups and al-Qaeda cells are often frayed. Back in April of 2012, FSA units killed Walid Al-Boustani, a Lebanese national and a ranking member of Fatih Al-Islam, an Al-Qaeda affiliated Jihadi cell, for declaring the establishment of an Islamic emirate in the town of Al-Hosn near the Lebanese borders. Recently, a clash between an FSA unit, Farouq Al-Shamal, and an Al-Qaeda cell near Bab Al-Salam border crossing which connects Aleppo to Turkey, left several jihadists dead including the cell leader, Abu Muhammad Al-Shami Al-Absi. Abu Muhammad is a Syrian from Idlib province, and his family is vowing revenge, but more out of clan loyalty than ideological sympathies. It’s this clan dimension that often makes dealing with Al-Qaeda’s Syrian members such a sensitive matter. It’s not clear why Turkish authorities put up with Al-Qaeda cells springing up near their borders, and with foreign fighters pouring through. But for now, they don’t seem overly alarmed by the development.
* Of the 3,500 foreign fighters, around 1,300 are said to be Libyans operating mostly in northern Syria and Al-Haffeh Region in Lattakia Province. Contrary to expectations, and personal piety notwithstanding, most these fighters seem motivated more by nationalist sentiments and romantic notions than Islamist motivations. The number of Libyan fighters with Al-Qaeda sympathies or affiliations is reportedly quite limited. Moreover, Libyan fighters seem to have been caught by surprise by the fractiousness of the Syrian opposition, both inside and outside the country, and are trying to stay above the fray. But the relationship of the more moderate elements with MB-supported groups is increasingly strained due to MB's attempt to control their activities and to monopolize the aid they try to provide.
* Though still a tiny minority, an increasing number of individuals acting in the name of the Free Syrian Army are now involved in racketeering activities, including blackmail of local business communities, misuse of funds donated to support the revolution and trading in arms and medical supplies provided free of charge by support groups. Some of these figures are also known to sell supplies that they have received for free from the operations room. At occasions, these supplies were sold to pro-Assad militias. Dealing with such pariahs will not be easy, as some of them have used their ill-gotten gains to acquire local loyalties and build up their own small militias (50-250 members strong) while hyping up their revolutionary credentials. Some local rebel leaders have exhibited similar tendencies. In the town of Eizaz, in Aleppo Province, recently pounded to the ground by Assad’s MIGs, there is now a small band of 200 fighters led by a character called Ammar Dadikhi, a smuggler and a Salafist who proclaims his disdain of the Syrian people to his visitors and calls for the establishment of an Islamic State. He is also the man believed to hold most Hezbollah prisoners in Aleppo. He is one of dozens such characters now emerging all over the country, establishing little fiefdoms and complicating an already complex situation: too small to be considered warlords, too armed to be dismissed. They are the dogs and rascals of this war.
* In another alarming trend, ranking members of the Syrian National Council, the Muslim Brotherhood, and other opposition coalitions are busy establishing their own militias on the ground. Some do it under the pretext of trying to create a unified command structure for fighting groups, but by insisting on leading this structure, the move is simply leading to further fragmentation and cynicism in the rank and file of the revolution. Personal agendas are often as prominent as ideological ones.
* Still, and for all the disillusionment, disappointment and disaffection that people felt, all activists and rebel leaders we met have yet to fall on anti-Western sentiments. They are critical of Europe and the U.S., President Obama in particular, and are beginning to entertain all sorts of conspiratorial theories as to why intervention has not happened. But they are not hostile per se, and are still calling for international intervention in the form of arms supplies and the establishment of a no-fly zone. Those who live in highly mixed areas are also calling for the introduction of peacekeepers to make their job of preventing retributions easier. Be that as it may, no one expects much from the international community anymore, and all are willing to go the distance with what they have now.
* Many if not all rebel groups still dream of a traditional military victory over Assad. They still think of the liberation process as a military conquest allowing them to move from one town to another, from one region to another, until all Assad’s loyalist forces and militias are defeated and rebel groups have wrested control of every inch of the country. Being aware of the many ideological and personal differences that separate them, certain rebel groups seem to think that military muscle might be the way to deal with their current partners as well down the road. The Brotherhood seems particularly susceptible to the dream of outright military victory and eventual political dominance, both by way of vindication and payback. This seems a basic driving force in their current intrigues. Most MB-affiliated groups seem willing to take a backseat in the current fighting, saving themselves and conserving their strengths for the day after.
State of the State
* The Assad regime may not have fallen yet, but the state has already collapsed. At this stage, Syria is nothing more than a hodgepodge collection of militarized national, tribal and confessional cantons connected by a fraying thread: a quickly fading memory of a united Syria. The regime might remain in control of certain key services and regions, and it might still be able to crackdown and rain terror from the skies on its opponents and their supporting communities, but large swaths of the country have clearly slipped beyond its control. The problem: no parallel governance structures worthy of the name are emerging anywhere. Working through ad hoc committees, local activists have been able to ensure that certain services, such as garbage collection and basic policing, are uninterrupted, but this is only true in certain towns. Smaller communities have lost enough of their inhabitants to cause major interruption of services and to transform entire communities into virtual ghost towns where the whole concept of governance has become irrelevant. Most medium-size communities have suffered so much devastation making civil institutions irrelevant. Rebels, when they are around, are the only law. Bombardment, roving tank columns manned by pro-Assad militias, sniper activities and loyalist checkpoints continue to make daily life unbearable in most “liberated” communities, making the election of local governments well-nigh impossible. The lack of a uniting political vision is not helping either. Beyond the practical requirements for daily living, inhabitants of liberated communities are divided along the same ideological lines as opposition groups. Opposition groups, especially those based in diaspora communities, were expected to supply the needed political vision, but their failure to do so after so many months is compelling local activists on the ground to take charge of the political process as well. Once the proper security conditions for launching public political dialog can be established, local rebels and activists are determined to take over the political process: it’s their evolving attitudes rather than the ideological constants of traditional opposition groups that will end up dictating the nature of future Syria.
* Ethnic cleansing of Sahel Al-Ghab area in Hama province and certain parts of rural Homs is for now a done deal and will not be easily reversible, if ever. Only loyalist strongholds remain in the area. The exceptions are few, and are under constant attack from the air.
* Individual Acts of vendettas are increasing. Sectarian sentiments are now the norm rather than the exception. Syrian TV and other pro-Assad channels, in a clear policy espoused from the early days of the revolution, continues to air interviews with loyalist soldiers and pro-Assad militias in which all speak with coastal dialect, the dialect of the Alawite minority. Still, commanders of major rebel groups and local political activists seem dedicated to preventing collective acts of retribution. But, intentions notwithstanding, it's their ability to ensure that this does not happen in the future that is in question. After all, not all rebel groups are under their command, groups that espouse clear sectarian agendas are beginning to proliferate, and the intentions of Al-Qaeda type groups in this regard are pretty clear. They might be few in numbers, but, as we have seen in Iraq, they can make up for that in fanaticism and cruelty. The cold-blooded execution of 20 loyalist soldiers by rebels in Aleppo on September 10 is a case in point. It’s only a matter of time before communal retributions begin taking place as well. It’s a testament to the wisdom of local leaders that it hasn’t happened so far. It’s too bad that little such wisdom seems to be available on the other side of the communal divide.
* Taking the current state of affairs in consideration, the odds of a successful partition of Syria, even if unofficial, have actually plummeted over the last few weeks. Neither the Alawites nor the Kurds, the two likely groups to opt for such an arrangement, will be allowed to rest in peace in their newly carved out territories. In the coast, local Sunni communities are already stockpiling on weapons to fight against ethnic cleansing that is bound to take place when Alawites make their move. Considering the proximity of different communities to each other and increasing sectarian tensions, their posture may not remain defensive once the process begins to unfold, especially in the region of Al-Haffeh. In fact, as we write this report, a battle is raging in the northernmost parts of Al-Haffeh region, centered on the village of Burj Kassab and its surroundings, where rebels are trying to gain access to the sea and counteract ethnic cleansing by pro-Assad militias. The move, however, have forced residents in nearby Alawite villages to leave their homes, as their villages came under pounding for the first time since the beginning of the revolution. So, sooner rather than later, and barring full scale international intervention, Sunni Arabs, driven by a desire for vengeance, will take the fight to the Alawites, and what has been seeded in Homs, Aleppo, Damascus, Daraa, Hama and Deir Ezzor will be harvested in Lattakia, Jableh and Tartous.
* In Kurdish regions, Arab tribes are reportedly arming themselves in preparation to defend the "integrity of the state." Kurds, who are also arming themselves, have been able to prevent confrontations by measuring their steps and attempting to establish wider contact with some tribal leaders to allay their fears and address their concerns. Much still needs to be done in this regard if an Arab-Kurdish conflict is to be prevented. Intra-Kurdish rivalry is also on the increase, as PYD loyalists continue to assert themselves on the ground in an attempt to impose control over Kurdish-majority towns. To complicate matters, different PYD leaders and factions seem to be serving different agendas. Syria’s Kurds are now locked in their own internal struggles, which could devolve into conflict, and until they reach some real agreement between themselves or implement the agreement already reached in Irbil (Hewler), they can be considered effectivelyhors de combat as far as the revolution is concerned, in spite of the revolutionary sympathies of young Kurdish activists. Kurds have played strong role in the revolutionary movement in the beginning, especially in Aleppo where for long they seemed to carry the torch. But the potential for greater all-out Kurdish involvement in the revolution is effectively lost at this stage. The inability of Arab and Kurdish opposition groups to agree on a joint platform coupled with Assad’s hand-off strategy for dealing with Kurdish-majority towns combined to neutralize the Kurdish role by allowing time for the contradictions highlighted above to fester and burst onto the scene. Indeed, at this stage, Kurdish-majority regions, especially Al-Hassakeh Province, are powder kegs waiting to explode. But a conflict in Kurdish regions would hurt the rebels more than Assad as Arab tribes in Deir Ezzor, Raqqah, Hassakeh and Aleppo get sucked into it, diverting attention from the fight against Assad and his loyalist militias. As Assad’s position continues to weaken in Aleppo and elsewhere, it is likely that his agents in the Kurdish-majority regions would try to stir up trouble.
* A general breakdown in law and order is unsurprisingly reported everywhere. The regime has reportedly released most criminal convicts and Jihadi leaders from its prisons. The move seems to come as part of a strategy to encourage lawlessness and discredit the rebels. Indeed, special security units were formed tasked with carrying out robberies and kidnappings and blame it on the Free Syrian Army. Still, genuine criminal gangs have also appeared quite independently of government dabbling. Some FSA units around the country are also involved in kidnapping of suspected regime loyalists and holding them for ransom. Need for cash to purchase weapons and supplies is often the justification. However, the line between that and regular criminal activities is getting increasingly blurred, especially for the smaller fighting units left to fend for themselves with little support from anyone. But the largest and most organized kidnapping rings in the country are the security apparatuses themselves and the pro-Assad militias, who are now funding themselves by kidnapping members of wealthy Sunni and even Christian families and holding them under trumped up charges until they are ransomed by their families. Even known activists can be released when the right price has been paid to the “right” people.
The Electronic Front
* Electronic warfare has become more widespread and frenzied as well and is now aimed at discrediting some of the more active opposition activists inside and outside the country, especially now that the international community has begun paying more attention to them. By hacking the Skype account of Abdurazzak Tlas, one of the early defectors and a commander of Al-Farouq Brigade active in Homs and Hama, pro-Assad hackers were able to take videos of him masturbating as he chatted with one of his girlfriends during Ramadan. The scandal severely undermined the credibility of Tlas, and led to splits in his group. As the U.S. shifts its strategy from SNC outreach to trying to communicate with and provide support to local activists and rebels, we can expect more such incidents in the future. This trend might even culminate in assassination attempts targeting certain young activists, even those living abroad, especially those in Istanbul where regime spies proliferate. Now that the world has finally figured out who the real heroes of this revolution are and has begun reaching out to them, it’s only natural that the regime would try to do anything to stop them.
The Humanitarian Front
* From the humanitarian perspective, the situation in Syria is growing increasingly dire. It's unfathomable why more is not being done, despite the publicity the situation in Syria is receiving. In Lebanon, Syrian refugees are subject to constant harassment and occasional abuse and kidnaping by pro-Assad elements. In Iraq, Syrian refugees are caught in no man’s land along the borders where they are left to improvise their solutions with minimal help from local communities. In Turkey and Jordan, access to refugees by international aid workers and Syrian and Arab benefactors remains limited, and while living conditions in Turkey and its 7 refugee camps are far better than those in Al-Zaatari Camp in Jordan, there is still much that can and needs to be done. Providing psychological counseling to traumatized children and victims of rape and torture is non-existing. Only one camp now has an active school that teaches in Arabic. Educational activities in other camps are episodic, and instruction is carried out in Turkish. Volunteers and NGOs who could bridge these gaps are not allowed access. Turkish authorities have finally called for more international help. Western officials we met, however, are not sure what difference this will actually mean on the ground. Turkish authorities are highly suspicious of international NGOs and prefer to try to manage the situation on their own. UNHCR has not been called in. But as the number of refugees in Turkey fast approaches 100,000 and could double by yearend, it is becoming increasingly clear to them that some help beyond financial grants is needed. Turkish authorities are now hoping to establish camps inside Syrian territories, even without an official declaration of a safe zone. The camps will be put under rebel control and rebels will be tasked with protecting them.
* On the medical front, what's being provided to the wounded in all these countries is woefully inadequate, and though Turkey comes out ahead again, much still needs to be done. Amputees are proliferating in border hospitals in Turkey amidst reports that in many cases the amputation was unnecessary. No counseling is provided. Local staff does not speak Arabic and translators are not employed. International NGOs who have the necessary experience to deal with this situation are denied access or allowed to operate only under strict controls. Syrian and Arab volunteers with excellent medical experiences are denied access. Few field hospitals worthy of the name have been established.
* Inside Syria, the situation of the IDPs is tragic. Many have left their communities to escape the shelling only to find themselves under renewed shelling in their communities of destination. Indeed, many residents of Homs ended up dying in various Damascene suburbs and neighborhoods. Field hospitals are few in number and are permanently under-staffed and lacking in equipment and basic supplies. Many such hospitals as well as regular ones have come under fire. Doctors continue to be a favorite target for arrests, sniper action and summary executions. Some international NGOs are providing advice by Skype. Doctors Without Borders has managed, after much wrangling with Turkish authorities, to establish one field hospital in Idlib province. More is definitely needed.
The Turkish Role
* For all the assertions of solidarity with the Syrian people and all the declared willingness to coordinate policies and actions with the Obama Administration and other NATO allies, Turkey’s leaders’ attitude vis-à-vis the current conflict in Syria remains difficult to decipher. At this stage, they seem to be looking at the situation through the visor of internal identity politics. The Kurdish Question is definitely on the minds of Turkish authorities, so is the less publicized Alawite Question. Though the likelihood of an Alawite uprising is minimal, Alawite discontent could further complicate AKP electoral calculations in certain key provinces. Neither Turkey’s Kurds nor Alawites would be happy with increased intervention in Syria. While many Alawites consider Assad to be a dictator, Assad has his diehard supporters among them as well. To all these Alawites, the Revolution in Syria is the product of an American-Saudi-Israeli conspiracy and the revolutionaries are nothing more than foreign fighters and fanatics. Alawite views of the U.S. harken back on the coldest days of the Cold War. On September 1, an Alawite rally in Antakya with thousands of participants called for the deportation of Syrian refugees from the Hatay Province. Several smaller rallies making the same demand have taken place since. Anticipating the move, Turkish authorities had already issued a directive calling on Syrian refugees in the province who are not held up in camps to either report to the camps or leave the province. After the September 1 rally, authorities were quick to evacuate some refugee families to help contain the situation. Over 50,000 people most of whom wives, mothers and children of rebels as well as activists who are playing a vital role in delivering supplies to rebel groups in Syria, could be affected by this move. Until rebels find a new spot in Turkey that they can use as their base, the decision will have a negative impact on certain ongoing operations in the country, especially in Al-Haffeh Region. Turkish authorities have also moved to seal their borders in the face of further influx of refugees. But this particular decision will likely prove a temporary measure meant to buy time until new camps are constructed.
* No matter what the U.S. and other western powers have to say regarding the SNC, Turkish authorities, though aware of MB’s shortcomings, including its lack of a large popular base in the country and its internal divisions, remain wedded to it because of the ideological connections between AKP and MB, pure and simple. No amount of pressure can break their connection.
* Considering how easy it is for them to close their borders to refugees and activists trying to smuggle themselves across, it’s unfathomable why Turkish authorities are turning the blind eye when it comes to influx of foreign fighters. But they are. As we noted, reports by local activists in Antakya indicate that, on occasion, members of the Brotherhood are implicated in smuggling some of those fighters to the country.
The U.S. and Turkey-Based Opposition
* As part of its ongoing outreach to the opposition, the U.S. has finally opened a special office in Istanbul dedicated to this end: The Office of Syrian Opposition Support (OSOS). The office is meant to serve “as a training facility, coordination center, and point of contact for the international community with opposition networks inside Syria,” and “is staffed by Syrian activists who maintain extensive relationships with opposition councils and civil society organizations inside the country.” OSOS, we are told, “will serve as a clearinghouse for information on the opposition and its needs, build the capacity of opposition groups and activists and facilitate the distribution of assistance into Syria.” Out of deference to Turkish authorities and the SNC, ranking members from the SNC and the Brotherhood were included in the advisory board, including current SNC leader Abdelbassit Seida, and MB interlocutor Molham Aldroby. OSOS is funded by the State Department, as were previous efforts at supporting the opposition in Istanbul. Our stay in Turkey coincided with OSOS-organized workshops on sectarianism (Istanbul) and women empowerment (Gaziantep and Kilis). It’s clear at this stage that the focus is on civil society in the broader sense. Transitional challenges and relations with rebels groups have not been tackled yet. Choice of Syrian partners is often poor, indicating a continuing lack of familiarity with the scene, which after 18 months since the beginning of the revolution is somewhat disheartening, if not ominous. If future exercises followed the same line this will turn into another exercise for stalling.
* Other American-supported efforts in Istanbul will include working with experts from the United States Institute for Peace to fund an office for a Syrian NGO called “The Day After” dedicated to training Syrian activists on the challenges of the transitional period. The office and its programs will seek to build on an earlier exercise led by USIP in Berlin which culminated in issuing a transitional plan for Syrian opposition groups. While the plan seems too general and generic, it’s the quality of the training programs that will be carried out and their ability to take current on-the-ground developments into consideration that will determine the eventual usefulness of this particular effort. Another U.S. sponsored initiative is the Syrian Justice and Accountability Center currently being established under the auspices of IREX and which might open an office in Istanbul as well. The center will be dedicated to managing the challenges of transitional justice in Syria. Activists on the ground are also reporting and for the first time that the communications equipment, long-promised by the Americans, are making their way into the country as well. OSOS and American NGOs seem to be involved in the distribution process as well.
* Realities on the ground as well as regional geopolitical realities indicate that outright military victory by any one side is just as impossible as holding a viable dialog with Assad. Assad does need to be taken out of the Syrian Equation, and military means seem the only way to achieve that, eventually. But military means will prove woefully inadequate when it comes to what lies beyond this necessary step: stabilizing the country, getting all the pieces of the puzzle back to fit, and dealing with rebel leaders and ethnic and regional realities. A political vision is needed, one that goes beyond day-after planning and into the nitty-gritty of establishing practical living arrangements that can allow for an overly fractious society and body politics to reconstruct the state and make it thrive. The ideological agendas of traditional opposition groups and the inadequacy of their existing leading cadres, that became all too glaring over the last 18 months, make them unreliable as partners when it comes to launching such an effort. Rebel leaders and political activists operating on the ground seem to hold the key for the success of this endeavor as well. But rebels and activists will come with their own problems and predilections, and there will be territorial conflicts for sure, still, their experiences on the ground will hopefully make them more pragmatic and amenable to reaching agreements when the time comes.
* Future engagement with activist and rebel leaders by members of the international community should seek to convey to all the limit of the military solution in securing the country. At one point or another, the rebels and activists need to be ready to negotiate with representatives from other side of the divide. No matter how the military situation changes on the ground, there will always be communities and enclaves where the majority population has backed the Assad camp, be it out of confessional or ideological loyalties, or out of pure self-interest. These people will be ready to fight to the bitter end if they thought that their survival is at stake, especially after so many massacres have been perpetrated by them or in their name. Rebels and activists have a learning curve to be ready for dealing with this situation. Armed with the vision for what they want the country to be like once Assad is out could provide the basis for negotiations.
* At end of the day, a political process is still required to bring this conflict to an end, one that does not ignore the military dimensions of the conflict but builds on them. Moreover, this political process cannot avoid tackling the real issue at stake here: the shape of future Syria. Every political process that has been proposed so far gives us nothing more than a timetable meant to take us to the point when new presidential and parliamentary elections have taken place on the basis of a new constitution. No specifics about this constitution have been provided beyond vague references here and there to diversity, citizenship, equality and decentralization. The political process needed at this stage should focus on producing exactly this new constitution, spelling out the specifics of how communal and regional rights will be protected, and clarifying how transitional justice will be meted out and what its limits will be.
* Syria has been locked in a state of conflict for months, but rather than embark on a serious mediation effort, international leaders have been busy stalling and passing this hot potato amongst themselves before throwing back to the combatants. By demanding that Assad order his troops back to barracks without showing any readiness to punish him should he refrain from doing so, and by calling on rebels and activists to provide guarantees to minority groups at a time when most of the killing and violence taking place is being perpetrated in the name of protecting these minorities, no matter how disingenuous this claim happens to be, international leaders made themselves irrelevant to the processes unfolding on the ground. Indeed, western leaders’ approach has been to wash their hands of the whole thing, while Russian, Chinese and Iranian leaders were quite willing to dip theirs in the blood being spilled by pro-Assad militias all while adopting their propaganda and lies. This needs to change. Western leaders have all come out in favor of pushing Assad out as a way of ending the conflict, but the delay in adopting a clear strategy to ensure that has allowed the situation to devolve to the point where Assad’s departure no longer means that the conflict in Syria will end. By now, there is nothing called a regular army in Syria. What we have are pro-Assad militias, made up of a mixture of army troops, security forces and civilians. The overwhelming majority are now Alawites, supported in certain regions and neighborhoods by Christians as well Sunni Arab and Kurdish recruits. Most members of pro-Assad militias have been involved in atrocities, but they really believe that they are fighting for their lives and for their families. In their minds, they are involved in preemption, in preventing future atrocities against their communities. They bought Assad’s line whole stock and barrel, despite the lack of proof, because of the irrational character involved in identity politics and sectarian fears, which plague the educated no less than the ignorant. On the negotiating table, these people and their interests cannot be legitimately represented by Assad, his generals and officials. They might truly love Assad, but it’s clear by now that he uses them as blunt instruments and does not have their best interests at heart. Without reaching to militia leaders, Syria cannot be pacified. We need to find ways to engage the pro-Assad militias themselves. While this might sound far-fetched, consider this: of the few Alawite recruits in rebel groups, the majority has been former members of pro-Assad militias, yet, they were still embraced by the rebels. Arranging for mass scale “conversions” of this sort among the Alawites in particular might be the key to ending this conflict. It is highly unlikely that we can rely on Assad and his generals to cooperate in this matter. The most important effort that can be launched at this stage is an outreach strategy led by the rebels and activists in cooperation with representatives of the international community targeting pro-Assad militias meant to induce such outcome. As for Assad and his generals, a trip to the ICC might help bring closure to the victims of their crimes, and might provide family members of all victims a channel for their grief and anger other than retribution.
* The State in Syria has already collapsed and the country will not be pacified for years to come. At this stage, it is effectively a failed state. The thinking at this stage should focus on how Syria could be put back together again, how she can be pacified, how to prevent her humanitarian situation from worsening, and how to prevent spillovers into neighboring countries. The choice facing many in the international community is no longer whether to intervene but how to intervene. In order to be viable, the how will have to include political as well as military components. The endgame at this stage could only be the removal of the Assad regime and replacing it with a more accountable system of governance. But getting there requires jumping over a variety of hurdles, not least of which is finding a formula for balancing communal and regional rights, and for accommodating clashing ideologies of competing rebel groups and the growing personal ambitions of some rebel leaders and opposition members. Agreement on endgame and a process between regional players is important. Iran and Russia might be beyond the pale of making a positive contribution in this regard. But most other regional powers can be coaxed into a process once the U.S. is willing to assume a more proactive role. All this will need to take place outside the framework of the UN to avoid Russian and Chinese vetoes. Meanwhile, a solution to Assad air power needs to be found in order to enable rebels and activists to consolidate their grip on liberated territories, begin working on local governance issues and launch the needed political process. The current state of the country, the opposition and regional players, and the threat posed by potential spillover effect and WMDs mean that the situation in Syria will have to be micromanaged with dexterity from now on by whatever administration that occupies the White House, its ideological predilections notwithstanding.
Ammar Abdulhamid: Syrian pro-Democracy activist, founder of the Tharwa Foundation, and Fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Khawla Yusuf: Syrian pro-democracy activist and co-founder of the Tharwa Foundation.