How the CIA helped jihadist rebels invade and occupy the capital of the Palestinian diaspora
The Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Syria was thrust into international conscientiousness in March 2014 when the United Nations published the now iconic image of “thousands of Palestinians waiting amid the rubble of crumbling buildings to receive food aid in Yarmouk.”
When describing the tragedy in Yarmouk, most Western journalists and human rights groups have overwhelmingly highlighted the role of the Syrian army, which imposed a siege on the camp in January 2013. Philip Louter of Amnesty International described for example how “Syrian [government] forces are committing war crimes by using starvation of civilians as a weapon of war. The harrowing accounts of families having to resort to eating cats and dogs, and civilians attacked by snipers as they forage for food, have become all too familiar details of the horror story that has materialized in Yarmouk.” Similar descriptions of Yarmouk, in which blame for the suffering of the camp’s civilians is attributed to the Syrian government, have often appeared in the Western press, including in Foreign Affairs, the Guardian, the Independent, Foreign Policy, and the Washington Post.
Certainly, the suffering of Palestinians in Yarmouk was very real, and it is clear the Syrian government’s brutal siege has contributed to it. However, crucial facts surrounding events in Yarmouk have been consistently omitted in Western media reporting; facts which, if known, provide a more accurate picture of who was responsible for the suffering in Yarmouk, and what could have been done to end it.
Largely omitted is the role that jihadist rebels and their state sponsors have played in driving the conflict in Yarmouk. Flush with weapons supplied by the CIA and Gulf intelligence agencies, rebels from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Syrian wing of al-Qaeda (known as the Nusra Front) jointly invaded and occupied Yarmouk in December 2012. Rebels considered Yarmouk the “Gateway to Damascus” due to its strategic location in the suburbs of the Syrian capital. Controlling Yarmouk was crucial to the rebel effort to topple the Syrian government.
These jihadist rebels, including many foreign fighters, invaded Yarmouk against the will of the camp’s Palestinian residents, who wished to remain neutral in the conflict. Rebels disregarded Palestinian pleas against an invasion, considering the civilian suffering that would inevitably result as simply the “price of jihad.” Within days, hundreds of thousands of Yarmouk’s residents (the vast majority) had fled the camp to escape fighting between the rebels on the one hand and the Syrian army and allied Palestinian militias on the other. This mass displacement resembled that of the Nakba, or “catastrophe” which Palestinians suffered at the hands of Zionist militias in 1947-48.
The Syrian government then imposed the siege on Yarmouk in an effort to prevent al-Qaeda (hereafter Nusra) and its FSA allies from advancing further on the heart of Damascus. Once in control of Yarmouk, rebels destroyed and looted homes, stole medical equipment and supplies, imposed fundamentalist religious rule, siphoned off scarce food for their own fighters and families, and often prevented civilians, in particular men, from leaving the camp, wishing to use them as a source of recruitment and as human shields.
This led Ahmad Majdalani, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) executive committee, to insist in January 2014 (2 months before the infamous UN photo was published) that the rebels occupying Yarmouk, including Nusra, are “known for their terrorist links and methodology” and that Palestinians “everywhere know… that those who have taken the camp hostage are these groups, not the Syrian authorities,” while Maher Taher, a member of the political bureau of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), described how, “There have been attempts by all Palestinian groups to help broker peace in Yarmouk. We reached agreements, but [the rebels] have a problem with implementation. The deal is essentially that armed groups should leave the camp and Palestinians should return. The Syrian government is being cooperative with these operations and has granted chances to feed civilians inside. But at the moment of implementation, the rebels break the agreement.”
The rebel effort to take Yarmouk camp hostage, with the assistance of external state backers, has served as a microcosm of the Syria conflict more broadly. Journalist Nir Rosen has noted that although the US and its allies claimed to intervene in Syria “on behalf of the people,” they were in fact “flooding the country with fighters and explosives” while supporting “the most reactionary, nihilistic, obscurantist and dangerous forces,” who are “destroying the country socially, economically, and physically, which is the goal.”
The disaster that would befall Syrian civilians as a result of US support for jihadist rebels was acknowledged directly in US foreign policy circles. Writing in Foreign Policy in August 2012, four months before jihadist rebels invaded Yarmouk, Gary Gambill explained that “militant Salafi-jihadist groups are assuming a steadily greater role in fighting [Syrian] regime forces on the ground. . . . Whatever misfortunes Sunni Islamists may visit upon the Syrian people, any government they form will be strategically preferable to the Assad regime. . . So long as Syrian jihadis are committed to fighting Iran and its Arab proxies, we should quietly root for them.”
Without understanding the role played by the rebels and their backers in the CIA and Gulf intelligence agencies, it is impossible to understand how and why thousands of Palestinians and Syrians from Yarmouk camp have died, why hundreds of thousands have been displaced (many becoming refugees for the second time) and why the camp, once considered the capital of the Palestinian diaspora and a symbol of the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes in Palestine, now lies in ruins.
In this essay, I provide a brief history of the rebel invasion and occupation of Yarmouk camp, while highlighting the role played by the rebels’ state sponsors. In doing so, I discuss the major events in Yarmouk from the beginning of the Syrian crisis in 2011 until the defeat of the rebels and liberation of the camp in 2018.
The Crisis Begins
Yarmouk, with a pre-war population of some 150,000 Palestinians and some 650,000 Syrians, was the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Syria, lying in the southern outskirts of Damascus. Yarmouk was established in 1957 for Palestinians ethnically cleansed from their homes by Zionist militias as part of the establishment of the state of Israel in 1947-48, events known by Palestinians as the “catastrophe” or “Nakba.” Some of these refugees were re-settled in Yarmouk, which soon came to be considered the capital of the Palestinian diaspora. As Palestinians were granted all the rights of Syrians except citizenship and the ability to vote, Palestinians from the camp quickly integrated into the social and cultural life of the Syrian capital. Over time, many Syrians came to reside within the borders of the camp as well, and Yarmouk gradually became incorporated into the broader Damascus suburbs.
Controversy regarding Palestinians erupted during the early weeks of anti-government protests, when Buthaina Shaaban, a close advisor to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, blamed Palestinians for rioting and attacking Syrian security forces in the coastal city of Latakia. Al-Akhbar, a leftist Lebanese newspaper viewed as pro-Hezbollah, cited Syrian state media as reporting on March 28, 2011 that “snipers from an armed group opened fire on pedestrians in Latakia” and that these attacks led to the “martyrdom of ten people from the security forces and civilians, and the killing of two armed militants who were roaming the streets of the city, occupied the roofs of some buildings, and opened fire indiscriminately on civilians, thereby spreading panic among the people.” Syrian state media also claimed that some 200 people (mostly from the security forces) were injured as a result, and that reinforcements from the army entered the city in response. These armed militants allegedly roamed the streets, damaging shops and cars, and burning public and private property.
While commenting on these events, Shaaban, pointed a finger at Palestinians directly, claiming to the pro-Syrian government newspaper al-Watan that “persons came from Ramel camp (for Palestinian refugees) into the heart of Latakia and destroyed shops, promoting civil strife and sedition, and when the security forces did not use violence against them, one who claimed to be of the protestors emerged and killed a member of the security forces and two protestors.”
Ahmed Jibril, the head of the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), immediately contradicted Shaaban, denying to al-Watan that Palestinians were among the rioters. He claimed instead that the rioters were not Palestinians but Syrian “residents of a neighborhood adjacent to Ramel [Palestinian] camp, lying to the south of it, and which is separated from the camp only by a stream of water.” Jibril also claimed he had clarified this point to Syria’s Information Minister, Mohsen Bilal.
The PFLP-GC is an offshoot of the larger Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a Marxist political party and a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The PFLP was founded by George Habash, a Palestinian Christian who became a refugee in Lebanon as a boy after Zionist militias expelled his family from its home during the 1947-48 Nakba. Jibril, a former officer in the Syrian Army, criticized the PFLP for allegedly placing too much focus on theoretical discussion, and too little emphasis on actual armed struggle against Israel. Jibril split from the PFLP in 1968 and formed the PFLP-GC, which maintained bases in both Syria and Lebanon and remained close with the Syrian government, enjoying the strong support of Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez.
Due to the PFLP-GC’s close ties with the Syrian government, the group became a target of a propaganda campaign meant to delegitimize its role in representing Palestinians in Yarmouk soon after the crisis in Syria began in the spring of 2011.
The Nakba and Naksa Protests
This propaganda campaign began after the controversial events of May and June 2011. On May 15, large demonstrations were organized by Palestinian youth activists in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, as well as in Egypt, Lebanon and Syria, to commemorate the Nakba and to agitate for the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes in what is now Israel.
In Syria, thousands of Palestinians marched to the border of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Waving flags and braving Israeli-laid mines, Palestinian protestors crossed the border fence and were welcomed by local Druze residents of the town of Majdal al-Shams. Israeli troops responded by opening fire on the protestors, however, killing 4. Israeli soldiers killed another 10 Palestinian protestors on the Lebanese-Israeli border as well.
The Nakba Day protests were followed three weeks later, on June 5, by protests commemorating the “Naksa” or “setback.” On that day in 1967, Israel defeated the Arab states in the Six Day War, and thereby conquered the West Bank, Gaza, Golan Heights, and Sinai. The Israeli victory set the stage for 50 years of occupation of Palestinian land. During the Naksa protest on the Syrian border in June 2011, protestors once again tried to cross the border fence. This time, Israeli forces responded even more harshly, killing some 22.
Israeli planners observed preparation for the protests in advance (which took place openly through social media), and sought early to establish a narrative claiming that the Syrian government was behind the protests, and that Assad supposedly wished to use them to deflect attention from the anti-government protests he himself faced. On March 23, roughly three weeks before the Nakba Day event, the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz had reported that the Israeli army “predicts that Assad may try to ‘create a provocation along the norther border to divert attention from the growing protests against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.’”
After the Nakba Day protest on May 15, the New York Times quickly repeated this claim, stating that “there were also signs of official support in Lebanon and Syria, where analysts said leaders were using the Palestinian cause to deflect attention from internal problems,” while quoting an Israeli government spokesperson as claiming “This way Syria makes its contribution to the Nakba Day cause, and Assad wins points by deflecting the media’s attention from what is happening inside Syria.”
These claims were repeated three weeks later in the New York Times, after Israeli forces shot more Palestinians during the Naksa Day protests on June 5. The NYT reported that “Both Israel and the United States have suggested that the Syrian government orchestrated the confrontation at the border on Sunday, or at least did nothing to prevent it, to divert attention from its bloody crackdown on the antigovernment uprising in Syria,” while also quoting a shopkeeper from Yarmouk, Mohamed Rashdan, as saying “he believed the demonstration at the border was organized to serve the interests of President Assad, and that the protest had nothing to do with seeking justice for Palestinian refugees and displaced Syrian residents of the Golan Heights. He said that many camp residents blamed the Popular Front [PFLP-GC] for organizing the border protest ‘to help Syria run away from its local crisis.’” The NYT also mentioned a Reuters report that claimed “mourners accused the organization [PFLP-GC] of sacrificing Palestinian lives by encouraging protesters to demonstrate at the Golan Heights.”
Activists from the Syrian opposition spread similar rumors, namely that the Syrian government and PFLP-GC wished to somehow use these non-violent Palestinian protests to threaten Israel’s security. This claim was based on threats made by Rami Makhlouf, Syria’s most powerful businessman, and advisor and cousin of President Assad. Makhlouf told Anthony Shadid of the New York Times that “If there is no stability here, there’s no way there will be stability in Israel. . . No way, and nobody can guarantee what will happen after, God forbid, anything happens to this regime.”
Tareq Ibrahim, a pro-opposition Palestinian in Yarmouk who helped organize the Nakba and Nakba demonstrations, noted that “Popular coordination committees of the Syrian revolution informed us of what was being prepared and on the intentions of the regime and the PFLP-GC to use this movement to pressure Israel and present it as a threat to its security. But we could not stop mobilization.”
Ibrahim, who became convinced of these claims about Syrian government intentions, nevertheless acknowledged that members of the Syrian opposition with whom he organized were not supporters of the Palestinian cause, explaining that, “We were surprised by the rejection of certain sections of the Syrian opposition, especially from the liberals and the Muslim brotherhoods (which are now present within the National Coalition and the Syrian National Coalition), to link the Syrian revolution and the Palestinian cause. They justify their refusal by the need to win the world opinion and not to mix the causes for not disturbing the USA.”
It is hard to imagine anyone actually assuming that several thousand unarmed Palestinian refugees posed any kind of actual threat to Israeli security, so it is unlikely that Makhlouf had the looming Nakba protest in mind when making his threat.
Further, it is impossible that the Syrian government, or Hezbollah in Lebanon, could have organized the protests. Journalist Max Blumenthal interviewed Rami Zurayk, a professor of Agronomy at the American University of Beirut (AUB) who participated in the planning meetings for the Nakba Day protest in Lebanon. Blumenthal writes that according to Zurayk, “150 representatives of Palestinian factions and refugee groups gathered” at the planning meeting for the Nakba protest to “wrangle over the nascent movement’s language and long-term strategy. For the first time in recent memory, leaders of groups from across the Palestinian political spectrum agreed to unite under a single symbol, the Palestinian flag, and to place their factional rivalries aside. Almost as significant, according to Zurayk, was the involvement of Lebanese youth and civil society groups in the planning, as well as wealthy Palestinian students who risked bright futures overseas. ‘Every Arab wants to be involved in the Arab Spring,’ he said.”
Similarly, Yassir Ali, one of the protest organizers of the Nakba Day march on the Lebanese border, articulated the enthusiasm of Palestinians wishing to take part, despite the obvious dangers. Ali told the Guardian that “Palestinian people are used to paying with their lives. It’s a big price, but one we are prepared to pay to prove our right to return to the motherland.”
The broad participation of Palestinians in the planning of the Nakba Day protest in Lebanon resulted in some 40,000 Palestinians taking part there. Additionally, the Syrian and Lebanese borders were not the only places where Palestinians organized Nakba Day protests. Palestinians also organized protests in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, and Egypt, some of which also resulted in clashes with Israeli security forces, including at the Erez and Qalandia checkpoints.
The emergence of protests in multiple locations was possible due to collective coordination via Facebook by Palestinian youths in all these countries. The New York Times itself noted that “Palestinian activists have called on the Internet for a mass uprising against Israel to begin on May 15. A Facebook page calling for a third Palestinian intifada, or uprising, had gathered more than 300,000 members before it was taken down in March after complaints that comments posted to it advocated violence.”
Further evidence of the popular nature of the May 15 Nakba protest in Syria in 2011 comes from a Palestinian journalist and pro-opposition activist from Yarmouk, Nidal Bitari. Like Ibrahim, Bitari was against the idea of the protest and actively lobbied others against attending. Bitari describes how “On the morning of 15 May 2011, scores of buses were waiting at the camp’s main entrance to take people to the border about fifty kilometers away. I myself went with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) . . . Even though I had been strongly against the event, I was so carried away by the emotion that I took off my SARC uniform and followed the crowd from the Heights down the precipice-like hill to the no-man’s land and border zone below. Crowds of people, many in traditional dress, mostly young but some in their eighties, crying with joy at times, just wanted to get near this fence that suddenly made return seem so possible. The Israelis were firing tear gas and live bullets at protestors who scaled the fence, some even managing to get into the occupied Golan [emphasis mine].”
It is certainly possible the Syrian government wished to gain positive media attention by supporting the protests and allowing the protests to go forward (removing the checkpoints typically blocking access to the border), but it did not manipulate Palestinians into participating, nor encourage protestors to climb the fence to be shot by Israeli forces. For example, Middle East Online interviewed witnesses of the May 15 Nakba protests and reported that “On the Syrian side, police were deployed to try to stop the first wave of protesters, but they were quickly overwhelmed when a second group arrived [Emphasis mine].” Hassan Hijazi, a Palestinian protestor who managed to climb the border fence and cross into Israel, even reaching Jaffa with the help of an Israeli peace activist, clarified that the Syrian government was not behind the protests, despite Israeli government claims. He told Israeli TV that “We organized the protests on Facebook and the regime at first didn’t allow them to take place although we sent representatives. . . Hezbollah was the one that pressured the Syrian regime to allow us to hold the protests.”
In fact, the Syrian government likely had little choice but to honor Palestinian requests to protest. Had the Syrian government not allowed the protests to go forward in Syria, while protests proceeded apace in Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza, this would have allowed critics to suggest that the Syrian government did not support the Palestinian cause, and was attempting to suppress Palestinian efforts to struggle for the right of return.
The simple numbers present in each of the two protests on the Syrian border also suggest the Syrian government was not trying to mobilize Palestinians. The Nakba Day protest on May 15 was attended by several thousand protestors. One resident of Majdal al-Shams told the Guardian that “There are thousands and thousands of people on the Syrian border who are trying to cross. There has been a lot of fighting, and of course people are scared.” For the Naksa protest three weeks later, Bitari, who was present once again, notes that “I doubt that there were ever more than one thousand people that day.” If the Syrian government was deliberately trying to organize the protests and mobilize Palestinians to attend, it is odd the second protest would be so much smaller. Apparently this was because the Syrian government attempted to call off the second protest. Bitari notes that on “the eve of the [Naksa] protests, after the Lebanese government cancelled events on its own border, Damascus made known through the PFLP-GC that the protests had been called off.” Leftist Lebanese academic Assad Abu al-Khalil writes that “But an eyewitness at the protests told me that the Palestinian organizations were not present in the protests: that the Syrian regime did not want the Palestinian organizations to mobilize for fear of big massive protests, although Syrian TV was present. “
Who is to Blame?
Despite the obviously popular nature of the protests, the Israeli government continued to promote the conspiracy theory that the protests were being “orchestrated” by Assad, not only to demonize the Syrian government and its PFLP-GC allies, but also to deflect blame for the killings away from the Israeli Army itself.
Blogging for the Telegraph, a then obscure journalist working for a pro-Israel think tank, Michael Weiss, released a document claiming to show a meeting between the governor of Quneitra province, where the protests on the border of Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan heights took place, and Syrian intelligence officials, including Syrian security chief Assef Shawkat. Weiss’ blog post, and his claim that the document provided proof that the Syrian government orchestrated the Nakba Day protests, was then widely promoted in the Israeli press. Weiss originally claimed the document had been provided to him by the governor of Quneitra himself, but then later back pedaled to suggest he had received it from “very well-informed Syrian in a position to authenticate state documents.” This Syrian turned out to be Radwan Ziadeh, who has long had close ties to the US defense establishment and was an early proponent of US military intervention in Syria, in the form a no-fly zone.
While the credibility of the document was already suspect, having allegedly been supplied by someone with close ties to the US government (which was committed to toppling the Syrian government), the credibility of the document was further called into question by journalist Richard Silverstein, who was told by a former senior Israeli government official that Israeli intelligence had provided the document to Weiss. The Telegraph later quietly removed Weiss’ post from the web, replacing it with a generic link to the paper’s opinion page.
Similar Israeli efforts to deflect blame for the brutal killing of Palestinian protestors emerged years later. In another series of protests, known as the “Great Return March” in March 2018, Palestinian refugees in Gaza also attempted to cross the security fence into Israel. Israeli forces once again responded with deadly force against the unarmed refugees during weeks of protests, killing 100 (as of mid-May 2018). Israeli snipers targeted unarmed protestors from safe distances, several instances of which were caught on video, including the shooting of Palestinian footballer, Mohammad Khalil, in the knee, and Abdel Fattah Abd al-Nabi, in the back. Israeli snipers also shot and killed female Palestinian medic Razan al-Najjar. Israeli Brigadier General (Reserve) Zvika Fogel acknowledged that Israeli snipers were deliberately targeting protestors (including even children) with live bullets.
This time, Israel claimed that Hamas was behind the protests, in an effort to deflect attention from the actions of the Israeli army, just as it attempted to blame the Syrian government for the same in 2011.
The Funeral Turned Demonstration
Another controversial event occurred on the day after the June 2011 Naksa protest. On June 6, a funeral was held in Yarmouk for several of the Palestinians killed by Israeli snipers. Pro-opposition activists then turned the funeral into a demonstration in which some Yarmouk residents expressed anger at the Syrian government and Palestinian factions, including the PLFP-GC, for failing to support the Naksa protest.
Nidal Bitari explains that “There was a huge anger in Yarmuk about the deaths and the hundreds of wounded—people felt they had been used by the regime, which they held responsible for facilitating access to the border and then not providing any backup. But the rage was almost as great against the [Palestinian] factions for not doing anything to stop the bloodshed. To defuse the situation, we decided that the funeral for the Yarmouk martyrs would have to double as a demonstration.”
Note that while many were indeed angry at the PFLP-GC and Syrian government, this was because the PFLP-GC and Syrian government had failed to support the Naksa protest (did not provide back up, did nothing to stop the bloodshed), and not because they had organized the protests, as Israeli and US officials claimed. The Palestinian Maan News Agencyreports for example that the funeral mourners were “Angered over the failure of camp leaders to organize demonstrations marking the Naksa, the anniversary of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and Golan Heights [emphasis mine],” while Assad Abu-Khalil reports that “Eyewitnesses in Syria complained to me about the role of the Syrian army and security forces. How they stood idly by while the Israeli terrorist soldiers were committing their crimes.”
While this anger was understandable, it is nevertheless unclear exactly what type of support Bitari and others had expected from the PLFP-GC and Syrian government during the Nakba and Naksa protests. Had the Syrian army attempted to intervene, it would have negated the peaceful nature of the border demonstration, given the Israeli army an additional pretext to shoot protestors, and possibly triggered a larger military confrontation.
Confrontation at the Khalsa
The LA Timessummarized events of the funeral, quoting the official Palestinian news agency WAFA as claiming that the PFLP-GC “used live ammunition to shoot at young protesters in Yarmouk camp as they were participating in a funeral procession for Palestinians who had fallen during protests in the Golan Heights on Sunday.” The LA Times reported that between 14 and 20 protestors were killed by the PFLP-GC, while other press outlets, including the National,cited some 14 deaths.
Such a summary of events gives the impression that the PFLP-GC killed many protestors for simply participating in a funeral procession. This view would be promoted by Syrian opposition activists to further claim that both the Syrian government and PFLP-GC are enemies of the Palestinians in Yarmouk and of the Palestinian cause generally.
This was a misleading view of what occurred at the funeral, however. Reutersreports that “mourners threw stones at Palestinian figures who had praised Assad. Hundreds of refugees armed with sticks and stones then headed to the PFLP-GC headquarters and tried to storm it. Several protesters managed to get in and killed one PFLP-GC gunman,” after which the headquarters was burned down. The New York Timesquoted Mohamed Rashada, the same shopkeeper quoted above, as explaining that “the crowd began to throw stones at the organization’s headquarters. Then, he said, ‘the building guards began to shoot at us.’”
Nidal Bitari provides a similar account, but suggests the PFLP-GC guards opened fire on protesters first. He explains that, “There were at least thirty thousand at the funeral/demonstration, by far the largest ever held in the camp. Yarmuk Street, about two km long and very wide, was packed from one end to the other. Soon the demonstration got out of hand. Protestors started rampaging and some turned onto the small street where al-Khalsa, the PFLP-GC headquarters, was located. A huge crowd, increasingly agitated, surrounded the building. In my opinion, it was less because of Jibril’s close ties to the government than because al-Khalsa was the closest at hand—even if it had been a Fatah office, I think it would have been attacked. One of the PFLP-GC guards fired at the unarmed crowd and killed a fourteen-year-old boy named Rami Siyam, and other GC militants began shooting from the roof. People went mad. They began setting fire to cars, and thousands stormed the building. Ahmad Jibril and his top deputies had to be rescued by the Syrian army, and PFLP-GC reinforcements were called in from Lebanon. At some point in the mêlée, gas bottles inside the building exploded, starting a fire, and by nightfall the four-story building was badly charred.”
Bitari notes that three people were killed that day, including the young boy Rami Siyam and also a PFLP-GC guard who died in the fire, explaining that the “press articles the next day reported that twelve or thirteen people had been killed during the demonstration, but this was totally false and some press agencies later corrected the story.” Ibrahim al-Ali of the Action Group for Palestinians (AGPS), a UK-based pro-opposition group, lists a lower number of dead as well, claiming four were killed, including two protestors who were shot (the young boy Rami Siyam and also Jamal Ghutan) and two PFLP-GC members (Khalid Rayyan, the guard who was burned to death in the fire, and Naser Mubarak, the PFLP-GC head for the Syria region, who was allegedly stabbed to death by protestors). Journalist Tarek Homoud, who is also a coordinator for AGPS, reports the killing of the PFLP-GC members as well, explaining that Mubarak (whom he refers to as Abu Al Abed Nasir) “was killed by knives as a group arrested him while he tried to calm them down. He was stabbed 50 times” and that “One of the building’s guards was killed by burning alive in his corner.”
Bitari, Homoud, and Ibrahim were all writing later, with a chance to determine how many died, as opposed to press reports from immediately after the incident, which apparently passed along the initial rumors of the number killed (between 14 to 20). Further, as opposition supporters, none of the above mentioned writers would have had an incentive to under count the dead among the protestors.
Other reports suggest that armed groups may have been involved in attacking the Khalsa, rather than just angry protestors armed with sticks and rocks. Journalist Sharmine Narwani reports that according to a Hamas official with whom she spoke, “Some Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters went to Ahmad Jibril’s offices – the Khalesa compound – during the funeral and started shooting,” while al-Akhbarsuggested that Salafi elements exploited the funeral in an effort to incite Palestinians against the PFLP-GC, and that this is what led protestors to try to breach the confines of the Khalsa. Asad Abu Al-Khalil also notes that according to an eyewitness he spoke with, “some were not happy about the role of the PFLP-GC, and some indicated that some fighters at the office in Yarmuk fired at the protesters. Apparently, that resulted in an armed clash and that gun fire can still be heard at this hour.” If armed clashes took place, this suggests there may have been armed men among the protestors and that weapons were not limited to the PFLP-GC guards.
While accounts conflict in regards to who attacked first, it is clear that the PFLP-GC guards were attempting to protect the PFLP-GC headquarters and party officials inside from an angry crowd. This does not justify firing live ammunition into the crowd, nor the killing of the young boy Rami Siyam, of course, but does suggest that the PFLP-GC did not simply open fire on civilians walking in a funeral procession in an effort to crack down on peaceful protests as suggested by the LA Times. Instead, it was a response to a chaotic situation, in which at least two PFLP-GC members also died, and in gruesome fashion. It was also only some of the protestors who were angry enough to attack the Khalsa, not the entire crowd of 30,000. As Bitari noted above, the protestors amassed on Yarmouk Street, which is “about two km long and very wide” and that only “some turned onto the small street where al-Khalsa, the PFLP-GC headquarters, was located” to attack the building.
Nevertheless, this incident would be used by opposition activists to suggest that the PFLP-GC had no legitimacy among Palestinians in the camp and was deliberately killing fellow Palestinians, as if for fun, on behalf of the Syrian government. For example, the pro-opposition Violations Documentation Center (VDC) continued to claim years later that the PFLP-GC killed “more than 20 people” at the funeral “on what was known later as ‘Al Khalsa Massacre.’” This narrative would prove helpful in denigrating later efforts by the PFLP-GC to protect the camp from the December 2012 Nusra and FSA rebel invasion.
Palestinians Strive to Remain Neutral
Palestinians in Syria generally attempted to remain neutral when anti-government protests and armed insurrection against the Syrian state began in tandem in the spring of 2011. The PLO, with the approval of all its factions, followed a policy of “non-involvement of Palestinians and Palestinian camps” to preserve “the secure environment enjoyed by its residents of Palestinians and Syrians, which is free of weapons and armed militants, and the preservation of the Palestinian struggle to focus on Palestine and Jerusalem and in confrontation with our chief enemy, the Israeli occupation.”
Because of this stance, Yarmouk camp was initially spared the violence that soon engulfed many areas of Syria. As a result, the camp became a place of refuge for Syrians fleeing violence elsewhere, in particular from nearby neighborhoods in Damascus and its countryside.
The broad Palestinian consensus to remain neutral resulted in part due to the tragic consequences of past Palestinian involvement in inter-Arab disputes, in particular during the events known as Black September in Jordan, during the civil war in Lebanon, and during the first Gulf War in Iraq. In 1970 in Jordan, the PLO clashed with the Jordanian army after King Hussein felt threatened by the growing strength of PLO guerrillas in the country. Large numbers of Palestinians were killed, and the PLO itself was expelled to Lebanon. After PLO guerillas began taking part in the Lebanese Civil War on the side Muslim and Leftist forces, some 3,000 Palestinians were massacred by Phalangist Christian militias in Tel al-Zataar Palestinian camp in Lebanon in July 1976. The Phalangists enjoyed the support of Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, who intervened in the civil war on the side of right-wing Christian forces. Palestinians experienced further tragedy when the Kuwaiti government expelled virtually its entire 400,000 strong Palestinian community in retaliation for PLO leader Yasser Arafat’s perceived support of Saddam Hussein during the 1991 Gulf War.
More immediately, memory of events in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon caused Palestinians to wish to remain neutral in the Syria conflict. Nahr al-Bared was almost totally destroyed in 2007 after jihadist militants infiltrated the camp, triggering fighting with the Lebanese army. Tens of thousands of camp residents were displaced and left homeless. Unsurprisingly, Palestinians in Yarmouk wished to avoid a similar fate.
The First Demonstrations in Yarmouk
According to Nidal Bitari, the first demonstration in Yarmouk that was directly related to the uprising and directed against the Syrian government occurred on August 17, 2011 and was attended by just 300 or so people. This demonstration was followed by a handful of others in subsequent months, which were even smaller in number and “were mostly staged by displaced Syrians who flooded into the camp in September to flee the fighting in their neighborhoods,” rather than by Palestinians from Yarmouk itself. Bitari describes how a Palestinian millionaire with close ties to the government, Yasir Qashlak, recruited supporters to demonstrate in favor of the government and to “stand outside the mosques after Friday prayers to prevent anti-regime protests.”
A similar phenomenon occurred in the Aydeen Palestinian camp in Homs, in which opposition activists and rebels from neighborhoods adjacent to the camp tried to involve Palestinians in the conflict. Pro-opposition AGPS writes that “The events of Syria eventually reached the [Aydeen] camp because of the displaced Syrian population that were now inside it” and that “Some of the opposition groups proceeded to try and involve the camp in a confrontation with the regime, yet the residents resisted in order to keep the camp neutral.” AGPS describes further how the Palestinian factions in the camp, including Hamas, formed a committee “in order to enter dialogue with the warring parties and to ensure the camp did not become involved in the conflict with the Syrian regime. Public meetings were held to explain the consequential danger if the camp became involved in hostilities. The committee visited families to prevent their children attending the demonstrations. The Committee made deliberate attempts to congregate in front of the mosques after each prayer, in order to prevent demonstrations. A delegation was formed to visit the elders and notables of Shmas area to demand they stop their children coming to the camp to demonstrate. The same committee became the mediator with the official bodies to ensure repairs and recovery from power, water, sanitation and hygiene breakdowns, and to follow up on the situation of detainees with political and security officials. This was a welcome mobilisation, proving popular among residents.” Palestinian efforts to keep rebels out of Aydeen camp ultimately failed, however, foreshadowing what would later occur in Yarmouk. AGPS describes further how “The regime accused the camp’s residents of embracing terrorists and providing them with accommodation,” while “Syrian security forces, slowly started implementing a crackdown on the inhabitants of the camp after armed groups started to emerge.”
Controversy regarding Palestinians in Ramel camp in Latakia continued in August 2011, and events there would also foreshadow later events in Yarmouk. Opposition activists claimed that the Syrian navy had bombarded Ramel camp from warships off the coast, and that Syrian security had turned a football stadium in to a mass detention center. These claims were given credibility by a statement issued by United Nations Refugee Works Administration (UNRWA) spokesman Chris Gunness, which stated that the organization was “gravely concerned about reports of heavy gunfire from Syrian security forces into the Palestinian refugee camp situated in the El Ramel district and surrounding areas of Latakia, including heavy fire from gunboats.”
These claims appear to be false, however. Tarek Homoud of AGPS visited Ramel camp at the time and observed that while there was a Syrian army operation against rebels there, the Syrian navy was not bombarding Ramel camp, and that the football stadium was not a mass detention center, but was simply being used to house internally displaced persons fleeing the fighting between the army and rebels. Homoud explains that the “Syrian army sent warning to the residents of the camp to leave. Thousands of its inhabitants left immediately in different directions. The sport city in Latakia city opened its doors to the IDPs [internally displaced persons]. The bombing that took place targeted the Syrian neighborhood and not as what was described officially which was that the Syrian’ armed boats shelled Palestinian camp. Only small parts of the camps were shelled when fighters entered it. This resulted in three persons being killed in the camp. The destruction was limited and some houses were exposed to live bullets.” Journalist Sharmine Narwani also confirmed that Syrian warships had not bombarded the city, explaining that “Three separate sources – two opposition figures from the city and an independent western journalist – later insisted there were no signs of shelling.”
War Comes to Yarmouk
Starting in the spring of 2012, Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels sought to establish a presence in Yarmouk (as they had in Aydeen and Ramel), in an effort to use it as a base for attacks on the capital, dubbing Yarmouk the “gateway to Damascus.”
Even pro-opposition Palestinians rejected rebel wishes to use Yarmouk as a base for military operations, however. For example, one pro-opposition activist from Yarmouk claimed that “The residents of the camp were against the FSA stationing in it. I personally rejected the FSA entering the camp. The camp had a humanitarian role; bringing the war to the middle of it was a mistake. . . . Only the Islamists in the camp were in favor of the FSA stationing in Yarmouk.” Further, while members of the Palestinian faction Fatah “silently despised” the Syrian government (to a large extent for its role in the Tel Zataar massacre during the Lebanese civil war), a Fatah representative nonetheless told Lebanon’s Daily Star that he and others in the party feared “the consequences if Islamists takeover” Yarmouk.
Palestinians were also keen to heed the ominous warnings from the Syrian security officials not to allow rebels to infiltrate the camp. Bitari writes that “In February 2012, for example, at a time when Yarmuk and the Damascus region were still relatively calm, and when the Baba Amro neighborhood of Homs was being razed [sic] by tanks and mortar fire, its entire population having fled, a senior Syrian Security officer pointedly warned one of our factional leaders: ‘Keep Yarmuk quiet, because we don’t like Yarmuk more than we liked Baba Amro.’ It didn’t matter to the government that the majority of Yarmuk’s residents opposed the FSA’s entry, any more than it mattered to the FSA.”
Who are the Truly Moderate Rebels?
It is interesting to note here that Fatah officials and the opposition activist mentioned above viewed the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and their supporters as “Islamists.” While the FSA is typically considered as moderate, secular, and fighting for democracy in the Western press, in fact most FSA brigades are Islamists with a specifically Salafist and anti-Alawite sectarian orientation.
For example, Saudi-owned Al-Hayatdescribed how the FSA was first established in July 2011 as a group of army deserters, but then numerous Salafist rebel factions, including Liwa Islam, Saqour al-Sham, Ahfad Rasoul, and Farouq, soon began fighting under the FSA banner. Prominent Israeli-Arab political figure and opposition supporter Azmi Bishara wrote in 2013 that “Islamic jihadist groups were part of the Free Army” and that their “presence aroused significant fear among Syrians,” due to the “spread of black Islamic flags making reference to al-Qaeda, and the appearance of religious sharia courts (see Syria – A Way of Suffering to Freedom, Kindle edition, chapter 9).”
The Daily Starobserved that “More than one FSA battalion has named itself after Ibn Taymiyya, the 14th century Sunni Muslim scholar who urged the extermination of Alawites as heretics. This kind of act cancels out any favorable rhetoric or actions by other elements of the FSA, some of whose spokesmen often promise to establish a Syria that is pluralist and civil, and not religious in character.”
The sectarian nature of many FSA battalions is not surprising given that many were armed and funded by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which has a long history of advocating violence against Syria’s Alawites based on Ibn Taymiyya’s rulings. Brotherhood ideologue Said Hawwa, for example, strongly advocated killing Alawites on the basis of their religious identity during the 1979-82 Islamist insurrection against the Syrian state.
This explains the popularity of Adnan Arour, the Saudi-based Syrian Salafi preacher, among many opposition activists and rebels. Arour threatened in June 2011 that “We shall mince [Alawites fighting with the government] in meat grinders and feed their flesh to the dogs.” Then al-Jazeera journalist Nir Rosen noted in March 2012 that Arour’s “name is often chanted in demonstrations” which Arour would address via satellite feed from Saudi Arabia. The Daily Starnoted in October 2012 that Arour was embraced by the supposedly moderate FSA rebels, explaining that, “The latest misstep by the opposition was a video issued last week, in which FSA figures announced the unification of Revolutionary Military Councils in a number of major towns. While the rhetoric of the event was primarily nationalistic, the guest of honor at the long dais, flanked by a dozen officers, was Sheikh Adnan Arur, the regime’s favorite target of spite – a hard-line Sunni cleric who has been vicious in his rants against the Alawites.”
One FSA faction that invaded Yarmouk alongside Nusra in December 2012 was the Eagles of the Golan (Nusur al-Jolan). Israeli military officials described the group to the Telegraph as “a radical Salafist faction,” with the Telegraph adding that the group, “made up largely of foreign fighters, including al-Qaeda militants from Iraq, boasts that once it has ousted the Assad regime, it will focus its attention on Israel.” Ironically, the Israeli military later admitted to arming and funding some 12 FSA rebel groups in the southern Syrian areas of the Golan and Deraa starting as early as 2013, making it likely that the Israeli military itself had funded the Eagles of the Golan at least shortly after the group invaded Yarmouk.
Summarizing the rebel scene in September 2014, Nir Rosen observed that “There are no actual moderate insurgents either ideologically or in terms of their actions. Most of the significant fighting forces are Islamists with sectarian agendas, all have committed war crimes, virtually no minorities remain in opposition held areas and dissent is dangerous.”
Rebel Infiltration of Yarmouk
There were some Palestinians, however, who differed from the majority and wished to see a rebel presence in Yarmouk. Bitari writes that in the spring of 2012, a “growing minority of young Palestinian activists had abandoned any pretense of neutrality and were exploring various forms of contact with the opposition. These young people established their own ‘coordinating committee’ specifically to communicate with their Syrian counterparts. Even though they were acting completely on their own, many of us found these contacts very dangerous for the camp’s safety and neutrality. We talked to them many times in an effort to get them to end these contacts. Eventually they did, in late spring 2012, when the FSA began floating the idea of planting car bombs inside the camp to get residents to invite them in for protection. At that point, even these strongly anti-regime young people could not continue the ‘coordination.’ Everyone knew that once the FSA was nearby, tanks and mortars would soon follow.”
The rebels did detonate a car bomb in Yarmouk in March 2012, while also carrying out bombings in Damascus more broadly. The Electronic Intifadanotes that “In March, a car exploded in one of the quietest thoroughfares of the camp on the same day that two bombs ripped through downtown Damascus, killing those inside the car.” Al-Jazeera reported that according to Syrian state media, SANA, the bomb in Yarmouk targeted a military bus. The other two bombings that day targeted a customs office and an air force intelligence building. The Syrian Health Minister claimed that 27 people were killed, and 97 wounded, while the BBC reported a higher number of dead, up to 55. The high death toll resulted from the fact rebels detonated the bombs at 7:30 am, during the early Saturday morning rush hour. Opposition activists immediately claimed that the bombings were false flag operations carried out by the government, only to then have Nusra claim responsibility in a video statement.
Rebels Declare War on the Palestine Liberation Army
In addition to seeking ways to infiltrate the camp, rebels also began a campaign of assassinations against Palestinian military leaders and cadre of the Palestine Liberation Army (PLA) in an effort intimidate Palestinians into withdrawing support for the Syrian government. The Electronic Intifadanotes that “In yet more ominous developments, there have been reports of the mysterious killings of Palestine Liberation Army cadres of various ranks — a brigade of the Syrian army in which all Palestinian men in Syria over the age of eighteen are required to carry out military service.”
The Palestine Liberation Army was founded in 1964 as the military wing of the PLO. Brigades of the PLA were created in Gaza, Egypt, Iraq, and Syria. All branches of the PLA were later incorporated into the Palestine National Authority (PNA) except for the Syrian branch, which became an all-Palestinian branch of the Syrian army.
Journalist Sharmine Narwani visited Yarmouk and spoke with two PLA commanders, General Hassan Salem and General Nabil Yacoub, who report to head PLA commander Major-General Tariq al-Khadra. Narwani provides an overview of PLA commanders targeted by rebels in the first half of 2012:
“On January 5, Major Basil Amin Ali was assassinated by an unknown assailant in Aarbin – east of Jobar in the Damascus suburbs – while he was fixing his car by the side of the road. Colonel Abdul Nasser Mawqari was shot dead inside Yarmouk the following month, on February 29. A week later, on March 6, Colonel Rida Mohyelddin al-Khadra – a relation of PLA commander, General Khadra – was assassinated in Qatna, 20km south of Damascus, while driving home in his car. On June 5, PLA Brigadier-General Dr. Anwar Mesbah al-Saqaa was killed in Aadawi Street in Damascus by explosives planted in his car, under his seat. He had left his home in Barzeh and was dropping his daughter off at university. Both she and the driver of the car were injured. A few weeks later, on June 26, Colonel Ahmad Saleh Hassan was assassinated in Sahnaya, also in the Damascus suburbs. General Abdul Razzak Suheim, his son, and a soldier guarding them were killed on July 26 in rebel-occupied Yalda.”
The New York Times reported the assassination of PLA commanders Ahmed Salih Hassan and Anwar al-Saqaa as well, noting that “The government says that opposition gunmen killed them because of their role in supporting the Syrian military.” The NYT also reported opposition activist claims that these PLA commanders were being assassinated not by rebels, but by the Syrian government “because they refused to participate in Syrian crackdowns.” The NYT does not mention whether opposition activists provided any evidence to support their claims.
These claims appear hollow, however, as rebels publicly declared their desire to target pro-government Palestinian leaders just 17 days after the NYT report. The Daily Starreported on July 18, 2012 that “In a statement issued on Monday night, the FSA’s joint command warned that pro-regime Palestinian leaders on Syrian soil were ‘legitimate targets.’” Further, Palestine’s Ambassador to Syria, Anwar Abdul-Hadi attributed the killings to the rebels, explaining that “Rebels killed some PLA officers to force Palestinians to help the Syrian revolution – to intimidate them. And they blamed the Syrian army. The target of this crisis is the Palestinian case. They think when they occupy Palestinian camps in Syria and divide them, they will forget Palestine.” An unnamed Palestinian official speaking to Saudi-owned al-Sharq al-Awsat in March 2012 similarly stated that these assassinations were an effort on the part of the rebels to drag the Palestinian camps into an internal Syrian issue in which “we have no interest. . . we requested of them that they leave us out of this game.”
Rebel Assassination Campaign
Rebel efforts to assassinate pro-government Palestinian leaders would also fit with broader US plans to help rebels carry out assassinations in an effort to de-stabilize the Syrian government as a whole. Leaked emails from the private intelligence firm Stratfor detail such a strategy. One Stratfor analyst learned in a meeting with Pentagon planners in December 2011 that Western governments had Special Operations (SOF) teams on the ground in Syria already at that time in an effort to train opposition forces, in the hope of fostering “guerrilla attacks, assassination campaigns” and to “try to break the back of the Alawite forces, [to] elicit collapse from within.” As mentioned above, the first assassinations of PLA commanders occurred shortly after this time, in January 2012.
Evidence of such an assassination campaign comes from Amnesty International, which documented efforts by the Nusra Front and FSA affiliated brigades to kill government informants (real or imagined) in Damascus and its suburbs, stretching back even further, to June 2011. Amnestycited a relief worker involved in transporting the dead and wounded in the Damascus suburb of Douma as describing how “In July and August 2011, one man was ‘executed’ around every two weeks… We would go and pick them up. The most common reason given for the killings was that the victim served as an informer for the security. The number of those ‘executed’ gradually increased to one every week, then two or three every week. By July 2012, three to four people were being ‘executed’ every day, and we stopped knowing the exact accusation. People just referred to them as informers.”
Amnesty notes as well that “Ali al-Zamel, a Palestinian refugee accused by armed opposition groups of acting as an informer for the Syrian authorities, was abducted in July 2012 and killed around five days later” and that his body was dumped in the “hole of death,“ a 15m long, 6m wide and 5-7m deep hole dug for the foundations of a building in an area south of al-Tadhamon, near Yarmouk, which “was apparently used by armed opposition groups to dump bodies of people they had summarily killed. Residents frequently checked the hole . . . to see if further bodies had been dumped there.”
In November 2012, the well-known Syrian-Palestinian actor Mohammed Rafeh was assassinated by rebels in the Damascus suburb of Barzeh. According to the pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), Rafeh “was killed for apparently giving information to the regime about rebels and antigovernment protesters.” The Boston Globenotes however that “Mr. Rafeh’s death comes after a campaign began on social media calling for actors who support Syrian President Bashar Assad to be punished,” suggesting that Rafeh was assassinated simply for his outspoken public criticism of the rebels.
False Flag Murders
In many cases, opposition activists promoted conspiracy theories claiming that the government was responsible for assassinations actually carried out by rebels. Opposition supporter Azmi Bishara noted that in Homs, opposition activists accused the Syrian government of assassinating a number of prominent civilians during the summer of 2011, when in fact it was known the rebels were responsible. He provides as examples the head of the chest surgery division of the National Hospital, Hassan Eid (Alawite, killed on August 34, 2011), the deputy director of the faculty of chemistry in Homs University, Na’il al-Dakhil (Christian, killed 26 September, 2011), the vice dean of the faculty of architecture in the Ba’ath University in Homs, Muhammad Ali Aqil (Shiite, also killed 26 September, 2011), and the nuclear engineer Aws Abd al-Kareem Khalil (Alawite, killed September 28, 2011). Bishara notes that while the above mentioned men had participated in a national dialogue organized by the Syrian government [dialogue with the government was anathema to the rebels], the men had nevertheless rejected Syrian government efforts to end the crisis militarily (via a “security solution”) and had demanded real democratic reforms. Despite this, rebels assassinated them anyway. Bishara also notes that opposition activists justified passing unconfirmed, exaggerated, and fabricated information of this kind (falsely blaming the Syrian government) to the media because of their belief that it “served the revolution” (see Syria – A Way of Suffering to Freedom, Kindle edition, Chapter 11).
When Hamas operative Kamal Husni Ghanaja was found dead in his home outside Damascus in late June 2012, the Syrian opposition immediately claimed that a “pro-government Shabiha militia tortured Ghanaja to death and ‘set his house on fire to destroy the evidence of their heinous crime’ and that a ‘pro-regime militia called Shabiha has been entering Palestinian refugee camps under the guise of ‘safeguarding the camps’ but they ‘commit murder and engage in kidnapping.’” It is unclear why the Syrian government would wish to kill Ghanaja, who must have had close ties to Syrian intelligence, given that he “was involved in smuggling arms from Iran to Gaza,” according to Israeli intelligence. Opposition claims that the Syrian government killed Ghanaja were proven false when a Hamas spokesperson indicated one week later that, “An internal investigation indicated brother Ghanaja died because of the smoke coming from a generator he used in his house … he was not murdered.”
In perhaps the most notable case of the entire war, rebels murdered a young illiterate man with a clubbed hand named Ibrahim Qashoush in July 2011, claiming he was an informer. Qashoush worked as a security guard at the local fire department in Hama. Rebels slit Qashoush’s throat and dumped his body in the Orontes River. Opposition activists from the Local Coordinating Committee (LCC) in Hama then used photos of his body to claim Qashoush had actually been a non-violent demonstrator famous for writing songs sung in local anti-government protests, and alleged the Syrian government had murdered him and ripped out his vocal chords as punishment for his songs. In reality, however, the protest singer was another man, Abdul Rahman Farhood, who is still alive and living as a refugee in Europe, as journalist James Harkin confirms in a long piece published in GQ Magazine. One Syrian human rights investigator acknowledged to Harkin that “Some of the opposition were telling lies [about Qashoush] because they thought it would be helpful. It was because of this that I fell out with them.” The false claim that the Syrian government killed Qashoush did help the revolution, according to Harkin, as Qashoush’s slaying became a “rallying point for protesters” in Hama, who considered him “the nightingale of the revolution.”
Opposition efforts to falsely blame the Syrian government for atrocities over the years have apparently led to skepticism among many Syrians in regard to opposition media in general. Lina Shaikhouni, a journalist on the Arabic Team at BBC Monitoring, observes that “more Syrians watch government-controlled TV than any opposition channel because of the lack of trust. . . There are people who are producing ‘fake news’ [on the rebel side] who are hurting the credibility of the revolution.”
Given the rebel assassination campaign which was proceeding apace in the summer of 2012, and the opposition practice of blaming the government for killings actually carried out by the rebels, and the threats made by FSA leaders against pro-government Palestinians, there is every reason to believe that rebels were killing PLA commanders during this period and that opposition claims that these officers were killed by the government because they “refused to crackdown” on protestors were fabricated by opposition activists for public relations reasons.
PLA Conscripts Massacred
Sharmine Narwani further describes rebel efforts to target Palestinians from the Palestine Liberation Army. On July 11, 2013 news broke that rebels had “kidnapped and killed 14 Palestinian soldiers heading back to Nairab camp on a weekend break from training exercises in Mesiaf, 48km southwest of Hama. According to the PLA generals I interviewed, the soldiers were divided into two groups – half were shot, while the other half were tortured and then beheaded. Many Palestinians I interviewed told the story of the driver of the PLA van – who was not a soldier himself. Ahmad Ezz was a young man from the Nairab camp in Aleppo. The rebels spared him – temporarily – then strapped him into a vehicle rigged with massive explosives, and ordered him to drive into a Syrian army checkpoint. According to multiple Arabic news reports, at the very last minute, Ahmad veered sharply away from the checkpoint. The rebels detonated the explosives and Ahmad died, but by changing course he spared the Syrian soldiers. In what perhaps speaks to Palestinian sentiment about the Syrian conflict more than many of the ‘contested’ incidents, the residents of Nairab camp turned out en masse for Ahmad’s funeral. Says Mohammad, a young Palestinian whose family lives outside Yarmouk in one of the neighboring suburbs – and who first told me the story of Ahmad – ‘We saw him as a hero for saving the [Syrian] soldiers.”’
Saudi-owned al-Sharq al-Awsatinterviewed a local youth from Neirab camp, who gave further details, explaining “the soldiers were kidnapped two weeks ago during their return from military service in a convoy on the road from Msaif in Hama province, and we didn’t hear any news from them from that time on, until their bodies were found, dumped on the side of the road” and he added that “most of the victims lived in Neirab camp.”
Al-Sharq al-Awsat also quoted an opposition activist who, while denying that the rebels killed the PLA conscripts, nevertheless implied their deaths were justified by claiming that “the Assad regime wants to include the Palestinians in their conflict with the Syrian people through turning them into Shabiha, and this is what [the regime] relied on in Neirab camp where it exploited the economic situation of the Palestinian youth and pushed them to participate in acts of repression in exchange for money.” This claim is not credible given that the massacred Palestinian youths had not joined the PLA for money, but were conscripted as was legally required, and had not participated in the conflict up until that time.
Other opposition activists claimed that the PLA conscripts were killed by the Syrian government, supposedly to “send out a warning message” to Syria’s Palestinian community. The account of the PLA commanders interviewed by Narwani was inadvertently confirmed, however, by journalist Tarek Homoud of the pro-opposition AGPS. While claiming that the killers of the PLA conscripts were unknown, Homoud nevertheless acknowledges that “a burned body of a bus driver was found two days after the killing of the [PLA] recruits” at the site of the check point attack (in an area called Rikarda) and that rebel groups Saqour al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham had taken credit for the attack via video uploaded to YouTube. In the video, a truck bomb is shown exploding as it approaches the target and rebels announce the attack was carried out in retaliation for the so-called Tremseh massacre (discussed below). One month later, C.J. Chivers of the New York Timesdocumented another instance of FSA rebels in Aleppo attempting to use a captured pro-government fighter as an “unwitting suicide bomber” in the same manner.
If the Syrian government was responsible for the kidnapping and killing of the PLA recruits, it would not be possible for rebels to have forced the conscripts’ bus driver to drive the truck bomb attacking the Syrian Army checkpoint at Rikarda, and for his burned body to be found at the scene. More obviously, it does not make sense for the Syrian government to kill its own Palestinian supporters, as claimed by opposition activists. Instead, rebels targeted the PLA recruits as part of a broader assassination campaign targeting pro-government Palestinians, which is consistent with public threats made by the FSA leadership, as noted above.
Despite this, AGPS would later claim directly that the government had killed the PLA conscripts, alleging that rebels found photographs of the corpses of two of the young conscripts when raiding a government criminal security branch in Idlib in early 2015. AGPS claims such photographs provide proof the Syrian government had tortured and killed them.
This is an odd assumption to make, given that Syrian police would likely take photographs of the corpses upon their discovery as part of any criminal investigation into the killings. Documenting war time deaths in this way would simply be routine. During the height of the sectarian civil war in Iraq in 2005, for example, the New York Timesreports that “A small window in the [Baghdad] morgue is the last hope for people looking for their dead. Holding photographs of the missing, they peer through it to a computer screen where a worker flashes pictures of all the bodies no one has claimed. . . Some bodies are eventually found by their families, but most languish in the morgue. They are given numbers and, after two months, buried in unmarked graves in two Baghdad cemeteries.”
Funerals Again Become Protests
Amidst the war of rumors about which side carried out the massacre of the PLA conscripts, Palestinians in Yarmouk organized a demonstration on Thursday July 12, 2013 to express anger about the killings. Al-Akhbarreports that Syrian security forces and PFLP-GC militants opened fire on the crowd in an effort to control the protests, allegedly killing 9 people. Al-Akhbarquotes a protestor who alleged that Syrian security forces “aimed at the heads and chests of protesters, shooting to kill.” Al-Akhbar also quotes a Yarmouk resident who attended the demonstration as saying, “We don’t know who started firing first, but with our own eyes we saw the firing gradually increase, leading to the death and injury of tens of protesters. Afraid of getting injured, I dropped to the ground,” suggesting there once again may have been armed men among the crowd, and making it unclear which side initiated the shooting. Al-Akhbar also quotes a member of the PFLP who claimed that “we cannot prevent our Syrian brothers who live in al-Hajar al-Aswad or al-Tadamon or other neighborhoods [adjacent to Yarmouk] from protesting peacefully in the camp. At the end of the day, this is their land and we are guests here. . . I have verified information that the Syrian youth in al-Hajar al-Aswad succeeded in exploiting the fervor and rage of the youth in the camp, turning the protest last Thursday over the death of 17 PLA soldiers into an anti-Syrian regime protest.”
This led opposition activists to organize another protest in Yarmouk the following day, Friday July 13, to continue protesting the deaths of the PLA conscripts. The New York Timesreported that “A small anti-Assad demonstration in Yarmouk on July 13 turned violent when Syrian troops fired into the crowd.” A pro-Fatah website (Sawt Fatah) reported that “hundreds participated in a peaceful march” which was blocked at a PFLP-GC checkpoint. An argument broke out, after which the protesters “were fired upon from several sides, forcing the people to scramble to escape.” The Fatah source also claimed that government “snipers targeted the activists of the march, which led to the death of four youth from the camp, including the child Yazen Naser al-Khadra [15 years old according to some sources], Dhia Muhammad, Anas al-Bara’i and Hani al-Kharma.” The source claimed further that the marchers “did not raise slogans against the regime, but were expressing their anger at being so often targeted by all the warring parties in Syria, without knowing by whose hands.” Tarek Homoud of AGPS also claims four deaths, and describes how “All the protests came to an end peacefully, except one in Palestine Street. The Syrian army opened fire against protestors leaving Four Palestinians dead; this caused some opposition fighters to intervene resulting in confrontations that lasted a day.”
The growing unrest in Yarmouk at this time led Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdisi to write on his Facebook page that “The hardest thing is to have the most honored and distinguished guests in your country [Palestinians] . . . and to see some of them not respect the origins of this hospitality,” and that if they fail to do so, “let them go to the ‘oases of democracy’ in the Arab countries.”
The protests and clashes continued the next day as well, on Saturday July 14, with al-Sharq al-Awsatciting an opposition activist in Yarmouk claiming that FSA rebels had closed entrances to Yarmouk with burning tires, and had raised the flag of the Syrian revolution above several buildings in the camp. The Saturday protests were in response to events from the day before, in particular the killing of the young boy Yazen Naser al-Khadra, who opposition activists claimed had been shot by a sniper with two bullets to the head, as well as in response to an alleged massacre in the town of Tremseh, in Hama province, that occurred two days before, on Thursday July 12.
The Tremseh “Massacre”
Opposition activists claimed to Der Spiegel that the Syrian army had “murdered more than 220 men, women and children” in Tremseh and that “Some were reportedly killed by shelling from the Syrian army, while others were killed by pro-government thugs from nearby villages” while the New York Timesquoted opposition activists as claiming that the killings in Tremseh were “unlike any massacre that has previously occurred in Syria.”
It soon became apparent that opposition claims of a massacre in Tremseh were false and that the government account of events there was correct. The Syrian government had claimed the violence in Tremseh “was not a massacre, but a military operation targeting armed fighters who had taken control of the village.” This view was confirmed when UN observers visited Tremseh on Saturday July 14 and issued a report stating that the Syrian army did attack the village, but appeared to target “specific groups and houses, mainly of army defectors and activists.” The New York Times noted that the pro-opposition SOHR“had been able to confirm only 103 names [rather than 220 as claimed by the opposition], and 90 percent of them were young men. There were no women’s names on the list of 103 victims obtained from activists in Homs,” further confirming the government claim that it targeted rebels in the attack.
Operation Damascus Volcano and Syrian Earthquake
On Saturday, 14 July 2012 (the same day that protests raged in Yarmouk and the correct details of events in Tremseh emerged), the rebels also launched a large offensive to take Damascus, dubbed operation “Damascus Volcano and Syrian Earthquake,” which was made possible by weapons shipments organized by US planners two months before. In May 2012, the Washington Post had reported that “Syrian rebels battling the regime of President Bashar al-Assad have begun receiving significantly more and better weapons in recent weeks, an effort paid for by Persian Gulf nations and coordinated in part by the United States, according to opposition activists and U.S. and foreign officials.” The Post noted further that “Materiel is being stockpiled in Damascus” and that according to an opposition figure, “Large shipments have got through. . . Some areas are loaded with weapons.’”
Reutersnotes that the July 14 offensive began when rebels attacked Syrian security forces in the Hajar al-Aswad district of southern Damascus, which is adjacent to and south of Yarmouk. The operation involved 2,500 rebel fighters, many of which were redeployed from other parts of the country. The fighting spread to three other districts the next day, including the Midan district in the heart of Damascus, with battles flaring within sight of Assad’s presidential palace. Rebels hid in narrow alleyways and battled government tanks using rocket-propelled grenades and roadside bombs. The offensive was highlighted by the rebel bombing of the National Security building in Damascus on July 18, which killed 4 top Syrian security officials, including the defense minister Dawoud Rajha, national security chief Hisham Ikhtiyar, and Assad’s brother-in-law, deputy defense minister Assef Shawkat. The New York Timesnoted that “The attack on the leadership’s inner sanctum as fighting raged in sections of the city for the fourth day suggested that the uprising had reached a decisive moment in the overall struggle for Syria. The battle for the capital, the center of Assad family power, appears to have begun.” Rebels claimed the bombing was “a turning point in Syria’s history” and the “beginning of the end” for the government. One rebel commander was more cautious,however, suggesting that “It is more ebb and flow; these skirmishes are just a test as our fighters infiltrate then withdraw. . . The Free Syrian Army has a hit-and-run strategy. This is urban warfare. It favors the rebel forces and not the conventional forces.” The Syrian army was able to repel the offensive, re-taking control of the Midan district on July 20, 2012. However, the rebel withdrawal from the heart of Damascus was merely tactical and rebels would try to take the capital again in coming months. Al-Monitorreports that “The regime appears to have won Round 1 in the fight for Damascus, but the war is far from over.”
Neutrality Falls Apart
This is also when reports first emerged of Palestinians with the PFLP-GC fighting with the Syrian Army, as well as of reports of Palestinians fighting with the rebels. On July 18, the Daily Starquoted an opposition activist known as Abu al-Sakan as claiming that “Many Palestinian youth have joined the FSA, and they are fighting side by side with the Syrian revolutionaries in the Tadamon and Al-Hajar Al-Aswad districts.” The Guardiannoted on July 20, 2012 that a source in Yarmouk “said members of the Free Syrian Army were fighting tanks in the area and trying to prevent the security forces from entering. But they have been overrun after Palestinian factions, close to the regime, sided with the government troops.”
The fighting in these districts caused a massive influx of displaced persons into areas viewed as neutral and safe, such as Yarmouk and also the nearby Khan al-Sheih Palestinian camp. Those fleeing the violence were graciously hosted by camp residents, whether in UNRWA schools, mosques or private homes. Al-Akhbarreported that the common feeling among the displaced was one of sadness mixed with anger: “Says Abu Muhammad, the father of four children, ‘we are not guilty of anything but wanting to live in peace, far away from the game of the current war. My house lies in the Hajr al-Aswad area and missiles destroyed it, and I was hit by shrapnel in my hand, and I also broke three ribs in my chest. I still can’t remember the details of leaving Hajr al-Aswad and arriving at this school with my family.’”
Yarmouk did not remain safe for long, however. Fighting spilled over into the camp more and more during July. Civilians lived in fear, often not knowing whether the bombs falling on their homes were from the hands of the rebels or the Syrian army. One elderly Yarmouk resident described how when he had once fought as a guerilla for the PLO against Israel, Palestinians had had a clear enemy. However, “if I am now killed in my home, I will not know the source of the bullet or missile or who fired it. We are living in a dirty and frustrating time now.”
One Fatah supporter emphasized his party’s efforts to remain neutral during this period, while also acknowledging the risks of doing so: “Palestinians have also paid the price of Arab countries’ struggles for decades. So most Fatah supporters are trying to stay on the fence. . . But it is difficult because even if they do not go to the revolt, the revolt is coming to them.”
Jibril Arms the Popular Committees
In the wake of the July rebel offensive on Damascus and increased fighting in neighborhoods adjacent to Yarmouk, the PFLP-GC leadership was keenly aware of the threat of a jihadist rebel takeover of the camp, and argued that remaining neutral was no longer a viable option. Ahmed Jibril began distributing weapons to several hundred of his PFLP-GC supporters in Yarmouk to create “popular committees,” in an effort “to defend the Palestinian refugee camps against the free army.” The popular committees comprised about 500 men from a variety of Palestinian factions, excluding Hamas.
Al-Akhbarnotes however, that many Palestinians in the camp opposed these actions because they considered “the participation of supporters of Ahmed Jibril in preserving the security of the camp a clear violation of the agreement made by all factions of the Palestine Liberation Organization, in the beginning of the events in Syria, which declared that all Palestinian resistance factions refrain from engaging in the internal Syrian conflict and remain committed to neutrality.”
Anwar Raja, the PFLP-GC’s media director, was unapologetic about arming the popular committees however, feeling it was a necessary measure, despite opposition from the other Palestinian factions. Raja explained that, “We warned Palestinians in 2011 and 2012 about rebels coming to occupy Yarmouk, and increased these calls as rebels took control of surrounding areas in Tadamoun, Hajar al-Aswad, Yalda. We said the groups should arm themselves in defense of the camp, but they ignored us.”
During this time, al-Akhbar reports that a group of Yarmouk businessmen also sent a delegation to the Damascus police chief to request that walking police patrols be established to protect the camp from rebels, the cost of which these businessmen offered to pay from their own pockets, and that rebels assaulted the Damascus police headquarters later that same evening, killing all the officers present. Al-Jazeera reported on the attack as well, claiming that rebels killed and injured tens of security men and “shabiha” (pro-government thugs) during the assault, while also capturing the weapons cache inside.
Pro-opposition Palestinians began to accuse the popular committees themselves of constituting “shabiha.” Al-Arabquoted some Palestinian refugees from Yarmouk as calling on the UN, rights groups and the PLO to “save them from the shabiha of the Syrian regime and its snipers.”
One member of a local humanitarian group, the Jafra Foundation, described how the neutrality of the camp slowly fell apart during this period: “The Palestinian camps were a safe haven for internally displaced persons and for the wounded, especially in Yarmouk camp. Now, this wasn’t appreciated by either side – the Assad regime or the opposition. The opposition wanted us to participate more in protests and militias and side with them. At the same time, the regime used the same logic – they accused us of allowing ‘terrorists’ to enter the camps and of not fighting with the Syrian regime, which, they say, was always with us and supported our rights. This confusion from the two sides also found its voice within the Palestinian people. Some people began to participate in demonstrations and [rebel] military actions. On the regime side, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command and Fatah al-Intifada began to recruit for Assad. In the beginning, the idea was just to protect the camps. That changed.”
The Ramadan Massacre
It was in this context that two mortars landed in Yarmouk on 2 August 2012, tearing into a busy street during the height of Ramadan celebrations, killing twenty. Al-Akhbarquoted an eyewitness to the bombing as stating that “A state of terror and chaos filled the place after the first bomb fell. We immediately tried to help the injured. After only two minutes the second bomb fell in the same place, which caused a large number of dead and injured.” Saudi-owned al-Sharq al-Awsatreported claims from the local representative of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR) that the “massacre that was committed was intentional,” because three shells (rather than two, as reported by other sources) fell “within two minutes in the same place within Ja’una Street in the camp” and that “We have verified the source of the shells and found they were fired from the site of regime artillery on Qasioun mountain above the Republican Palace.” According to al-Sharq al-Awsat, the Syrian Army supposedly carried out the massacre because of the “dissatisfaction of the Syrian regime with the Palestinian movement, especially after the uprising of the camp, and the support it presented to oppressed Syrian families” displaced due to fighting in nearby neighborhoods such as al Tadhamon, Hajer al-Aswad, Yalda and Qa’aa.
Despite opposition and PCHR claims that the Syrian government was responsible, the New York Timesreported that, “Details surrounding the attack suggest it may not be that simple,” suggesting that the rebels may have carried out the attack in retaliation for PLFP-GC efforts to arm the popular committees. The NYT quoted one spokesperson for a local Palestinian opposition group who described Jibril’s efforts to distribute weapons as “provocative,” while the NYT also noted that “the blasts appear to have hit near the office of a faction that was distributing weapons, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine — General Command. A well-placed opposition activist who declined to be identified publicly because of political considerations said the bombings might have been the work of rebels who had aimed for that office but missed.”
Such a view seems reasonable given that the Free Syrian Army had a few weeks earlier declared that pro-government Palestinian leaders were legitimate targets, as mentioned above. This, on top of Jibril’s efforts to distribute weapons, could easily have prompted rebels to target the PFLP-GC headquarters in retaliation. Further, if the Syrian government did wish to retaliate against Palestinians broadly for their supposed support of the opposition, as al-Sharq al-Awsat claims, it would still not make sense for the Syrian army to bomb areas of Yarmouk under the control of its own allies (areas near the PFLP-GC headquarters), which allies had just begun to fight actively on the side of the government, and upon whom the Syrian army would rely heavily in coming months to try to prevent rebels from capturing the camp. Indeed, Maan reports that a mortar shell struck the PFLP-GC headquarters two days later, on August 4, causing “serious material damage” but no casualties. Strangely, Maan’s sources in Yarmouk also claim the Syrian army fired the mortar, but again this would not make sense, as the Syrian army would not attack the very headquarters of its own Palestinian allies. More likely, rebels targeted the PFLP-GC headquarters on August 2, missed, and accidentally killed 20 people. Rebels then attempted to hit the headquarters a second time two days later, and were successful, while blaming the Syrian government in both instances.
Abdul-Hadi of the PLO also seemed to view the August 2 bombing as rebel retaliation for Jibril’s arming of the popular committees, as he felt that Jibril’s actions had brought disaster to Yarmouk. Maanquotes Abdul-Hadi as saying “The Yarmouk camp has not witnessed any tough events since the outbreak of the conflict in Syria, except in the last two months. The latest event was yesterday when 20 people were killed and about 65 were injured . . . Thursday’s attack came after Jibril armed some men in the camp under the pretext of protecting the Palestinians. . . . We reject this completely because our protection is the responsibility of the state of Syria, and we are only guests there [emphasis mine].”
Importantly, opposition activists viewed the alleged killing of Palestinians by the government as positive, as it would supposedly help break the bond between the Palestinians and the Syrian government, causing them to come to the opposition’s side and end their neutral stance. The New York Timesdescribes how “Trying to break that bond has been a primary goal of the opposition” and that “Other activists blamed the government [for the August 2 bombing] although they acknowledged that they wanted to draw the Palestinians into the conflict.” The NYTquotes an opposition activist as saying “Let [the Palestinians] show the world how they don’t want to get involved after many of them were killed by Assad,” revealing the disdain that many in the opposition felt towards Palestinians for their attempts to remain neutral. This resembled rebel anger at residents of Aleppo during the same period for their lack of support for the “revolution.” Journalist James Foley (later kidnapped and murdered by ISIS) related in October 2012 how one rebel commander promised that “Aleppo would burn” because its residents, also majority Sunni like the rebels, were only “concerned with their barbecues.”
The bond between Palestinians and the Syrian government proved difficult to break, however. The New York Timesreported in late June 2012 that “Syria prides itself on being one of the few Arab countries to offer Palestinians full civil rights. They can own property and hold government jobs, for instance. ‘It is hard for us to forget that Syria deals with us as ordinary citizens,’ said Abu Mohammad, 40, another refugee, who runs a candy store in the Yarmouk camp. ‘If Assad is gone, no Arab or foreign state will host us,’ he said. ‘We want to live in peace and look after our sons, not to live in tents again.’”
The Storm before the Storm
The fighting that began in Yarmouk in the summer of 2012 intensified further in the fall. In late October 2012, the FSA brigade known as the Falcons of the Golan (Suqour al-Golan) announced the formation of the Storm Brigade (Liwa al-Asifah), made up of all Palestinian rebels, specifically for the purpose of fighting pro-government Palestinian cadre of the PFLP-GC and the popular committees. A rebel commander declared to Reuters that, “Now they are targets for us, targets for all the FSA. All of them with no exceptions,” while Maancited rebels who claimed the Storm Brigade was created to “to wrest control of Damascus’ Yarmouk refugee camp.” On November 5, the New York Timesquoted an activist as describing that “It’s a real war. . . Explosions, bombing and gunfire, and of course the helicopters, which have become part of the sky in Damascus now, like birds” and that five people were killed when a minibus in Yarmouk was targeted by small artillery fired by an unknown group. On November 7, Reutersreports that Syrian rebels killed 10 PFLP-GC fighters in clashes near Street 30 in Yarmouk and in Hajar al-Aswad. On November 23, al-Akhbarreports that “Four people were killed and a PFLP-GC activist was seriously wounded when a bomb planted under a car went off, the group said, blaming the rebel Free Syrian Army for the attack.” The chaotic nature of events during this period was described by a Yarmouk resident named Abu Majd who explained that “Whenever I have tried to leave my home, I have encountered militants in the streets. I do not know whether they belong to the FSA or the popular committees that answer to Ahmad Jibril [of the PFLP-GC], or even the Syrian army or security forces.”
Damascus as a whole was in chaos during this period, as rebel suicide and car bomb attacks on government targets had “become a near daily reality in the capital Damascus,” according to the Telegraph, with al-Qaeda’s Syrian franchise, the Nusra Front, playing an increasingly prominent role. Reutersreported for example that “Nusra claimed responsibility in one day alone last month [November 2012] for 45 attacks in Damascus, Deraa, Hama and Homs provinces that reportedly killed dozens, including 60 in a single suicide bombing.”
At the same time, foreign jihadists continued to enter Syria to fight for Nusra. One Nusra member who helped smuggle fighters and weapons into Syria from Lebanon explained to the Telegraph that “Some of the foreign fighters hate the west and all non-Muslims. . . They want to attack churches. Personally, I don’t like this. But this is how they were taught in Iraq and Chechnya.” The same Nusra member added that he had smuggled in jihadist fighters from “Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Pakistan, Lebanon, Turkmenistan, France and even from Britain.”
Opposition Conspiracy Theories
By this time it was becoming clear that Nusra as an organization was also deeply embedded within the broader US and Saudi-backed “moderate” FSA rebel brigades, a fact which had previously been obscured, thanks to conspiracy theories promoted by the Syrian opposition. In December 2012, just weeks before Nusra and FSA brigades invaded Yarmouk, McClatchy reported that “When the group Jabhat al Nusra first claimed responsibility for car and suicide bombings in Damascus that killed dozens last January , many of Syria’s revolutionaries claimed that the organization was a creation of the Syrian government,” however, “it is increasingly clear that [Nusra’s] operations are closely coordinated with more secular rebels. Some Syrians say that Nusra’s importance is a result of the West’s failure to support those secular rebels. But the closeness of the coordination between Nusra and other rebels makes it difficult to support one without empowering the other.” McClatchy notes further that Nusra has “proved to be critical to the rebels’ military advance. In battle after battle across the country, Nusra and similar groups do the heaviest frontline fighting. Groups who call themselves the Free Syrian Army and report to military councils led by defected Syrian army officers move into the captured territory afterward.” One Nusra fighter explained to Reuters during this time the reason for such close cooperation: “Our aim is to depose Assad, defend our people against the military crackdown and build the caliphate. Many in the Free Syrian Army have ideas like us and want an Islamic state.”
When the US State Department designated Nusra as a terrorist group in December 2012, Moaz al-Khatib, the leader of the main political opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition for Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (SNCROF) immediately objected, suggesting the decision should be “reviewed” and that “We might disagree with some parties and their ideas and their political and ideological vision. But we affirm that all the guns of the rebels are aimed at overthrowing the tyrannical criminal regime.” The Telegraph also reported at the time that “a total of 29 opposition groups including fighting ‘brigades’ and civilian committees, have signed a petition calling for mass demonstrations in support of Jabhat al-Nusra” and that the petition promoted “the slogan ‘No to American intervention, for we are all Jabhat al-Nusra’ and urges supporters to ‘raise the Jabhat al-Nusra flag’ as a ‘thank you.’” Consequently, FSA brigades have proven largely indistinguishable from Nusra in many of the most important battles of the Syria conflict, including in Yarmouk.
The fighting in October and November was just the prelude to a larger rebel effort to take Damascus in December 2012. As a part of a program code-named Timber Sycamore, CIA planners accelerated weapons shipments to Syrian rebels during this period, primarily via partners in Saudi intelligence, and began to train rebels directly at camps in Jordan starting in October 2012. McClatchyreports that one rebel participant in the training program “said men he believed were American intelligence officers observed what was taking place. Another said he believed British officers were helping to organize the training. The training itself was handled by Jordanian military officers, the rebels said. By November , another rebel said, the training had expanded to anti-tank weapons and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles.” The LA Timesreported that rebels from Damascus were among those receiving training, and that “CIA officials declined to comment on the secret training programs, which was being done covertly in part because of U.S. legal concerns about publicly arming the rebels, which would constitute an act of war against the Assad government.”
The New York Timesreported of this period that “With help from the C.I.A., Arab governments and Turkey have sharply increased their military aid to Syria’s opposition fighters in recent months, expanding a secret airlift of arms and equipment” which “expanded into a steady and much heavier flow late last year , the data shows. . . Most of the cargo flights have occurred since November , after the presidential election in the United States.” The NYT quotes Hugh Griffiths, of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute who notes the massive amounts of weaponry rebels received. Griffiths explains that “A conservative estimate of the payload of these flights would be 3,500 tons of military equipment. . . The intensity and frequency of these flights. . . are suggestive of a well-planned and coordinated clandestine military logistics operation.” The NYT indicates further that “arms and equipment were being purchased by Saudi Arabia in Croatia and flown to Jordan on Jordanian cargo planes for rebels working in southern Syria” and “formed what one former American official who was briefed on the program called ‘a cataract of weaponry.’”
The New York Times also reported of this period that, according to US officials, the bulk of these weapons shipments were going to “hard-line Islamic Jihadists.” US officials at the same time claimed incompetence, suggesting that the military assistance reaching the rebels via its own partners in Saudi and Qatari intelligence and under the supervision of the CIA, was somehow reaching exactly those rebel groups “we don’t want to have it.” Such statements, while patently false, seemed to be an effort on the part of US officials to establish plausible deniability, given that they were overseeing the shipment of weapons to Nusra, an official al-Qaeda affiliate, which would clearly be illegal under US law.
One FSA commander told the Washington Post that these weapons shipments were part of an effort to “shift the focus of the war away from the north toward the south and the capital, Assad’s stronghold,” while another noted rebel commander, Saleh al-Hamwi, indicated that “The shift was prompted by the realization that rebel gains across the north of the country over the past year were posing no major threat to the regime in Damascus” and that weapons shipments would flow through Jordan into Syria because the “province of Daraa [in southern Syria] controls a major route to the capital and is far closer.” Al-Hamwi adds that “Daraa and Damascus are the key fronts on the revolution, and Damascus is where it is going to end.”
Though rebels had succeeded in penetrating the heart of the capital during the July 2012 offensive “Operation Damascus Volcano,” they had nevertheless failed to hold territory and could only engage in hit-and-run attacks. The Syrian army was then able to force a rebel retreat. Reutersreported that according to one rebel commander, the July 2012 offensive failed because it had been disorganized and lacked proper re-supply lines.
If rebels were to succeed in taking Damascus, better supply lines therefore needed to be established, and Yarmouk, located in the southern suburbs of Damascus, was crucial for this effort. Yarmouk is bordered to the south by the town of Hajar al-Aswad, a rebel stronghold that itself is bordered to the south by the Damascus countryside, and easily reachable from Deraa. If rebels from the FSA and Nusra could capture Yarmouk, this would help in establishing a reliable supply-line stretching from Jordan all the way to Damascus, and keep the US and Gulf-supplied weapons flowing for another major offensive on the capital.
Nidal Bitari, the pro-opposition activist and journalist from Yarmouk mentioned above, notes that Yarmouk’s residents were aware of the coming rebel assault, not only on Damascus, but on Yarmouk as well. He notes that “The FSA, by that time joined by the extremist Jabhat al-Nusra, had long set their sights on Yarmuk camp as the ‘gateway to Damascus.’ Since the autumn of 2012, they had been talking more and more openly about the ‘zero hour’ for liberating Damascus, and everyone knew that Yarmuk was the intended launching pad. . . And with the PFLP-GC now fighting the rebels outside the camp, the FSA could claim that the camp’s neutrality had ended and use that as an excuse to go in.”
PFLP-GC officials allege that then director of Saudi Intelligence and former ambassador to the US, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, was the chief planner of the assault on Yarmouk. This seems reasonable given the role of Saudi Intelligence in organizing weapons shipments to the rebels on behalf of the CIA during this period, and given that, according to a leaked National Security Agency (NSA) document, Bandar was personally giving orders to rebels to “light up Damascus” and “flatten” the Damascus airport with missiles just three months later. Bandar’s efforts to arm jihadist rebels in Syria mirrored his previous efforts to help US officials in the Reagan administration arm Nicaraguan insurgents ( Contras) in the 1980’s, in an attempt to de-stabilize the Nicaraguan (Sandinista) government, while also mirroring Bandar’s role in helping CIA officials arm and train jihadist rebels (mujahedeen) traveling to fight in Afghanistan against Soviet forces during the same period.
Mustafa al-Harash, writing for the Institute of Palestine Studies (IPS), claims that on the evening of December 15, 2012 news from a source in the Syrian armed opposition reached the PLO that rebel groups had decided to storm the camp and had designated a zero hour for doing so, which was just hours away. After holding an emergency meeting, the PLO factions decided to send a delegation to meet with the leadership of the rebel groups and to discourage them from storming the camp. The rebel groups had already made a decision and would not retreat from it, however, indicating that they were not concerned with the consequences of assaulting the camp, in terms of death and destruction and displacement of civilians, considering this simply the “price of jihad” (dharibat al-jihad) that civilians must pay. The rebel leadership insisted that assaulting Yarmouk was justified because the camp is on “Syrian land,” and necessary for gaining an advantage against the Syrian security apparatus and its Palestinian allies in the popular committees.
Nusra and the FSA initiated the assault first on Hajar al-Aswad, to the south of Yarmouk, after which rebels entered Yarmouk itself on the night of Saturday December 15. Al-Akhbarreported that “The past few days saw rockets raining down on the camp, often followed by the sirens of ambulances en route to the scene to collect the dead and injured. During the short lulls in violence, residents rushed out to stock up on supplies before the situation deteriorated again. On Saturday night, the fighting reached its peak as the armed opposition launched a three-pronged attack to take the camp. The pro-regime PFLP-GC fighters were overwhelmed and suffered tremendous losses as they were unable to evacuate their wounded due to opposition snipers posted on the roofs. By morning [Sunday December 16], cars carrying opposition fighters and Palestinians waving the rebel flag could be seen driving around many of the camp’s inner neighborhoods.”
Bombing of the Abdul Qader Mosque
This fighting set the stage for perhaps the most infamous incident in Yarmouk of the entire war, when the Syrian air force bombed the Abdul Qader al-Husseini mosque and a UNRWA school later that evening, on Sunday December 16. The SOHR reported 8 killed, while opposition activists claimed at least 25 dead. The New York Timesdescribed the scene of the bombing: “In Yarmouk, burned body parts littered the ground at the Sheik Abdul Qader mosque, which had offered shelter to Palestinians and others displaced by fighting in other areas. Minutes before, a Syrian fighter jet fired rockets at the camp. Women, crying children and white-bearded men thronged the streets with hurriedly packed bags, not sure where to look for safety.”
A humanitarian activist from the Jafra Foundation recalled how “rebels from the Free Syrian Army marched into the camp from the south. Within 30 minutes, the Syrian government responded, sending an MiG warplane to attack two shelters inside the camp—one a school and the other a mosque. . . Time in Yarmouk was separated into before the MiG and after the MiG.” The New York Timesinterviewed a fleeing Yarmouk resident who was “was shocked on Sunday at the speed of the government assault, in which fighter planes and artillery were used to attack the area hours after rebel fighters entered Yarmouk.”
The victims of the horrific mosque and school bombings appear to have been residents who were not able to flee the camp after the Syrian government warning to do so. The Guardianquotes an elderly woman named Um Hassan as explaining that many had left Yarmouk after warnings broadcast from mosques early on Sunday morning but that “others had sought refuge in a mosque and remained behind. Syrians who had fled from battle zones elsewhere in Syria were staying in a nearby school. They also chose to stay. Both groups were hit by bombs dropped from jets.”
The government claimed that the bombing of the school and mosque was a mistake, made in the context of attacking the rebel positions to prevent their further advance on Damascus (perhaps assuming that most civilians had fled and/or that rebels were using the mosque and school as bases). In contrast, opposition activists claimed the Syrian air force bombed the mosque and school on purpose, and wished to target civilians directly, in an effort to punish Yarmouk’s civilians for supposedly supporting the rebels.
Whether this was a mistake, or a deliberate massacre by the Syrian air force, is perhaps impossible to determine. When reading accounts of the events in Yarmouk surrounding the bombing, however, it is apparent that some residents of the camp speaking with the media reversed the chronology of events, suggesting that the Syrian air force first bombed the mosque, and then rebels invaded the camp, as if in response. For example, the pro-opposition Syria Deeplyquoted an unnamed opposition activist from Yarmouk as recalling that “The FSA invaded the camp two hours after the regime bombed us with MIGs, and claimed it was liberated [emphasis mine].” This description of events is obviously incorrect, as most sources acknowledge there was fighting inside the camp prior to the bombing of the mosque. Perhaps this activist just misremembered events, or perhaps different residents became aware of the rebel assault into the camp at different times, depending on their circumstances and location in the camp. Not everyone in the two by two kilometer camp would be familiar with what was going on in all areas.
In some cases though, the reversal of the chronology seems deliberate and politically motivated in order to bolster opposition claims that the government had bombed civilians on purpose. If the Syrian air force bombed the camp before the rebels invaded, the bombing could have no possible military purpose and could only be in an effort to kill civilians. The Guardiancites a Yarmouk resident named Abu Khalil, who had fled to the Sabra-Shatila camp in Lebanon, as claiming that “There had been no fighting inside the camp [Yarmouk] at all until Sunday. . . There were clashes on the outskirts, but the Free Syria Army had not entered the camp at all. They only came in after the air strike [emphasis mine].” Abu Khalil’s reversal of the chronology appears politically motivated, given other anti-government comments he makes. He explains for example that “No Palestinian will trust [the Syrian government] anymore after what they did on Sunday.” The Guardian uses Abu Khalil’s statements as anecdotal evidence to reinforce the broader claim that Palestinians “are now openly hostile towards a regime that had long portrayed itself as the protector of the 500,000 Palestinians living in Syria, most of whom had called Yarmouk home until now.”
The New York Times did mention the rebel attack on the camp in their coverage of the Abdul Qader Mosque bombing, but did not make the chronology clear, suggesting similar bias.
In perhaps the most blatant case,Amnesty Internationalentirely omits any reference to the rebel invasion when providing an account of the attack on the Abdul Qader mosque and UNRWA school, mentioning only briefly that rebels had established a presence in the camp some months before. Readers are left with the impression the Syrian government bombed the mosque and school solely in an effort to target civilians.
In contrast, the pro-opposition Orient News does not cite the bombing of the Abdul Qader mosque at all when discussing the rebel invasion of the camp in one particular report. Orient instead claims the rebels had no choice but to invade because the PFLP-GC local committees were shabiha who helped the regime stage attacks from Yarmouk on nearby neighborhoods and that Yarmouk became involved in the conflict due to the fault of Ahmed Jibril, who sided with the regime and armed the popular committees.
Years later, al-Sharq al-Awsatpublished an article denying that the rebels had any interest whatsoever in entering the camp, instead promoting the conspiracy theory that Syrian intelligence planted agents loyal to it in the camp who posed as members of the FSA, to help lure or bait the rebels into entering. Allegedly, this was done so the regime could then besiege Yarmouk and empty it of all residents, in order to reduce the threat to the capital Damascus from the camp.
The Khalsa Falls
On Monday December 17, al-Akhbarquoted a prominent PFLP (separate from the pro-government PFLP-GC) leader who described the situation as “extremely dangerous. The FSA has taken total control over wide sections of the south of the camp, such as Square 15 and the area surrounding the Khalsa,” the PFLP-GC headquarters, resulting in a PFLP-GC withdrawal. The PFLP leader speculated that “the worst is yet to come. If the camp falls under the control of the Free Army and the extremist Islamic jihadist groups, it will become the launching pad for military operations, and the camp residents will pay a heavy price.”
The same day, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem sternly warned on state television that that Palestinians should not offer “shelter or assistance to terrorist groups” in Yarmouk. The Syrian government also issued additional calls for residents to leave the camp via text message, asking residents to leave Monday and Tuesday morning as well, between 5am and 9 am. One fighter active with a pro-government Palestinian faction said that “the regular Syrian army sent [residents] instructions to stay away from the theater of military operations or leave the camp, in preparation for ‘expelling the foreign fighters inside.’”
Al-Akhbarreports that on Wednesday December 19, rebels were able to take control of the Khalsa, causing PFLP-GC fighters to retreat to the northern edge of Yarmouk, between the camp and Damascus, where they were reinforced by Syrian army tanks. Rumors circulated that the Khalsa suddenly fell after some PFLP-GC fighters defected to the rebels, making the rebel entry into the camp much easier. This was confirmed by a PFLP-GC fighter among the group that unsuccessfully defended the Khalsa, who claimed they had been betrayed by a group of popular committee fighters led by a commander named Hadi al-Sahali, who had allowed rebels to enter the camp from the direction of Yalda.
It was rumored as well that these defections even reached into Jibril’s inner circle, including to one of his wives, who allegedly held Salafist beliefs, and that Jibril had fled to the pro-government stronghold of Tartous, on the Syrian coast. Hassaam Arafat, a member of the PFLP-GC politburo, denied reports that Jibril had fled, saying he was still in Damascus.
On the same day the Khalsa fell to rebels, al-Jazeerareports that the FSA took complete control of Hajar al-Aswad as well, thus securing their supply line for the flow of US and Saudi-supplied weapons coming across the border from Jordan via Deraa.
As fighting continued, Maan reported that the then Palestinian Ambassador to Syria, Mahmoud al-Khalidi, “had contacted the Syrian Foreign Ministry to request an end to airstrikes on Yarmouk, but Syrian officials insisted rebels must leave the camp first.” A truce did emerge however, based on an understanding that armed groups from both sides must leave the camp. CNN reported on December 20 that “representatives for Syrian forces and the Free Syrian Army rebels decided that all armed groups, including the army and the rebels, should withdraw from the camp and leave it as a neutral zone” but that the resultant truce had not held “because of ‘intermittent’ government shelling on Yarmouk and clashes on the camp’s outskirts.” Al-Akhbarreports that the truce did in fact hold for several days, only for clashes between pro-government forces and rebels to erupt again on the evening of December 25.
Negotiations continued into January, but then stalled, as it became clear the rebels were unwilling to relinquish control of the camp. Maanquoted PLO official Anwar Abdul-Hadi as stating that a “deal had been delayed because of several demands by the Free Syria Army” while Nidal Bitari would later comment that, the “FSA leaders had their own reasons for wanting to enter the camp and had no intention of leaving it once they got in.”
The New Nakba
As the fighting between the government and rebels continued, camp resident’s continued to flee to safety.The pre-war population of Yarmouk had been roughly 800,000, with some 160,000 Palestinian refugees, and the remainder Syrians. One PFLP official estimated the number in the camp by December 2012 had been even higher, perhaps one and a half million, due to the number of displaced who had sought refuge in the camp while fleeing violence in adjacent neighborhoods. Within days of the fighting in December 2012, the camp had become largely depopulated. Maan quoted PLO Ambassador al-Khalidi on Tuesday December 18 as stating that “Over 95 percent of Palestinians in Yarmouk have fled the refugee camp near Damascus under heavy shelling.”
This caused many to draw parallels between the mass displacement of residents from Yarmouk, the capital of the Palestinian diaspora, and the mass displacement of Palestinians during the original Nakba, or “catastrophe,” when Zionist militias ethnically cleansed some 750,000 Christian and Muslim Palestinians in 1947-48 in an effort to capture land for the creation of the Jewish state.
Thousands of Palestinians fleeing Yarmouk gathered in front of the immigration and passports office in the Ain Karsh district of Damascus to obtain permission to travel to the Palestinian camps in Lebanon. Others found refuge in other Palestinian camps in Syria, in particular Khan al-Sheih. Al-Akhbarquoted one Palestinian father as saying “It was a difficult decision I took with my family to settle our affairs to head toward Ain al-Hilwah camp in south Lebanon and to live with our relatives there. I do not possess the money to travel to ensure securing work in Lebanon to support my family. But the scenes of death after the bombing of the Abd al Qadir al-Husseini mosque were enough to leave the camp and never return.”
Al-Akhbardescribed this time as “the new chapter in the exile of the Palestinians from their homeland,” and that “The residents of the camp have lived through a state of terror and fear in recent days, as the scope of the destruction in the camp increased as result of bombing with mortars from the side of the free army and artillery shells and missiles from airplanes of the Syrian regime army. The mutual bombing led to tens of dead and injured and resulted in large material damages, which caused a mass exodus estimated at thousands of families which recently decided to leave their homes, carrying with them anything they could, in a scene harking back to memories from the Nakba of 1948. . . Yesterday morning, the residents of the camps in Khan al Sheih, al-Sabina, and Jaramana awoke to the arrival of tens of thousands of displaced persons from Yarmouk camp. Some were transported in trucks collectively, while others arrived walking by foot after the paths were blocked before them.”
During the course of the fighting, Syrian security forces and PFLP-GC militants detained a number of Palestinians suspected of helping the rebels, including many health workers, whose whereabouts remained unknown even years later. Amnesty International reports for example that, “Dr AladdinYoussef, a neurological surgeon, disappeared after being arrested at a Syrian military checkpoint on or around 18 December 2012. A volunteer with the [Palestinian Red Crescent-Syria] told Amnesty International that Dr Youssef was detained after he entered into an argument with security officials at the checkpoint who refused to allow him to exit in order to fetch medicines. The fate of urinary surgeon Dr Nizar Jawdet Kassab, who was detained by government forces at a Yarmouk checkpoint on or around 19 December 2012, is also unknown. The fate of paramedic Hussam Mou’ad, who was arrested on 30 December 2012, is unknown. Salma Abdulrazaq, an engineering student aged 21 who volunteered with the medical scouts (al-Kashafa al-Tibbiya) of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), was also arrested on 30 December 2012 when she was searched at a checkpoint and found to be carrying a small quantity of medicines into Yarmouk. She was taken to the Palestine Branch of Military Intelligence for interrogation, after which her fate is unknown.”
Pro-opposition Zaman al-Wasldescribes how local humanitarian activist Khaled Bakrawi was arrested by Syrian security forces in January 2013 and allegedly tortured to death in prison in September 2013. Bakrawi was well known in the camp for his humanitarian activities and had been injured during the Nakba day protest in 2011 by Israeli forces.
In August 2013, when thirteen Palestinian detainees, including several women, were released in exchange for the body of a dead Syrian soldier, pro-opposition Almodonreports that “When one of the detainees was released, he was asked what he had done to be arrested and said, “I didn’t do anything . . . I don’t know.”
Writing for al-Akhbar, journalist Qassem Qassem suggests it is an “undeniable fact” that the Palestinian filmmaker from Yarmouk, Hassan Hassan, was “killed in the regime prisons” and that he was not a terrorist or “takfiri,” and “never carried a gun nor blew himself up with an explosive vest.” Qassem notes that the four-minute film for which Hassan was detained, first by rebels from Nusra and later by the regime [government], had criticized the [pro-government] Palestinian factions and popular committees on the one hand, as well as the Islamists [rebels] on the other.
Determining the fate of Palestinian detainees in government prisons remained an issue for years, and was always included as part of PLO proposals to end the fighting in Yarmouk and to facilitate the exit of the rebels from the camp. Writing in 2014, Mustafa Harash described how “No serious progress has been made until now on the issue of Palestinian detainees, and it is known that their issue was one of the main points on the agenda of the PLO delegation in talks with the involved Syrian parties, which promised to solve their issue and reconcile their status [with the state].” Harash notes that the detainees fell into four categories, namely common criminals, militants who took up arms against the state, media activists supporting the militants, and those with no involvement in the conflict at all.
Opposition activists have claimed large numbers of Palestinian civilians have been detained, disappeared, and tortured throughout the conflict. For example, AGPS claimed that by 2015, the Syrian government was holding 1016 Palestinian detainees and that another 427 had died under torture during the conflict, in particular at Palestine Branch 235 of Syrian security.
It is difficult to know if these numbers are credible, given that AGPS relies on local opposition activists (who consistently provide false information) and that AGPS is itself a sister organization to the UK-based Palestinian Return Centre (PRC), which has ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, a belligerent in the conflict (giving the group a strong incentive to exaggerate numbers). Also of note are the clearly false and exaggerated accusations made against the Syrian government by pro-opposition and Western-funded human rights groups. Notable examples include the Human Rights Watch (HRW) report detailing the Caesar photos (see this summary and analysis of the Caesar photos by researcher Adam Larson, and this critique of the HRW report by Larson and journalist Rick Sterling) and the Amnesty International report alleging mass hangings by Syrian authorities at Sednaya prison (see this critique of the Amnesty report by Sterling as well). Reports such as these have played a key role in the US propaganda effort against the Syrian government throughout the conflict.
While accusations of “industrial scale” killing in Syrian prisons are fabrications, it is at the same time likely that the Syrian government often sweeps up many innocent people while trying to target insurgents and their supporters. Most governments (sadly) resort to such measures when fighting counter-insurgency wars. After illegally invading and occupying Iraq between 2003 and 2011, US forces detained and tortured large numbers of Iraqi civilians in an effort to defeat the insurgency (through which al-Qaeda gained a foothold in Iraq and later became ISIS). The Iraqi government has detained large numbers of civilians as part of its effort to defeat ISIS since 2013, and has acknowledged the use of torture against suspected ISIS militants. One must suspect the Syrian security services are doing the same in an effort to defeat its own al-Qaeda-led insurgency. Additionally, even if Syrian military officials were actively trying to prevent the use of torture, its occurrence would likely still be common due to the chaos and lack of oversight that results when large numbers of people are detained in the midst of a violent conflict.
While the Syrian government is responsible for protecting Damascus from the US and Gulf-backed al-Qaeda (Nusra)-led rebel invasion (just as the Iraqi government was responsible for protecting Baghdad from ISIS) this does not at the same time justify detaining innocent people in the process, nor the use of torture (whether of civilians or detained rebel fighters).
Rebel Rule Begins
Those few Palestinians not able to flee the camp after the rebel invasion soon caught a glimpse of the nature of the armed men now occupying Yarmouk. Rebels quickly began to loot property, impose their extremist religious views on residents, and express disdain for the Palestinian cause. Nidal Bitari explains that “the rebels became more and more abusive toward those who remained. Some brought in friends and relatives to squat in empty houses; looting and robberies became common. Jabhat al-Nusra set up Islamic courts, and Palestinian activists were arrested and tried. There were rumors of assassinations. The most serious abuses were committed by the FSA’s Eagles of the Golan and Ababil Hawran brigades, which the FSA leadership, located outside the camp, said it was unable to control. . . . After the FSA entered the camp, residents were shocked to hear rebel fighters telling them to go back where they had come from. A similar attitude was reflected later at the official level: during negotiations for lifting the siege on Yarmuk, the FSA reportedly rejected a proposal that all armed men leave the camp on the grounds that the rebels were fighting for their land, and that camps were on their land.”
Similarly, Syria Deeplypublished an interview with an unnamed activist from Yarmouk who explained that after the rebels came, “The FSA broke into houses of the [PFLP]-GC and Syrians who they claimed were working for the regime. They looted and occupied the houses. They took over our hospitals and stole medicine. People felt it was the same as the Nakba (the much-decried Palestinian exodus following Israeli statehood in 1948).”
Sharmine Narwani quotes Shaker Shihabi, the director of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society (PRCS) as claiming that rebel looting hurt the ability of the PRCS to provide medical care to camp residents and that “about eight cars, six ambulances, were stolen (after rebels occupied the camp), they robbed our biggest storage facility for drugs and medical supplies.”
The Electronic Intifadarecounted the case of Mahmoud al-Shihabi, a Yarmouk resident, who explained that when he was in Beirut for a visa interview with the US embassy, “fighters showed up at his house while only his mother and one of his sisters were home. . . Because some supporters of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, had taken shelter in Yarmouk after being uprooted from nearby neighborhoods, opposition forces searched dozens of homes, he said. ‘They told my mother she had to leave because they believed that the regime’s military was camping out in our homes,’ al-Shihabi explained, adding that a number of homes on his street were subsequently destroyed.”
Residents also soon realized that many of the rebels were not Syrians, but foreigners recruited from abroad to fight for Nusra . Al-Shihabi claims that when rebels arrived in Yarmouk in December 2012, “I saw foreign fighters in the camp, from Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Tunisia, [and] Albania.”
This caused sources from the Palestine Liberation Army to refer to the rebels occupying Yarmouk as “takfiiri gangs, who expelled Palestinians from their homes just as Zionist militias did in 1948. The only difference is that these takfiiri gangs claim to do so in the name of Islam and Arabism. They are enemies of the Arab nation and of the Palestinian cause, whether on purpose or not. They behave like Zionist militias, whether on purpose or not. They are enemies with Arab and Islamic masks who . . . have not taken any action against the Zionist occupation.”
The Siege Begins
In response to the December 2012 rebel invasion and occupation of Yarmouk, and to prevent the rebels from advancing further on Damascus, the Syrian army and its allies in the PFLP-GC established check points at the northern edge of the camp, imposing a partial siege. The siege was only partial as rebels controlled entrances to the south of the camp, connecting it to Hajar al-Aswad, which rebels also controlled. Syrian and allied Palestinian forces monitored what went in, and what went out of the camp entrances they controlled, while civilians were able to access UNRWA assistance at the Zahra entrance to Yarmouk.
Individuals attempting to bring food into the camp were at times prevented from doing so by Syrian government forces, apparently under the assumption that any food would be used to help the rebels. For example, Amnesty International documented the case of Ghassan Shihabi and his wife Siham, who tried to enter the camp on 11 January 2013 to bring 25 bags of bread to residents trapped inside. A Syrian intelligence officer initially blocked them from entering due to ongoing clashes. Siham explained that the intelligence officers “searched the car and said they wanted to confiscate the bread: ‘You can’t take bread in,’ an Air Force Intelligence officer told us. I said: ‘We’re taking bread for the families.’ The officer replied: ‘No, you’re taking bread for the armed men.’ I said: ‘Since anyway you’re not allowing us to enter with the car, we’ll park it here and keep the bread in the bunker. You don’t have to confiscate them.’” Ghassan and Siham were eventually allowed to enter, but according to Siham, Ghassan was shot and killed by a Syrian army sniper from behind as their car approached the first FSA checkpoint within the camp.
CIA Sends More Weapons
In March 2013,CBS Newsreported that the US and its regional partners had “dramatically stepped up weapons supplies to Syrian rebels” in recent weeks as part of a “carefully prepared covert operation” to help “rebels to try and seize Damascus.” Despite claims that the weapons were meant for “secular” fighters, and that US officials were “wary of arming the rebellion, fearing weapons will go to Islamic extremists,” CBS observed that in fact the weapons were going to Nusra, explaining that “there is little clear evidence from the front lines that all the new, powerful weapons are going to groups which have been carefully vetted by the U.S.” and that “Many videos have appeared online showing militants from the various Islamic extremist rebel factions — including Jabhat al-Nusra, which the U.S. has officially labeled a foreign terrorist group — with such weapons in recent weeks.”
Rebel attacks in Damascus continued. On February 21, 2013 Reutersreported that “A car bomb killed more than 50 people and wounded 200 in central Damascus on Thursday when it blew up on a busy highway close to ruling Baath Party offices and the Russian Embassy” and that “Rebels who control districts to the south and east of Damascus have attacked Assad’s power base for nearly a month and struck with devastating bombs over the last year. The al Qaeda-linked rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra, which claimed responsibility for several of those bombs, says it carried out 17 attacks around Damascus in the first half of February, including at least seven bombings.” The Telegraphreported on the incident as well, citing opposition activists as noting that many children were among the victims, as the bomb exploded near a school, just as students were leaving for the day, and that rebel groups launched four additional missiles into Damascus, and detonated another car bomb in Barzeh, which killed 8. Nayef Hawatmeh, founder of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), another Marxist group that had split with the PFLP decades before, was among those injured in the bomb targeting the Baath party offices.
Opposition efforts to promote conspiracy theories continued. The Telegraph reported rebel claims that the attack was “committed by the regime to cover its crimes,” and that “Some opposition activists claimed that to get through government checkpoints to the city centre the bombers must have been backed by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.” The Telegraph also noted, however, that although “There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Thursday’s attack. . . Jabhat al-Nusra, which America has proscribed as a terrorist group for its alleged ties to Al-Qaeda in Iraq, has admitted to at least seven similar bombings this month alone in the city.”
On March 18, based on specific orders from Saudi Prince Bandar, rebels carried out missile attacks on various locations around Damascus, including the international airport and presidential palace, as mentioned above. On March 21, a large explosion killed 42 in a mosque in the center of the city. Among the dead was 84 year old Mohammad Said Ramadan al-Bouti, one of the most influential Sunni scholars in the world, a strong supporter of the government from early in the uprising, and a strong critic of Salafism. Pro-opposition activists and journalists blamed the Syrian government for killing al-Bouti, suggesting the bombing was a false flag attack. However, the New York Timesquoted a pro-opposition activist as explaining “The regime will never get rid of such an important figure. . . He’s like the spiritual father to Bashar,” while al-Jazeerareported that al-Bouti’s daughter denied reports that her father had planned to defect to the opposition, making clear that her father had supported the Syrian government out of personal conviction until his death.
On March 28, CBS Newsnoted that “Rebels have captured suburbs around Damascus but have been largely unable to break into the heavily guarded capital. Instead, they have hit central neighborhoods of the city with increasingly heavy mortar volleys from their positions to the northeast and south.” On April 8, Reutersreported that a suicide car bomb killed at least 15 people and wounded 53 in the main business district of Damascus, and that rebels had “pushed into areas near the government-held heart of the city, stepping up mortar and car bomb attacks in recent weeks,” while quoting a rebel commander who noted that the Syrian army was imposing a siege on Eastern Ghouta, another rebel-controlled Damascus suburb, to try to “disrupt rebel preparations for a ‘big battle’ to break into central Damascus, the seat of Assad’s power.”
In May 2013, some Yarmouk residents displaced from Yarmouk organized a demonstration on the camp’s outskirts to protest the rebel occupation. Rebels opened fire on the demonstrators and the handful of Syrian soldiers accompanying them. Demonstrators toldSky News that “We don’t want the [rebel] fighters here, we want the army to kill them!” while one woman called militants from the FSA “dogs,” claiming they were not Syrians but foreigners from Chechnya and Afghanistan.
Did Hamas Support the Rebels?
On February 24, 2012 Hamas’ Prime Minister in Gaza, Ismael Haniya officially broke with the group’s long time patrons, the Syrian and Iranian governments, in a speech from al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo. This was significant because, as the New York Timesnoted, President Assad had “given safe haven to leaders of Hamas while helping supply it with weapons and cash in its battle against Israel.” It appears some of the Hamas leadership felt comfortable turning its back on Syria and Iran, given the large amounts of money it began receiving from Qatar, which provided several hundreds of millions of dollars to help rebuild Gaza in 2012 after successive Israeli assaults. Also crucial was the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which had won parliamentary and presidential elections after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak. Hamas shares ideological roots with the Egyptian Brotherhood, and Hamas therefore suddenly found an ally in the new Egyptian government (only to have Brotherhood leader Muhammad Morsi deposed in a military coup a year and a half later, in July 2013).
Others in the Hamas leadership were skeptical of this change of allegiance. Leaders from the group’s military wing, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, reminded Hamas political bureau chief, Khaled Meshaal, that in fact it was Iran’s “military support rather than Gulf financial support . . . that had enabled Hamas to face the last major Israeli assault on Gaza in November” 2012, while Ezzat al-Rashq, a member of the Hamas political bureau, explained that “Iran had been the main financial supporter for the Hamas government in Gaza. Without the Iranian money . . . Hamas would have never been able to pay its 45,000 government employees.”
In April 2013, the Times (UK) reported that “Diplomatic sources said that members of the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades were training FSA units in the rebel-held neighbourhoods of Yalda, Jaramana and Babbila [all neighborhoods near Yarmouk].The development appears to confirm that Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that runs the Gaza Strip, has made a final break with its former Syrian host and fully embraced the patronage of Qatar, the small but influential Gulf state that is a major financial and logistical backer of some rebel factions.”
Rumors persisted after this time that Hamas was helping train members of the FSA in tunnel building techniques to help the Qatari-supported rebels penetrate Damascus. Palestinian sources (likely connected to Fatah) claimed to al-Sharq al-Awsat that Hamas was directly supporting a rebel group within Yarmouk known as Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis, and that Hamas had gone so far as to send trainers from Gaza to help the group. PFLP-GC commanders also claimed that Hamas was supporting Aknaf and that the group had helped rebels from Nusra and the FSA enter the camp during their initial invasion of Yarmouk in December 2012. Foreign Policyquotes PFLP-GC commander Abu al-Azz Daham as claiming, “We’re here to protect the camp and Damascus [from the rebels]. Unlike Hamas, we are loyal to Syria. Syria was loyal to Palestine.”
In contrast, Palestinian political analyst Fakher Abu Sakher explained to al-Sharq al-Awsat that the Hamas leadership was actually divided on the issue of Syria, with one group, led by Khaled Meshaal, advocating cutting ties with Syria and Iran on the one hand, and another group led by Mahmoud al-Zahar wishing to maintain ties with the group’s former sponsors, on the other. Years later, in 2015, a fighter from the Qatari-backed jihadi rebel group, Ahrar al-Sham, bragged that his group had benefitted from Hamas expertise in building a tunnel to be used to attack Syrian government forces on Mount Arbaeen, while Palestinian journalist Ibrahim Khader claimed those training the rebels were in fact former members of Hamas who had split from the group and were in Syria without the approval of the leadership.
Fighting Returns to Yarmouk
In early July 2013, the PFLP-GC amassed a large group of fighters to retake Yarmouk by force. Of this period, the LA Timesexplained that some PFLP-GC “Fighters said progress had been slow but steady. One fighter said five days of combat had gained 75 to 100 yards of ground. The militiamen have now taken up positions in some of the captured buildings, using the same routes through the walls long traversed by the rebels. Graffiti on the walls extol rebel groups such as the Farouq Brigade and Al Nusra Front, an Al Qaeda-linked faction whose ranks include many foreign fighters, some with combat experience in Iraq or Afghanistan. . . Rebels in Yarmouk move stealthily in a labyrinth of tunnels and paths created by holes blasted in adjoining buildings. The networks can stretch for hundreds of yards and connect with other routes, some of them given numbers for identification purposes. The pursuing soldiers and militias use the same routes if they capture them. Each side lobs mortar rounds across the other’s lines. The military also has heavy artillery and aircraft at its disposal. The result has been the utter devastation of broad stretches of suburban Damascus. Still, rebels survive amid the ruins. The government has said it is making progress. Daily reports boast of success in clearing the capital suburbs and the surrounding countryside of ‘terrorists,’ the government’s term for armed rebels. On the ground, however, it is hard to judge who has the upper hand. Car bombings and mortar strikes within the city limits appear to have declined, perhaps an indication that the rebels have been pushed back. But major swaths of the suburbs remain no-go zones.”
Accusations of Chemical Attacks
On 21 July 2013, amid the intense street to street fighting, opposition activists began to claim that the Syrian army had used chemical weapons in Yarmouk. Pro-opposition Almodon reported that “During the last 48 hours, Yarmouk camp has seen a battle that is the most violent since it entered a circle of confrontations approximately seven months ago with Syrian regime forces and shabeeha. In a development which is the first of its kind in Damascus, activists speak of the exposure of Yarmouk to bombing with chemical weapons, resulting in the death of 15 people,” while the Times of Israelcited 22 dead and added that the main Syrian opposition group, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces (NCSROF) “condemned the attack and said it had video proof of the incident. It also called for international intervention to ‘protect the civilians against Assad’s systematic use of chemical weapons.’”
Claims of a chemical attack in Yarmouk appeared to be a fabrication, however, given that even the pro-opposition Violations Documentation Center (VDC) documented the death of 16 non-civilians (rebels) and 2 civilians in Yarmouk on July 21 as the result of “shooting,” “explosion[s],” and “shelling,” while making no mention of any chemical attack. Further, opposition claims of a chemical attack in Yarmouk were soon quietly dropped, as the NCSROF never provided the video footage it had claimed to possess.
There was also no indication of a chemical attack in Yarmouk in the report issued by the Ake Sellstrom-led UN mission. The Syrian government had invited the mission to Syria to investigate a number of alleged chemical attacks, in particular the attack in Khan al-Assal in March 2013, in which one Syrian soldier and 19 civilians were killed. The Sellstrom report summarized the UN mission’s findings regarding seven possible chemical attacks occurring in Syria between October 2012 and August 2013. The report confirmed that Syrian army soldiers were exposed to sarin during clashes with rebels in two instances (in Jobar and Ashrafiah Sahnaya) but made no mention of any allegations of chemical weapons use in Yarmouk. If opposition claims had been credible, the UN mission would have at least investigated or discussed the possibility of a chemical attack in Yarmouk in the Sellstrom report.
It is interesting to note here that the NCSROF immediately “called for international intervention” after falsely accusing the Syrian government of a chemical attack in Yarmouk. Many Syria analysts have observed that provoking Western military intervention, as occurred in Libya, was the primary rebel strategy to topple the Syrian government. Azmi Bishara writes that “A number of [opposition] politicians were betting on international intervention to protect the revolution according to the Libyan model, which was present in their minds (see Syria-A Way of Suffering to Freedom, Kindle edition, chapter 5).”
Christopher Phillips of Chatham House notes that, “As early as 28 October 2011, activists named a ‘Friday of no fly zone,’ followed by a ‘Friday of the Syrian Buffer Zone’ on 2 December. Leading figures in the SNC [opposition Syrian National Council] such as Burhan Ghalioun and Bassma Kodmani spoke of their preference for military intervention at the beginning of 2012, as if it was a realistic possibility. As rebels formed their militias, many based their strategy on taking sufficient territory not to fully defeat Assad, but to persuade the US to finish him off. . . the rebels’ regional allies actively encouraged the opposition to expect US military intervention. As Kodmani later recalled, ‘the regional powers were absolutely confident that intervention would happen. Again, Libya had happened, they had participated in the Libya campaign, and they were confident they were going to participate in a campaign in Syria as well.’ She went on, ‘I recall very well, they were always reassuring the opposition “it is coming, it is coming definitely, the intervention is coming.’” . . . Many regional leaders, particularly [Turkish prime minister] Erdogan, believed that the obstacle to US action was domestic: Obama’s campaign for re-election. Turkish officials reportedly told oppositionists to be patient; that intervention would occur after the campaign finished in November 2012 (see The Battle for Syria, Kindle edition, page 170-71).”
Some US officials also viewed military intervention in Syria according to the Libya model as desirable. An email to Hillary Clinton from her advisor Sydney Blumenthal noted that the fall of Ghaddafi would provide “another model for regime change: that of limited but targeted military support from the West combined with an identifiable rebellion.”
Because President Obama had declared that any Syrian government use of chemical weapons was a “red line,” a false flag chemical attack attributed to the Syrian government provided a possible avenue to trigger the Western intervention promised by Turkish and Gulf officials. This was the view of at least some members of the US intelligence community. Journalist Seymour Hersh reports that Turkish “Prime Minister Recep Erdoğan was known to be supporting the al-Nusra Front, a jihadist faction among the rebel opposition, as well as other Islamist rebel groups. ‘We knew there were some in the Turkish government,’ a former senior US intelligence official, who has access to current intelligence, told me, ‘who believed they could get Assad’s nuts in a vice by dabbling with a sarin attack inside Syria – and forcing Obama to make good on his red line threat.’” Similarly, journalist Charles Glass of Harper’s reported that a former US ambassador to the Middle East told him, “The ‘red line’ was an open invitation to a false-flag operation.”
At the same time, the Syrian government and its supporters immediately realized the danger of being blamed for such a chemical attack, providing a strong incentive for them to avoid the use of such weapons. In response to claims about the Syrian army’s use of chemical weapons in Yarmouk, the PFLP-GC released a statement claiming that, as part of the “media war against the government of Syria, channels of destruction and sedition have started to air misleading propaganda claiming that the Syrian Arab Army would fire mortars and or missiles into the camp with chemical gases, whereas these elements themselves are planning chemical attacks to blame the government,” as occurred in Khan al-Assal.
Coincidentally, or not, new allegations of Syrian government use of chemical weapons emerged on 21 August 2013 (just four weeks after the alleged chemical attack in Yarmouk and just three days after the Ake Sellstrom-led UN mission had arrived), this time in the nearby Damascus suburbs of Eastern and Western Ghouta. Rebels claimed some 1,300 dead, this time releasing “dozens of videos” of the victims “within hours” of the attack. Syrian state media claimed this was a false flag, meant to pave the way for US intervention on the rebels behalf, and “an attempt to divert the UN chemical weapons investigation commission away from carrying out its duties” to investigate the Khan al-Assal attack.
US planners drew up plans to bomb a wide array of Syrian military targets and were on the verge of initiating the bombing campaign, which was only averted at the last moment, partly due to doubts raised by Obama’s then director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, who warned that Syrian government responsibility for the attack was “not a slam dunk.”
PLO Delegation Arrives
Amidst allegations of a chemical attack in Yarmouk in July 2013, a delegation from the PLO arrived in Syria, in an attempt to negotiate an end to the fighting. The delegation included PLO executive committee members Ahmad Majdalani and Zakaria al-Agha, who met with Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mikdad and Major General Ali Mamluk. On August 6, the PLO delegation formally proposed the following, which won approval from Syrian authorities and from all PLO factions:
1) The exit of all rebels from the camp and amnesty for those desiring it.
2) Easing freedom of entry and exit to and from the camp, including the crossing of individuals and humanitarian and medical aid, to encourage the return of the displaced to their homes.
3) Return of electricity and water and communications and infrastructure, as well as educational and health services.
4) The release of detainees among camp residents whose involvement in the fighting could not be confirmed.
PLO efforts to negotiate an end to the fighting and the exit of Nusra were met with skepticism by opposition activists. Writing in pro-opposition Almodon, Mahmoud Sarhan claimed the PLO peace proposal was just “theatre” providing cover for the Syrian army to solve the issue of the camp militarily, while also alleging government forces had shot two grad rockets into the camp on July 24 (three days after the alleged chemical attack), killing up to 15.
Sarhan also criticized the possibility of opening a humanitarian corridor to allow families to evacuate the camp at this time, claiming such corridors are the way that the Syrian government forcibly displaces civilians, in a form of collective punishment. Criticizing efforts to establish a humanitarian corridor here seem odd. It would make sense to evacuate as many civilians as possible from a war zone, especially those wishing to leave. Once an end to the fighting could be negotiated, the civilians could hopefully return. If not, at least they would escape the violence.
Other opposition activists have claimed such evacuations constitute Syrian government efforts to ethnically cleanse Sunnis and that the “regime’s ethnic-cleansing policy also included the Palestinians in Syria, as they are primarily Sunnis. The regime is systematically destroying the refugee camps in Syria as one way to ‘cause Sunni demographic change.’” However, in areas where the Syrian government has defeated rebels throughout the war, the internally displaced and refugees have been able to slowly return, including large numbers of Sunnis, in particular to Aleppo. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that by November 2017, one year after Aleppo was liberated by the Syrian army, some “440,000 displaced Aleppans have returned to the city and surrounding areas. Some 300,000 are thought to have returned to Eastern Aleppo, which witnessed some of the heaviest fighting of the entire Syrian conflict,” even though “those returning know that it will take many years before normality is restored.” UNHCR also quoted Abu Ahmed al-Shawa, a resident who returned to Aleppo and reopened his restaurant in the façade of a totally destroyed building, as explaining, “Destruction is easy but rebuilding is hard. It will take a long time to bring Aleppo back from all this.”
The Siege Intensifies
The PLO-led negotiations to end the conflict in Yarmouk failed, however. Rebels remained in the camp, with roughly 20,000 civilians, while the siege and fighting continued. The government tightened the siege further during the summer of 2013, in an effort to protect Damascus, but with little concern for civilians remaining in Yarmouk. Months went by when very little aid was able to reach the camp. UN efforts to deliver aid were hampered by Syrian government bureaucratic red tape. Ben Parker of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Syria complained that officially, the UN was allowed to deliver aid anywhere, “But every action requires time-consuming permissions, which effectively provide multiple veto opportunities.” Filippo Grandi, Commissioner-General of UNRWA detailed how “entry and exit were tightly controlled by the warring parties, but residents continued to receive some assistance. Access became tighter until it was all but sealed in September ,” after which residents began living “as in a medieval siege,” and subsisting “on grass, spices mixed in water, and animal feed. They burned furniture on their balconies to keep warm; they suffered severe malnutrition and dehydration. Many died from readily treatable conditions.” Jonathon Steele of the Guardianwritesthat “In October 2013, in a sign of how bad things had become, the imam of Yarmouk’s largest mosque issued a fatwa that permitted people to eat cats, dogs and donkeys.”
Rebels also bore blame for continuing the crisis and preventing food and aid from reaching residents, however. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) claimed that both sides had blocked medical aid to the sick and wounded because “whatever medical aid is brought to one part or the other is interpreted as an indirect military support to the other side.” Similarly, Maan explained that little food aid and medicine had reached the camp during 2013 “because of the siege of the regime forces from outside, and the sniper operations which the armed groups inside the camp undertake.”
The New York Timesnoted that Palestinians in Yarmouk were not only “blockaded and bombarded by the Syrian government,” but at the same time “ruled internally by a tangled web of armed groups, including Syrian insurgents and Palestinian factions, said by residents to siphon scarce food to their own fighters and families.”
The phenomenon of rebel siphoning and hoarding of food occurred in other areas of Syria under rebel control and besieged by the Syrian army. Robert Worth of the New York Times visited Aleppo after it was liberated by the Syrian army in 2016, and wrote that areas of the city previously under rebel control had been “a chaotic wasteland full of feuding militias — some of them radical Islamists — who hoarded food and weapons while the people starved.”Turkish journalist Fehim Tastekin visited Aleppo after liberation as well, and reported that, “Umm Khatice, a woman in Bustan al-Qasr, said her family never left their house and lived in misery for five years, suffering from hunger. ‘We were the starving ones, not the armed groups. Those thugs confiscated relief supplies, distributed them to their supporters or sold them. Many people had no choice but to join them to survive,’ she said. . . . Another man said they experienced hunger and thirst under the blockade, but those who agreed to join the armed groups managed well. We were also told how armed groups did not allow civilians to leave the area under government blockade, and even fired on those who wanted to leave.” After the Syrian army liberated the Damascus suburb of Douma in April 2017, the AP similarly reported that “Many residents blamed the greed of some local businessmen and the main rebel group in Douma, the Saudi-backed Army of Islam, for much of their misery, by raising food prices to make more money and hiding the scant food supplies from people in need. After the Army of Islam left town, they said, they discovered the militants had stored large amounts of rice, flour, wheat, canned goods and other food — enough, they said to feed residents for months.“
As a result of the government siege and rebel hoarding of food, many civilians in Yarmouk starved to death. Newsweekquoted Ram Heramic, a 24 year old Yarmouk resident as saying, “I remember the first person to starve to death. . . .He was a 6-year-old boy called Abd Alhay Yousif. It’s ironic—his name means ‘one who worships immortal gods’ . . . The immortal gods did not protect him. He never grew up.” Newsweek notes further that “Heramic and others from Yarmouk compile what they call the Starvation Death List. It has 177 names of people who have died of hunger [between 2013 and May 2015] during the period of siege when hardly any goods have been able to reach the camp.”
Siege related deaths appeared to begin in October 2013, while quickly accelerating in subsequent months. According to the database of Palestinian victims compiled by the pro-opposition AGPS, three Palestinians died due to starvation and lack of medical care in October (listed as “siege victims”), four died in November, and 17 seventeen died in December. Amnesty International claims numbers that are higher, but with a similar trajectory, listing six siege related deaths in October, 26 in November, and 38 in December.
Negotiations Fail Again
PLO efforts to negotiate an end to the crisis also continued during this time, and the warring parties appeared close to coming to an agreement, which revolved around the withdrawal of both the rebels in the camp, and of the PFLP-GC militants manning the checkpoints surrounding it. Al-Sharq al-Awsat reported on November 13 that Zakariyah al-Agha of the PLO executive committee once again met with Syrian Foreign Minister Mikdad and Major General Mamluk and announced an agreement for the opening of a secure route to allow the entry of urgently needed humanitarian supplies and for establishing a mechanism for evacuating weapons and armed men from the camp. The secretary of the Fatah movement in Lebanon, Fathi Abu al-Urdat toldal-Sharq al-Awsat as well that “we don’t want the camp to be martyred and turn into a second Nahr al-Barid,” referring to the Palestinian camp in Lebanon that was destroyed during fighting between jihadist militants and the Lebanese army in 2007. Al-Urdat also noted the agreement allowed for a presidential pardon for those rebels willing to give up their weapons, and also for the release of Palestinian detainees in Syrian government prisons and revealing information about those detainees who were among the missing.
Palestine’s ambassador to Syria, Anwar Abdul Hadi, toldal-Akhbar two days later, however, that “The negotiations with the fighters have gone nowhere,” due to the insistence of the Hamas-affiliated fighters to be included in the administration of the camp. Al-Akhbarclaimed as well that the “first step to evacuate civilians from the camp on Tuesday morning failed, despite the PLO’s best efforts. Opposition fighters did all they could to prevent local residents from leaving by either taking their identification papers or firing at them if they tried to bypass their checkpoints. “In December, PLO official Ahmed Majdalani noted to Maan that negotiations remained stalled, but that now, “the obstacle was the PFLP-GC, who attempted to implement a unilateral solution by bringing back gunmen — both Syrians and Palestinians affiliated to the group — into the camp to maintain security.”
Rebels Hold Yarmouk Hostage
In January 2014, as the deaths from starvation continued to mount, the Syrian government finally began to ease its restrictions and help facilitate the delivery of aid to the camp. Both UNRWA and the PFLP-GC began to organize aid convoys and to attempt to evacuate the sick and wounded. These efforts were blocked by rebel snipers, however.
On January 8, Maan cited a popular relief committee member as claiming that “A group of sick refugees who were to leave Yarmouk camp for treatment were unable to be transferred out of the camp after rebel militants opened fire at the camp’s popular committee members and Palestinian militants.” The LA Timesreported on January 18, 2014 that “Palestinians and the United Nations attempted to bring a food convoy into the camp,” but “they were shot at by armed groups from inside the camp and forced to retreat.” AFPnoted that the “aid convoy was the sixth to have failed to enter the camp.” During this time, Ahmed Majdalani also accused a rebel group known as the Pact of Omar Brigades of blocking the entry of aid into, and the exit of injured civilians out of, the camp.
Rebel efforts to prevent delivery of food to the camp could not have come at a worse time, as the rate of siege related deaths continued to surge. The AGPS database indicates that 62 Palestinians in Yarmouk died due to starvation and lack of medical care (also listed as siege victims) during January (compared to 38 in December), while Amnesty claims 65 siege related deaths in January (compared to 38 in December).
This raises the question of why rebel groups would wish to block food aid from entering the camp, and block civilians from exiting. PLO official Anwar Abdul-Hadi provided an answer, explaining that “The rebels . . . keep preventing (food aid) operations and they use hunger as a way to keep the Syrian government under pressure,” and that during early 2014 “all [Palestinian] groups sent 12,000 food baskets and evacuated 4,000 Palestinians. And each few days, rebels make a fight to interrupt and stop this operation.”
Rebels also prevented civilians from leaving the camp because they needed the fighting aged males to remain in the camp as a source of recruitment, and because rebels wished to use civilians as human shields to deter attacks from the Syrian army and the PFLP-GC.In March 2015, for example, one mother from Yarmouk described her dilemma to Jonathan Steele of the Guardian: “’I am trapped,’ the woman, named Reem Buqaee, told me. She had been given permission to leave Yarmouk three months earlier with her three teenage daughters. The oldest one was pregnant. Owing to malnutrition, she was suffering from anemia so severe that she was at risk of losing her baby. The other two girls also had medical problems. But leaving the camp had meant splitting the family. The husband of the pregnant woman could not leave the camp, nor could Reem’s husband, or her 16-year-old son. Rebel groups were eager to keep people in the camp, she said, particularly men and boys. Their departure was seen as defection from the opposition cause as well as potentially making it easier for government troops to enter the camp by force and regain control.” Rebel efforts to trap civilians in Yarmouk were later repeated in Aleppo, as rebels fired on civilians attempting to escape rebel held districts of the city through corridors set up by the Russian and Syrian militaries in 2016, as reported by the Independent.
This led Ahmed Majdalani to put primary blame for the catastrophe in Yarmouk on the rebels, explaining to AFP on 14 January 2014 that jihadist rebels from Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and Suqour al-Golan were well “known for their terrorist links and methodology” and that Palestinians “everywhere know… that those who have taken the camp hostage are these groups, not the Syrian authorities.”
Majdalani’s view of events in Yarmouk is important because he was from a neutral party (from the PLO rather than from the pro-government PFLP-GC) and because he was deeply involved in negotiations between the rebels and government to end the fighting. He was therefore intimately aware of the dynamics on the ground in the camp.
Nusra Sabotages the Agreement
Days later, the situation finally began to improve. On 18 January 2014, aid was delivered inside the camp itself for the first time in four months. The deliveries were made possible by an agreement between the government and rebels that led to a cease-fire and the withdrawal of Nusra fighters from Yarmouk to neighboring Yalda, leaving the camp in the hands of local Palestinian rebel factions. The agreement would foreshadow Syrian government efforts to end fighting in various parts of the country through the use of amnesty offers. Led by Minister of Reconciliation Ali Haidar, the Syrian government began offering rebels the possibility of staying in their local areas and reconciling with the state in exchange for laying down arms, or evacuating to rebel-held Idlib province.
By February 26, UNRWA spokesperson Christopher Gunness was increasingly optimistic, noting that thousands of food parcels had been distributed to camp residents since 18 January and that “Significantly, the UNRWA team was permitted to work from an UNRWA facility in Yarmouk for the first time since December 2012. . . This represents a highly encouraging step towards re-establishing full services and humanitarian access to Yarmouk.” Civilians were still dying from starvation and lack of medical care, though apparently at a lower rate. The AGPS database listed 36 siege related deaths in February (compared to 65 in January).
While aid access slowly improved, efforts to end the conflict as a whole quickly fell apart, as Nusra rebels returned to the camp, invading it just a week later, on 2 March 2014. The Telegraph quoted a Yarmouk resident as saying that “A small number of people had started to be allowed out of Yarmouk under the agreement” between the rebels and the government but that “Now al-Nusra has stormed the camp and taken over the checkpoints inside and the agreement is finished,” disrupting aid deliveries once again. Al-Akhbarreports that elements of ISIS also entered the camp alongside Nusra at this time. ISIS militants also arrested several residents of the camp that had been involved in negotiating the agreement with the government, which ISIS viewed as a “pagan reconciliation,” causing them to issue threats against “anyone who puts his hand in any step of the initiative” to end the fighting.
Nusra and ISIS efforts to disrupt a negotiated settlement occurred repeatedly over the course of the rebel occupation of Yarmouk, despite broad agreement among the Syrian government and allied Palestinian militias on the one hand, and local Palestinian rebel groups on the other, about how to de-militarize the camp and end the conflict. In July 2014, al-Akhbar quoted a Palestinian activist in Yarmouk, Hussein al-Assady, as explaining that all the interested parties were willing to come to an agreement, but that the al-Qaeda offshoot rebel groups in the camp, including Nusra, Pact of Omar, and ISIS, prevented the execution of any agreement and refused to leave the camp. Al-Assady points out that the Palestinian rebel groups continually made promises about their ability to convince Nusra and others to respect an agreement, but were never actually able to make good on such promises. Al-Akhbar also cited Shadi Salaama, an activist on the issue of reconciliation in Yarmouk camp, as explaining that as a result, “the fate of hundreds of thousands of displaced residents of the camp, Palestinians and Syrians, continues to depend on the promises of leaders of the militants who benefit from the current situation in the camp remaining as it is.”
In August 2014, AGPS similarly reported that, “a civilian delegation, who oversaw the signing of the neutralization agreement, entered the camp. They entered to witness the surrender of youths [rebels] to the Syrian authorities in order to regularise their status in the implementation of the framework of the initiative provisions. The delegation was met by gunfire however, as they were shot upon by Al Nosra Front members, leading to the injury of ‘Naim Al-Khatib’ a member of the popular mobility in the Yarmouk refugee camp, who was shot in the foot and taken to [the] hospital. In addition, a number of people in the camp carried out a demonstration demanding the immediate implementation of the initiative terms, and to accelerate ending the siege for the return of displaced people.”
In November 2014, journalist Sharmine Narwane quoted Maher Taher, a member of the political bureau of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) as describing how, “There have been attempts by all Palestinian groups to help broker peace in Yarmouk. We reached agreements, but [the rebels] have a problem with implementation. The deal is essentially that armed groups should leave the camp and Palestinians should return. The Syrian government is being cooperative with these operations and has granted chances to feed civilians inside. But at the moment of implementation, the rebels break the agreement (note that the PLFP is separate from the pro-Syrian government PLFP-GC).”
Tenuous and Unreliable Aid
Throughout 2014, UNRWA had been able to deliver aid to the camp but reported that its access was “tenuous and unreliable” and that it was able to deliver food aid “equivalent to only 400 calories per resident per day.” Jonathon Steele of the Guardianreports that “For most of 2014, both sides were willing to allow some humanitarian supplies to enter the camp on an ad hoc basis, UN officials told me, even if the amount was far below what was needed. Every day, UNRWA would check whether there had been exchanges of fire in Yarmouk. Sometimes the agency’s minivans never left the warehouse in central Damascus, on other occasions, delivery convoys were turned back.”
In November 2014, Sharmine Narwani visited Damascus and reported that “UNRWA told me it hands out approximately 400 boxes each day they are present in Yarmouk. Armed clashes prevent it from being able to access delivery points inside the camp on most days though” and that the main UNRWA representative in charge of food distribution inside Yarmouk explained that “The Syrian government is doing its best to make this operation smooth. They do not put a cap on the number of [food] parcels to come in the camp,” while specifically crediting Kinda Chammat, Syria’s female minister of social affairs, for the government’s cooperation. UNRWA partnered closely with the General Authority for Palestine Arab Refugees (GAPAR), a division of the Syrian ministry of social affairs, to distribute food and medical kits. On November 28, Ali Mustafa, Director General of the GAPAR told Syrian state media (SANA) that “the total of food packages that have been distributed since the beginning of the year  reached 55,174, while the number of health packages reached 10,884.”
The health crisis in the camp continued, however, with AGPS reporting that “A severe shortage of medicines, medical and personnel supplies has been felt throughout the camp. This has led to the spread of many chronic diseases and consequentially death. Medical staff in the camp have warned of worrying numbers, receiving between 10 and 15 cases a day of fever, typhoid and anemia; and the spread of many chronic and communicable diseases such as Tuberculosis. The number of people with typhoid fever (typhus) inside the camp reached 110 with no access to drugs for treatment. Many diseases were also caused due to lack of water and fluids such as kidney stones” prompting the GAPAR and Palestinian embassy to begin providing vaccinations to be distributed throughout the camp by the Palestinian Red Crescent Society (PRCS) in July 2014.
ISIS Comes to Yarmouk
Al-Sharq al-Awsatreports that throughout 2014, the various FSA brigades in the camp either disintegrated or merged into the more powerful groups, namely Nusra and the Hamas-affiliated Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis, led Abu Ahmed al-Musheer the former bodyguard of Hamas political bureau leader Khaled Meshaal. The co-existence between Nusra and Aknaf eventually broke down however, leading to a bloody struggle for influence in the camp, and a war of assassinations between the two.
By March 2015, despite the tension between Nusra and Aknaf, UNRWA was making daily deliveries of food to the camp. During this time, support for Nusra from the government of Qatar, a close US ally, became more explicit. Qatari officials began openly encouraging Nusra to officially cut ties with al-Qaeda in order to help rebrand the organization. Reuters reports that “Sources within and close to Nusra said that Qatar, which enjoys good relations with the group, is encouraging the group to go ahead with the move, which would give Nusra a boost in funding” and that “Intelligence officials from Gulf states including Qatar have met the leader of Nusra, Abu Mohamad al-Golani, several times in the past few months.”
A month later, in April 2015, the crisis in Yarmouk intensified yet again. Intra-rebel fighting erupted when Nusra commanders cooperated with ISIS in an effort to gain the upper hand against their rivals in Aknaf. It should be remembered that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had sent Nusra leader al-Golani from Iraq to Syria in the fall of 2011 with orders to establish Nusra. The two groups were essentially different branches of the same organization, one Syrian and one Iraqi, until spring 2013, when a power struggle between al-Baghdadi and al-Golani emerged. This struggle, which largely revolved around control of revenues from Syria’s eastern oil fields, caused the two groups to formally split, and to become bitter enemies. In the southern suburbs of Damascus, however, the two groups continued to work closely together, causing one local activist to observe that now “ISIS and Jabhet [Nusra] are one hand in Yarmouk,” despite their bitter rivalry elsewhere.
Amal Asfour, a member of the Palestinian National Assembly for Relief in Yarmouk camp, described further how hostilities emerged in Yarmouk in April 2015 between Aknaf on the one hand, and Nusra and ISIS on the other. Asfour explains that ISIS fighters assassinated Aknaf leader Yahya Hourani and that, “After the assassination, one of the groups of Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis arrested elements from ISIS in the camp, over the objections of Jabhat al-Nusra. These events prompted Jabhat al-Nusra to turn on Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis, despite some elements having coordinated with them in the past, and launch a conspiracy in full collaboration with ISIS groups to invade al-Hajar al-Aswad and al-Takadom, to invade Yarmouk camp, control it, and eliminate Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis. This invasion took place over a very short period of time, demonstrating the extent of the coordination and cooperation with Al-Nusra, in order to pave the way for ISIS to achieve this control without any difficulties or confrontation.”
In contrast, ISIS sources claimed the group invaded Yarmouk because Aknaf was preparing to reach an agreement with the Syrian government to end the fighting and facilitate the exit of the rebels. The head ISIS commander in Yarmouk claimed that the Aknaf leadership had “come to an agreement to make the Yarmouk camp neutral” and “hand it over to the Palestinian factions that were allied with the Nusayri regime [Syrian government].” The ISIS English-language magazine, Dabiq, claimed that ISIS then created “a plan to counter Aknaf’s move, and by Allah’s grace, the mujahidin succeeded in foiling the agreement. The battle for Yarmuk began with the Islamic State [ISIS] attacking from multiple directions and taking control of a number of neighborhoods. As the battle continued, Islamic State cells in Yarmuk as well as the surrounding regions continued to play a key role, including multiple units of Islamic State cells in the Tadamun region north of the town of Yalda who succeeded in blocking numerous supplies and reinforcements coming from the area northeast of Yarmuk. The soldiers of the Khilafah [ISIS] continued advancing against the Sahwat [Aknaf] in Yarmuk and succeeded in pushing them back to the edge of the region. At this point, many of their fighters voluntarily surrendered themselves and numerous others were killed. The few who remained made contact with the Nusayrī regime and the pro-regime Palestinian factions in the area, who then began supplying them with weapons, ammo, and food. This new level of cooperation with the Nusayriyyah was enough to demonstrate Aknaf’s degree of treachery towards the people of Yarmuk.”
When the fighting erupted, ISIS quickly took control of some 70% to 90% of the camp, forcing UNRWA to suspend aid deliveries once again. Al-Sharq al-Awsatcited local sources as reporting that of some 250 Aknaf fighters in the camp, 100 fled to the neighboring areas of Yalda and Babila under FSA control, 70 defected to the Syrian government side, while Nusra and ISIS “liquidated” the remainder. The Daily Mailreported that ISIS militants were beheading Aknaf fighters in public executions in the streets. The pro-government Syria Timesreported that Mohammad Zaghmout, an Aknaf leader, had indeed defected to the government side (he was “under Syrian state protection”) and had been treated in a hospital in Damascus.
Amal Asfour notes as well that ISIS “took advantage of the opportunity to break furniture and steal food from displaced families and forcibly invaded some offices that were providing relief services to the people of the camp, including the office of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, where the civil relief association of PLO factions is headquartered, where they broke furniture, stole goods and materials that they could take, burned posters of the martyrs, banners, and Palestinian flags, and wrote slogans on the walls, such as ‘We will kill you, infidels.’”
PFLP-GC Defends Damascus
Al-Jazeera reported that “The government forces control the northern part [of the camp] towards Damascus. It is their priority to keep the capital safe. . . The fact that [ISIS] fighters are less than 10km away is of a huge concern” and that if the government creates a humanitarian corridor for civilians to escape, “who will be coming out?” Nonetheless, al-Jazeerareported that some 2,000 people were able to be evacuated at this time, with many finding shelter in government schools in neighboring areas. PLO official Abdul-Hadi described further how “Syrian troops had helped in the evacuation, which came as Palestinian forces battled to hold back IS [ISIS] fighters who have captured large swathes of the camp since Wednesday,” while Ali Mustafa of the GAPAR reported the group was providing bread, water and food supplements to Yarmouk residents taking refuge in the nearby Damascus suburbs of Yalda, Babila, and Beit Sahem. Qatari-owned al-Araby al-Jadidreported that only roughly 6,000 to 8,000 civilians remained in the camp, while Foreign Policyreported a higher number of some 13,000.
Fighters from the PFLP-GC confronted ISIS fighters at the northern edge of the camp to stop their advance, while the Syrian military bombed ISIS positions. Foreign Policyquoted one PFLP-GC fighter originally from Yarmouk as saying “I will not stop until they [ISIS] leave the camp. . . I have no problem staying here in this position, not sleeping, digging out tunnels, and fighting. We need to do this,” while quoting another PFLP-GC fighter who felt that “If we weren’t here fighting, [ISIS] would be able to access Damascus. . . We’re here to protect the camp and Damascus.”
Palestinian factions comprising the PLO initially agreed to allow the Syrian army to enter the camp to try defeat ISIS militarily, only for the PLO to reverse course, allegedly after pressure on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas from the rebels’ backers, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Al-Akhbarreports that PLO official Ahmed Majdalani came to Damascus carrying a letter from President Abbas authorizing the Syrian state to take whatever measures appropriate to defeat ISIS in the camp, and also that Majdalani had announced that the 14 factions of the PLO and the Syrian army would establish a joint operations room to coordinate military efforts against the terror group. Majdalani told Syrian state media (SANA) that “The decision will be jointly made by the two sides to retake the camp from the obscurantist terrorists who seize it now.”
Al-Jazeerareported that President Abbas then issued a statement contradicting Majdalani and denying such plans, asking Syrian authorities not to attempt to defeat ISIS militarily, but to instead resort to “other means to protect the blood of our people and to prevent further destruction and displacement of the children of Yarmouk camp.” PFLP-GC representatives accused Saudi Arabia and Qatar of threatening to cut aid payments to the Palestinian Authority (PA) as a result of the PLO’s initial decision to work with the Syrian army to defeat ISIS in the camp, and claimed that Qatar extended a $100 million dollar interest-free loan to the PA after Abbas changed his and the PLO’s initial decision.
US Planners Welcome ISIS and Nusra Advances
Abbas’ decision came at a time when the Syrian government as a whole was in real danger of falling to jihadists from both Nusra and ISIS, both of which continued to cooperate closely to control Yarmouk. The New York Timesobserved at this time that “By seizing much of the camp” ISIS had “made its greatest inroads yet into Damascus,” while the Washington Postnoted that “Their new push puts [ISIS] within five miles of the heart of the capital . . . even as they are on the retreat in Iraq.”
Additionally, the April 2015 entry of ISIS into Yarmouk was soon coupled with the ISIS capture of Palmyra in the deserts of eastern Syria in May 2015, allowing ISIS to push further toward the Damascus suburbs from the east. While US planes bombed ISIS positions in north eastern Syria and in Iraq, the LA Timesreported that US planners had the ability to bomb convoys of ISIS fighters moving west across the open desert from Raqqa to Palmyra, but chose not to.
The threat to the capital from ISIS at this time was also coupled with the threat from the Saudi-backed Salafist rebel group, Jaish al-Islam, which continued to hold the Damascus suburbs of Eastern Ghouta. In 2013, the group’s founder, Zahran Alloush had called for “cleansing Damascus” of all Alawites, while calling Shiite Muslims, of which Alawites are considered an offshoot, “unclean” and threatening to make them “taste the worst torture in life before Allah makes you taste the worst torture on judgment day.” Jaish al-Islam gained notoriety for parading Alawite captives in cages and placing them in public squares to serve as human shields to allegedly deter Syrian government attacks, as reported by the Telegraph. The APreports that in the spring of 2015, Jaish al-Islam was powerful enough to hold “a massive military parade that included thousands of opposition fighters marching in formation and a striking display of tanks and armored vehicles at the doors of the Syrian capital” demonstrating “the Saudi-backed group’s growing clout in the eastern Ghouta suburbs, which for years were seen as a potential launch pad for a ground attack on Damascus, seat of President Bashar Assad’s power.”
Secretary of State John Kerry shockingly admitted that US planners had actually welcomed the ISIS push toward Damascus at this time, which they felt they could leverage to put pressure on Assad to give up power to the US-backed opposition. Kerry explained that “the reason Russia came in is because ISIL [ISIS] was getting stronger. Daesh [ISIS] was threatening the possibility of going to Damascus. And that is why Russia came in. They didn’t want a Daesh government and they supported Assad. And we know this was growing. We were watching. We saw that Daesh was growing in strength. And we thought Assad was threatened. We thought we could manage that Assad might then negotiate. Instead of negotiating, he got Putin to support him [emphasis mine].”
Kerry’s comments explain why US-allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar may have exerted pressure on Abbas not to permit the Syrian army to enter Yarmouk to fight ISIS, as Saudi and Qatar must have also welcomed the ISIS push toward Damascus, in accordance with US preferences. This should not come as a surprise, given that Saudi Arabia and Qatar had been providing “clandestine financial and logistical support to ISIL [ISIS] and other radical Sunni groups in the region,” for years, and with the full knowledge of US officials, as acknowledged by Hillary Clinton advisor John Podesta and by US General and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey.
The Syrian government lost Idlib province to jihadist rebels at this time as well, after a major Nusra-led rebel assault in March and April 2015. Syria analyst Charles Lister reports in Foreign Policy that US-backed Free Syrian Army brigades played a crucial role in supporting the Nusra assault on Idlib, and that US planners had increased weapons shipments to these “vetted” rebel groups and encouraged them to cooperate closely with Nusra. This allowed rebels to benefit from the lethal combination of Nusra suicide bombers and US-supplied weapons. Syria analyst Hassan Hassan observed during this time that “The Syrian rebels are on a roll” and that “The recent offensives in Idlib have been strikingly swift — thanks in large part to suicide bombers and American anti-tank TOW missiles.” The rebel success in Idlib, in particular in the town of Jisr al-Shughour, allowed rebels to threaten Latakia as well. Hassan also writes that, “For the first time since the conflict began, Assad’s heartlands in the Western region [Latakia] seemed exposed.”
US officials supported rebel efforts to assault Latakia, despite expectations that the rebels would massacre the large numbers of Alawite residents of the region. The New York Timesobserved that, “If the rebels had captured the area — where Alawites are the majority — a result would almost certainly have been sectarian mass murder. Many people in the region would have blamed the United States, which armed some of the rebels operating in the area. . . Andrew Exum, who worked in the Pentagon at the time, told me that the military drew up contingency plans for a rapid collapse of the regime. The planning sessions were talked about as ‘catastrophic success.’”
It was expected that Nusra and their FSA allies would massacre Latakia’s Alawites as Nusra religious clerics draw on the writings of the fringe 14th century Islamic scholar Ibn Taymiyya to argue that Alawites are infidels deserving of death, as noted above.
Despite US wishes, Russia refused to allow Damascus and Latakia to fall to ISIS and Nusra. In September 2015, Russia intervened militarily, gradually turning the tide in the conflict. US planners responded to Russian efforts to save Damascus and Latakia from the jihadists by further increasing shipments of TOW anti-tank missiles to the FSA, despite the clear knowledge these weapons would benefit al-Qaeda (Nusra).
Former Allies Become Enemies
After ISIS entered Yarmouk in April 2015, the Syrian government continued the siege to prevent ISIS and Nusra from advancing further on Damascus. Conditions in the camp remained dire. Starting in February 2016, the situation improved somewhat as the Syrian government was allowing aid to be delivered to check points at the edges of the two by two kilometer camp, in areas adjacent to Yalda, giving residents the chance to walk to retrieve it. UNRWA reported in April 2016 these deliveries had “significantly alleviated the shortages of food.”
Rebel violence once again disrupted UNRWA efforts to deliver aid, however, as cooperation between Nusra and ISIS in the camp fell apart. Fighting soon broke out between the former allies in early April 2016, with UNRWA reporting that the “outbreak of fighting has already caused UNRWA to suspend humanitarian missions to Yalda this week. As long as the fighting continues, these missions will remain suspended.” One Yarmouk resident explained that during this time residents were scared to leave their homes for fear of ISIS snipers, and could not go to Yalda to get supplies because “Daesh [ISIS] won’t let people leave,” noting as well that the “Palestine hospital is just being used for ISIS fighters, not civilians. They control the medicine. [Al]-Basel hospital has been destroyed.”
ISIS fighters continued to threaten other areas of Damascus as well, carrying out two suicide bombings targeting the nearby Sayida Zeinab shrine, the first in April 2016, killing 15, and wounding dozens, and the second in June 2016, killing 12.
By December 2016, ISIS had seized most of Yarmouk from Nusra, and the Syrian army maintained the siege, but was staying out of the fight, allowing the jihadist rebels in the camp to simply kill each other, while focusing its efforts on liberating Aleppo. Pro-Syrian government al-Masdar Newsreported that “Currently, there is no Syrian Arab Army (SAA) or Palestinian resistance in the camp, so ISIS is just combating their former allies [Nusra] that allowed them to enter Yarmouk in March 2015.”
By May 2017, the rebel infighting and government siege had taken its toll, and militants from both groups considered accepting Syrian government offers to be evacuated from Yarmouk to join fellow fighters in other areas of the country, namely Idlib for the Nusra fighters, and eastern Syria for ISIS fighters. On May 21, 2017 Bas Newsreports that ISIS established registration points where residents could go to sign up to be evacuated and that ISIS fighters were seen quickly selling their belongings for cheap prices. ISIS commanders sent text messages to their fighters stating that emigration to the “caliphate” in eastern Syria was obligatory. Bas News also reported that a group of Nusra fighters had already abandoned their positions in Yarmouk and traveled to Idlib. The negotiations to evacuate Nusra fighters, including many wounded, took place under the direction of Syrian Minister of Reconciliation Ali Haider as part of the “four towns” agreement. Haider explained to al-Sharq al-Awsat that the efforts to end the rebel presence in Yarmouk had “come a long way” and that the Syrian state was using “all means available to ease the way for the rebel evacuation and for the return of the people of the camp to their homes.” Negotiations for a broader rebel evacuation failed however, and ISIS and elements of Nusra remained in the camp.
Timber Sycamore Ends
Nusra’s willingness in the spring of 2017 to consider evacuating Yarmouk, after years of intransigence, roughly coincided with the end of US support for the rebels broadly. In July 2017, President Trump formally ended the CIA program to arm and train Syrian rebels, while himself acknowledging what had been obvious for years, namely that the CIA-supplied weapons, purchased largely with Saudi money, had “ended up in the hands of ‘Al Qaeda.’” Once the flow of money and weapons from the CIA ended, it was only a matter of time before the Syrian army would be able to liberate not just Yarmouk, but all of the southern Damascus suburbs.
While President Trump formally ended CIA support for the rebels, US policy had begun to shift in a different direction already by late 2016, during the last months of the Obama administration. While CIA director John Brennan remained a “vigorous defender” of the CIA program to help Syria’s rebels topple the Syrian government, others in the Obama administration began to acknowledge that allying with al-Qaeda over the past 6 years had been a mistake.
The Washington Postreported in November 2016 that “Officials who supported the shift said the Obama administration could no longer tolerate what one of them described as ‘a deal with the devil,’ whereby the United States largely held its fire against al-Nusra because the group was popular with Syrians in rebel-controlled areas and furthered the U.S. goal of putting military pressure on Assad.”
President Obama also finally acknowledged what had been obvious for years, that there was no practical distinction between the Syrian opposition, which the US had long backed, and al-Qaeda. One US official told the Post as well that “The president doesn’t want this group [Nusra] to be what inherits the country if Assad ever does fall. . . This cannot be the viable Syrian opposition. It’s al-Qaeda.”
Jaish al-Islam and ISIS Go to War
Rebel infighting in Yarmouk continued in the fall of 2017 when new tensions emerged between ISIS and the Saudi-backed Salafist rebel group, Jaish al-Islam, which also controlled territory in the Damascus suburbs, in particular in Eastern Ghouta, as described above. The most recent dispute between ISIS and Jaish al-Islam originated over control of the checkpoint between Yarmouk and Yalda in October 2017. By January 2018, a full blown conflict had emerged between the two groups. Al-Masdar Newsreported that Jaish al-Islam “carried out an infiltration operation against ISIS, attacking the terrorist group’s positions in the city’s southern districts. Reports clarify that the attack took place in an orchard area between the Yalda and Hajjar As-Aswad neighborhoods with both Jaysh al-Islam fighters and Islamic State [ISIS] terrorists exchanging heavy fire.” ISIS militants counter-attacked one week later, with al-Masdarreporting that, “Using shock troops backed up by medium weapons support, ISIS attempted to overrun Jaysh al-Islam positions in Yalda’s Zein neighborhood. At the present time heavy firefights are ongoing as Syrian rebels cling on to their positions in the Zein neighborhood, refusing to concede an inch of territory. . .” ISIS fighters were finally able to breakthrough Jaish al-Islam’s line of defense on Zein Street to re-take control of almost all of Hajjar al-Aswad and to control all of Taqadam.
In February 2018, ISIS turned its attention once again to fighting militants from Nusra within Yarmouk, with clashes on Haifa Street leading to the deaths of roughly 100 fighters on each side. The Turkish Anadolou Agency reported that due to this fighting “Daesh [ISIS] took control of a Palestinian hospital and nearby areas. This reduced areas under Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham [Nusra] control to around 15 percent. Since the attacks, Daesh now controls 75 percent of Camp Yarmouk, which has around 5,000 civilians living in it.”
The Liberation of Ghouta
In March 2018, the Syrian army battled rebel groups Jaish al-Islam, Ahrar al-Sham and Faylaq al-Rahman in an effort to retake the Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta, from which rebels regularly launched mortars into Damascus, targeting markets and church gatherings, while the Syrian government subjected Eastern Ghouta to a harsh siege similar to that imposed on Yarmouk. SOHR claims that rebel shelling of Damascus had killed 116 people, including 18 children and 14 women over the previous three months.
After a sustained bombing campaign of rebel positions in Ghouta from the air, the Syrian army launched a ground assault, forcing rebels to finally agree to give up their heavy weapons and either be evacuated to Idlib or be reconciled with the state. By March 27, both Ahrar al-Sham and Faylaq al-Rahman had reached deals with the government, while hardliners in the Jaish al-Islam leadership were still pushing for better terms before coming to an agreement. On April 6, pro-opposition SOHR reported that of the 10,000 fighters under Jaish al-Islam’s command, 4,000 were refusing to be evacuated. However, on April 9, Jaish al-Islam finally agreed to evacuate the remainder of its fighters and their families to Idlib as well, and to release 3,500 prisoners and hostages it had captured in preceding years, including many Alawites captured in 2013 as part of the rebel massacre in nearby Adra. The New Arabreported that an AFP correspondent “at a collection centre said emotions there were running high as hundreds of Syrians gathered to welcome freed relatives, some of whom had been held by Jaish al-Islam for several years.”
SOHR reported on April 9 that “that more than 1000 citizens broke in to warehouses of foodstuffs and fuel used to belong to Jaysh Al-Islam, and locals asserted . . . that the warehouses contain hundreds of tons of foodstuffs that were kept in Douma city, where the citizens took over food and fuel, after the siege imposed since 2013,” and that a mob of demonstrators went to the house of Jaish al-Islam general sharia official, Abu al-Kaka, demanding his exit while shouting “Douma is free, free and Al-Kaka is out.”
While residents celebrated the end of rebel rule, this appears to have come at a terribly high cost. SOHR claimed that 1745 people, including 371 children and 229 women, had been killed by Syrian army bombardment in Ghouta. How many of the men were civilians, and how many were rebels, is unclear as SOHR somewhat misleadingly counts rebels who are not defectors from the Syrian army as civilians. Also unclear is how many of these civilians may have been killed in the crossfire during the ground offensive, whether by pro-government fighters or rebels, rather than through bombardment. SOHR’s casualty numbers should be viewed with further caution, as SOHR is pro-opposition and receives funding from the British government, a belligerent in the conflict. These uncertainties aside, it appears that many civilians died during the Syrian government assault.
Many pro-government fighters appear to have been killed as well. According to announcements on various social media pages of pro-government fighting groups, rebels killed 539 pro-government soldiers, including 57 officers (among them two Brigadier Generals and six group commanders) during the Syrian army assault. Seventeen Palestinians from the Palestine Liberation Army and Free Palestine Movement were also among the dead.
The agreement for Jaish al-Islam to evacuate came amidst further allegations of Syrian government use of the chemical weapons in Douma two days before, on April 7. The pro-opposition Violation Documentation Center (VDC) quoted doctors insisting that a sarin like chemical had been used, an accusation that was repeated by US officials. The US military carried out airstrikes against Syrian government targets one week later, using these allegations of a sarin attack as a pretext.
US and opposition claims were found to be false, however, after the final report issued by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) concluded that no traces of any “organophosphorous nerve agents,” including sarin, had been found in the environmental and blood samples taken at the site of the alleged attack. Controversy persisted, however, as opposition supporters alleged the Syrian army had instead carried out a chlorine attack (though chlorine is not typically deadly), while others pointed to evidence suggesting that several aspects of the alleged chemical attack had been staged.
The Liberation of Yarmouk
Once the rebels had been defeated in Eastern Ghouta, the Syrian army turned its sights to defeating ISIS in Yarmouk and in the adjacent neighborhoods of Hajar al-Aswad, al-Qadam, and al-Tadhamon, which ISIS also controlled. SOHR reported on 16 April 2018 that the Syrian army was mobilizing near Yarmouk, and had received reinforcements in the form of fighters from Liwa al-Quds, a Palestinian militia which had long been fighting alongside the Syrian army in Aleppo. Palestinian fighters from the PFLP-GC, Fatah al-Intifada, and the PLA also prepared to join the fight on the Syrian army’s side.
SOHRnoted as well that FSA rebel groups controlling other southern Damascus suburbs of Yalda, Beit Saham and Babila had agreed to an evacuation deal with the government, with some fighters (from Ababil Houran) heading toward rebel-controlled territory to the south near Deraa, and with others (from Ahrar al-Sham, Jaish al-Islam, and Sham al-Rasul) heading toward Idlib.
The willingness of all these rebel groups to give up the fight in the Damascus suburbs appears to be the result of the Syrian army’s defeat of Jaish al-Islam in Ghouta, and of the realization that, one year after the end of Timber Sycamore, US and Gulf assistance would not be forthcoming. Retired Syrian Brigadier General Amin Hatit claimed to pro-Hezbollah al-Mayadeen TV that part of the reason for these agreements was the “huge loss of hope” as a result of the “power displayed by Syria both militarily and politically in confronting the terrorists in Eastern Ghouta, and due to the determination of the Syrian leadership to complete the cleansing operation around the perimeter of Damascus. And the militants found that there is no point in looking for a hand to save them from abroad and they chose peace instead of confrontation and killing.”
At this same time, Wesam Seba’na of the Jafra Foundation saw the build-up of government forces against ISIS and Nusra as a sign of renewed hope that Palestinians would soon be able to return to the camp after “the terrorists had been driven out,” while viewing the return to Yarmouk as a necessary step on the road to securing the greater right of one day returning to Palestine itself.
The government offensive to liberate Yarmouk from ISIS and Nusra began on 19 April 2018. Al-Sharq al-Awsatdescribed how the Syrian army had given ISIS a 48 hour ultimatum to evacuate the camp. When this deadline passed, bombing began. Al-Sharq al-Awsat also reported that by the third day of the bombing, according to ISIS sources, the Syrian government had dropped up to 100 bombs on the camp, while Syrian government sources said the battle would be difficult due to the urban environment and because ISIS militants had dug an extensive tunnel network underground, just as Jaish al-Islam rebels had in Ghouta, which was limiting the effectiveness of efforts to bomb ISIS positions.
On April 23, Tom Rollins of IRINreported that according to UNRWA, most of Yarmouk’s remaining civilians (5,000 out of an estimated 6,000) had been able to flee the fighting, taking shelter in nearby Yalda, but that many of the displaced were now “begging for medicine and are sleeping in the streets.” Rollins also reports that “Yarmouk resident ‘Am Bilal, who fled to Yalda over the weekend, told IRIN that the people who stayed behind now cannot leave their homes because of the bombing. ‘The only way out is to cross to Yalda,’ ‘Am Bilal said. ‘Nobody knows how many stayed behind.’”
On April 28, Reutersreported that “Footage on state TV showed tanks rolling across an open area of fields to the edge of the enclave, which includes parts of al-Qadam district, al-Hajar al-Aswad and the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp. It showed uniformed soldiers moving through battered streets with dense clouds of black smoke overhead, while the whizz and crash of artillery fire, the rattle of small arms fire and deep echoing blasts could all be heard.”
On April 30, Syrian state media, SANA, reported that Nusra fighters had finally agreed to be evacuated from Yarmouk along with their families, in exchange for Nusra releasing 85 hostages from the rebel-held town of Eshtabraq and for allowing 5,000 residents of two Shia villages in Idlib, Kefraya and Foua, to be evacuated to government territory. ISIS fighters continued to reject an evacuation deal, presumably due to differences over where they would be allowed to go and what weapons they would be able to take with them.
The Syrian army continued to battle ISIS for three more weeks. Finally, on 21 May 2018, the Syrian government announced that Damascus and its surrounding countryside were now “entirely safe areas after fully cleansing al-Hajar al-Aswad and al-Yarmouk Camp of terrorism” as the remaining 1,600 ISIS militants agreed to an evacuation deal, and left the camp in black buses.
With ISIS and Nusra finally gone, UNRWA estimated only 100 to 200 residents remained in the camp, including many elderly and sick who had been unable to flee. Among those remaining were four sisters from the Abdul-Mahmoud family, who had stayed in their home in Yarmouk throughout the entire conflict. The AP described how “When the first Syrian soldier reached Lod street in the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk in Syria’s capital, four sisters who survived the seven-year conflict hiding in their ground floor apartment emerged hesitantly and asked: ‘Are you a soldier or a militant?’ The young man came closer and took out his military ID to prove he was a Syrian soldier. The women began wailing emotionally, hardly believing that three years of rule by the Islamic State group had come to an end. ‘The nightmare is over. They are gone,’ said 62-year-old Izdihar Abdul-Mahmoud.”
At What Cost?
While Syrians and Palestinians alike had reason to celebrate the defeat of ISIS in Yarmouk, the victory was bitter sweet. Many were killed in the fighting, both fighters and civilians, and much of the camp, once the capital of the Palestinian diaspora, and proud symbol of the right of return of Palestinians, lay in ruins.
SOHR claimed that ISIS militants killed 250 Syrian soldiers and pro-government Palestinian fighters during the month long battle, and that pro-ISIS social media accounts had shared images showing captured pro-government fighters being beheaded by the group. At the same time, SOHR claimed that Syrian government forces had killed 233 ISIS fighters as well. The Electronic Intifada reports that according to pro-opposition AGPS, “Around 30 Palestinian residents were killed” during the month-long Syrian army offensive. Presumably AGPS is equating residents with civilians.
The UAE-owned Nationalquoted one returning resident, Omar, as describing how his old neighborhood was totally unrecognizable. “We kept walking and walking, not knowing where we were, other than that we were on Palestine Street. All the buildings and shops were either on the ground or mostly destroyed. . . When we reached the street where my family’s building is, finally I saw some buildings still standing. I started to walk super carefully, looking up, until I saw the corner of my house and said to myself, ‘At least it’s standing’. . . If you closed your eyes and someone brought you there, you wouldn’t be able to tell if you were in Yarmouk, Daraya or any other destroyed area [of Syria].”
The sadness of returning to such devastation was compounded by the sight of Syrian soldiers looting what little of value was left in the camp. Omar recounted seeing “men in military uniforms everywhere carrying fridges, washing-machines, and anything else they could carry.” The Nationalnotes further that, “Even one politician from a prominent pro-government Palestinian faction in Damascus criticised the looting of homes this week when writing on his Facebook page, ‘Are we returning to the camp or not? Leave people their memories [in the camp]. We may have been happy to defeat terrorism…but we need a solution. We want to return to Yarmouk.’” Saudi-owned Al-Hayatreported that members of the pro-government Palestinian popular committees appealed to UNRWA to exert pressure on the Syrian government to put an end to the looting.
Is Reconstruction Possible?
After almost six years of fighting, the difficult task of rebuilding the camp still lay ahead. Russia Today (RT)quoted UNRWA spokesperson Chris Gunness as wondering how residents could possibly return, given the scale of the destruction. RT alsoquoted PLO official Abdul-Hadi as describing the next steps to be taken after liberating the camp, namely conducting a security sweep, removing the rubble, and taking account of the damage, in order to rebuild and allow residents to finally return. Hadi noted he would be carrying out discussions for the rebuilding of the camp with officials from UNRWA, the Syrian state, and donor countries. Wesam Seba’na of Jafra acknowledged the destruction, but was hopeful, saying “There is destruction and so on… but [in those areas] there are still many buildings standing. There’s the possibility that with a little reconstruction… people will be able to go back there.”
It was clear however, that reconstruction would be difficult, both in Yarmouk and elsewhere in Syria, as US planners extended economic sanctions and vowed to prevent outside reconstruction aid. In September 2018, Reuters published an article noting that US imposed sanctions were crippling Syrian government reconstruction efforts before they had even begun, while in October 2018, US ambassador to Syria James Jeffrey claimed that it was Syria, Russia, and Iran that had destroyed the country (ignoring massive US support for the jihadist rebels they were fighting), and that as a result “we are not going to put it back together, and we are going to do everything we can, and that’s a lot, to ensure that nobody else does” until US goals in Syria were achieved.
It would also be difficult for the Syrian government to fund its own reconstruction, with US forces and allied Kurdish militias from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) occupying strategically important areas of northern and eastern Syria, including areas previously under ISIS rule, such as Raqqa. Al-Jazeeraobserved that US and “SDF-controlled area contains 90 percent of Syria’s oil and gas reserves, including al-Omar, its largest oil field, as well as most of its water resources, major dams, and power plants. The northeast is also Syria’s breadbasket. As long as this area is out of its control, no government in Damascus can survive independently from foreign aid.” US planners then resisted efforts by President Trump to withdraw US forces from Syria in an effort to retain this leverage (which Foreign Policydescribed as maintaining “the ability to influence what endures”).
While the brutality of the Syrian government siege on Yarmouk was widely acknowledged in the Western press and among human rights organizations, the main driver of the conflict, namely the efforts of US planners to help jihadist rebels invade and occupy Yarmouk, against the will of camp residents, was ignored. Also ignored was the threat faced by millions of civilians had Damascus fallen to al-Qaeda, whether in the form of Nusra or ISIS, as US planners had hoped. Many thousands of Alawites, Christians, and pro-government Sunnis would have likely been massacred, and millions displaced.
Because the rebels never had popular support from Yarmouk’s residents, there was never a justification for them to occupy the camp. Rebels did not enter Yarmouk to protect its residents, but rather did so because of Yarmouk’s strategic location for attacking Damascus. The rebels and their supporters in the Syrian opposition sought to drag Palestinians into the conflict for their own reasons, despite Palestinian wishes to remain neutral and keep the rebels out. Suggestions that the rebel occupation of Yarmouk was justified are even less credible considering the rebels, many of them foreigners, advocated a Wahhabi-inspired sectarian religious ideology originating in Saudi Arabia that is not broadly accepted by Palestinians, or by Syrians, including Palestinian and Syrian Sunnis.
Western human rights organizations must certainly have been aware of all this, as well as of the fact that, as Syria expert Joshua Landis has noted, “Probably 60 to 80 percent of the arms that America shoveled in have gone to al-Qaida and its affiliates.” Nevertheless, human rights groups, including Amnesty International, failed to demand that the US and its Gulf allies stop arming the rebels. Nor did they demand that the US and Gulf states use their leverage with the rebels to encourage them to withdraw from Yarmouk.
Because the US and Saudi-supplied weapons continued to flow, the conflict in Yarmouk, as well as the suffering of the camp’s remaining civilians, ground on for over six years. As University of Virginia political scientist Jonah Schulhofer-Wohl has argued, “The foreign support for the Syrian rebels has thus predictably produced . . . the worst of all possible worlds — it has extended the fighting, made compromise more difficult, and increased the dangers of rebel infighting, while also facilitating the rise of extremists.”
That western human rights groups loudly condemned Syrian government violence in Yarmouk, while at the same time omitting or downplaying the role played by jihadist rebels, suggests such rights groups were not trying to honestly advocate for the civilians of Yarmouk, but instead wished to weaponize human rights concerns in support of US and Gulf efforts to destroy the Syrian state, with predictably tragic consequences for the civilians they professed to try to save.
When the Russian military intervened in the Syrian war in October 2015, many in the Western press complained bitterly, demanding that US planners intervene directly in Syria on behalf of the anti-government rebels in response. Reutersalleged that “The Middle East is angry and bewildered by US inaction in Syria,” arguing that “The question on everyone’s mind is: will the United States and its European and regional Sunni allies intervene to stop President Vladimir Putin from reversing the gains made by mainstream Syrian rebels after more than four years of war? Few are holding their breath.” The Washington Post similarly argued that Russian president Vladimir Putin was “exploiting America’s inaction,” while the Guardian lamented the “western inability to care enough about the plight of Syrians.” As Russian and Syrian forces battled rebels one year later in Aleppo, more dramatic accusations of US inaction emerged, with Foreign Policydescribing US policy in Syria under Obama as “inaction in the face of genocide.”
The idea that the United States has not intervened in Syria and is guilty of “inaction,” is a myth however. The United States and its Western and Gulf Allies have intervened in the Syrian conflict from early on. US planners have been fighting what the New York Timesdescribed as a “$1 Billion Secret C.I.A. War in Syria” while providing weapons to rebels through a program considered “one of the costliest covert action programs in the history of the C.I.A.” Starting in the fall of 2012, the US and its Gulf partners, under the direction of then CIA director David Petraeus, were openly sending “a cataract of weaponry” into Syria. It is likely that such shipments began much earlier without public acknowledgment, via the “rat line” from Libya, as reported by journalist Seymour Hersh. US Special Envoy to Syria Michael Ratner, in a meeting with members of the Syrian opposition, explained that “The armed groups in Syria get a lot of support, not just from the United States but from other partners,” while Secretary of State John Kerry added in the same meeting, “I think we’ve been putting an extraordinary amount of arms in,” and “Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, a huge amount of weapons [are] coming in. A huge amount of money.”
Also a myth is the idea that any US intervention in Syria would seek to protect civilians. While allegations that Syrian and Russian forces were committing genocide in Aleppo proved baseless, US planners have themselves supported rebels intent on committing genocide and sectarian mass murder. This was clearly evident in the Syrian city of Latakia, which by the time of the Russian intervention in October 2015 was on the verge of falling to a coalition of Syrian rebel groups including al-Qaeda (known in Syria as the Nusra Front) and the US-armed and funded Free Syrian Army (FSA).
Robert Worth of the New York Timeswrites that “In Latakia, some people told me that their city might have been destroyed if not for the Russians. The city has long been one of Syria’s safe zones, well defended by the army and its militias; there are tent cities full of people who have fled other parts of the country, including thousands from Aleppo. But in the summer of 2015, the rebels were closing in on the Latakia city limits, and mortars were falling downtown. If the rebels had captured the area — where Alawites are the majority — a result would almost certainly have been sectarian mass murder. Many people in the region would have blamed the United States, which armed some of the rebels operating in the area. . . Andrew Exum, who worked in the Pentagon at the time, told me that the military drew up contingency plans for a rapid collapse of the regime. The planning sessions were talked about as ‘catastrophic success [emphasis mine].’”
Alawite civilians in Latakia faced the prospect of being massacred if rebels had been able to capture the city, due to the virulently anti-Alawite views of Nusra Front members. Nusra religious clerics draw on the writings of the fringe 14th century Islamic scholar Ibn Taymiyya to argue that Alawites are “infidels” deserving of death. Syria analyst Sam Heller described Nusra clerics as promoting “toxic — even genocidal — sectarianism.” Rebels from the FSA, which have fought alongside and “in the ranks” of the Nusra Front throughout the conflict, also posed a threat to Alawite civilians in Latakia. While typically considered moderate in the Western press, many FSA battalions have been armed and funded by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (MB). Thanks to the influence of Brotherhood ideologue Said Hawwa, the Syrian Brotherhood strongly promoted the anti-Alawite sectarian views of Ibn Taymiyya from the 1960’s until the 1980’s. This anti-Alawite sectarianism re-emerged in segments of the Syrian opposition, including in elements of the FSA, when peaceful protests and armed insurrection against the Syrian government simultaneously erupted in Syria in the spring of 2011.
While the Syrian and Russian militaries managed to protect Latakia and prevent a massacre of the city’s Alawite civilians, the broader effort to prevent the fall of the country to al-Qaeda and its FSA allies exacted a huge toll on Syria’s Alawites. The Telegraphnoted that already by April 2015, “The scale of the sect’s losses is staggering” and that of some 250,000 Alawite men of fighting age “as many as one third are dead” and that “Alawite villages nestled in the hills of their ancestral Latakia province are all but devoid of young men. The women dress only in mourning black.”
While arming rebels threatening the massacre of Alawite civilians in Latakia, US planners were at the same time welcoming the potential massacre of Syrian civilians in Damascus. The Syrian capital was on the verge of falling to the Islamic State (ISIS) in the summer of 2015 after ISIS, with the help of Nusra, captured all of the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in the southern Damascus suburbs. The New York Times acknowledged the ISIS threat to Damascus at this time, observing that “By seizing much of the camp” ISIS had “made its greatest inroads yet into Damascus,” while the Washington Postnoted that “Their new push puts [ISIS] within five miles of the heart of the capital . . . even as they are on the retreat in Iraq.”
In a private meeting with members of the Syrian opposition, Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged that US planners had actually welcomed the ISIS advance on Damascus, in an effort to use it as leverage to force Assad to give up power. Kerry explained that, “the reason Russia came in is because ISIL [ISIS] was getting stronger. Daesh [ISIS] was threatening the possibility of going to Damascus. And that is why Russia came in. They didn’t want a Daesh [ISIS] government and they supported Assad. And we know this was growing. We were watching. We saw that Daesh [ISIS]was growing in strength. And we thought Assad was threatened. We thought we could manage that Assad might then negotiate. Instead of negotiating, he got Putin to support him [emphasis mine].”
Because the US was bombing ISIS in defense of its Kurdish allies in Northeastern Syria and its Iraqi government allies in Northwestern Iraq, the fact that US planners at the same time welcomed the ISIS push on Damascus against the Syrian government was largely obscured.
Had Damascus fallen to ISIS, it is clear that many civilians in the city, including Christians, Alawites, Shiites, members of the LGBTQ community, and pro-government Sunnis, would have been killed. While commenting on the Russian intervention, Michael Kofman of the Wilson Center acknowledged that “Assad may be irredeemable in the eyes of the United States, but it is equally clear that a high human price would be paid when the Islamic State [ISIS] or al-Nusra seizes the major population centers in Syria that he still controls.”
It is also clear that US planners were deliberately supporting al-Qaeda (Nusra), despite its genocidal intentions towards Syria’s Alawites, by flooding Syria with weapons. Because FSA brigades that received funding and weapons from the US and its Gulf Allies were fighting side by side with militants from Nusra throughout the country, in practice much of the money and weapons sent to the FSA ultimately benefited al-Qaeda.
For example, US-made TOW anti-tank missiles sent by US planners to FSA groups in Idlib played a crucial role in helping Nusra conquer the entire province in the spring of 2015. Syria analyst Hassan Hassan observed in Foreign Policy during this period that “The Syrian rebels are on a roll” and that “The recent offensives in Idlib have been strikingly swift — thanks in large part to suicide bombers and American anti-tank TOW missiles,” which the FSA and Nusra deployed in tandem. Syria analyst Charles Lister, also writing in Foreign Policy, described how US planners explicitly encouraged the FSA groups they were arming to fight alongside Nusra in Idlib. Rebel victories in Idlib, in particular the town of Jisr al-Shughour, allowed Nusra and the FSA to then threaten the massacre of Alawites in Latakia.
When Russia intervened militarily in Syria in October 2015, US planners responded by immediately increasing shipments of TOW anti-tank missiles to FSA groups, some of which then helped Nusra capture the strategic town of Murek in central Syria one month later in November 2015.
This prompted Daveed Gartenstein-Ross of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) to observe that “it is impossible to argue that U.S. officials involved in the CIA’s program cannot discern that Nusra and other extremists have benefited” from CIA weapons shipments to Syrian rebels, “And despite this, the CIA decided to drastically increase lethal support to vetted rebel factions following the Russian intervention into Syria in late September.”
Nusra did not only benefit from fighting alongside FSA rebels armed with US-supplied weapons, but acquired many of these weapons themselves. That Nusra regularly purchased weapons from the Western-backed military councils supplying the FSA was confirmed in October 2014, when the New York Timesreported that Shafi al-Ajmi, a Nusra fundraiser, told a Saudi news channel that “When the military councils sell the weapons they receive, guess who buys them? It’s me.”
That al-Qaeda was purchasing US supplied weapons seemed of little concern to US planners. When journalist Sharmine Narwani asked why US-supplied weapons allegedly meant for FSA groups were showing up in Nusra hands, CENTCOM spokesman Lieutenant Commander Kyle Raines responded: “We don’t ‘command and control’ these forces—we only ‘train and enable’ them. Who they say they’re allying with, that’s their business.”
Obama administration officials themselves acknowledged tacit US support for al-Qaeda, admitting in November 2016 to the Washington Post that they had struck “a deal with the devil,” years before, “whereby the United States largely held its fire against al-Nusra because the group was popular with Syrians in rebel-controlled areas and furthered the U.S. goal of putting military pressure on Assad,” thereby confirming long standing Russian accusations that the US had been “sheltering al-Nusra.”
More recently, Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor under the Obama administration, acknowledged providing military support to Syrian rebels, even though it was clear that Nusra comprised a good portion of the Syrian opposition as a whole. Rhodes explained that “there was a slight absurdity in the fact that we were debating options to provide military support to the opposition at the same time that we were deciding to designate al-Nusra, a big chunk of that opposition, as a terrorist organization.”
Despite designating Nusra as a terror group already in 2012, US planners nevertheless provided weapons to the Syrian rebels, of which Nusra comprised a “big chunk,” for the next 7 years. As Sharmine Narwani observes, “U.S. arms have been seen in Nusra’s possession for many years now, including highly valued TOW missiles, which were game-changing weapons in the Syrian military theater. When American weapons end up in al-Qaeda hands during the first or second year of a conflict, one assumes simple errors in judgment. When the problem persists after seven years, however, it starts to look like there’s a policy in place to look the other way.”
US planners welcomed rebel gains in Syria, including by rebel groups advocating genocide against Syria’s Alawite population, such as ISIS and Nusra, because these gains bolstered the broader US goal of toppling the Syrian government, in an effort to weaken its close allies, Iran and Hezbollah. US planners wished to see rebel gains in Syria, in spite of the obviously catastrophic consequences for Syrian civilians, including for Syria’s Sunnis, which rebel success would bring. US support for the rebels belies the myth of US “inaction” in Syria, and the myth that any US intervention would be for the sake of preventing massacres and even genocide, rather than in support of it.
In the remainder of this essay, I will review the US support for rebel advances in the spring and summer of 2015 in Idlib, Latakia, Palmyra, Yarmouk, and Homs. I will describe how these rebel advances nearly led to the massacre of Syrian civilians in two of the country’s main population centers, Latakia and Damascus, if not for the Russian intervention which halted the rebel advance. Idlib
In March of 2015, rebels from the Jaish al-Fatah coalition, which included Nusra and the jihadist rebel group Ahrar al-Sham, launched a coordinated assault along with brigades from the FSA on Idlib province, leading to the capture of the province as a whole from Syrian government forces two months later.
Rebels captured Idlib city itself on March 29. Al-Jazeeraquoted the pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) as declaring “Al-Nusra Front and its allies have captured all of Idlib,” in a battle that led to some 130 deaths. Al-Jazeera also quoted representatives of the Western-backed Syrian National Council (SNC) as declaring the capture of Idlib city as “an important victory on the road to the full liberation of Syrian soil from the Assad regime and its allies,” showing the close relationship between the US-supported Syrian political opposition in exile and al-Qaeda affiliated militants on the ground in Syria. Rebels captured the last major Syrian army base in the province on March 19 near the town of Mastouma. Rebel control of Idlib was completed with the ouster of the Syrian army from the town of Ariha at the end of May, causing government forces to retreat to bases on the coast in Latakia.
The rebel offensive in Idlib succeeded largely due to the lethal combination of Nusra suicide bombers and US-provided TOW anti-tank missiles. FSA commander Fares Bayoush from the Fursan al-Haq brigade explained to the LA Times “that his group’s TOW missiles played an important role in repelling government tanks during a March offensive in Idlib province spearheaded by an Islamist coalition called the Army of Conquest, which includes Al Nusra Front.” It was during this period that Syria analyst Hassan Hassan observed in Foreign Policy that, “The Syrian rebels are on a roll,” and that “the recent offensives in Idlib have been strikingly swift — thanks in large part to suicide bombers and American anti-tank TOW missiles,” as well as that,“For the first time since the conflict began, Assad’s heartlands in the Western region [Latakia] seemed exposed.”
The close cooperation between FSA brigades and rebels from the al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front in Idlib was encouraged by US planners. Syria analyst Charles Lister, also writing in Foreign Policy, observed that “The involvement of FSA groups, in fact, reveals how the factions’ backers have changed their tune regarding coordination with Islamists. Several commanders involved in leading recent Idlib operations confirmed to this author that the U.S.-led operations room in southern Turkey, which coordinates the provision of lethal and non-lethal support to vetted opposition groups, was instrumental in facilitating their involvement in the operation from early April onwards. That operations room — along with another in Jordan, which covers Syria’s south — also appears to have dramatically increased its level of assistance and provision of intelligence to vetted groups in recent weeks [emphasis mine].”
Lister, who has testified several times before the US House Foreign Affairs Committee to make policy proscriptions for US planners in Syria, argued at that time that US cooperation with al-Qaeda (Nusra) is the best option: “[T]here still remains no better alternative to cooperating with al Qaeda, and thus facilitating its prominence. If the West wants a better solution, it must broaden and intensify its engagement with Syria’s insurgent groups and considerably expand its provision of assistance to a wider set of acceptable groups” echoing a popular view among Western and Gulf think tank analysts that al-Qaeda was worthy of US support.
Predictably, US efforts to help al-Qaeda conquer Idlib had grim consequences for many of its residents, large numbers of whom fled after rebels took control of the city and province. The Guardianreported that while under Syrian government control, Idlib city, with a population of some 165,000 before the war, “had been swollen by hundreds of thousands of displaced people, who had fled there to escape fighting elsewhere.” In contrast, when the rebels came, many civilians fled. The New York Timesreported that although “some Idlib residents celebrated Saturday, cheering as fighters ripped down posters of Mr. Assad or embracing insurgent relatives who returned to the city for the first time in years, others streamed out of the city, with convoys of loaded cars and trucks blocking roads.” Citing the United Nations, the NYT reported that already by April 1, just two days after the rebel arrival, at least 30,000 residents had fled the city. One Idlib resident who fled when the rebels arrived explained that “The rebels that attacked Idlib at the end of March 2015 came from all sorts of countries. I even saw children carrying weapons. The rebels had a list of names of people who were to be killed, in the majority of cases because they held pro government views. One of my friends, a teacher, was on the list and was shot. . . . I left Idlib with my cousin who had a car. Afterwards, my house was occupied and looted by the rebels. I had planned to sell my house to enable my daughter to study medicine. Now it’s too late. I also worry about our old Christian neighbors. I am a Muslim but the religion of these rebels is not my Islam. I detest Salafism, and do not want to live under it.”
On April 25, rebels from the Jaish al-Fatah coalition, which included the jihadist rebel groups Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, and Jund al-Aqsa, captured the strategic town of Jisr al-Shughour, which lies on the highway connecting Latakia to Aleppo. The rebel capture of the town came one month after the capture of Idlib city. The Guardian quoted one senior opposition member who had supplied weapons to the rebels taking Jisr al-Shughour as noting, “I would put the advances down to one word . . .Tow,” referring to missiles made in the US and purchased by Saudi Arabia for supply to the rebels. The opposition member noted as well that “Saudi is not as concerned as it was by who among the rebel groups is winning, as long as it’s not [Isis]. They’ve convinced everyone involved in Syria that the real enemy is Iran,” suggesting Saudi comfort in militarily supplying jihadist rebels from al-Qaeda. Rebel media posted video of civilians fleeing Jisr al-Shughour after its capture, claiming they wished to escape in anticipation of a pending regime bombardment now that the city had fallen. The Guardian also quoted one resident as noting that FSA groups participated alongside the Nusra-led Jaish al-Fatah coalition in taking the city, in accordance with the familiar pattern: “There were people from the normal opposition there. They were strong too, but the jihadists were stronger.”
Though the city fell on April 25, hundreds of Syrian army soldiers and some women and children fled to the National Hospital complex, which remained under siege by rebels for the next month. The soldiers managed to repel multiple suicide car bombs, targeting them with rocket propelled grenades. Rebels then began preparing to detonate a large tunnel bomb below the hospital to destroy it and kill the soldiers inside. The soldiers then attempted to flee the hospital under air cover from the Syrian air force. Of this incident, the Telegraph reports, “Syrian rebel leaders have described massacres of hundreds of Assad troops and fighters in grim detail as the regime’s defenses begin to crumble in the face of revived attacks on several fronts. President Bashar al-Assad had promised to rescue hundreds of his men who were surrounded in a last stand at a hospital in the key north-western town of Jisr al-Shughour. Eventually, the men tried to run for it under the cover of a regime aerial attack, pre-empting a final assault by rebels including Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, and other Islamist groups. Instead, many of the soldiers were shot down as they were cornered in orchards on the edge of town, a rebel spokesman said.” Rebels claimed to have killed 208 Syrian soldiers, including several high ranking officers, while pro-government sources claimed up to 80 soldiers managed to escape. One soldier who managed to escape alive described the ordeal to Chinese state media, adding that a number of civilians escaped with the soldiers.
Jisr al-Shughour fell four years after rebels initially attempted to take the city in June 2011, just three months after the beginning of anti-government protests. Several hundred rebels attacked the local police station with dynamite, killing a number of soldiers inside, and then ambushed and killed as many as 120 Syrian army soldiers sent as reinforcements. This event was known as the “massacre” of Jisr al-Shughour. The killings were widely attributed to the Syrian army itself at the time, as activists implausibly blamed the Syrian army for the killing of its own soldiers. The story of government responsibility for the killings was widely believed, and reported as such in the Western press, as the rebel attacks took place at a time before armed rebel activity in Syria was widely acknowledged. This was despite correct reporting on the killings at the time by Syria expert and University of Oklahoma professor Joshua Landis. Rebel responsibility for the killings was later confirmed by journalist Rania Abouzeid, who was able to return to Jisr al-Shughour years later and interview witnesses who confirmed rebels had killed the soldiers, as recounted in her book, “No Turning Back: Life, Loss, and Hope in Wartime Syria (pages 55-60).” Latakia
The defeat of government forces in Idlib, in particular in Jisr al-Shughour, allowed rebels to then push on toward Latakia province on the Western coast of Syria, and to threaten the massacre of the large Alawite population there, as discussed above. A representative from the rebel group Ahrar al-Sham explained to Reuters that “Jisr al-Shughour is more important than Idlib itself, it is very close to the coastal area which is a regime area [Latakia], the coast now is within our fire reach.”
Alawites, which comprised some 50% of the population in Latakia, faced the prospect of being massacred if rebels from Nusra had been able to capture the city, due to the virulently anti-Alawite views of Nusra members, who draw on the writings of the fringe 14th century Islamic scholar Ibn Taymiyya in order to deem Alawites “infidels” deserving of death.
Syrian analyst Sam Heller cites the views of the supreme Nusra religious official Sami al-Oreidi to show that Nusra promotes “toxic — even genocidal – sectarianism” against Syria’s Alawite population. Heller writes that “[T]he 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] . . . 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.’”
But it was not only jihadist fighters from the Nusra Front that held strongly sectarian, anti-Alawite views, but also many fighters from the FSA as well, due to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (MB) roots of many FSA battalions. Thanks to the influence of Brotherhood ideologue Said Hawwa, the Syrian MB promoted the anti-Alawite sectarian views of Ibn Taymiyya from the 1960’s until the 1980’s.
Islam scholar Itzchak Weismann of the University of Haifa writes that “In defining his attitude toward the ‘Alawis, Hawwa alludes to a fatwa of Ibn Taymiya, which although it concerns a particular Ismal’ili sect can be applied, in his opinion, to any analogous sect in the Muslim world. According to this fatwa jihad against this sect precedes jihad against polytheists (musbrikun) or against ahl al-kitab, as it belongs to the category of jihad against murtaddun [apostates]. Thus, in Hawwa’s view, Syria is a unique case of a Muslim state that is ruled by a heretical batini government, and in such a case he sees no escape from a violent confrontation. The Sunni majority, led by the Islamic movement, must wage an uncompromising war against Assad’s regime and against ‘Alawi dominance in Syria.”
This view helped inspire some Brotherhood members, such as Marwan Hadid, to split from the broader Syrian MB organization and initiate an armed insurrection against the Syrian government in Hama in 1964. Upon Hadid’s death in government custody in 1976, his followers, known as the Fighting Vanguard, initiated an assassination campaign targeting Alawite members of the Syrian government bureaucracy and security forces. As part of this campaign, Fighting Vanguard militants massacred 83 Alawite army cadets in Aleppo in June 1979, while attempting to assassinate President Hafez al-Assad himself in June 1980. In response, Assad ordered the massacre of some 500 MB members then being held in Tadmur prison. The Syrian MB joined the Fighting Vanguard in launching an armed insurrection (which they called a jihad) against the Syrian government in Hama in 1982. Islamist militants attacked police stations, Ba’ath party offices and Syrian army units, forcing the army to withdraw from the city. The army regrouped however, and (in)famously suppressed the insurrection, with the use of considerable violence, leaving thousands dead and much of the city in ruins (for a review of this period, see “Ashes of Hama” by Rafael Lefevre and “The Struggle for Power in Syria” by Nikolaos van Dam).
While the Syrian MB has espoused more moderate positions after the group was defeated in Hama, anti-Alawite sectarianism which colored its conflict with the Syrian government in the 1980’s re-emerged in some segments of the Syrian opposition at the outset of anti-government protests in 2011, and was taken up by some FSA rebel groups.
In some anti-government protests in the spring of 2011, protestors chanted the slogan “Christians to Beirut, Alawites to the grave,” while in June 2011, Syrian opposition cleric and FSA supporter Adnan Arour threatened to put Alawites supporting the government in “meat grinders” and “feed their flesh to the dogs.”
In the summer of 2011, Lebanese Sunnis from the city of Tripoli were entering Syria to fight for the FSA-affiliated Farouq Brigade in Homs, with encouragement from Lebanese cleric Masen al-Mohammed, who insisted that “Assad is an infidel,” because he is a member of the Alawite faith and that “It is the duty of every Muslim, every Arab to fight the infidels.”
FSA groups inquired of Islamic scholars in March 2012 whether it was allowed to raid Alawite villages and kill their women and children in response to alleged crimes committed by the Syrian army.
On April 10, 2011, just weeks after the first anti-government protests in Syria, anti-government activists loyal to local Salafi cleric and protest leader Anas Ayrout murdered an Alawite farmer in Banias named Nidal Janoud. Video emerged of the activists stabbing Nidal to death in the street. In July 2013, Ayrout, by then a rebel commander and member of the Western-backed Syrian National Council (SNC) toldReuters that “We have to drive them [Alawites] out of their homes like they drove us out. They have to feel pain like we feel pain,” and that “(Alawites) are relaxed while areas that have slipped out of regime control are always under shelling (by government forces), always in pain. . . If you do not create a balance of terror, the battle will not be decided.”
Similarly, in September 2013, Zahran Alloush, a Salafi preacher and founder of the Saudi-supported opposition rebel group Jaish al-Islam, called for “cleansing Damascus” of all Alawites, while calling Shiite Muslims, of which Alawites are considered an offshoot, “unclean” and threating to “destroy your skulls” and “make you taste the worst torture in life before Allah makes you taste the worst torture on judgment day.” Proof that Jaish al-Islam was welcomed by the mainstream and Western-backed political opposition became clear when Zahran’s cousin and co-founder of Jaish al-Islam, Mohammad Alloush, was appointed as the lead negotiator for the Syrian opposition at the Geneva peace negotiations in January 2016.
The anti-Alawite incitement promoted by opposition clerics such as Alloush, al-Mohammed, Arour, and Ayrout was at times translated into action. In December 2012, FSA battalions carried out a mass kidnapping of Alawite civilians in the town of Aqrab. Alex Thomsen of Channel 4 News reported that according to residents of the town who had escaped, “rebels wanted to take the women and children to al-Houla to use them as human shields against bombardment from government forces, and they believed they would kill the remaining men.”
In August 2013, one month after Ayrout’s threats against Alawites, fighters under the command of FSA head Salim Idriss participated alongside Nusra and ISIS in the massacre and kidnapping of Alawite civilians in 10 villages in Latakia, according to the BBC. Human Rights Watch (HRC) investigated the massacre further, and reported that on August 4, rebels overran a Syrian army position, killing some 30 Syrian soldiers. Rebels then massacred 190 civilians, including 57 women and 18 children and 14 elderly men. Rebels also kidnapped and held hostage some 200 additional civilians, the majority women and children. Many of the hostages were released 9 months later as part of a ceasefire deal to end fighting between the Syrian army and rebels in Homs, and victims were able to recount horrific details of their captivity to the pro-Syrian government Lebanese newspaper, al-Akhbar.
The massacre came as part of a rebel offensive, led by ISIS, to capture Tartous, a port town crucial for the Syrian army receiving weapons shipments by sea from its Iranian allies. The Telegraphreported that Western-backed Syrian National Council (SNC) denied that rebels were targeting civilians based on their religious identity, but that the SNC nevertheless “praised” the ISIS led-offensive “stating that the villages had been used as launching posts from which pro-government militias had shelled rebel held villages in the north of the province.” At the same time, the Telegraphreported that “Video footage posted showed rebel groups indiscriminately launching rockets in the direction of Qardaha, the Assad village, and many of the comments made in the footage were clearly sectarian.”
In November 2015, Jaish al-Islam placed Alawite prisoners, both kidnapped civilians and captured Syrian soldiers, in metal cages in public squares. The Telegraph cited SOHRreporting that “Jaish al-Islam is using these captives and kidnapped people – including whole families – as human shields,” allegedly in an effort to prevent Syrian government bombing.
Christians in Latakia also feared the rebels. In March 2014, the Armenian Christian village of Kassab in northern Latakia province was overrun by rebels crossing the Syrian border from Turkey. Saudi owned al-Arabiareports that “Kassab’s residents fled after rebels seized their village on March 23, as part of a rebel offensive in the coastal Syrian province of Latakia, Assad’s ancestral heartland.” One resident who fled when the rebels came toldal-Jazeera that “There was no obvious reason to invade, no heavy Syrian military presence. . . But that morning, shelling was pouring down like hail.” Once the residents fled, rebels looted their homes and farm equipment. “They have taken the televisions, radios and microwaves to Kassab Square, and they’ve gathered all the tractors at the Kassab Tourist Resort,” a media representative for the Armenians in the town toldal-Jazeera. The Washington Postreported that a “mother of three said that after she arrived in Latakia with her children, she called home, and a man who identified himself as a member of Jabhat al-Nusra answered” and told her “Come back, why did you leave your home? We have come here to protect you,” before also telling her “she should convert to Islam before returning.” The mother described how “I pleaded with him, ‘Eat and drink whatever you like, but please don’t destroy the house.’” American celebrity personality Kim Kardashian, herself Armenian, attempted to bring attention to the plight of Kassab’s residents and the danger they faced from al-Qaeda rebels. In response, the Daily Beast published an article making light of her concerns, suggesting Kardashian was simply an apologist for dictators.
Despite rebel attacks on various villages in Latakia province as described above, Latakia city and its some 400,000 residents had largely been spared the violence engulfing much of the country, with some 200,000 displaced persons finding refuge in Latakia, many of whom were housed in tents and pre-fabricated homes in the city’s sports stadium complex.
By the spring of 2015, however, rebels were encroaching closer and closer on Latakia city. In March 2015, Saudi-owned al-Arabiyareported that rebels had detonated a car bomb in Qardaha, President Assad’s hometown, located just 30 kilometers Latakia city, and that the Syrian army was conducting operations in an effort to “put to an end the frequent shelling of loyalist villages and towns on the coasts. Morale is reportedly cracking in the regime strongholds due to repeated artillery shelling.”
When Jisr al-Shughour in Idlib province fell to the rebels in April 2015, pro-opposition Orient Newsreported that the coming rebel advance on Latakia would be considerably more difficult and complicated, not just for military reasons, but due to demographic ones as well, as Latakia is primarily populated by supporters of the government. Orient News also acknowledged that many towns and cities in Latakia taken by the rebels would be depopulated, explaining that the “entry of the opposition to these regions will cause a large wave of displaced persons, as occurred when the opposition took control of the villages of Ishtabrak and al-Rasmania and Ghania, which are villages surrounding Jisr al-Shughour and whose residents support the government,” noting as well that the capture of these towns by the opposition “led to residents of these towns fleeing to areas under government control in the Sahel [Latakia].”
In June 2015, one Latakia resident toldSyria Deeply that, the “opposition’s proximity to Latakia is what everyone talks about these days. People expect that Latakia is next, after Idlib and Jisr al-Shughour. When the opposition took over Idlib, people in Latakia were disappointed, but when they took over Jisr al-Shughour, people were scared.” The resident noted that many young men from Latakia had already died fighting with the Syrian army against rebels elsewhere in Syria: “Many Latakians were killed fighting with the army and serving their country. More than 150 people from my neighborhood were killed in service. Their pictures are hung along the main street. All streets in Latakia are like this.” Despite the fear of a rebel takeover of Latakia, the resident suggested many were encouraged by the fact that prominent Syrian general Suhail al-Hassan, who had had considerable success in defeating rebels elsewhere, had been appointed to re-take Jisr al-Shughour. The resident concluded his comments by stating that “The army is our only hope that Syria would become peaceful again.”
While the threat of the massacre of Alawite civilians in Latakia city loomed in the summer of 2015, Syria’s Alawite community had already suffered terrible losses at the hands of the rebels elsewhere. In April 2015 the Telegraph had noted that “The scale of the sect’s losses is staggering: with a population of around two million, a tenth of Syria’s population, the Alawites boast perhaps 250,000 men of fighting age. Today as many as one third are dead, local residents and Western diplomats say. Many Alawite villages nestled in the hills of their ancestral Latakia province are all but devoid of young men. The women dress only in mourning black [emphasis mine].” The Telegraphquotes a Latakia resident as explaining that “Every day there at least 30 men returned from the front lines in coffins. In the beginning of the war their deaths were celebrated with big funerals. Now they are quietly dumped in the back of pick-up trucks,” which caused some Alawite mothers to “set up ‘road blocks’ at the entrances to some of the mountain villages to prevent the army from forcibly taking their sons to the military draft” and to tell military commanders to “Go and bring the sons of the big shots to war and after that we will give you our children.” Resentment due to the high casualties among Alawite army conscripts had begun years before. The Telegraph reported in October 2012 that “as families see their young soldiers coming home in body bags ‘everyday’ that support [for Bashar al-Assad] is cracking” in his hometown of Qardaha, where “The walls are covered in posters showing the faces of the young men that have been killed.”
On September 2, 2015 rebels detonated a car bomb outside a school in Latakia city, killing 12. In providing context for the bombing, the BBCnoted that “Latakia has largely escaped the conflict that has devastated most of Syria and left 250,000 people dead. But a rebel alliance that includes al-Qaeda’s local affiliate, al-Nusra Front, has been advancing on the city and within its surrounding province after driving government forces out of much of neighboring Idlib province earlier this year.”The BBC chose not acknowledge the threat to civilians of the rebel advance, characterizing it instead as simply “the latest in a series of setbacks for the president.” Al-Jazeera cited SOHR as reporting this was “the biggest car bomb attack in Latakia since the war began” and that “This is rare for Latakia city, which is usually hit by rockets.” Al-Jazeeraadded that “Rebel fighters entrenched in the hilly terrain around Latakia regularly fire rockets and other missiles into the city.”
Robert Worth of the New York Timeswrites of this period that “the rebels were closing in on the Latakia city limits, and mortars were falling downtown. If the rebels had captured the area — where Alawites are the majority — a result would almost certainly have been sectarian mass murder. Many people in the region would have blamed the United States, which armed some of the rebels operating in the area. . . Andrew Exum, who worked in the Pentagon at the time, told me that the military drew up contingency plans for a rapid collapse of the regime. The planning sessions were talked about as ‘catastrophic success [emphasis mine].’”
The phrase “catastrophic success” is an odd one. Presumably, the rebel takeover of Latakia and possible collapse of the Syrian government would be catastrophic, given the large numbers of people that would have been massacred. Such an outcome would have nevertheless constituted a success, from the perspective of US planners, as the fall of the Syrian government was long a strategic US goal, due to the desire to weaken Syria’s close allies, Iran and Hezbollah.
For example, Flynt Leverett, the former Middle East specialist for the State Department, CIA and National Security Council during the Bush Administration described how, “The unrest in Syria started in March 2011. . . . and by April of 2011, just one month into this the Obama administration was backgrounding David Sanger from the New York Times and other sympathetic reporters that they were looking at the situation in Syria as a way of pushing back and undermining Iran. That if you could bring about regime change in [Syria] the argument was that this would really weaken Iran’s regional position and reignite the Green Movement and produce regime change in Iran. . . This has been very much the real strategic driver for American policy toward the situation.” Central Syria (Homs and Hama)
In late March 2015, ISIS fighters moved south and west from their stronghold in Raqqa to initiate an offensive to take control of territory in central Syria, in Homs and Hama provinces. Both provinces are strategically important as the M5 highway, which connects Damascus to the major population centers in the north, in particular Aleppo, runs directly through both Homs and Hama and constitutes Syria’s economic and military lifeline. ISIS gains in Homs and Hama, in particular in the ancient city of Palmyra, also helped open the road toward Damascus.
On March 23, 2015 ISIS fighters assaulted the town of Sheikh Hilal, in an effort to control the larger Salamiya area in Hama. Reuters cited the SOHR as reporting that ISIS had killed 74 Syrian government soldiers during the assault, which according to Syrian government officials were either off-duty soldiers or members of the locally formed defense groups. ISIS released photos of five Syrian soldiers its militants had beheaded. On June 27, ISIS raided Sheikh Hilal once again. Al-ArabiyaquotesSOHR as reporting that ISIS fighters killed “40 government loyalists, including soldiers and members of the National Defense Forces,’ a local pro-regime militia.” Sheikh Hilal was an important target for ISIS because according to SOHR, “If they seize control of this road, they’ll cut off the regime forces in Aleppo, since the government won’t be able to send reinforcements or supplies there.”
On March 30, 2015 ISIS fighters assaulted the town of Mabouja, 30 km west of Sheikh Hilal. Al-Jazeeracites the SOHR as reporting that “ISIL [ISIS] had killed entire families and that the dead included people who were burned alive. The population of Mabouja includes Alawites and Ismailis — sects deemed heretical by the radical brand of Sunni Islam espoused by ISIL [ISIS], said Rami Abdulrahman, who runs the Observatory. But he said that Sunni residents were among the dead, too [emphasis mine].” Al-Jazeera also observed that, “ISIL [ISIS] fighters have mounted numerous attacks in government-held areas in the provinces of Hama and Homs in recent weeks, even as it has lost ground in the north and northeast under pressure from a Kurdish militia backed by U.S.-led airstrikes.” The New York Timesreports that according to a journalist from the area near Mabouja, “48 bodies had been buried on Wednesday, and that residents were angry that the government had not sent ‘real army, tanks and heavy weapons’ to back up lightly armed pro-government militias” from the National Defense Forces (NDF) which had been tasked with protecting the town. According to pro-Syrian government al-Masdar News, fighters from the NDF were able to finally repel the ISIS assault with help from the “Syrian Arab Air Force’s (SAAF) Hind Helicopters,” while the “NDF was successful in retaking all lost territory in Al-Maba’ouji, while also killing over 40 enemy combatants from ISIS, including a number of foreigners from Tunisia, Chechnya, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bosnia,” while the NDF suffered 31 dead and 23 injured.
On May 20, 2015 ISIS conquered the city of Tadmur at the site of ancient Palmyra, famous for its Roman ruins, and which lies in Homs province on the road between Deir Ezzour and Damascus. CNNreported of the ISIS assault to take Palmyra that “After at least 100 Syrian soldiers died in fighting overnight, Syrian warplanes carried out airstrikes Thursday in and around Palmyra.”
Shortly after capturing the city, ISIS released video of its fighters throwing two allegedly gay men from the top of a building, and then stoning them. CBS Newscites an eyewitness as claiming that “ISIS militants blared on loudspeakers for men to gather. Then a black van pulled up outside the Wael Hotel, and Mallah and Salamah were brought out. The first to be thrown off was Mallah. He was tied to a chair so he couldn’t resist, then pushed over the side. He landed on his back, broken but still moving. A fighter shot him in the head. Next was Salameh. He landed on his head and died immediately. Still, fighters stoned his body, Omar said. The bodies were then hung up in Palmyra’s Freedom Square for two days, each with a placard on his chest: ‘He received the punishment for practicing the crime of Lot’s people.’” ISIS also released video of teenage boys carrying out the mass execution of 25 captured Syrian soldiers in the city’s ancient amphitheater. Agence France Presse (AFP) reported that ISIS executed as many as 200 people after taking the city. ISIS militants also murdered Khalid al-Asaad, the 83 year old retired director of antiquities for Palmyra. The New York Timesreports that “After detaining him for weeks, the jihadists dragged him on Tuesday to a public square where a masked swordsman cut off his head in front of a crowd, Mr. Asaad’s relatives said. His blood-soaked body was then suspended with red twine by its wrists from a traffic light, his head resting on the ground between his feet, his glasses still on, according to a photo distributed on social media by Islamic State supporters.” CNNcommented that despite these atrocities, “there’s no indication that Syrian ground forces will try to take back the city, 150 miles northeast of Damascus, the capital. Nor that any other countries such as the United States will come to the rescue. ‘The world does not care about us,’ the Palmyra resident said. ‘All they are interested in is the stones of ancient Palmyra.’”
US planners could have indeed bombed convoys of ISIS fighters moving across the open desert from Raqqa to assault Palmyra, but chose not to. The LA Timesreported of this period that “as Islamic State [ISIS] closed in on Palmyra, the U.S.-led aerial coalition that has been pummeling Islamic State in Syria for the past 18 months took no action to prevent the extremists’ advance toward the historic town — which, until then, had remained in the hands of the sorely overstretched Syrian security forces. The U.S. approach in Palmyra contrasted dramatically with the very proactive U.S. bombardment of Kobani during 2014-15 on behalf of U.S.-allied Kurdish militias fending off a furious Islamic State offensive [Emphasis mine].” US planners were willing to come to the aid of their Kurdish allies in northeastern Syria against ISIS, but refused to do the same for residents in Palmyra, as the city had been under Syrian government control.
One year later, in March 2016, Russian and Syrian forces were able to retake Palmyra and liberate it from ISIS, to the displeasure of US planners. The LA Timesnoted that White House officials have “difficulty publicly lauding advances against Islamic State by Assad and his allies, including the Russians and Iranians, after years of calling for Assad’s fall” and that the Russian success in combating ISIS created a “dilemma” for US planners, because “Washington has endeavored to portray the battle against Islamic State as a project of the United States and its allies, while accusing Moscow of attacking ‘moderate’ rebels instead of the extremists. Palmyra seems to embody an alternative narrative.” US dissatisfaction at the defeat of ISIS in Palmyra was also expressed by State Department spokesperson Mark Toner at a press briefing in March 2016, when Toner refused “to laud” the Syrian and Russian effort to liberate the city.
The fall of Palmyra in May 2015 resulted in ISIS control of some 50% of Syrian territory, and constituted “another strategic defeat that could expose Homs and Damascus to the terror group’s advances,” according to the Guardian. Al-Jazeeraacknowledged the same, explaining that the “fall of the city potentially opens the way for ISIL [ISIS] to advance towards key government-held areas, including the capital and Homs.”
After capturing Palmyra, ISIS militants attempted multiple times to assault the nearby T4 airbase, located 40 km west to the west of the ancient city in Homs province. Crowd-sourced journalism site Bellingcatreported that “The Islamic State’s [ISIS] offensive in Central Syria has not only allowed the fighters of the Islamic State [ISIS] to expand their operations into areas previously out of reach, but it now also threatens the regime’s gas supplies, its presence on numerous fronts, its control over the only road leading to the vitally important T4 airbase and the airbase itself, the largest of its kind in Syria.”
On August 6, 2015 ISIS advanced further toward the Damascus by capturing the town of al-Qaryatain, which lays roughly half way between Palmyra and the Syrian capital. United Press International (UPI) reports that “37 pro-government forces were killed, as were 23 IS militants. The battle began with suicide bombings at checkpoints of the town of about 40,000; the population of the community, a mix of Sunni Muslims and Christians, has been reduced by the flight of refugees. The capture of al-Qaryatain indicates IS [ISIS] can move troops and supplies across central Syria without interference, from Palmyra in the east and southwestward to al-Qaryatain.” CNNcitedSOHR as reporting that “The Islamic extremists [ISIS] have abducted more than 200 people, said Rami Abdurrahman, the observatory’s executive director. Up to 500 people are unaccounted for, but Abdurrahman said the observatory has confirmed that at least 230 people have been taken hostage. He said that ISIS militants targeted Christians, some of whom were abducted from the town’s Dar Alyan monastery, as well as people believed to have alliances with the Syrian regime.” To be considered a collaborator or as having “alliances with the regime” by ISIS, it was often enough to simply have a picture of Bashar al-Assad on one’s phone, despite the fact that “lots of people have a picture of Bashar on the phone because it helps them get through checkpoints,” according to one former ISIS captive. ISIS militants then bulldozed the 1,500 year old monastery and its church, while the senior priest, Father Jacques Mouraud, was among the kidnapped.
The capture of Qaraytain also allowed ISIS forces to threaten to take control of the strategic M5 highway on month later. Patrick Cockburn of the Independentreported in September 2015 that “Islamic State (Isis) forces in Syria are threatening to capture a crucial road, the loss of which could touch off a panic and the exodus of several million refugees from government areas, in addition to the four million who have already fled. Isis fighters have advanced recently to within 22 miles of the M5 highway, the only major route connecting government-held territory in Damascus to the north and west of the country. . . The four million Syrians who are already refugees mostly came from opposition or contested areas that have been systematically bombarded by government aircraft and artillery, making them uninhabitable. But the majority of the 17 million Syrians still in the country live in government-controlled areas now threatened by Isis. These people are terrified of Isis occupying their cities, towns and villages because of its reputation for mass executions, ritual mutilation and rape against those not obedient to its extreme variant of Sunni Islam. Half the Syrian population has already been displaced inside or outside the country, so accurate figures are hard to estimate, but among those particularly at risk are the Alawites (2.6 million), the Shia heterodox sect that has provided the ruling elite of Syria since the 1960s, the Christians (two million), the Syrian Kurds (2.2 million), and Druze (650,000) in addition to millions of Sunni Arabs associated with the Syrian government and its army [emphasis mine].” Yarmouk
By April 2015, ISIS and Nusra had also captured the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp, known as the capital of the Palestinian diaspora, in the southern suburbs of Damascus, and just kilometers from the presidential palace. This allowed ISIS and Nusra to control territory that could be used as a base to assault the heart of the Syrian capital itself.
Flush with newly delivered weapons supplied by the CIA and its Saudi partners, rebels from the FSA and Nusra had invaded and occupied Yarmouk camp two and a half years previously, on December 15, 2012. Rebels entered the camp against the will of Yarmouk’s resident’s, despite explicit requests from the PLO that the rebels not invade, as Palestinians wished to remain neutral in the conflict.
Some 800,000 Yarmouk residents, both Palestinian and Syrian, fled the camp to escape the dangers of the subsequent fighting. Residents, fearing both the rebel mortars and Syrian government MiG airstrikes, sought refuge in other Damascus neighborhoods, in the Palestinian camps in Lebanon, in Turkey, and even in Europe, with the scale of the displacement numerically rivaling that of the 1948 Nakba.
Rebels soon began looting homes, taking over hospitals and stealing medicine. The Syrian government imposed a siege on Yarmouk, which prevented the rebels from advancing further toward Damascus, but which made food, water, and basic necessities scarce, forcing residents to depend heavily on intermittent UNRWA humanitarian aid deliveries. Government and rebel use of heavy artillery and mortars while fighting one another led to significant destruction in the camp, and scores of civilian deaths. The few remaining civilians, roughly 20,000, became trapped in the camp because, as one Yarmouk resident told the Guardian, “rebel groups were eager to keep people in the camp, she said, particularly men and boys. Their departure was seen as defection from the opposition cause as well as potentially making it easier for government troops to enter the camp by force and regain control.” While the Syrian government encouraged civilians to leave, many nonetheless feared being detained by the Syrian security forces which were screening exiting civilians for fighters.The rebel occupation and government siege continued for years, causing hundreds of deaths due to starvation and lack of medical care.
In April 2015, Nusra fighters facilitated the entry of ISIS fighters into Yarmouk. The BBCreported that “Monitors say IS [ISIS] and the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front, who have fought each other in other parts of Syria, are working together in Yarmouk.”
Several thousand residents who managed to escape the camp and take shelter in a school in an area under Syrian army control told of ISIS atrocities, including one boy who saw ISIS fighters using a severed head as a soccer ball, and a woman who described how “’Daesh’s [ISIS] arrival meant destruction and massacre. Their behavior’s not human and their religion is not ours.”
Clashes between ISIS and local Palestinian rebels (who were loyal to Hamas and had previously supported Nusra’s initial invasion of the camp) exacerbated the humanitarian situation, forcing UNRWA to cease the already limited aid deliveries to Yarmouk. The Guardian quoted one Yarmouk resident as stating, “There is no food or electricity or water, Daesh [ISIS] is killing and looting the camp, there are clashes, there is shelling. Everyone is shelling the camp. . . As soon as Daesh entered the camp they burned the Palestinian flag and beheaded civilians.”
The Syrian government tightened the siege, reaffirming their concern that ISIS fighters controlled territory so near the heart of the Syrian capital. Al-Jazeera reporter Stefanie Dekker explained that “It is a complex situation. The government forces control the northern part [of the camp] towards Damascus. It is their priority to keep the capital safe. . . The fact that ISIL [ISIS] fighters are less than 10km away is of a huge concern. If they allow a humanitarian corridor, who will be coming out?” Despite these concerns, al-Jazeerareported that the Syrian government did indeed allow residents to leave, as some 2,000 were able to be evacuated at this time, with many finding shelter in government schools in neighboring areas.
Fighters from the pro-government Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC)confronted ISIS fighters at the northern edge of the camp to stop their advance, while the Syrian military bombed ISIS positions. Foreign Policyquoted one PFLP-GC fighter originally from Yarmouk as saying “I will not stop until they [ISIS] leave the camp. . . I have no problem staying here in this position, not sleeping, digging out tunnels, and fighting. We need to do this,” while quoting another PFLP-GC fighter who felt that “If we weren’t here fighting, [the militants] would be able to access Damascus. . . We’re here to protect the camp and Damascus.”
The New York Times acknowledged the ISIS threat to Syrian capital at this time, observing that “By seizing much of the camp” ISIS had “made its greatest inroads yet into Damascus,” while the Washington Postnoted that “Their new push puts [ISIS] within five miles of the heart of the capital . . . even as they are on the retreat in Iraq.”
As a result of this threat, 14 Palestinian factions agreed to form a joint operations room with the Syrian army to try defeat ISIS militarily and purge its militants from the camp. PLO Executive Committee member Ahmed Majdalani told a press conference that “The decision will be jointly made by the two sides to retake the camp from the obscurantist terrorists who seize it now.” However, the PLO soon reversed course, claiming the Palestinians should not be dragged into any conflict, allegedly as a result of pressure on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas from Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
The US preference for the advance of ISIS toward Damascus, even as US warplanes were bombing the terror group in Eastern Syria and Iraq, was explained by Secretary of State John Kerry. Kerry shockingly admitted that US planners actually welcomed the ISIS push toward Damascus, which they felt they could leverage to put pressure on Assad to give up power to the US-backed opposition. As discussed above, Kerry explained that, “We were watching. We saw that Daesh [ISIS]was growing in strength. And we thought Assad was threatened. We thought we could manage that Assad might then negotiate. Instead of negotiating, he got Putin to support him.” The New York Times reported in detail on the meeting, an audio recording of which was leaked, as did the Guardianand CNN. Despite Kerry’s shocking comments, none of these three news outlets mentioned his admission that US planners welcomed the ISIS advance on Damascus, presumably due to requests by US intelligence officials. CNN initially posted the full audio of the leaked tape, but latertook it down, claiming in an editor’s note to have done so for the safety of participants in the meeting. Russia Intervenes
The Nusra/FSA advance on Latakia and ISIS advance on Damascus and the M5 highway provides the context in which Russian forces intervened in Syria in September 2015. Writing in the New York Review of Books, Charles Glass confirmed Secretary of State Kerry’s view that Russia intervened in the conflict to prevent the fall of the Syrian government to jihadists from Nusra and ISIS. Glass quoted “one analyst familiar with Russian decision making” as noting that by autumn 2015, “it was clear Damascus could fall,” which was a “red line” that “Russia could not abide.” As a result, Russia “increased air support and sent ground forces to guarantee the survival of Syria’s government, army, and institutions. Its action saved Damascus from an insurgent onslaught and gave the Syrian army the upper hand in the long seesaw war.”
US planners responded to Russian efforts to save Damascus and Latakia from Nusra and ISIS respectively by immediately increasing shipments of TOW anti-tank missiles to the FSA, despite their knowledge these weapons had helped Nusra conquer Idlib and threaten Latakia.
The New York Timesreported on October 12, 2015, just two weeks after the start of the Russian intervention, that rebels were now receiving as many TOW missiles as they asked for. One FSA commander explained, “We get what we ask for in a very short time,” while another rebel official in Hama called the supply “carte blanche,” suggesting, “We can get as much as we need and whenever we need them.” The NYT also acknowledged that FSA cooperation with Nusra constituted a “tactical alliance that Free Syrian Army commanders describe as an uncomfortable marriage of necessity, because they cannot operate without the consent of the larger and stronger Nusra Front.”
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) observed that “at this point it is impossible to argue that U.S. officials involved in the CIA’s program cannot discern that Nusra and other extremists have benefited” from CIA weapons shipments to Syrian rebels, “And despite this, the CIA decided to drastically increase lethal support to vetted rebel factions following the Russian intervention into Syria in late September.” TOW Missiles Just “Rhetoric”
Understanding that TOW shipments were benefitting al-Qaeda, US planners stopped short of also providing anti-aircraft missiles to FSA groups. US planners have strongly supported Syrian rebel groups, but not at any cost. The New York Times noted that the Russians “appear to be using techniques honed in Afghanistan, where the occupying Soviet Army fought insurgents who were eventually supplied with antiaircraft missiles by the United States. Some of those insurgents later began Al Qaeda. That specter hangs over American policy, and has kept Syrian insurgents from receiving what they most want: antiaircraft missiles . . .”
Opposition supporters, including many oddly identifying as socialists, complained bitterly that US planners were not willing to take the step of providing anti-aircraft missiles to the FSA, for the ultimate benefit of al-Qaeda. Author and opposition supporter Leila al-Shami bizarrely suggested the US refusal to provide anti-aircraft missiles to the rebels proves that “The United States support for Free Syrian Army militias on the ground has never really been any more than rhetoric. It’s never really given any serious support to them.” Al-Shami ignores the over $1 billion of weaponry and assistance provided by the CIA to the rebels directly, not to mention the much larger amounts of aid provided by America’s Gulf partners to both the FSA and Salafi rebel groups Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam since the start of the Syrian conflict, with US approval. Some opposition supporters expressed to Secretary of State Kerry that they would not be satisfied unless the US military intervened directly on behalf of the rebels to depose Assad, despite the illegality of doing so under international law, and potential that such an intervention could trigger a direct conflict between the US and Russia. Rebel-affiliated media activists tweeting under the guise of the young girl, Bana al-Abed, suggested the US should come to the aid of the al-Qaeda-dominated rebels in Aleppo even at the risk of starting World War III with Russia. Conclusion
US planners welcomed rebel gains in Syria, including by jihadist groups advocating genocide against Syria’s Alawite population such as ISIS and Nusra, because these gains bolstered the broader US goal of toppling the Syrian government, in an effort to weaken its close allies, Iran and Hezbollah. US planners wished to see rebel gains in Syria, in spite of the obviously catastrophic consequences for Syrian civilians that rebel success would bring. US support for the rebels belies the myth of US “inaction” in Syria, and the myth that any US intervention would be for the sake of preventing massacres and even genocide, rather than in support of it.
The Syrian government is an authoritarian police state that has long been in need of drastic reform. Like all governments fighting a war, the Syrian government has killed civilians and committed crimes against innocent people during the course of the Syrian conflict (though the extent of these crimes has been massively inflated and often even fabricated in the Western press). Similarly, the Russian military deserves harsh criticism, as it has undoubtedly killed civilians unnecessarily during air strikes against the rebels. The deaths of these civilians are tragic, as are the deaths of civilians in Raqqa and Mosul killed by US bombs in the effort to defeat ISIS in those cities.
It is unclear however, how Syrian civilians generally would have benefited if US planners had succeeded in accomplishing their goal of helping the predominantly jihadist Syrian rebels, including al-Qaeda and ISIS, topple the Syrian government. One Syrian fighting for a pro-government militia articulated why he and many Syrians in general oppose the rebels and the Syrian political opposition which supports them: “At first, my family sympathized with the protesters. But then it became obvious that the hardliners among the secular opposition work in the interests of Turkey and the Arab monarchies. Plus the course for Islamization was visible early on, and that was a concern. Like pretty much all normal people, my family, my friends and everyone I know in Syria are strongly against Wahhabis and religious extremism in general [emphasis mine],” with Wahhabism referring to the state ideology of Saudi Arabia, from which al-Qaeda and ISIS draw much of their inspiration.
In Syria’s major population centers, civilians are terrified that the rebels will come, and look to the Syrian army to protect them. Large numbers of civilians leave any city where rebels gain a foothold and seek refuge primarily in government controlled areas of the country or outside of Syria itself. The threat of Syrian and Russian bombing certainly plays a role in this, but it is clear that rebel looting, the murder of minorities and those sympathetic to the government, and the imposition of extremist religious rule do not endear the rebels to Syria’s civilian population.
Contrary to most reporting on Syria, which suggests the civil war has pitted Syria’s entire Sunni population against its Alawite, Christian, Druze, Shia and other minorities, in fact many Syrian Sunnis support the government and oppose Salafi-Jihadism, the extremist religious ideology undergirding most rebel groups in Syria. The Syrian government would have fallen long ago, if not for Sunni support. For example, the rebels were hated even in the majority Sunni city of Aleppo and many Sunnis continue to fight in the Syrian army against the rebels, while many Syrian Sunnis have been killed by the rebels for this support of the government. For this reason, describing the rebels as “Sunni” is misleading. A more accurate description of Syria’s rebels would be “Salafi-Jihadi” or “Wahhabi,” or “Takfiri,” or “religious fundamentalist” rather than “Sunni.”
Had Damascus and Latakia fallen to the rebels, not only Alawites and Christians, but also pro-government Sunnis and Sunnis opposed to Salafi-Jihadi ideology would have been massacred, not to mention members of Syria’s LGBTQ community. The Russian intervention in Syria then, by all indications, prevented this horrific outcome for Syrians of all ethnic and religious identities, despite the best efforts of US planners to achieve the “catastrophic success” in Syria they had hoped for.
The idea that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad deliberately militarized the Syrian uprising and sought to support extremist rebel groups, including ISIS, has been repeated often in the Western press. As proof of such claims, critics of the Syrian government suggest that Assad deliberately released Islamists from Syrian jails; that the Syrian army has not fought ISIS, and that Assad sought to support ISIS by purchasing oil from the terror group. It is argued that Assad took these measures to sabotage the peaceful, democratic uprising he allegedly faced, and in order to convince the West that he was fighting terrorists rather than peaceful pro-democracy protesters. It is presumed that if Assad could be successful in this, the United States would have no choice but to embrace the Syrian government as a partner in the so-called War on Terror against ISIS and other extremist groups, considering Assad the lesser evil. Articles to this effect have appeared in Newsweek,The Daily Beast, Independent (UK), the Wall Street Journal, andDer Spiegel, among others.
In fact the Syrian army has fought ISIS throughout the conflict, as detailed by Syria analyst Aymenn al-Tamimi. The Syrian government has purchased oil from ISIS, but out of necessity, as have US-backed rebel groups and even Western-funded NGOs, as I have detailed here.
In this essay, I will discuss the claim that Assad deliberately released Islamist prisoners in order to militarize and radicalize the Syrian uprising. These claims stem from a January 2014 article published by the state-owned newspaper of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the National, which claimed that “Syrian intelligence agencies released Islamist militants from prison to deliberately subvert a peaceful uprising and ignite a violent rebellion,” citing an anonymous former Syrian intelligence official. The National article refers to events in April, May and June 2011, when the Syrian government announced its intention to release thousands of prisoners as part of a series of general amnesties.
I will first provide a brief overview of the reasons why claims that Assad deliberately released Islamist prisoners in order to militarize the Syrian protest movement are likely false, after which I will discuss each of these reasons in more detail.
First, while Assad did release Islamist prisoners in the early weeks and months of the uprising as part of a general amnesty, the Syrian government did so in response to demands from the Syrian opposition itself. The Washington Postreported in May 2011 that, “the amnesty could affect about 10,000 people who Syrian activists say have been rounded up since the anti-government protests broke out in mid-March. The release of political prisoners has been a key demand of the opposition [emphasis mine].”
But why did Assad release many Islamist prisoners, rather than only secular pro-democracy activists? This is because, contrary to the mainstream view, the Syrian opposition was not for the most part secular. Instead, much of the Syrian opposition was dominated by Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood, the Syrian government’s long time enemy.
The Muslim Brotherhood led a violent insurrection and assassination campaign against the Syrian state from 1976-82 which was infamously suppressed by Hafez al-Assad, the then president of Syria and father of Bashar al-Assad, during the events in Hama. Though defeated on the ground in Syria, the exiled Brotherhood leadership remained committed to regime change in Syria, including through armed struggle. As a result, the Syrian government banned membership in the Brotherhood, and detained many Syrians (executing some) for having Brotherhood ties. Consequently, when unrest erupted throughout the Middle East as part of the Arab Spring in 2011, many of the political prisoners already languishing in Syrian jails were Islamists affiliated with the Brotherhood.
After years of organized opposition to the Syrian government, the Brotherhood was well placed to leverage the popular dissatisfaction many Syrians felt due to the authoritarianism and corruption of the Syrian government, and due to the poor economic situation many Syrians faced, in particular in the countryside, after years of drought. Members of the Brotherhood founded the Syria Revolution 2011 Facebook page, the mechanism through which most anti-government demonstrations in Syria were organized, and the main conduit through which news of the uprising was disseminated to Western and Gulf media outlets. The Brotherhood also came to largely control the main opposition group abroad, the Syrian National Council (SNC) which received most of its funding from the religious fundamentalist governments in Saudi Arabia and Qatar.As a result, many (but certainly not all) Syrians arrested for participating in the early protests were Islamists.
The Syrian opposition, largely Islamist as it was, was therefore demanding the release of not just secular but also Islamist prisoners. It is therefore obvious that Assad would have to release not only secular but also Islamist prisoners if he hoped to diffuse the crisis and avoid the fate of other recently deposed Arab leaders, namely Mubarak in Egypt and Ben Ali in Tunisia.
The Syrian government did not seek to hide the release of Islamist prisoners. It openly announced at the time that members of the Muslim Brotherhood would be among those released during the amnesties announced in March, May, and June 2011. The release of Islamist prisoners was accompanied by other concessions to conservative religious segments of Syrian society as well, including closing casinos and revoking a ban on Syrian teachers wearing the niqab (headscarf for women covering the hair and face), further suggesting Assad attempted to placate those in the opposition who were most determined to see him deposed.
In response, the Syrian opposition did not object to the release of Islamist prisoners. Rather, these measures, and other announced reforms, were quickly dismissed by the Syrian opposition, as well as by Western leaders, as insufficient, as both continued to demand that Assad step down.
This does not mean that Assad offered these concessions out of humanitarian or ethical concerns. Likely, he simply felt that offering limited concessions to the opposition would diffuse the pressure he faced (from both within Syria and abroad) to step down, thus preserving his power and allowing him to continue ruling the country. The Syrian government deserves harsh criticism for waiting to implement such reforms and release political prisoners until it was pressured to do so. Nonetheless, by accepting only regime change, the opposition lost an opportunity to win real democratic gains (if indeed that was their goal) and helped push the country further toward civil war, an inevitable outcome given that many Syrians genuinely supported Assad and the Syrian government.
Second, the United States and its Arab allies, in particular Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are the parties responsible for providing weapons and funding for extremist rebel groups in Syria. Zahran Alloush and Hassan Aboud are examples of prisoners released by the Syrian government during the 2011 amnesty who went on to become leaders of rebel groups, Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam) and Ahrar al-Sham (Islamic Movement of the Free Men of the Levant), respectively. Both groups advocated Salafi-Jihadi ideology and received significant financial and military support from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, respectively, thus helping to militarize the Syrian opposition. That both Alloush and Aboud (and others) were released from prison by Syrian authorities would not be significant if not for the funding and weapons they later received from America’s Gulf allies. Because US planners wished to topple the Syrian government, it was in their interest to use Salafi-Jihadi rebel groups to do so, mimicking the strategy US planners employed in Afghanistan during the 1980’s and Libya in 2011.
Also significant is the fact that the militarization of the Syrian uprising was already well underway before the prisoner releases due to the government announced amnesties could have had an effect on the nature of the uprising. One fighter from Ahrar al-Sham claimed to Time magazine that the rebel group began forming brigades even before March 2011, which is when the Syrian uprising is generally considered to have begun. Other Ahrar al-Sham fighters acknowledged that foreign fighters, including from Saudi Arabia, were joining the group to fight in Syria as early as May 2011. In mid-June 2011, even US officials acknowledged to the New York Times that the “makings of an armed insurgency have begun to emerge.” Syria analyst Aron Lund writes that “Turkish-Qatari support [for the opposition] seems to have arrived early on and was channeled through Islamist networks that included Muslim Brotherhood figures moving guns from civil-war Libya.” Former Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber al-Thani, who oversaw Syria operations on behalf of Qatar until 2013, himself admitted to supporting armed rebel groups from early in the uprising, with the backing of Saudi Arabia and, crucially, the United States. Al-Thani explained that “When the events first started in Syria I went to Saudi Arabia and met with King Abdullah” who supported al-Thani’s efforts to send weapons to rebels in Syria, with help from Turkey and “in coordination with US forces.” As a result, if Assad wished to see the uprising militarized, there is no action he needed to take, as America’s regional allies were already taking steps to assure this outcome.
Additionally, it would not make sense for Assad to appeal to the United States for help in fighting terrorism, when it was the United States that had an interest in deposing Assad, and when it was the United States that was supporting the very rebel groups Assad considered terrorists. Instead, Assad appealed to his allies for help, namely Russia and Iran, both of which had a strong interest in keeping him in power. Assad did not ask the United States for help in fighting terrorists, nor did he try to “ingratiate himself with the Western leaders,” as some claim. Rather, he asked the United States and its Western and Gulf allies to stop funding and arming terrorists. When Salafi-Jihadi rebel groups, including ISIS, came closest to toppling Assad in 2015, Russia intervened to save him. US officials complained bitterly.
Third, it is not reasonable to assume that Assad would deliberately start an armed insurgency against his own government (nor is it reasonable to believe that any leader would do so). Many of those who accuse Assad of supporting extremists in Syria starting in 2011 cite as proof of this that Assad also collaborated with extremists from al-Qaeda during the Iraq war starting in 2003, allowing them to pass through Syria to fight US forces. If Assad did deliberately execute such a strategy, this would not be surprising. It would have been in his interest to do so, as US planners had threatened to invade Syria after invading Iraq. However, it would be extremely surprising for Assad to also deliberately employ the exact same strategy against his own government and security forces that he allegedly used so successfully against his American enemies in Iraq.
Western and Gulf media have promoted even more bizarre claims, suggesting for example that Assad killed many of his own top security officials, including his defense minister and his own brother-in-law, in a false flag terrorist bombing on orders from Iran. Such claims are yet stranger when considering that the bombing occurred in the context of a major rebel offensive to try to conquer Damascus. Rebel groups celebrated the bombing and expressed confidence the Assad government was on the verge of collapsing. Of the bombing, Reuters reported that “Jubilant, the rebels claimed responsibility, boasting that they had pulled off what they called ‘a turning point in Syria’s history’, hailing the attack as ‘the beginning of the end.’” And, yet some Syria commentators still claim that it was somehow in Assad’s and Iran’s interest to carry out such a false flag bombing.
Fourth, simply releasing prisoners that later fought for extremists groups does not tell us much about the intent of the party releasing them. The US military has released many prisoners (for example, from Camp Bucca in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay in Cuba) who were either members of, or went on to join, militant groups and carry out attacks against US targets after their release. The most famous of these is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS. One ISIS member described his time with al-Baghdadi in the US-run prison at Bucca as “an academy,” and as crucial to the creation of the organization. This provides no proof that US planners intended to create ISIS by releasing Baghdadi (and the Western press would never suggest as much). More likely, the US military did not know or understand who and how dangerous some of these prisoners were. The same may have been true of the Syrian government when it released Islamist prisoners.
In other cases, the Syrian government knew it was releasing prisoners widely considered terrorists, but not for the reasons critics suggest. The Syrian government released 9/11 plotter Mohammad Haydar Zammar from prison, but not in 2011 as part of the prisoner amnesties, but in 2013 as part of a prisoner exchange with Qatar-backed Ahrar al-Sham, in order to free captured Syrian army officers, and long after the Syrian insurgency had become dominated by jihadists. Nonetheless, Syrian opposition figures claim that the Syrian government released Zammar in order to create ISIS.
The propensity of the Western and Gulf media to level bizarre claims against the Syrian government, while refusing to make similar claims against the US government is highlighted by the case of al-Qaeda in Syria (Nusra Front) leader, Abu Muhammad al-Jolani. The Nationalreported the rumor that Jolani was among those prisoners released by the Syrian government. Newsweek then uncritically repeated this claim. By the time the National and Newsweek articles were published, it had already been established by Iraqi and Jordanian intelligence (and reported by the Times of Israel) that Jolani had not been imprisoned by the Syrian government at all. Instead, Jolani been imprisoned previously by the US military in Iraq, which then released him in 2008. ISIS leader Baghdadi then sent Jolani to Syria to found the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda in response to the unrest starting in 2011. Despite this error, accusations that Assad deliberately supports ISIS remain, while the idea that the Western and Gulf press would accuse the US government of deliberately supporting ISIS by releasing prisoners such as al-Baghdadi and al-Jolani remains unthinkable.
Fifth, the supposed evidence that Assad released Islamist prisoners specifically for the purpose of discrediting the supposedly peaceful, secular opposition movement comes from biased sources. As mentioned above, the initial claim that Assad released Islamist prisoners to militarize the Syrian uprising originated in the National, the state-owned newspaper of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). UAE foreign policy has supported regime change in Syria, in concert with its Gulf neighbors, giving the National an interest in promoting anti-Syrian government claims, reliable or not. The National article also relied on either anonymous former Syrian security officials or members of the Syrian opposition (who also have interest in deposing Assad, of course) as sources. Claims from biased sources may well be accurate, but additional evidence is necessary to confirm such claims. They should not be taken at face value. Just as official Syrian government sources are biased and cannot be considered reliable without supporting evidence, nor should claims by members of the Syrian opposition be considered reliable without evidence.
That the National’s claims were then eagerly repeated in the Western press is not surprising as the US and UK governments have long advocated a policy of fomenting regime change in Syria as well. Such media outlets, while feigning independence, are typically supportive of US foreign policy, and would have an interest in blaming Assad for the rise of religious extremists, in order to deflect blame from the US and Gulf governments, who were themselves responsible for doing just that.
All of this suggests that Western and opposition claims that Assad sought to militarize and radicalize the Syrian opposition are likely propaganda, meant to de-legitimize the Syrian state, in an effort to destabilize and topple it. Another indication these claims are likely propaganda is that they seem to be deliberately designed to play on Western fears of Islam and Muslims. Suggesting that Assad is releasing supposedly scary, violent, barbaric Muslims from prison is an easy way to demonize the Syrian government in the eyes of a Western audience already fearful of Islam after 15 years of the so-called War on Terror. However, there is nothing objectionable that Muslims and even Islamists constitute much of the Syrian opposition, or participated in anti-government protests.
What is objectionable is that these Islamists were pushed toward violence by foreign powers such as the United States, Saudi Arabia and Qatar in an effort to topple an admittedly authoritarian and corrupt but previously stable Syrian state, plunging the country into a state of civil war. Whatever the merits (or lack thereof) of the Syrian state, Syrians do not benefit when the country is ripped apart by violence instigated by foreign powers seeking their own agenda. Also objectionable is that these Islamists have promoted intolerant, fringe, fundamentalist religious ideas (takfirism). Such ideas are largely foreign to Syrians (having originated in Saudi Arabia), including to Syrian Sunnis, and incite violence against religious minorities.
Prisoners Released in Response to the Demands of the Opposition
The simplest explanation as to why Assad released Islamist prisoners from Syrian jails at the start of the Syrian uprising is that this was a demand of the Syrian opposition itself, from the very beginning of the uprising, and that Assad acquiesced to this demand in an effort to diffuse the crisis.
Most assume the Syrian uprising began on March 15, 2011 when protests broke out after Syrian officials detained 15 youths in Deraa for writing anti-government graffiti on the walls of a school. It is clear that releasing prisoners was a demand of the opposition from the very beginning. Time reported on March 22, 2011 that “Assad responded immediately, sending a high-ranking delegation to deliver his condolences to the families of the dead. The governor was cashiered, and the 15 kids released. But according to at least two dissident websites, protesters have given the Syrian government until the morning of March 25 to meet a list of demands that were relayed to the President by his delegation. If the demands are not met, they threaten, March 25 will become the ‘Friday of the Martyrs’ . . . Assad is unlikely to meet demands that include lifting the 48-year-old emergency law and releasing all political prisoners [Emphasis mine].”
In response, the Syrian government quickly announced a prisoner amnesty. The Australianreported on March 26, 2011 that “Syrian authorities released more than 200 prisoners from Saydnaya, mainly Islamists, after the prisoners had submitted signed requests for their release” and that “The government of President Bashar al-Assad announced a string of reforms on Thursday, including the release of all activists detained this month and the possibility of ending emergency rule, in place since 1963.” Anti-government protests continued, however.
Five weeks later, the issue of political prisoners was still paramount. The Washington Postreported on May 31, 2011 that the Syrian government-announced a further amnesty, which “could affect about 10,000 people who Syrian activists say have been rounded up since the anti-government protests broke out in mid-March. The release of political prisoners has been a key demand of the opposition [emphasis mine].”
Three weeks later, Assad gave a public speech about the crisis at Damascus University in which he announced additional prisoners would be released. al-Jazeerareported that “Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president, has ordered a new general amnesty for all crimes committed in the country up until June 20, in another apparent attempt to calm months of protests against his rule. The state news agency, SANA, announced the move on Tuesday, nearly a month after Assad issued a similar amnesty for all political crimes. . . The president ordered a reprieve on May 31 for all political prisoners in the country, including members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.”
After the speech, Syria scholar David Lesch remarked that “President Bashar actually believes that he’s making serious concessions,” suggesting that Assad was sincerely attempting to meet at least some opposition demands. It must not be the case that Assad was offering what he viewed as serious concessions out of humanitarian or ethical concerns. He may simply have felt that making concessions to the Syrian opposition would have helped resolve the crisis, thus keeping him in power. The desire to remain in power is a crucial factor in explaining any ruler’s decision making process. That Assad would agree to limited concessions in order to de-escalate protests seems much more plausible than that he deliberately started an armed insurgency led by religious extremists against his own government and security forces.
But Why Did Assad Release Islamist Prisoners?
But why did Assad release specifically Islamist prisoners? Isn’t this proof that Assad was executing a plot to derail the peaceful, secular, pro-democracy protest movement? Reports in the Western press highlighting the Islamist character of many of the released prisoners take as given that the Syrian opposition was secular and that the uprising was initially peaceful. If such a view were correct, it would seem odd and conspiratorial if Assad released Islamist prisoners, some of whom went on to join or lead extremist rebel groups. Such a view of the Syrian opposition and uprising is incorrect however. The Syrian uprising was not initially peaceful, as attacks on Syrian police and soldiers coincided with anti-government protests from the beginning, and jihadist armed groups began organizing before the protests erupted. The opposition was also not primarily secular. Instead, it was largely dominated by Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood. As a result, when the Syrian opposition was demanding the Syrian government release prisoners, this means it was demanding the release of Islamist prisoners. If Assad wished to meet this demand, in an attempt to diffuse the crisis, he had no choice but to release Islamists.
Islamist Influence on the Syrian Opposition
Suggestions that the Syrian opposition was initially secular, only to be later hijacked by Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood, as Syria analyst Hassan Hassan claims, are simply not correct. The influence of the Muslim Brotherhood within the protest movement on the ground in Syria and on the political opposition in exile was significant, though largely obscured in media reports about events in Syria during this early period. The Brotherhood has long comprised the backbone of the opposition to the Syrian government.
The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood had a strong interest in starting an armed insurrection in Syria in 2011, as elements of the Brotherhood had been committed to overthrowing the Syrian state through armed struggle since the 1960’s. These efforts stem from the belief that the Syrian state, governed by the secular Arab nationalist Ba’ath party, constitutes an atheist regime that must be replaced by an Islamic government, with a Muslim at its head. The Syrian Muslim Brothers do not consider Alawites to be true Muslims, meaning that, from their perspective, the rule of Bashar al-Assad (and his father Hafez before him), is illegitimate, as the Assad family is of the Alawi sect. Liad Porat of Brandeis University noted that in the 1960’s and 70’s, one Brotherhood faction, headed by ‘Abd al-Fatah abu-Ghuda “supported a policy of coupling civil disobedience with armed struggle” and that another, yet more radical faction led my Marwan Hadid, also supported the use of violence to overthrow the state. This led to a Brotherhood led insurrection in 1976, which lasted, off and on for years, until the Syrian government finally crushed the Brothers, using considerable violence, in the well-known events in Hama in 1982. The leadership of the Brotherhood, in exile after the events of Hama, has remained committed to the overthrow of the Syrian state since that time. Porat noted that by 2009, “the movement’s leaders continue to voice their hope for a civil revolt in Syria, wherein ‘the Syrian people will perform its duty and liberate Syria from the tyrannical and corrupt regime.’”
While membership in the Muslim Brotherhood was banned by the Syrian government, and the Brotherhood leadership was in exile in the West, the group still had strong underground support in some areas of Syria, in particular Hama and Aleppo. For this reason, many of the political prisoners languishing in Syrian prisons at the beginning of the uprising were Islamists connected to the Brotherhood. For example, the 2010 State Department Human Rights Report noted, “The [Syrian] government arbitrarily arrested alleged Islamists, Muslim Brotherhood members, and civil society and human rights activists during the year. . . Local human rights observers estimated that 1,500 to 3,000 political prisoners, including accused Islamists, were in detention. The government frequently held political detainees for extended periods without trial and without information provided to their families. . . . The government forbids membership in Islamist parties, and authorities arrested, and in some cases prior to the reporting year, executed these members.”
Syria Revolution 2011 Facebook Page
When unrest emerged in Syria as part of the Arab Spring in early 2011, the Brotherhood, from its base in the UK, was well placed to organize a violent insurrection in Syria once again, with support from its close allies, the British, American, and Qatari governments. Syria expert and academic Joshua Landis notes that Brotherhood activists in Sweden established the “Syria Revolution 2011” Facebook page, which became an important mechanism through which protests were organized throughout the country and which “is the most important webpage of the Syria revolution. It has over 130,000 members. It is the major source of news and Youtube videos about the Syrian revolution.” The New York Timessuggests that the Syria Revolution 2011 Facebook page, “administered from abroad, has become the pulpit for the revolt — its statements de facto policy of the uprising.”
As a result, anti-government chants during demonstrations included some explicitly pro-Brotherhood slogans such as “No Iran. No Hizbullah. We want a Muslim who fears God (referencing the view that Assad is not a true Muslim).”
Brotherhood-affiliated opposition activists on the ground in Syria were able to disseminate video and updates of demonstrations the Syria 2011 Facebook page and to YouTube, which the US State Department-funded Barada TV and Qatar-owned al-Jazeera satellite news channel, the BBC, CNN and others quickly broadcast.
Fidaaldin al-Sayed Issa, administrator of the Syrian Revolution 2011 Facebook page, stated in an interview that “The Facebook page is run by around 10 members while about 350 people are working in the network, around 250 in Syria and 100 around the world. We have people down there filming, collecting information on deaths, etc. Our business is not just about organizing the protests, but also to act as an information platform – a source – where media, such as Al-Jazeera, BBC, CNN, Al-Arabiya can retrieve information.
This activist network was able to upload footage of demonstrations thanks to satellite phones and modems supplied to activists from abroad. In April 2011, the New York Timesreported that “For weeks now, the small number of activists, spanning the Middle East, Europe and the United States, have coordinated across almost every time zone and managed to smuggle hundreds of satellite and mobile phones, modems, laptops and cameras into Syria. There, compatriots elude surveillance with e-mailed software and upload videos on dial-up connections.” That this network received assistance from US intelligence seems implied by the fact that the NYT points out that one prominent activist responsible for disseminating this crucial equipment was “Ammar Abdulhamid, an activist in Maryland.”
The involvement of US intelligence during this early period should be expected given claims by Flynt Leverett, the former Middle East specialist for the State Department, CIA and National Security Council during the Bush Administration. Leverett described how, “The unrest in Syria started in March 2011. . . . and by April of 2011, just one month into this the Obama administration was backgrounding David Sanger from the New York Times and other sympathetic reporters that they were looking at the situation in Syria as a way of pushing back and undermining Iran. That if you could bring about regime change in [Syria] the argument was that this would really weaken Iran’s regional position and reignite the Green Movement and produce regime change in Iran. . . This has been very much the real strategic driver for American policy toward the situation.”
Syrian Revolution General Commission (SRGC)
In addition to controlling the main Facebook page for organizing demonstrations, Islamists also had strong influence in one of the biggest grassroots organizations on the ground in Syria, the Syrian Revolution General Commission (SRGC). The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) described the SRGC as “the largest grassroots coalition” on the ground in Syria and which “represents roughly 70 percent of the revolutionary councils and the majority of the local coordinating committees [LCCs], with fifty-six different organizations officially recognized in its charter.” ISW also noted the connection between the Brotherhood-controlled Syrian Revolution 2011 Facebook page and the SRGC, explaining that the Syrian Revolution 2011 Facebook page “is administered by an important group of grassroots activists closely aligned with the Syrian Revolution General Commission.”
That the SRGC was dominated by Islamists is also evident when reviewing the background of the SRGC leadership. The Carnegie Middle East Centernoted in December 2012 that the “major figures” in the SRGC include Mohammad Alloush, Saleh al-Hamwi, Nidal Darwish, Rania Kisar. Of these four, two are Islamist rebel commanders, while one has expressed sympathy for al-Qaeda.
Mohammad Alloush helped found the SRGC, and was the leader of one of the most powerful Islamist rebel groups in Syria, Jaish al-Islam. Alloush was appointed as the lead negotiator for the Syrian opposition at the Geneva peace negotiations in January 2016.
Of Alloush, the pro-opposition news site The New Arab wrote: “To everyone’s surprise, Jaysh al-Islam (Army of Islam) leader Mohammad Alloush was chosen as the chief negotiator for the opposition delegation. Mohammad is the cousin of Zahran Alloush, the former leader of the Islamist rebel faction killed in a Russian airstrike last month. Alloush was born in 1970 in Douma, the largest city in the Eastern Ghouta region near Damascus. He studied Sharia at Damascus University before continuing his studies in Medina, Saudi Arabia. Alloush was among the earliest to join the rebellion, setting up several revolutionary institutions and organisations. He co-founded Jaysh al-Islam and headed its political bureau afterwards, representing it in political conferences including the Riyadh conference most recently.”
It is odd that the Syrian opposition chose the cousin and successor of Salafist rebel leader Zahran Alloush to be its lead negotiator, the very Zahran Alloush whom the opposition suggested Assad had released as part of a plot to militarize and radicalize the allegedly secular and peaceful opposition. Mohammad Alloush’s nomination as chief negotiator, and the acknowledgment in pro-opposition sources that he “was among the earliest to join the rebellion, setting up several revolutionary institutions and organisations,” namely the SRGC, is another indicator that the opposition was largely Islamist dominated from the beginning of the uprising.
Saleh al-Hamwi, one of the founders of the SRGC, holds Islamist views as well. Like Alloush, al-Hamwi participated in armed activities against the Syrian state, though according to the pro-opposition Zaman al-Wasl, he primarily worked as a field medic assisting injured protesters and delivering humanitarian aid (and should not be confused with Saleh al-Hama, a commander for the Nusra Front). The Washington Postnoted in February 2013 that al-Hamwi “coordinates the activities of rebel units in the province of Hama with others around the country.” In an interview with al-Jazeera, al-Hamwi claimed that any future Syrian state should be Islamic in nature, consistent with the Muslim Brotherhood view. Al-Jazeerareported that “With respect to the form of the Syrian state in the future, Saleh [al-Hamwi] confirmed the state should have an Islamic origin [marji’iya islamiya], but acknowledged that the last word will be resorting to the ballot boxes and therefore the decision of the majority will rule.”
Al-Hamwi’s confidence in voting and majority rule reflects the common rebel argument that because some 70% of Syrians are Sunni, the majority of Syrians must want an Islamic state, based on either a Salafi or Brotherhood interpretation of Islamic law. This is doubtful however. It is clear the Syrian rebels as a whole are fighting for an Islamic state, as the most powerful rebel factions are all Islamist/Jihadist in orientation (Jaish al-Islam, Ahrar al Sham, Nusra Front) and yet many Syrian Sunnis continue to fight for the Syrian army, and are themselves often victims of the rebels. Also indicative of this is that support for the Syrian uprising in Aleppo (a majority Sunni city) was always low. As one rebel commander in Aleppo admitted, “Yes, it’s true. . . Around 70% of Aleppo city is with the regime. It has always been that way. The countryside is with us and the city is with them.” This suggests many (and possibly most) Syrian Sunnis believe in a mainstream version of Islam that does not reject a secular state and that is respectful of minority groups.
Rania Kisar is a Syrian-American who quit her job as an admissions officer at a Dallas university in April 2012. She first relocated to Turkey, near the Syrian border to engage in humanitarian relief efforts. Kisar travels frequently to Syria, and established a school in Idlib province, which is under al-Qaeda rule. Kisar’s ideological views are unclear. However, she has expressed some sympathy for al-Qaeda (Nusra Front) militants in the press, suggesting al-Qaeda militants play an important role in the Syrian revolution and are needed by the opposition. While complaining about al-Qaeda militants intervening in her efforts to educate the children at her school, Kisar nonetheless told the Independent in July 2017that in her view, the “international community’s fear of radical Islamists taking over Syria is exaggerated and reflects a lack of understanding of the Syrian opposition” and that “the militants are needed, they provide services and infrastructure as well as skilled fighters for now, but will not have support later.”
That the SRGC and Syria 2011 Facebook page were dominated by Islamists does not mean those protesting on the ground all had Islamist goals. But they were attending demonstrations organized largely from abroad, by people they did not know. When ISW inquired of one opposition activist what he thought of the SRGC, “he shrugged his shoulders and resignedly asked, ‘Who’s that?’ After a large sigh, he continued, ‘I don’t even know, who is the SRGC? Who is its leader? Who are its members? I know nothing about this group except that they claim to ‘represent the people’— but everyone claims to ‘represent the people.’”
Syrian National Council is Muslim Brotherhood Dominated
The largest Syrian opposition group outside the country, the Syrian National Council (SNC) was also largely Islamist dominated. The SNC held its first meeting in Istanbul on April 26, 2011. Al-Jazeerareports this was the first public meeting of members of the Syrian opposition and was held at “the invitation of Turkish NGOs and was led by the British-based Movement for Justice and Development. The MJD was formed by several former members of the Muslim Brotherhood and is a signatory to the Damascus Declaration.”
SNC members elected Barhan Ghalioun, a secular Sunni and professor of Political Sociology at the Sorbonne in Paris, as its president in October 2011. ISW reports that Ghalioun has “been accused of being a puppet for the Muslim Brotherhood” and that former Syrian Muslim Brotherhood leader Ali Sadr al-Din Bayanouni has admitted that the Brotherhood nominated Ghalioun as council leader merely as a “front.” ISWnotes that in a YouTube video, “Bayanouni explained that Ghalioun’s nomination was a move to gain wider international appeal and to prevent the Syrian regime from directing Islamist accusations at the council. ‘We did not want the Syrian regime to take advantage of the fact that Islamists are leading the SNC,’ he said in the video.”
In February 2012, the geopolitical intelligence firm Stratforobserved that “Brand new opposition groups are also forming, including the National Change Movement, which claims to be a non-Islamist alternative to the SNC, reflecting the view of some that Islamists control the SNC.”
ISW cites the New York Times as reporting in March 2012 that Kamal al-Labwani, “a respected dissident released from Syrian prison last year halfway through a 12-year sentence” resigned from the SNC, and “accused Muslim Brotherhood members within the exile opposition of ‘monopolizing funding and military support.’” The Times of Israelnotes that Labwani was appointed to the SNC without his knowledge while still in prison, and that he claimed that the SNC “utilized my name to claim they have support on the inside, that they have objectors on their side” and that “More than once I’ve heard Americans say that ‘the Brotherhood must lead this stage.’ We told them: ‘The Brotherhood are extremists, not moderates. This is not Islam which is appropriate for civilization.’” The NYTreported that another SNC member, Walid al-Bunni, resigned from the SNC as well, complaining that “The Brotherhood took the whole council. We became like extras.”
Having a member of the Muslim Brotherhood as the leader of the SNC would have made it much easier for the Syrian government to (correctly) point out that the uprising was not led by Marxists, liberal democrats, and human rights campaigners, as typically assumed by Western observers, but rather by members of the Muslim Brotherhood, which, as mentioned above, had previously led a violent insurrection against the Syrian state, and which has been committed to toppling the Syrian government, through armed struggle if necessary, and replacing it with an Islamic state, since that time. To obscure this, the Brotherhood promoted the secular Ghalioun as the SNC head.
The Muslim Brotherhood was able to dominate the SNC because it had significant funding from state backers, in particular Qatar. According to ISW, the Brotherhood has considerable influence within the SNC as it “has access to funds through high level connections in the region built during years in exile and a powerful network of supporters in oil-rich Gulf countries. Much of the SNC’s funding comes from these connections, resulting in the Brotherhood’s monopolization of council finances and resources.”
In short, what Western observers assumed was an entirely secular uprising, demanding freedom and human rights in the Western sense, in fact had a very strong Islamist component, was managed by the Muslim Brotherhood, and had strong financial support from the Gulf countries that themselves enforced fringe, extremist versions of Sunni Islam on their own populations and wished to export the same in Syria. The use of phrases such as “councils” and “committees” and “revolutionary” coupled with video footage of protests and demonstrations using English slogans about freedom helped to obscure the largely Islamist nature of the uprising.
Given that the Syrian opposition was largely Islamist-controlled, that many political prisoners were Islamists, and that the opposition was demanding that the Syrian government release political prisoners, we would expect the Syrian government to release Islamist prisoners as part of any announced general amnesty, and to do so openly.
In fact, this is exactly what occurred. As mentioned above, the Australianreported on March 26, 2011, just 11 days after protests erupted in Daraa, that “Syrian authorities released more than 200 prisoners from Saydnaya, mainly Islamists, after the prisoners had submitted signed requests for their release” and that “The government of President Bashar al-Assad announced a string of reforms on Thursday, including the release of all activists detained this month and the possibility of ending emergency rule, in place since 1963. It comes as protestors in Syria vowed to hit the streets, despite a rising death toll in demonstrations that have put Bashar al-Assad under unprecedented domestic pressure. A Facebook group [the Brotherhood-controlled Syria Revolution 2011] that has emerged as the motor behind a string of demonstrations that have surfaced in Syria this month drummed up support for more rallies today, the morning after more than a dozen died in protests across the country.”
When an additional amnesty was announced at the end of May, the Syrian government explicitly announced that members of the Brotherhood would be among those released. The Christian Science Monitorreported how “Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, in a clear conciliatory gesture to anti-regime protesters following weeks of brutal suppression by his security forces, announced Tuesday a general amnesty for all ‘crimes’ committed before May 31. According to Syrian TV, the amnesty will apply to all political prisoners as well as to the banned Muslim Brotherhood [emphasis mine].”
It is unlikely the Syrian government would have announced this if it had a secret plan to release Islamists in order to militarize the supposedly peaceful opposition. The Syrian government knew from the beginning of the unrest that the Muslim Brotherhood, its long time enemy, was playing a crucial role in the protests. Any effort to placate the protesters, and alleviate the “unprecedented domestic pressure” it faced, inevitably meant placating the Brotherhood and releasing Islamist prisoners.
Crucially, both the Syrian opposition and Western leaders did not oppose the release of Islamist prisoners when the amnesties were announced. Instead, they criticized the release of such prisoners and other offers for reform as not going far enough to meet opposition demands. After Assad’s Damascus University speech, in June 2011, al-Jazeerareported that “Hundreds of detainees were released, according to rights groups. But the amnesty decrees are believed to be a part of the overtures by the Syrian government to its opposition, largely seen as symbolic. Rights groups have criticised the amnesty measures, calling them insufficient.” Malcom Smart of Amnesty Internationalexpressed the view that “The announced amnesty, even if it proves substantive, does not go far enough. If President al-Assad’s announcement is to have any credibility, all the prisoners of conscience who have languished in Syria’s jails for years must be released and he must take concrete steps to stop the security forces from committing gross human rights abuses.” The New York Timesnoted that the opposition abroad, including the Muslim Brotherhood, responded by demanding “that Mr. Assad step down immediately and called for free elections.” The Guardianquoted British foreign secretary, William Hague, who described the speech as “disappointing and unconvincing.” The Guardian also quoted an opposition activist as asserting “I would have accepted this speech last year, but we are now in a different era,” while also reporting that protesters at demonstrations following the speech recited the common slogan “the people want to overthrow the regime.” In short, for the opposition and its Western-backers, only regime change was sufficient.
Further evidence that Assad was under pressure from an Islamist-dominated opposition comes from the fact the Syrian government made additional concessions to conservative religious segments of Syrian society in addition to releasing Islamist prisoners. Reuters reported on April 6, 2011 (just three weeks after the start of the protests and unrest in Deraa) that “Syria lifted on Wednesday a ban on teachers wearing the full face veil and ordered the closure of a casino, moves aimed at placating conservative Muslims in the tightly-controlled country that has seen weeks of unrest. . . Wednesday’s decisions are aimed at assuaging religious conservatives in the majority Sunni Muslim country, where the ruling hierarchy is of the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi‘ite Islam.” Mention of the fact that Assad was of the minority Alawite sect was an additional allusion to the fact that Brotherhood supporters took a sectarian attitude toward Alawites, not considering them Muslims, and that therefore they could not accept that Assad, in their view a non-Muslim, could be allowed to rule the country.
Syrian Uprising was Becoming Militarized Before the Amnesty
Not only the Islamist, but also the violent nature of the much of the uprising, was skillfully obscured by Brotherhood activists as well. From the beginning of the uprising, Brotherhood supporters used a dual strategy, employing both demonstrations and armed attacks on Syrian security forces in concert. Anti-government demonstrations received considerable attention in the Western press early in the uprising, while attacks on Syrian security forces received very little. Significantly, the militarization of the Syrian uprising was underway before the Syrian government began releasing prisoners as part of the various announced amnesties.
Syria analyst Aron Lund writes that “Turkish-Qatari support [for the opposition] seems to have arrived early on and was channeled through Islamist networks that included Muslim Brotherhood figures moving guns from civil-war Libya. Saudi Arabia mobilized Islamist allies, too, but was wary of the insurgency’s spiraling radicalism and distrusted the Muslim Brotherhood in particular. For example, non-Islamist Lebanese politicians were enlisted to move guns across the Lebanese and Turkish borders already in late 2011.” Lund cites Syria scholar Bernard Rougier of the Sorbonne as noting that the operation was ‘beyond any doubt planned under the supervision of the Saudi secret services (See The Sunni Tragedy in the Middle East: Northern Lebanon from al-Qaeda to ISIS, p. 178).”
Confirmation of this comes from former Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber al-Thani, who oversaw Syria operations on behalf of Qatar until 2013. Al-Thani admitted to supporting armed rebel groups from early in the uprising, with the backing of Saudi Arabia and, crucially, the United States. Al-Thani explained that “When the events first started in Syria I went to Saudi Arabia and met with King Abdullah” who supported al-Thani’s efforts to send weapons to rebels in Syria, with help from Turkey and “in coordination with US forces.”
Consistent with al-Thani’s claims, a fighter from the Qatar-backed rebel group, Ahrar al-Sham told Time magazine that Ahrar began forming brigades in Syria “after the Egyptian revolution” and “well before March 15, 2011, when the Syrian revolution kicked off with protests in the southern agricultural city of Dara’a.” Writing in al-Monitor, Syrian journalist Abdullah Suleiman Ali also indicates that Ahrar al-Sham was active in the early months of the uprising. He reports that according to his source within Ahrar al-Sham, a number of foreign fighters, “including Saudis, were in Syria as the Ahrar al-Sham movement was emerging, i.e., since May 2011.”
It is therefore unsurprising that anti-government militants (often described as protesters in the press) began attacking Syrian police and security forces from the beginning of the uprising in Deraa. For example, Israel National News reported that on Friday, March 18, 2011 in Deraa, “police opened fire on armed protesters killing four” and that “seven police officers were killed, and the Baath Party Headquarters and courthouse were torched” on Sunday, March 20, 2011. Former Saudi major general Anwar Eshki noted that opposition militants had been stockpiling weapons at the al-Omari mosque in Deraa, against the wishes of the local imam. This created a curious mixture of non-violent protest and armed insurrection. That protesters were described as armed, and more police officers were killed than protesters, is significant.
Attacks on Syrian security forces continued in subsequent weeks and months. Journalist Robert Fisk of the Independentwrote in June 2011 that “For well over a month, I have been watching Syrian television’s nightly news and at least half the broadcasts have included funerals of dead soldiers.”
The violent aspects of the Syrian conflict were largely obscured for outside observers, however, due to the sleight of hand used by opposition activists when reporting events on the ground. These activists sought to obscure the role of armed rebels in the conflict, while highlighting or even fabricating Syrian government violence.
On April 3, 2011 Newsweekreported that “When demonstrations broke out in Daraa recently, phony activists on Twitter blasted out videos of massacres, which were duly picked up by dissidents including Aumran. The videos turned out to be fakes, discrediting the type of social-media elite who were crucial news sources in countries like Egypt and Tunisia,” referring to noted opposition activist Malath Aumran and others who unwittingly passed on this false information.
Clashes in which Syrian security forces killed armed rebels were often described as protests in which Syrian security forces killed unarmed protesters (though the killing of unarmed protesters occurred also). Opposition activists often reported the deaths of rebels instead as civilian deaths and these claims were repeated in the Western press. Journalist Nir Rosen, who spent considerable time in Syria early in the uprising, described how: “Every day the opposition gives a death toll, usually without any explanation of the cause of the deaths. Many of those reported killed are in fact dead opposition fighters, but the cause of their death is hidden and they are described in reports as innocent civilians killed by security forces, as if they were all merely protesting or sitting in their homes. Of course, those deaths still happen regularly as well.”
National Public Radio (NPR) reported in early 2012 that one opposition media activist from Homs “admits that he and his colleagues tailored their information to show as much of the civilian misery, and as little rebel activity, as possible.”
When it became clear that Syrian soldiers were being killed by rebels, opposition activists simply alleged that the dead soldiers were defectors who had been killed by their own commanders, for refusing to shoot civilians. These implausible claims were rejected even by Rami Abdul Rahman, head of the pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), who is a chief source of information about events in Syria for the Western press. In one famous case involving the killing of Syrian soldiers in Banyas, opposition claims of soldiers being killed by their own officers were clearly refuted by Syria scholar Joshua Landis.
All of this resulted in a distorted view of the conflict. The Syrian government used excessive violence against demonstrators at times and wrongly killed, detained and mistreated civilians suspected of involvement in both the protests and armed attacks (as most governments do); however, the other half of the story, that the government was also facing an armed insurrection, and rebels were killing Syrian security forces in significant numbers from the beginning, went largely unreported.
As the summer of 2011 wore on, the violent aspects of the Syrian uprising became more apparent, and opposition groups no longer denied that an armed rebellion was taking place. They now simply suggested that armed rebels were fighting the Syrian government to protect civilians and in response to government efforts to “crack down” on demonstrations. In July 2011, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) was founded, led by Colonel Riad al-Asaad, in an effort to better organize the rebel effort and provide a conduit through which the US, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey could funnel arms.
Additional evidence of Qatar’s efforts to militarize the Syrian uprising in its first year comes from Sami Khiyami, Syria’s ambassador to the UK and a secular Sunni who was himself sympathetic to the Syrian opposition. In late 2011, Khiyami privately asked American Syria scholar David Lesch to request that US officials “get the Qataris to stop causing so much trouble in Syria in a way that is leading toward militarization of the crisis.”
This means that when Assad released prisoners as part of the March, May and June amnesties, the Syrian opposition was already largely Islamist-dominated and was employing violence in addition to organizing peaceful protests. The Syrian opposition did not change considerably from the beginning of the uprising until the time it became widely acknowledged that an armed Islamist insurrection was underway in Syria. This was despite repeated claims in the Western press that the Syrian opposition somehow started as secular, peaceful, and democratic, but then implausibly underwent a rapid transformation to become Islamist, militarized and finally extremist, resulting in the rise of groups such as ISIS.
Aron Lund summarized the situation well. He writes, “’Some Western and Syrian critics of Assad have argued that the militarization and Islamization of the uprising was an inevitable reaction to brutal repression, and that democratic activists represented the ‘original revolution.’ But a vastly stronger Islamist movement begged to disagree, and as Syria continued its descent into sectarian civil war, such counterfactuals simply did not matter—the opposition was what it was, not what its backers would have liked it to be.”
Who Did Assad Fear Most?
Rather than recognizing the release of Islamist prisoners as a gesture of goodwill on the part of the Syrian government in response to opposition demands, the Western press later used these events to accuse Assad of deliberately trying to create an armed Islamist insurgency against his own government, in order supposedly prove to the West that he was fighting terrorism rather than peaceful protesters agitating for democracy.
Members of the Syrian opposition claimed Assad did this because the Syrian government supposedly feared non-violent, pro-democracy protesters more than it feared the armed Islamist insurgents which enjoyed considerable foreign backing from the US, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. This claim also does not stand up to scrutiny, and is evident by the way the Syrian government dealt with the other main opposition faction, the National Coordination Committee (NCC), also known at times as the National Coordination Body.
The National Coordination Committee (NCC) was formed in Damascus, bringing together fifteen political parties and several independent figures. Foreign Policydescribes the NCC as “an internal opposition bloc consisting of 13 left-leaning political parties and independent political activists including 3 Kurdish political parties and youth activists.” The NCC was committed to three important principles that distinguished it from the Brotherhood and Gulf-backed SNC. According to a paper published by the Carnegie Middle East Center, the NCC was committed to: “‘No’ to foreign military intervention, ‘No’ to religious and sectarian instigation, and ‘No’ to violence and the militarization of the revolution.”
The NCC’s reformist goals conflicted with the Brotherhood, Qatari, Saudi and Turkish insistence on regime change, however. Consequently, the Carnegie Center noted that for the NCC “Relations have been less than cordial with the Gulf Cooperation Council member states in general, and with Saudi Arabia and Qatar in particular, given disagreement over whether to engage in dialogue with the Syrian regime and over arming the opposition. Ties with Turkey have been no better, given the country’s undisguised preference for the Syrian National Council [SNC].”
The Gulf and Turkey-backed SNC bitterly criticized the NCC for its willingness to engage in dialogue with the Syrian government to diffuse the crisis and win reforms. Stratforreports that “Also unlike the SNC, the NCC has met with members of the al Assad regime. As a result, and because the group is based in Damascus, some Syrian protesters view the NCC as a puppet opposition movement controlled by the regime.”
In short, as a result of the NCC’s peaceful, reformist stance, the Syrian government was willing to engage in dialogue with this segment of the opposition. The Syrian government was also willing to make concessions to conservative religious segments of society from which even the Brotherhood enjoyed support in an effort to diffuse the crisis. However, the Brotherhood-dominated wing of the Syrian opposition, the SNC, which enjoyed support from the Gulf States and Turkey, dismissed any efforts by the Syrian government to make concessions and implement gradual reform, instead preferring militarization of the uprising and regime change.
Later, the Western press turned reality on its head by suggesting that it was in fact the Syrian government that preferred to face an Islamist insurrection and was supposedly determined to undermine the peaceful, secular opposition by releasing Islamist prisoners.
The US is Responsible for the Rise of Jihadist Groups in Syria
The idea that Assad deliberately militarized the Syrian revolution and sought to support extremist rebel groups overlooks the clear evidence that the United States and its regional partners, in particular Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have themselves sought to militarize the Syrian uprising, and to do so by supporting extremist rebel groups. They did this by “pumping in” a “huge amount of weapons” (in the words of former Secretary of State John Kerry, and US Special Envoy to Syria, Michael Ratner) to Syrian rebel groups, many of which advocate Salafi-Jihadism, the same ideology advocated by al-Qaeda.
As discussed above, the United States and its regional allies, in particular Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, have been supplying Syrian rebels with weapons and money since early in the uprising. These weapons shipments became openly acknowledged by American officials from January 2012. The New York Timesreported that American officials described how, “[f]rom offices at secret locations, American intelligence officers have helped the Arab governments shop for weapons, including a large procurement from Croatia, and have vetted rebel commanders and groups to determine who should receive the weapons as they arrive,” and that a “former American official said David H. Petraeus, the C.I.A. director until November, had been instrumental in helping to get this aviation network moving and had prodded various countries to work together on it,” noting also that the arms airlift to Syrian rebels that started in January 2012 “has grown to include more than 160 military cargo flights by Jordanian, Saudi and Qatari military-style cargo planes.” The NYT cited a former American official who noted that, “People hear the amounts flowing in, and it is huge.” Another Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) memo suggests that weapons were shipped to Syrian rebels from Libya after the fall of the Gaddafi regime there.
Zahran Alloush, Hassan Abboud, and Ahmed Issa al-Sheikh are all prominent examples of prisoners released by Assad in the 2011 amnesty, who later went on to found Syrian rebel groups that received significant support from the US and its regional partners, in particular Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. All three are mentioned by name in the National article cited above.
The Telegraphreported of Alloush and Abboud that, “Upon their release, they emerged as leaders of two groups of armed fighters that were to become the most powerful actors of all in the Syrian uprising. Hassan Abboud’s group Ahrar al-Sham won backing from Qatar. Zahran Alloush’s Jaish al-Islam is backed by Saudi Arabia, where Alloush’s father Abdullah is a practising cleric. Their Gulf backing made them a magnet for religiously inclined fighters from Syria’s Sunni countryside, which has always been far more conservative than the multi-sectarian, sometimes freewheeling big cities. As the more secular Free Syrian Army (originally staffed by defectors from the regime’s army) struggled to find money and weapons, Abboud and Alloush’s strength only grew.”
Alloush embraced Salafism, including the concept of takfir, leading him to pejoratively refer to Shiites as “rejectionists” (rafidha), and “Zoroastrians” (majus) and thus not Muslims, therefore justifying their killing. He stated that his goal was to “cleanse” Syria of all Shiites and Allawites, and to “destroy their skulls” and make them “taste the worst torture in life before God makes [them] taste the worst torture on judgment day.”
Alloush has also declared his hostility to democracy. The pro-Saudi Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar reports that Alloush is “responsible for the disappearance of Ruzan Zeituna,” who is a well-known human rights lawyer and Assad critic, and that Alloush is “famous for his attacks on advocates of democracy,” and that he “embraces Salafi-Jihadi ideology and calls for an Islamic State, and is opposed to the democratic and republican systems.”
In November 2013, Jaish al-Islam joined with other major Syrian Islamist factions to form the Islamic Front (al-Jabha al-Islamiya) and Alloush became its head military commander. In December 2013, the Washington Postquoted a US intelligence official as saying, “We don’t have a problem with the Islamic Front,” indicating US approval of Saudi financial and military support for the group.
Syria expert Joshua Landis noted in December 2013 that “Alloush has gone out of his way to keep good relations with Jabhat al-Nusra [al-Qaeda in Syria]” and that Alloush has said, “his relationship with Nusra is one of brotherhood with only superficial ideological differences that can be settled with shari’a and discussions,” leading Landis to argue that “the ideological differences between the Front and al-Qaida are not deep.”
When Alloush was killed in a Russian airstrike in December 2015, the pro-Saudi Lebanese newspaper an-Nahar, surmised that Russia intended to “direct a blow against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia with the assassination of one of its most prominent trusted persons in the Syrian opposition,” further making Saudi sponsorship for Alloush clear.
Upon Alloush’s death, al-Qaeda in Syria (Nusra Front) issued a statement memorializing Alloush, declaring that “The Sheikh Mujahid Muhammad Zahran Alloush has become a martyr- we testify and God is his judge – after two years of sacrifice and redemption, he fought on the edge of Damascus and struggled against the Nusayris (Alawites) and the rejectionists (Shia) until he met his Lord.”
US and Gulf support for Hassan Aboud is also clear. After his release from prison, Abboud became a leader of Ahrar Al-Sham (Freemen of Syria), a Syrian rebel group that calls for Jihad against Shia Muslims and other minorities in Syria, and that has worked closely with al-Qaeda in Syria (Nusra Front). Notably, Ahrar al-Sham and al-Qaeda cooperated in a 2015 joint offensive that captured the provincial capital of Idlib in the north of Syria.
Ahrar Al-Sham’s founder, Abu Khalid al-Suri, had long standing links to Al-Qaeda, before he was killed in February 2014, allegedly by ISIS. According to reporting from the Long War Journal, the leader of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, Ayman al-Zawahiri, named al-Suri as his representative in Syria. Al-Suri attempted to mediate the dispute between the Nusra Front and ISIS at the time the two al-Qaeda groups split. Al-Suri was previously a courier for Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan, and Spanish officials allege that he received surveillance tapes of the World Trade Center from the operative who made the videos and delivered them to al Qaeda’s senior leadership in Afghanistan.
In September 2014, Hassan Aboud and much of the leadership of Ahrar al-Sham were killed in a large explosion of mysterious origin. Al-Qaeda leader Sanafi al-Nasr memorialized the deaths of Aboud and others writing on Twitter: “May Allah have mercy on them and be pleased with them, and may He gather us with them in the highest of gardens [in paradise].”
As a result, Hashim al Sheikh (also known as Abu Jaber), was elected as the new leader of the group, which role he filled for one year before stepping down. According to the pro-opposition el-Dorar al-Shamia, Abu Jaber had previously helped foreign fighters travel from Syria to Iraq to fight between 2003 and 2005, and then was arrested by the Syrian government on charges of “Wahhabism” and given an 8 year sentence. The Syrian government reduced Abu Jaber’s sentence due to the 2011 amnesty and released him instead after 6 years, in September of 2011. Abu Jaber then joined Ahrar al-Sham and became the deputy to Abu Khalid Al-Suri (mentioned above) who was then Ahrar’s leader (emir) of the Aleppo area. Abu Jaber later became the leader of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (Organization for the Liberation of the Levant), a rebel coalition largely dominated by al-Qaeda in Syria (Nusra Front).
Ahrar al-Sham’s main backer is Qatar, apparently with US approval. Of Qatar’s role in supporting Syrian rebels, Foreign Policyreports that Qatar “sent planes to move an estimated 3,500 tons of military equipment in 2012 and 2013, reportedly with the CIA’s backing,” and that it is easy for US officials to work with Qatar, given that “‘Their interagency process has about three people in it,’ said one former U.S. official.”
Despite Ahrar Al-Sham’s ties to al-Qaeda, the group was allowed to publish an Op-ed in the Washington Post in July 2015, while a sympathetic article about the group was published in the New York Times one month later. These articles seemed to be part of a US campaign to paint the group as “moderate” despite its Salafi-Jihadi ideology, ties to Al-Qaeda, and praise of Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban in Afghanistan. The NYT tried to justify Ahrar Al-Sham’s praise of Mullah Omar, by citing a cleric close to the group who contends that it “contained only an extremist minority.” A senior figure from Ahrar Al-Sham and the author of the Washington Post op-ed, Labib Nahhas, was then quietly allowed to visit the United States in May 2016.
Ahrar al-Sham also belonged to the Islamic Front alongside Alloush’s Jaish al-Islam. The Islamic Front was endorsed by US officials, as noted above. Ahrar al-Sham joined with al-Qaeda in Syria (the Nusra Front) to form the Army of Conquest (Jaish al-Fatah) in March 2015.
Ahmed Issa al-Sheikh
Ahmed Issa al-Sheik was the leader of Suqour al-Sham, another Islamist rebel group that played a prominent role in the Syria conflict and which received significant US and Gulf support.
Journalist Tam Hussein writes that “Suqour al-Sham was formed in 2011 after peaceful demonstrations failed and became a fully-fledged armed rebellion. Its founder Ahmed Issa al-Sheikh or Abu Issa formed the battalion after the death of his two brothers by the regime. He belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood as were many opponents of the regime in the eighties, and had been imprisoned several times by the regime but not as is often assumed, in Seydnaya prison where Islamist prisoners were kept.”
In an interview with the pro-opposition website Zaman al-Wasl, Ahmed Issa himself rejected claims that he had met Zahran Alloush and Hassan Aboud in Sendnaya, thereby rejecting opposition claims that all three were released together as part of a conspiracy by the Assad government to militarize the uprising. Ahmed Issa stated that “I was not detained in Sednaya actually. Rather, I was detained in the Palestine branch for 11 months, and I did not meet Sheikh Zahran Alloush or Sheikh Hassan Aboud (the leader of Ahrar al-Sham), before the revolution at all. Sheikh Zahran and Sheik Aboud were detainees in Sednaya. I did not ever meet them there. The story of the “Companions of Sednaya” is a product of the internet and there is no truth in it.”
Suqour al-Sham originated in the Jabal al-Zawiya region of Idlib province, but eventually spread throughout the country. Suqour al-Sham was initially affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and received weapons and funding from the US-backed Supreme Military Council (SMC). The group eventually played a prominent role in several rebel umbrella groups, including the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front (SILF), the Islamic Front (IF), and also cooperated with al-Qaeda in Syria (Nusra Front) at times. Suqour al-Sham was severely weakened in early 2014 as a result of clashes with ISIS, after members of Suqour al-Sham became split on the question of whether to fight ISIS or not. The group’s top religious advisor, Abu Abderrahman al-Sarmini, defected from the group January 2014 after objecting to fighting ISIS. One month later, ISIS kidnapped, tortured and murdered Muhamad al-Dik, the military head of Suqour al-Sham. As fighting between the groups continued, one of the largest factions within Suqour al-Sham split from the group as they also did not wish to fight ISIS. In March 2015, Suqour al-Sham merged with Ahrar al-Sham, which promptly joined with al-Qaeda in Syria (Nusra Front) to create the Army of Conquest (Jaish al-Fatah).
Given this context, we must ask what impact Assad’s release of prisoners would have had in terms of militarizing and facilitating the rise of Islamist rebel groups such as Ahrar al-Sham, Jaish al-Islam, and Suqour al-Sham if not for the massive military and financial support these groups then received from the US and its allies. If Assad deserves blame for releasing Islamists intent on militarizing the uprising, would the US and its regional allies not also deserve to blame for arming and financing them? What could rebel leaders such as Alloush, Abboud and Ahmed Issa have accomplished without US and Gulf support?
Further, when the Western press accuses Assad of a plot to deliberately militarize the Syrian revolution and support extremists among the rebels, this implicitly assumes that the Western powers wanted the Syrian uprising to remain peaceful and retain the secular ideals of democracy and human rights as its objective. If this were the case, why would the US and its Gulf partners support Alloush, Abboud and Ahmed Issa and the armed Islamist groups they headed? Why would Assad have to undertake a sinister plot to empower Salafi-Jihadi elements among the Syrian rebel groups, when the US and its allies were intent on doing just that?
US and Gulf support for rebels in Syria provides insight as to why the Arab Spring uprising took a violent turn in Syria, but remained peaceful in Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood participated in peaceful protests in Egypt, and proved stronger than anticipated by many, winning parliamentary and presidential elections there, to the surprise and bitter disappointment of the secular Egyptian opposition. Despite considerable violence directed at the Brotherhood by the Egyptian state, the Brotherhood remained committed to peaceful means to take power. In contrast, in Syria the Brotherhood sought to ignite a violent insurrection, as it had between 1976 and 1982.
In my view the difference in approaches by respective Brotherhood branches in Syria and Egypt can be attributed to the fact that while the Egyptian government under Mubarak was a close US ally, the Syrian government under Assad is a major US enemy. In Egypt, the Brotherhood had long since renounced violence, and there was no reason for US intelligence to push for the militarization of the uprising against its own ally, Mubarak. In contrast in Syria, the Brotherhood still advocated armed struggle (perhaps at the insistence of their Western foreign backers) while US intelligence had a strong interest in militarizing the Syrian uprising (by way of its Saudi and Qatari partners), as US planners saw in the Syrian uprising an opportunity to weaken key enemies (not only Syria, but also Iran and Hezbollah).
The US Efforts to Overthrow Assad Are Helped by Rise of Jihadist Rebel Groups
If the Syrian government were to deliberately create an insurgency against itself, there would have been no reason for Assad to believe that this would change the stance of the Western countries toward Syria, and cause them to suddenly support him. The United States has been committed to the overthrow of the Syrian government for years, for specific geo-political reasons, primarily in order to weaken US adversaries, namely Iran and Hezbollah. If the Syrian uprising were to become militarized and led by extremist rebels, thereby threatening the Syrian government, this would in fact further US interests. Such a development, would be (and in fact was) welcomed by US planners.
The US desire to topple the Syrian government reaches back to at least 2001, when prominent neoconservatives in the US government threatened to invade not only Iraq, but also Syria and Iran. Former US General Wesley Clark discusses a conversation he had with a “senior general” a few weeks after 9/11 at the Pentagon, in which the general purportedly showed Clark a memo from then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s office which advocated a strategy to “take out seven countries in five years,” which would start with Iraq and Syria and end with Iran. That Syria and Iran were at that time potential US targets for regime-change was later confirmed by then Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith.
US planners were looking for concrete opportunities to destabilize the Syrian government as early as 2005, when the Bush Administration began to markedly increase funding for Syrian opposition groups, including some within Syria, leading to “persistent fears among U.S. diplomats that Syrian state security agents had uncovered the money trail from Washington,” according to the Washington Post.
Further, by 2006, US planners were seeking to exploit the fact that many Jihadists were traveling through Syria to join the fight against US forces in Iraq, and to turn these fighters against the Syrian government. A classified December 2006 cable written by William Roebuck, Political Counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, highlights such opportunities. The memo notes that “We believe Bashar’s [Bashar-al-Assad, Syrian President] weaknesses are in how he chooses to react to looming issues, both perceived and real, such as . . . . the potential threat to the regime from the increasing presence of transiting Islamist extremists. This cable summarizes our assessment of these vulnerabilities and suggests that there may be actions, statements, and the signals that the USG can send that will improve the likelihood of such opportunities arising [Emphasis mine].”
Similarly, in March 2007, Seymour Hersh wrote in the New Yorker that US planners had adopted a new “strategic direction” in an effort to use Sunni militant groups to weaken Iran, as a result of fears that the US invasion of Iraq had strengthened Iran (as pro-Iranian Iraqi politicians had come to dominate the new US-backed Iraqi government). Hersh quoted a Pentagon consultant who described how “the Saudi government, with Washington’s approval, would provide funds and logistical aid to weaken the government of President Bashir Assad, of Syria.” The plan involved using former Saudi Ambassador to the US, Prince Bandar bin Sultan to provide funds to Islamic “religious fundamentalists” to do the dirty work of US foreign policy that the US could not do directly.
According to Hersh, the Pentagon consultant indicated that Bandar and other Saudis assured the White House that “they will keep a very close eye on the religious fundamentalists. Their message to us was ‘We’ve created this movement, and we can control it.’ It’s not that we don’t want the Salafis [Jihadists] to throw bombs; it’s who they throw them at—Hezbollah, Moqtada al-Sadr, Iran, and at the Syrians, if they continue to work with Hezbollah and Iran.”
Hersh reported as well that influential Lebanese Druze politician Walid Jumblatt met with then Vice President Dick Cheney in late 2006 to discuss the “possibility of undermining Assad,” and that Jumblatt advised Cheney that the Muslim Brotherhood would be the “ones to talk to” if the United States did try to move against Syria. The Muslim Brotherhood would later play a key role in the Syrian opposition during the conflict starting in 2011, as detailed above.
Consequently, if an armed insurgency led by religious extremists were to threaten the Syrian government, this would in fact advance US interests. Such a view was articulated in a memo from the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) in 2012, which acknowledged that the creation of a “Salafist principality in Eastern Syria” would be “exactly what the supporting powers to the [Syrian] opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime, which is considered the strategic depth of the Shia expansion (Iraq and Iran).”
That the US welcomed the rise of Salafi-Jihadist groups in order to put pressure on the Syrian government is evidenced not only by US support for Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam as noted above, but also by US policy toward ISIS. Despite bombing ISIS in many instances, the US found the rise of ISIS useful in some contexts, namely when ISIS was advancing on Damascus in 2015. This was confirmed by then Secretary of State John Kerry. In a meeting with members of the Syrian opposition in September 2016, Kerry explained, that “the reason Russia came in is because ISIL [ISIS] was getting stronger. Daesh [ISIS] was threatening the possibility of going to Damascus. And that is why Russia came in. They didn’t want a Daesh government and they supported Assad. And we know this was growing. We were watching. We saw that Daesh was growing in strength. And we thought Assad was threatened. We thought we could manage that Assad might then negotiate. Instead of negotiating, he got Putin to support him. . . . but for us politically, we have a congress that will not authorize our use of force. Congress will not pass that. And so we’re trying to help the best way we can [emphasis added].”
It appears the US wanted Russia to choose between continuing to support Assad, and thereby take the risk that ISIS would take Damascus, on the one hand, and abandoning Assad and allowing pro-Western moderate rebels supported by the US to take power through negotiations, on the other. Russia opted for a third choice, however, namely direct military intervention to turn the tide against ISIS and other US and Gulf supported rebel groups. The possibility of direct Russian military intervention in Syria is something US planners apparently did not anticipate.
Assad Accuses the West of Supporting Terrorism
Though it is true that Assad regularly claims that he is fighting terrorists, he does not do so to appeal to the West; rather he does so in the context of complaining that the Western powers and their Gulf allies are sponsoring the very terrorists he is fighting. In July 2014, Assad stated in a speech at the presidential palace that “Soon we will see that the Arab, regional and Western states that supported terrorism will pay a high price.” This is a common complaint of other Syrian government officials, as well as of Syrian civilians when speaking with Western journalists. Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Mikdad asked Patrick Cockburn why the “US and Britain are against terrorists in one country, but favour them in another. . . They should tell their friends to refrain from supporting terrorism in Syria (See Syria, Descent into the Abyss: An Unforgettable Anthology of Contemporary Reportage, by Kim Sengupta, Patrick Cockburn, and Robert Fisk, pg. 319)” A Syrian colonel explained to Robert Fisk that “This is a conspiracy and the West is helping the foreign terrorists who arrived in Syria, the same terrorists you are trying to kill in Mali (Syria, Descent into the Abyss, pg. 401).” Fisk also relates the comments of a Syrian friend who pointed out that “The Christians are protesting. The Greek Catholic Archbishop of Aleppo has just made an appeal to the Western powers not to send weapons to the fundamentalists (Syria, Descent into the Abyss, pg. 219).” In short, Assad has not asked for help in fighting terrorism from the West, he has simply asked that the West stop supporting terrorism in Syria by supporting extremist rebel groups.
Assad Needs Support from Iran and Russia to Stay in Power, not from the Western Powers
Rather than seek to ingratiate himself with the US and other Western powers, which are already determined to overthrow his government, Assad has instead sought to ingratiate himself with Iran and Russia, two countries that actually have an interest in keeping in power. For Russia, these interests include maintaining access to one of its few warm water naval bases, in Tartous, which allows it to project military power in the Mediterranean, and preventing Qatar from building a pipeline through Syria that would allow it to supply natural gas to Europe, thus undermining the Russian monopoly there.
Russia also desires to prevent the growth of Salafi-Jihadi groups that could later carry out attacks in majority Muslim provinces within Russia. Given Moscow’s experience fighting Salafi-Jihadi rebels in Chechnya in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, and the history of terror attacks carried out by Chechen Islamic militants in Moscow itself, it is important for Russia to ensure that Salafi-Jihadi rebels do not succeed in taking over the Syrian state nor in furthering their regional influence. Putin himself was deeply involved in prosecuting the war in Chechnya, and even expressed his desire to castrate Chechen jihadists fighting against Russia at the time. This is all the more important for Putin given that many Chechens have traveled to Syria to fight for Salafi-Jihadi groups.
Perhaps more important than these geo-political considerations, is the desire of Russia to re-emerge as an important player on the world scene, in particular in the Middle East, a region of obviously crucial importance. Countering US and Gulf efforts to eliminate its one close Middle East ally in the region is a way for Russia to re-assert itself, especially after Putin was duped by the West into allowing a UN Security Council resolution to be passed establishing a no fly zone in Libya in 2011, which the US then exploited to overthrow the Libyan government of Moammar Qaddafi, against Russian wishes.
Iran has an interest in keeping Assad in power to ensure its ability to supply weapons to Hezbollah, whose military capabilities deter future Israeli attacks targeting not only Lebanon, but also Iran itself. If Israel were to bomb Iran or Lebanon, the Iranians and Hezbollah could respond by having Hezbollah launch rockets at northern Israel. Allowing Sunni Jihadi-Salafist groups to grow in Syria also poses a threat to the pro-Iranian government in Iraq, as the ISIS occupation of Fallujah, Ramadi, and Mosul has shown.
Assad then, is still in power not because he was able to bring the Western powers to his side, but because Russian and Iran want him in power, for their own geo-strategic reasons.
US Releases Jihadist Prisoners
Further, the Syrian government may not have known who many of these prisoners were, or the threat they might pose upon release. The first months after the start of anti-government protests were chaotic, and it is possible these prisoners were released with no coherent or clear strategy in mind. Syria analyst Aron Lund suggests that “They were high-profile people who were released. . . But at this stage also, the regime probably didn’t know what it was doing. Orders must have been flying in all directions.” The Telegraph, while promoting the theory that Assad deliberately released Islamists to militarize the uprising, nonetheless noted that “For two Islamists in particular, release from Sednaya provided an opportunity to become internationally recognised players on a previously unimagined stage. Neither Hassan Abboud nor Zahran Alloush were well-known before the uprising, and neither seems to have been incarcerated in Sednaya for violent activities. Both adhered to Salafism – the purist version of conservative Islam, which had gradually taken hold in parts of Syria over the previous decade.” That both were largely unknown and imprisoned for non-violent activities suggests that the Syrian government may not have viewed Alloush and Aboud as any more significant or likely to engage in violence than other Islamists it released. The Telegraph also notes that “Upon their release, they emerged as leaders of two groups of armed fighters that were to become the most powerful actors of all in the Syrian uprising. Hassan Abboud’s group Ahrar al-Sham won backing from Qatar. Zahran Alloush’s Jaish al-Islam is backed by Saudi Arabia, where Alloush’s father Abdullah is a practising cleric. Their Gulf backing made them a magnet for religiously inclined fighters from Syria’s Sunni countryside, which has always been far more conservative than the multi-sectarian, sometimes freewheeling big cities.” This acknowledges that it was not the personalities of Alloush and Aboud that proved crucial in allowing them to organize effective rebel groups, but rather the backing, financial and military, of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, that really mattered. Without this backing, that the Syrian government released Alloush and Aboud would likely not be significant.
An analogous situation occurred during the course of the so-called War on Terror, in which the United States similarly released many prisoners who were later involved in terrorist activity (for example from the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and from Bucca prison in Iraq). In many cases US officials did not have a good understanding of who these prisoners were. The most notorious example of a Jihadist released from a US prison is of course the current leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
William McCants of the Brookings Institution provides a sketch of Baghdadi’s life, including his arrest and detention by US forces. In 2003, after the US invasion, Baghdadi helped found the insurgent group, Jaish Ahl al-Sunna w al-Jama’ah (Army of the People of the Sunna and Communal Solidarity) to fight US forces. In February 2004, Baghdadi was arrested in Fallujah while visiting a friend who was on the American wanted list and transferred to a detention facility at Camp Bucca. Baghdadi’s prison file classified him as a “civilian detainee,” suggesting US intelligence was unaware of his activities as an insurgent. Baghdadi quickly gained prominence among his fellow Sunni detainees, and also ingratiated himself with prison officials, who found him helpful in mediating disputes among prisoners. Baghdadi used the time to organize and recruit fellow prisoners. McCants writes that “By the time Baghdadi was released on December 8, 2004, he had a virtual Rolodex for reconnecting with his co-conspirators and protégés: they had written one another’s phone numbers in the elastic of their underwear.” Baghdadi contacted a relative in al-Qaeda upon his release, and quickly rose through the ranks of the organization. McCants notes as well that “Many of the ex-Baathists at Bucca, some of whom Baghdadi befriended, would later rise with him through the ranks of the Islamic State.” One fellow prisoner told the Guardian that “If there was no American prison in Iraq, there would be no [Islamic State] now. Bucca was a factory. It made us all. It built our ideology.”
Further, the founder of the al-Qaeda in Syria (Nusra Front), Abu Muhammad al-Jolani was detained at Bucca by US forces as well. Despite this, articles claiming that Assad deliberately released Islamist prisoners to militarize and radicalize the Syrian uprising consistently mention the “rumor” that Jolani, was imprisoned at Sednaya by the Syrian government. The Nationalarticle discussed above, which first made these claims about Assad in January 2014, mentions that “Abu Mohammad Al Jolani is also rumoured to have been among those set free, although little is known about his true identity.” Newsweek repeated this claim several months later, in June 2014, citing Syrian dissident Tarek al-Ghorani, who was imprisoned in 2006 by Syrian authorities for his blog. Al-Ghorani was held in Sednaya prison and then released as part of the 2011 amnesty. Al-Ghorani claimed to Newsweek that “Abu Muhammad al-Joulani, (founder of the Jihadist group, Jabhat al-Jabhat al-Nusra) was rumored to be there. Mohammed Haydar Zammar, (one of the organisers of the 9/11 attacks) was there. This is where the Syrian part of ISIS was born.” Al-Ghorani states further that “From the first days of the revolution (in March 2011), Assad denounced the organisation as being the work of radical Salafists, so he released the Salafists he had created in his prisons to justify the claim … If you do not have an enemy, you create an enemy.”
The National and Newsweek published these unsubstantiated rumors even though the outlines of Jolani’s life had already been established through information from Iraqi and Jordanian intelligence and from a prominent Jordanian Salafi leader. The Times of Israelpublished a brief overview of Jolani’s life based on this information in November 2013, which made clear Jolani had never been imprisoned by the Syrian government. Rather, Jolani had been imprisoned, and then released, by US forces in Iraq, and did not return to Syria until after the start of the Syrian uprising in 2011.
According to the Times of Israel, Jolani traveled to Iraq in 2003 to fight US forces, and became a close associate of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. After Zarqawi’s assassination by US forces in 2006, Jolani traveled to Lebanon to train members of the jihadist group Jund al-Sham. Shortly thereafter, Jolani returned to Iraq and was detained by US forces and imprisoned in Camp Bucca. Like Baghdadi, Jolani was released by US officials. Jolani then became head of al-Qaeda operations in Mosul. Jolani only returned to Syria after the Syrian uprising began in 2011, in order to establish a branch of al-Qaeda in the country, on orders from Baghdadi.
These same details of Jolani’s life were confirmed by al-Jazeera in July 2015. Al-Jazeera reported that Jolani only returned to Syria in August 2011, long after the April, May and June prisoner amnesties announced by Assad. Al-Jazeera is in a good position to know the outline of Jolani’s past, given that Jolani granted two major interviews to the network, one in December 2013 (Jolani’s first), and the other in 2015.
Further, there was no way for al-Ghorani, or any other prisoner at Sednaya, to know if Jolani was a prisoner there, as Jolani’s identity was not known publicly at that time. Neither his real name (Jolani was simply his nom de guerre, indicating he was from the Golan area of Syria), nor face were known. During the 2013 and 2015 interviews with al-Jazeera he kept his face hidden, and no known pictures had existed of him. It would therefore not be possible by January 2014, when the National article was published, or in June 2014 when the Newsweek article was published to identify that Jolani had been in Sednaya. This means anyone claiming to know that Jolani had been held by Syrian authorities was passing on what amounted to gossip or even fabricating the claim.
Additional evidence that Jolani was never detained in Sednaya comes from a description of the origins of the Nusra Front made by Nusra member Abu Abdullah al-Shami, and highlighted by Syria analyst al-Tamimi. Al-Shami makes no mention of the idea that Jolani was detained in Sednaya, noting that Jolani was sent to Iraq by ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi with some cash and a handful of men in order to establish a branch of al-Qaeda in Syria.
Also interesting is that the Syrian dissident al-Ghorani claims Assad released Mohammed Haydar Zammar, an organizer of the 9/11 attacks, from Sednaya in order to help create ISIS.
Zammar is well known because he allegedly acted as the “travel agent” for al-Qaeda militants from the Hamburg cell that carried out the 9/11 attacks. In December 2001, he was abducted by US intelligence in Morocco and rendered to Syria, where he was allegedly tortured and interrogated by Syrian intelligence, in the presence of foreign (presumably Western) intelligence agents as well. In 2006, after four years in secret detention, he was sentenced to death by a Syrian court for supposed membership in the Muslim Brotherhood, though the death sentence was immediately commuted, and reduced to 12 years imprisonment.
It is true that Zammar was held in Sednaya prison, and that he was released by the Syrian government. Zammar was not released as part of the 2011 amnesties; however. Rather, the Syrian government released him in late 2013 as part of a prisoner exchange with Ahrar al-Sham in which the Syrian government traded Islamist prisoners for captured Syrian army officers. This was over two years after Assad supposedly released prisoners to militarize the uprising, and long after jihadists had already come to dominate the Syrian rebel scene.
This raises the question of why a militant group backed directly by Qatar (and implicitly by the United States, as discussed above), would demand the release of Zammar, a participant in planning the 9/11 attacks. The reader can draw his/her own conclusions about the reason for this. What is clear however is that Zammar’s case provides a window into the type of prisoners the Syrian opposition was demanding the Syrian government release at various times throughout the conflict. The Syrian opposition was successful in winning the release of Islamist prisoners in various instances, but only when it had sufficient leverage against the Syrian government to do so. This further suggests the Syrian government was not releasing Islamist prisoners as a result of plot to create ISIS or deliberately militarize the opposition, but due to other considerations.
A further example of this comes from the case of a prison riot in Hama in 2016, when the Syrian government released at least 30 Islamist prisoners. After word circulated that several prisoners would be transferred to Sednaya, inmates affiliated with the Jihadist group, Jund al-Sham, orchestrated a prison riot, taking the warden and several guards captive. Syrian security forces initially responded by firing tear gas inside the prison. The revolt was finally diffused through negotiations after Syrian authorities agreed to release many of the prisoners.
Did Assad Collaborate With al-Qaeda During the Iraq War?
The US government has claimed that Assad helped foreign fighters, including from al-Qaeda, transit through Syria to fight US forces in Iraq after the 2003 US invasion. That many foreign fighters coming to Iraq traveled through Syria is known through the “Sinjar” documents. Sinjar is a small town in Western Iraq, near the Syrian border and home to many of Iraq’s minority Yazidi population. In 2006, US forces raided an al-Qaeda cell there, and captured documents showing that Sinjar was a major way station for foreign fighters coming through Syria to fight in Iraq.
Critics of the Syrian government cite this as proof that Assad released Islamist prisoners to militarize and radicalize the Syrian uprising. If Assad collaborated (whether passively or actively) with al-Qaeda in 2003, he must have collaborated with al-Qaeda again in 2011 and after, these critics suggest.
In my view it is plausible that the Syrian government at least tolerated these foreign fighters passing through its territory on their way to Iraq. This is because Assad would have had a concrete interest in doing so, given that Syria was the Bush Administration’s next target.
As discussed above, US General Wesley Clark discussed a conversation he had with a “senior general” a few weeks after 9/11 at the Pentagon, in which the general purportedly showed Clark a memo from then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s office which advocated a strategy to “take out seven countries in five years,” which would start with Iraq and Syria and end with Iran.
If Assad could contribute to defeating US forces in Iraq, this might prevent a later assault on Syria. If this was Assad’s strategy, it was, in a limited sense, successful as the Iraqi insurgency caused the US to pay such a high price in blood (of its soldiers) and treasure that the US was eventually forced to withdraw from Iraq in 2011. The Iraq failure limited the appetite of the US public for additional wars of aggression in the Middle East. What US planners perceived as Assad’s efforts to thwart US plans in Iraq are one reason why they continued to try to topple his government throughout the mid to late 2000’s, albeit by less direct means.
In 2005, Flynt Leverett, former senior Middle East analyst at the CIA and senior director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council during the first Bush Administration, cited the allegation that “As the Bush administration launched its military campaign against Saddam’s regime in 2003, Bashar [al-Assad] not only opposed the war but authorized actions that worked against the US pursuit of its objectives in Iraq (Inheriting Syria: Bashar’s Trial by Fire by Flynt Leverett, page 10)” as a reason to either “ratchet up economic, political, rhetorical pressure on Damascus,” on the one hand, or effect “coercive regime change” on the other (pages 17-18). These efforts had to take the form of covert support for the Syrian opposition and economic sanctions however, as direct military invasion by the US army was by then off the table.
It would also make sense for Assad to at least tolerate al-Qaeda linked fighters passing through Syria to fight in Iraq, given that from 2004 until 2008, the Syrian government was attempting to defeat al-Qaeda linked armed groups engaged in a bombing and assassination campaign within Syria itself. Better these militants go to Iraq to fight the American occupiers than remain in Syria and carry out terror attacks against the Syrian government.
The fact that al-Qaeda linked groups within Syria were carrying out terror attacks against Syrian state targets during this period is not widely known or acknowledged. However, terrorism expert Peter Neumann notes that “leaked State Department cables mention bombings and numerous shoot-outs in the years 2004 and 2005; a suicide bombing and several armed clashes and attempted bombings in 2006; more gun battles, several attempted car bombings in Damascus and the seizure of ‘suicide belts, vehicles and 1200 kg of explosives’ in 2008; as well as the bombing of a bus carrying Shiite pilgrims in March 2009. The first wave of these attacks, from 2004 to 2006, was claimed by Jund al-Sham, an obscure group which experts believe had been started by [al-Qaeda in Iraq leader] Zarqawi, while the second, from 2008 to 2009, was the work of ‘rogue members’ of Fatah al-Islam.”
Neumann further notes that what he views as Assad’s efforts to re-direct al-Qaeda militants toward Iraq back fired, when many later returned to Syria. Neumann continues, “Whatever the label, the people responsible [for attacks within Syria] were, without exception, former foreign fighters who had been part of the Iraqi insurgency and fetched up in Syria, where they used their fighting experience and combat skills to attack the government and, increasingly, the Shiite population. One of the most dramatic illustrations of the way in which Assad’s policy backfired were the Sednaya prison riots. After the Iraq invasion, Syrian intelligence officials offered Islamist inmates at this notorious facility just outside Damascus the chance to receive military training and fight against Coalition forces in Iraq. According to a leaked State Department cable, of those who accepted the offer and subsequently managed to return to Syria, ‘some remained at large … others were sent to Lebanon, and a third group were re-arrested and remanded to Sednaya.’ The ones who went back to prison felt ‘cheated’: they ‘had expected better treatment, perhaps even freedom, and were upset over prison conditions’. In July 2008 they rioted, taking a number of prison staff and military cadets hostage. Despite the deployment of special forces, the prisoners maintained control over part of the prison for several months. In January 2009 the long stand-off was resolved in a ferocious battle, which cost the lives of a hundred prisoners and dozens of soldiers. For the military, the episode was a ‘black mark’. The Syrian media never mentioned it.”
Neumann further mentions Syrian government efforts to send some of these militants to Lebanon. However, “A good many jihadist returnees decided to stay in Syria, where they embarked on a terrorist campaign. This included high-profile attacks against government buildings, state television, the US Embassy and a Shiite shrine, all reported by the international press. But there were hundreds of smaller incidents and failed attacks which the government kept secret, and outsiders had little way of knowing about. Representatives of European intelligence services stationed in Syria at the time say that they received reports about terrorist incidents ‘on a monthly basis.’”
That the Syrian government was struggling to deal with a protracted terror campaign at home may explain why the Syrian government eventually assisted US forces in assassinating Abu Ghadiya, al-Qaeda in Iraq’s main facilitator for transiting foreign fighters, in October 2008. US forces crossed into Syria to conduct the attack. Journalist Sean Naylor of Foreign Policyreports that, “It turned out that Syrian intelligence (the Mukhabarat) was already keeping tabs on Ghadiya. With the US lobbying various Arab governments to put pressure on Syria over the foreign-fighter issue, Assad eventually signaled that he would not protest if Ghadiya were taken out, essentially acquiescing to the terrorist’s liquidation. A Task Force Orange member then made a number of trips to Ghadiya’s compound, acting as a singleton, to place devices that would allow the NSA to vector in on their target’s cellular phone. Once the NSA had a lock on Ghadiya’s phone, JSOC waited for confirmation from a HUMINT source — Assad’s intelligence asset recruited from within Ghadiya’s network. The cross-border operation was launched on October 26, 2008. MH-60 helicopters from the 160th Special Operations Aviation flew Delta Force operators into Syria where they secured the objective, killing a handful of terrorists in the process. Ghadiya himself was KIA on the objective.”
If US claims are true that Assad deliberately facilitated the passage of al-Qaeda militants into Iraq to fight US forces, this would not provide evidence that Assad created ISIS in Syria or released Islamist prisoners to deliberately militarize and radicalize the Syrian uprising in 2011, however. In fact, it provides evidence of the opposite. If Assad successfully executed such a strategy against US forces in Iraq, with all the carnage unleashed by al-Qaeda that resulted, it would be extremely bizarre for him to execute the same strategy against his own government and security forces, on purpose. Such a strategy would make sense to employ against one’s enemies, but not against oneself. This is especially the case given the Syrian government’s long history of fighting against militant Islamists, which unbeknownst to most outside observers, continued throughout at least 2009.
The US and Gulf-backed jihadist insurgency in Syria has killed or injured some 100,000 Syrian soldiers and pro-government militia members, assassinated top government officials, including Assad’s brother-in-law, conquered large segments of the country, and took control of most of Syria’s oil producing infrastructure for a lengthy period. To claim that Assad would deliberately militarize the Syrian opposition if there was even a small risk of any of these easily predictable outcomes materializing is bizarre.
Did Assad Murder His Own Brother-in-Law?
Journalist Roy Gutman of the Daily Beast has promoted even more bizarre claims, suggesting that Assad killed many of his own top security officials, including the defense minister and his own brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, in a false flag terrorist bombing at the National Security building in Damascus on July 18, 2012.
Of the bombing, Reuters reports that “Assad’s most trusted lieutenants, led by his brother-in-law Assef Shawkat, were holding a crisis meeting inside a security headquarters when a bomb blast tore through the room. Shawkat was killed, as was the defense minister and another top general. The intelligence chief would die of wounds two days later, and the interior minister was also hurt.”
Gutman relies on speculation from Mohamad Nour Khalouf, “who at the time was a major general in the Syrian army serving in the Defense Ministry” and who later defected to the rebel side, and from Bassam Barabandi, “a former Syrian diplomat close to the opposition who now lives in Washington and is seeking political asylum” to suggest that Iran was behind the bombing. Gutman reports for example that Khalouf was “convinced” that “Iranian advisers had urged Assad to remove several of his top aides” who “were plotting a coup against him. . . After the explosion, there was no one [for Assad] to trust except Iran.’”
These claims are not credible for several reasons. First, both Khalouf and Barabandi are biased sources, as both were active members of the Syrian opposition at the time they made their claims.
Second, neither Khalouf nor Barabandi provide evidence for the claim that Iran was behind the bombing. They simply speculate this is the case.
Third, the bombing came in the context of a major rebel offensive to take Damascus. It makes much more sense that the bombing of the National Security building was carried out as part of this rebel offensive, than to believe that Assad chose exactly the time when his control of Damascus was perceived as weakest to kill his own advisors. Reuters notes that the bombing came on the fourth day of the offensive, dubbed by rebels as operation “Damascus Volcano and Syria Earthquake” and as “Battles flared in the morning within sight of Assad’s presidential palace.” According to Reuters, the operation apparently took government forces by surprise, and involved 2,500 rebel fighters, many of which were redeployed from other parts of the country, to focus efforts on taking the capital. The offensive began when rebels attacked Syrian security forces on Saturday July 14 in the Hajar al-Aswad district of southern Damascus. The fighting spread to three other districts the next day, including the Midan district in the heart of the city, while rebels bombed a bus full of Syrian soldiers, wounding many. Rebels used machine guns, improvised explosive devices and rocket propelled grenades to fight government forces in the narrow alleys of the city. The New York Times placed news of the bombing of the National Security building in the context of the rebel offensive as well, noting that “The attack on the leadership’s inner sanctum as fighting raged in sections of the city for the fourth day suggested that the uprising had reached a decisive moment in the overall struggle for Syria. The battle for the capital, the center of Assad family power, appears to have begun.”
Fourth, rebel groups themselves claimed responsibility for the bombing, and celebrated the deaths of the deceased security officials. Spokespersons for the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Jaish al-Islam both took credit for the bombing. FSA spokesman Qassim Saadedin claimed that the bombing was part of the overall rebel offensive on Damascus as well, noting that “This is the volcano we talked about, we have just started.” Reutersreported that “Jubilant, the rebels claimed responsibility, boasting that they had pulled off what they called ‘a turning point in Syria’s history’, hailing the attack as ‘the beginning of the end.’” The New York Timesreported that “A video from Hama showed opposition members distributing candy to celebrate Mr. Shawkat’s death.”
Fifth, the security analysts quoted in the Western press at the time agreed that the bombing constituted a major blow to the Syrian government, and speculated that the weakness of the government illustrated by the bombing would potentially prompt defections of additional top security officials and lead to a government collapse. The New York Timesobserved that “With the opposition energized and the government demoralized, analysts wondered if other military units and trusted lieutenants would be more inclined to switch sides,” while quoting a retired Lebanese military officer as asking, “Who will replace these people? . . . They are irreplaceable at this stage; it’s hard to find loyal people now that doubt is sown everywhere. Whoever can get to Asef Shawkat can get to Assad.” The NYT also quoted Rami Abdul-Rahman of the pro-opposition Syrian Observatory of Human Rights (SOHR) as claiming “The Syrian regime has started to collapse.”
Sixth, it should go without saying, but if these top security officials were planning a coup, Assad could simply have had them arrested and executed, or simply have dismissed them from their posts. Staging a bombing in the midst of a major rebel offensive just to kill them would make Assad appear weak and encourage defections, whereas publicly exposing the coup and executing the plotters would make Assad appear strong and send a message to other security officials about the grim consequences of disloyalty.
Gutman’s story in the Daily Beast was published years after the bombing, in 2016, suggesting that after opposition expectations about the collapse of the Syrian government failed to materialize, their story changed to suggest that Assad himself had carried out this and other bombings of Syrian state targets.
Sources of the Claim are of Dubious Reliability
Finally, the sources of the accusations that the Assad regime had a specific plan to militarize and radicalize the Syrian uprising all are of dubious reliability. All such sources are close to the Syrian opposition, which have an incentive to discredit the Syrian government for the sake of Western audiences, or come from anonymous sources, who are alleged to be former Syrian security officers. Further, the claims of these sources were published initially in media outlets from the Gulf, whose governments’ themselves wished to see Assad fall, and who were among the supporters of the jihadist rebels Assad supposedly sought to empower, thus further calling the credibility of their claims into question. For example, the National is the state-run newspaper of the United Arab Emirates which had a clear policy of regime change toward Syria. The International Affairs Reviewnotes that “In the Emiratis’ view, the fall of the [Syrian] regime and the subsequent rise of a Sunni government would effectively end violent aggression against the Sunni population.”
The National simply quotes a “former regime security official” and a “former military intelligence officer,” as suggesting Assad released Islamist prisoners for nefarious reasons, both of whom remained anonymous. Of the second, who claimed to have heard orders to deliberately release Islamist prisoners in order to stoke violence, the National acknowledges that “His claims could not be independently verified and he did not have documents supporting them.”former military intelligence officer former regime security official former regime security official
Newsweek bases many of its claims on statements by Muhammad al-Saud, a member of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, a Syria opposition group dedicated to the overthrow of the Syrian government, and which was founded in Qatar (Qatar’s role in funding jihadist groups has been discussed above). Newsweek also relies on statements from Tarek al-Ghorani, a Syrian pro-opposition blogger who was imprisoned by the Syrian government for seven years, but who was released in the 2011 amnesty as well.
The argument that Assad deliberately released prisoners to create an armed insurgency of religious extremists against his own government is dubious. That such claims were uncritically recycled by the Western press suggests they are a product of a US/Gulf-initiated propaganda effort, and meant to obscure the fact that in reality it was the US and its regional allies, in particular Qatar and Saudi Arabia, who have militarized and radicalized the Syrian uprising, in an effort to topple the Syrian government, and thereby weaken Iran and Hezbollah.
A brief overview of collaboration between the US-backed Free Syrian Army and al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front.
Among Syria commentators in the West, both left and mainstream, it is commonly claimed that the Syrian government led by Bashar al-Assad has attempted to crush the supposedly moderate, secular rebels of the Western-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA), while at the same time deliberately supporting extremist rebel groups in order to “Islamize” the Syrian rebellion and to convince the West the Syrian government is really fighting terrorism. It is argued that if Assad could claim his government was fighting al-Qaeda terrorists, rather than secular freedom fighters struggling for democracy, this would force the US and other Western powers to end their support for the Syrian rebels trying to topple the Syrian government, and to instead embrace Assad as a partner with the West in the so-called War on Terror.
A closer review of events in Syria shows the opposite, however, namely that it is the US-backed FSA-branded Syrian rebel groups that have consistently collaborated with and fought alongside al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front, as well as alongside other Salafi-Jihadi rebel groups, namely Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam, and at times even alongside the Islamic State (ISIS).
Nusra and FSA-affiliated brigades have essentially functioned as a coalition in the fight against the Syrian government, with FSA commanders often referring to fighters from Nusra as members of the FSA itself. In many cases, FSA offensives against Syrian government military bases or check points have begun with suicide or truck bombings carried out by Nusra militants. Nusra and FSA-affiliated brigades have established joint committees to divide weapons captured from the Syrian army in rebel offensives. FSA commanders often sell US and Gulf-supplied weapons to Nusra.
Certain FSA brigades and Nusra have of coursed clashed at times, however, there is a clear pattern of FSA collaboration with Nusra generally. FSA and Nusra militants have fought side by side in key battles in which the Syrian opposition has been able to capture large population centers and territory from the Syrian government. FSA and Nusra rebels, often hailing from the Syrian countryside or from outside of Syria itself, invaded many of Syria’s major cities, causing large numbers of civilians to flee to other Syrian government controlled areas, or to neighboring countries as refugees, as occurred in Aleppo, Raqqa, and the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in the Damascus suburbs. The majority (77%) of Syrian refugees in Europe reported fleeing violence from both the Syrian government and the rebels, suggesting that Syrians feared both the rebel invasions of their cities, and the harsh Syrian government response which inevitably followed.
Residents who remained in their homes were then forced to live under jihadist occupation, as FSA brigades and Nusra continued to coexist and jointly control Syrian territory for months or even years, as was the case in Aleppo, Raqqa, Deir Ezzur, Idlib, and Yarmouk camp. This means that when the Syrian army was fighting to recapture cities and territory from the FSA, it was typically also fighting Nusra.
In some opposition controlled areas, joint Nusra-FSA control was a precursor to Islamic State (ISIS) control. It must be remembered that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi founded Nusra by sending a delegation of fighters from Iraq to Syria in late 2011. Nusra and ISIS were essentially the same organization. After FSA and Nusra rebels captured Deir Ezzur in the spring of 2013, a dispute over control of newly captured Syrian oil fields caused Nusra to split from ISIS. Nusra fighters therefore had to choose whether to remain loyal to Nusra, or to pledge loyalty to Baghdadi and join ISIS. When many Nusra fighters did choose to join ISIS, the group gained immediate influence in areas previously captured by Nusra and the FSA, in particular in Raqqa and Deir Ezzur. ISIS, Nusra, and FSA brigades at first co-existed in these areas, however, ISIS was able to oust the FSA and what remained of Nusra from Raqqa and Deir Ezzur entirely within the next year. This allowed ISIS to capture Syria’s most lucrative oil fields, establish Raqqa as its Syrian capital, and greatly grow the size and strength of its so-called Caliphate.
Cooperation between ISIS and Nusra actually continued in some areas, so that in 2015, Nusra fighters deliberately helped facilitate an ISIS takeover of the Yarmouk refugee camp after Nusra had jointly occupied the camp alongside its FSA counterparts for three years. In the Yarmouk basin in southwest Deraa province, near the Israeli border, a prominent FSA brigade declared loyalty to ISIS in late 2014, bringing additional opposition-held territory under ISIS control. This means that ISIS gained its foothold in many areas as a result of the FSA and Nusra first capturing those areas from the Syrian government.
In a lengthy study analyzing Nusra strategy, Jennifer Cafarella of the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) concluded that “JN [Jabhat al-Nusra] serves as a force multiplier for other rebel groups. JN leverages small units of highly skilled fighters to contribute an essential special forces-like capability to rebel military offensives. JN provides highly effective capabilities such as the deployment of suicide bombers to produce asymmetric effects against the regime.”
Such FSA/Nusra cooperation is not surprising given Nusra’s goal of embedding itself within the broader US-backed Syrian insurgency. Nusra leader Abu Mohammad al-Jolani highlighted this approach, stating to al-Jazeera that “Preserving good relations with the other groups and treating them well and turning a blind eye to their mistakes is the foundation in dealing with the other groups.”
Nusra support for the FSA is generally downplayed by rebels themselves for public relations reasons. For example, an opposition activist in Deraa described how “The FSA and Al Nusra join together for operations but they have an agreement to let the FSA lead for public reasons. . . Operations that were really carried out by Al Nusra are publicly presented by the FSA as their own.” Similarly, the Western media often describe joint Nusra/FSA operations in vague terms, such as “rebel offensives” and describe Nusra/FSA controlled territory as “opposition-held,” making it difficult to observe the symbiotic relationship between the two groups when casually reading the news of events in Syria.
FSA dependence on Nusra was made clear when US officials designated Nusra as a terrorist organization in late 2012. FSA commanders protested the decision, insisting that “We are all Nusra.”
At first glance, it might appear that US officials were alarmed by cooperation between Nusra and the FSA, given that Nusra is al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. However, there is considerable evidence that US planners have themselves viewed Nusra as an ally in its effort to overthrow the Assad government, despite designating it a terrorist organization. US planners have bombed Nusra only sparingly, as Nusra’s efforts to topple the Syrian government dovetailed with the United States’ own. When US planners did bomb Nusra targets in an effort to kill specific al-Qaeda militants suspected of planning attacks against the West, US officials took great pains to emphasize they were not bombing Nusra, which they viewed as helping Syrians fight against Assad but rather elements of al-Qaeda they considered to belong to a separate and previously unknown entity, the Khorasan group. US planners also expected that US-trained rebels would be welcomed by Nusra in the battle against the Syrian government, and expressed shock when Nusra attacked these US-trained groups and stole their weapons in several instances.
In November 2016, some officials in the Obama administration acknowledged the tacit alliance with Nusra and argued for a shift in US policy. The Washington Postreports that “Officials who supported the shift said the Obama administration could no longer tolerate what one of them described as ‘a deal with the devil,’ whereby the United States largely held its fire against al-Nusra because the group was popular with Syrians in rebel-controlled areas and furthered the U.S. goal of putting military pressure on Assad.”
Further, one must not rely on claims from Assad, or Syrian, Russian, and Iranian state media to conclude that it is the US-backed FSA that collaborates with al-Qaeda. Rather this is clear from admissions from FSA commanders themselves, and from reporting in Western and Gulf media outlets (broadly hostile to the Syrian government) about specific rebel offensives.
In the remainder of this essay, I will provide a brief overview of the events showing collaboration between the FSA and Nusra in each of the areas mentioned above, as well as evidence suggesting that US planners have typically viewed Nusra (and even ISIS in specific circumstances) as an ally in its covert fight against the Syrian government.
Deraa province is located in the south of Syria, bordering both Jordan and Israel. Deraa city is the provincial capital. Evidence of Nusra involvement in the Syrian insurgency in Deraa province began to emerge in late 2012. The BBCreported that on November 10, 2012 “At least 20 soldiers have been killed in twin explosions in the southern Syrian city of Deraa, activists report . . . two cars packed with explosives were detonated at a military camp, killing and wounding ‘dozens.” No specific group claimed responsibility for the attack; however, it appears to have been carried out by Nusra, as large car bombs were used.
In this period, the flow of weapons to Syrian rebels increased drastically as well. The New York Timesreported that in November 2012, Saudi Arabia “financed a large purchase of infantry weapons from Croatia and quietly funneled them to antigovernment fighters” in southern Syria, via shipments through Jordan, and that these shipments were arranged with help from the CIA, including from then CIA director David Petraeus. The Croatian weapons began reaching rebels in Deraa province by late December 2012.
Eliot Higgins of the crowdsourcing journalism website Bellingcatnotes that FSA brigades and Nusra jointly assaulted a Syrian government military base outside of Al Sahweh that same month. Higgins located images showing Nusra fighters using these Croatian weapons, presumably because FSA groups had shared them with Nusra during the joint operation.
Higgins also noted that the FSA and Nusra jointly attacked the Syrian army outpost, Hajez Barad, in Busr al-Harir, Daraa, in March 2013. He located images of Nusra fighters using the same Croatian weapons during that operation as well.
Nusra was not the only jihadist group to receive the Saudi purchased weapons. McClatchyquoted an Ahrar al-Sham spokesperson in late February as acknowledging “of course they [the FSA] share their weapons with us, we fight together.”
In March 2013, the Washington Postreported that the FSA-affiliated Yarmouk Martyrs’ Brigade had cooperated with Nusra to seize the 38th Division air base of the Syrian army in Deraa province. In September 2013, Al-Jazeerareported that opposition rebels, among them fighters from Nusra, wrested control of the Ramtha border crossing to Jordan from the Syrian army.
The New York Timesreported that by the summer of 2013, the US was itself sending weapons to rebels in southern Syria, in addition to those being sent via Saudi and Jordanian intelligence. The Nationalreported that these weapons were distributed to Syrian rebels via an operations command center in Amman. These distributions included vehicles, sniper rifles, mortars, heavy machine guns, small arms and ammunition to FSA units. Western and Arab military advisers based in the operations center offered tactical advice on attacking Syrian government targets.
On Oct 04, 2013, the pro-opposition Lebanese Daily Starreported that according to a source in the opposition Joint Military Council, Saudi-supplied anti-tank missiles sent to FSA groups in Deraa had reached Nusra “within days” of delivery to the FSA . The source stated “Nusra paid $15,000 for each. So they are going in, and immediately being sold on.”
That Nusra regularly purchased weapons from the Western-backed military councils supplying the FSA was confirmed one year later. In October 2014, the New York Timesreported that Shafi al-Ajmi, a Nusra fundraiser, told a Saudi news channel that “When the military councils sell the weapons they receive, guess who buys them? It’s me.”
On January 5, 2014, the Nationalinterviewed opposition activists and FSA fighters and commanders in Deraa. One FSA fighter explained how “They [Nusra] offer their services and cooperate with us, they are better armed than we are, they have suicide bombers and know how to make car bombs.” A local opposition activist described how “The FSA and Al Nusra join together for operations but they have an agreement to let the FSA lead for public reasons, because they don’t want to frighten Jordan or the West. . . Operations that were really carried out by Al Nusra are publicly presented by the FSA as their own.” An FSA commander further explained that assistance from Nusra to the FSA had been crucial during several battles against the Syrian government in the south of the country and that the FSA and Nusra had an agreement to share weaponry captured during successful operations, but that this is rarely acknowledged because, “The face of Al Nusra cannot be to the front. It must be behind the FSA, for the sake of Jordan and the international community.”
Despite FSA/Nusra cooperation, Reuters reported that Congress approved sending additional small arms and anti-tank rockets to FSA rebel groups in southern Syria in late January 2014, with a budget that would extend weapons shipments through September 2014.
In February 2014, the Southern Front was established to consolidate the command structure and military operations of 49 southern FSA rebel groups, including the Yarmouk Martyrs’ Brigade. US funding to the Southern Front was justified on the basis of claims that the Front was an umbrella for moderate opposition groups denouncing sectarianism and extremism.
Close cooperation between the US-backed FSA brigades comprising the Southern Front and Nusra continued, however. In February 2014, the Yarmouk Martyrs’ Brigade participated with Nusra in a campaign to capture strategic positions between Deraa and Quneitra.
In May 25, 2014 a commander of the FSA affiliated al-Omari Brigade toldVice News that despite some tensions, its relationship with Nusra was good, and that he was committed to maintaining it. The commander stated that, “God forbid there would be a war between the FSA and Nusra. It would be a disaster for everyone, and a victory for the regime.” Mohammed Ktefan, a Nusra fighter from Daraa, also told Vice that “Fighters from the FSA and Nusra work together in the free areas and relations between them are very natural” and that, “This talk about controversies and clashes [between the FSA and Nusra] is just propaganda. It doesn’t exist on the ground.”
In the fall of 2014, FSA rebels and Nusra jointly assaulted several southern Syrian cities near the Israeli border, including Tel al-Harra and Baath city (causing thousands of residents to flee) and took control of the Quneitra crossing to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
By December 2014, the Yarmouk Martyrs’ Brigade split from the Southern Front and Nusra and pledged allegiance to ISIS. This brought FSA territory in the Yarmouk basin under ISIS control. In March 2016, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi appointed a Saudi National, Abu Abdullah al-Madani, as the new head of the group. In May 2016, the Yarmouk Martyrs’ Brigade merged with two other armed factions sympathetic to ISIS, forming the Khalid Bin Walid Army (KBW). Fighting between the KBW on the one hand, and FSA and Nusra rebels on the other became common. When US-backed Kurdish and Arab militias drove ISIS out of its then capital, Raqqa, in the fall of 2017, a number of senior ISIS commanders fled to the area controlled by the KBW, setting up a new training camp and overseeing the dissemination of online propaganda. Despite publicly expressing hostility to ISIS, the Israeli government followed a “live and let live” policy with ISIS-affiliated factions and Nusra, which both maintained a presence near the Israeli border over the course of several years, according to the Times of Israel.
In April 2015, the US-backed Southern Front and Nusra jointly captured the Nassib border crossing, the last government-controlled border crossing between Syria and Jordan. In the summer of 2015, the Southern Front cooperated with Nusra to launch the “Southern Storm” campaign to take full control of Deraa city, though the campaign was ultimately unsuccessful. As part of this campaign, rebels from the Southern Front and Nusra jointly captured the Brigade 82 military base in southwestern Deraa province, which, according to one rebel commander, would help the rebels “cut supply routes of the regime forces in the south from their supplies in the north to be able to eventually take over Deraa city.”
This cooperation continued into 2017. In February, the FSA announced the beginning of an operation entitled “We Prefer Death to Kneeling Down” with the objective of taking control of the Menshiya neighborhood in Deraa City from the Syrian Army. The operation was directed by the al-Bunyan al-Marsous operations room, which coordinated rebel activities among the different factions, including the FSA, Jaish al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham and Nusra (by then known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham). The operation began with two suicide car bombs carried out by Nusra fighters. The fight for Menshiya continued for months, as rebels were able to take control of much of the district, prompting the Syrian army to send an elite army unit to attempt to retake it with the assistance of Russian airstrikes.
On March 2, 2013 a coalition of rebel groups, including the FSA, Nusra, and Ahrar al-Sham expelled Syrian government forces and conquered the city of Raqqa, the capital of the eastern Syrian governorate of the same name.
Syria analyst Matthew Barber provides an account of the fighting in which rebels, all originating outside of Raqqa itself, took control of the city. Barber also describes video footage from the rebels showing what appears to be the massacre of Syrian government soldiers whom Nusra had promised free passage out of the city upon surrender. Other videos emerged showing Nusra fighters executing Syrian government intelligence officials in the town’s central square, as well as parading the bodies of others throughout the city in pickup trucks.
The capture of Raqqa was widely celebrated by the Syrian opposition, as it was the first provincial capital to be controlled entirely by rebel forces. Reutersreported that the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) claimed the capture of Raqqa would prove “a decisive victory in the struggle for the downfall of the criminal Assad regime and to salvage Syria from the ugliest epoch in its history.”
The sentiment of local residents in Raqqa did not seem to match those of opposition supporters abroad, however. While the city was under government control, some 800,000 Syrians from other areas of the country had sought refuge there in an effort to escape violence elsewhere. As the rebel invasion loomed, the BBC cited Reuters as reporting that some residents, including Raqqa’s local representative in the opposition SNC, had pleaded with rebels not to enter the city, as “The fear now is that the regime will hit Scud missiles indiscriminately at Raqqa to punish the population.” Once the rebels captured Raqqa, civilians sought to flee the city en masse, in contrast to having sought refuge there previously. Al-Arabiyareported on March 31 that according to opposition sources, “more than half of Raqqa residents and those who migrated to it before it was seized have fled, amounting to more than a million.”
The residents that remained soon had to fear not only possible retribution from the Syrian army, but oppression at the hands of rebels now occupying the city. From March 2013 to January 2014, the city was controlled by multiple rebel factions, including by FSA brigades, ISIS, and Nusra (which had broken away from ISIS at roughly the time Raqqa fell from government control).
Though idealized by secular opposition activists as a time when Raqqa residents supposedly “enjoyed a period when we could work freely and walk in the streets carrying revolutionary flags,” the first months after Syrian government forces were defeated were in fact characterized by strong influence of both Nusra and ISIS.
Reuters quoted an opposition activist from Raqqa, who described how “All the FSA cared for was stealing and accumulating money. From the first day of Raqqa’s liberation they left it to the Islamic State [ISIS].” Reuters notes as well that “Residents say they know little about the fighters. They include Iraqis, Gulf Arabs and Libyans, they say, but keep their identity hidden behind masks and avoid conversation” suggesting that Raqqa was essentially under foreign occupation by jihadist militants.
In June 2013, Youtube footage emerged showing Raqqa residents protesting outside of a joint ISIS/Nusra headquarters in Raqqa in an effort to win the release of relatives imprisoned by the militant groups, who were detaining residents in Raqqa for having “exceeded the boundaries of Shari’a.” Women protestors used slogans against Nusra and ISIS such as “I want my brother,” and “We want dad,” to demand the release of detained family members. Billboards containing ISIS propaganda, encouraging residents to pray, and to fight against idolatry, and encouraging women to wear the niqab (clothing covering their bodies, including their face), could be seen throughout the city. In July 2013, ISIS kidnapped pro-opposition Italian Jesuit priest Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, who had traveled to Raqqa to negotiate a ceasefire between quarreling rebel factions. Local activists believed he was executed a short time later. The New York Timesinterviewed ISIS commander Abu Omar in Raqqa in August 2013, in a story highlighting the role of jihadists in not just Raqqa, but in the Syrian insurgency broadly, providing a further indication of ISIS’ presence in Raqqa when the city was supposedly under some kind of secular, democratic self-rule and considered an example of the success of the revolution.
That same month, clashes broke out between ISIS and members of the FSA-affiliated Ahfad al-Rasoul Brigade in Raqqa, in which one prominent Rasoul commander was killed. ISIS was so strong in Raqqa that Rasoul fighters were forced to announce it was ceasing hostilities against ISIS, supposedly “to preserve frontline unity” while pro-rebel rallies continued to feature FSA flags flying side by side with flags from ISIS.
The next month, in September 2013, the FSA in Raqqa essentially ceased to exist, as one activist from Raqqa described how, “Not all, but the majority of FSA have joined Nusra because of [fear of] ISIS. Al-Nusra are Syrian and ISIS is not. Al-Nusra, at the end of the day, is essentially FSA, in that they are fighting to bring down the regime.”
That same month, the BBCreported that local residents began to protest ISIS after its fighters began attacking churches in Raqqa, including the iconic Armenian Catholic Church of the Martyrs. ISIS militants responded with beatings, arrests, and kidnappings, causing one local activist to claim that in Raqqa, ISIS “are the new dictators, just like Bashar al-Assad but dressed in black,” and that ISIS had “banned the sale of alcohol, they tried to close cafes where boys and girls sit together, they banned street theatre, cinema, bright colours, and forced women to wear Islamic dress.”
Finally, in January 2014, clashes between ISIS and Nusra broke out, as a result of which ISIS managed to take full control of the city, making it the organization’s Syrian capital. Foreign fighters continued to flock to Raqqa to join ISIS, and the group accelerated its oppression of Raqqa residents, closing churches, crucifying dissidents, destroying Shia shrines, and further imposing its extremist, fringe interpretation of Islamic law on residents.
After years ISIS occupation of Raqqa, US-backed Kurdish and Arab fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) led a four month long assault against the city, accompanied by a large-scale US bombing campaign from the air, which successfully defeated ISIS in October 2017. The brutal US/SDF assault caused massive destruction, clearly visible by footage taken by drone. Hostilities finally ended when the last few hundred ISIS fighters and their families were evacuated in an agreement with US-backed forces. ISIS fighters left in a large convoy of buses and semi-trucks, taking large quantities of weapons with them. SOHRestimated the total dead from the fighting at some 3,250, including many from US airstrikes. Once Raqqa was destroyed by US bombs after years of ISIS occupation, it became clear that the supposed liberation of the city in the spring of 2013, which brought celebrations among secular Syrian opposition activists, was just the beginning of the “ugliest epoch” in the city’s history, rather than the end of it.
Aleppo is Syria’s largest city and main economic hub, located in northern Syria near the Turkish border. In the summer of 2012, rebel fighters from the Tawhid Brigade invaded Aleppo. At the time, Tawhid was considered a member of the FSA. Tawhid fighters, largely from the countryside outside Aleppo, received assistance from Nusra in their assault of the city. The Washington Postquoted Tawhid commander Abu Ibrahim as saying of Nusra that “We are together. . .There is good coordination.” The Post also quoted a member of the Aleppo Revolutionary Council as describing Nusra fighters as “heroes” who “fight without fear or hesitation.” The International Crisis Group (ICG) pointed to YouTube videos which “depicted a militant waving a Jabhat al-Nusra flag celebrating among Liwa al-Towhid fighters and local civilians. Amid thirteen minutes of singing and dancing not generally associated with jihadis, those celebrating cheered and chanted for the FSA, Liwa al-Towhid and Jabhat al-Nusra.” ICG noted YouTube videos depicting Nusra fighters attacking the Hanano military barracks alongside FSA fighters, and explained that “Such open collaboration with its larger [FSA] counterpart has earned Jabhat al-Nusra public praise from prominent rebel leaders and local activists.”
Aleppo’s residents did not by and large welcome the rebel invasion and occupation of the city, however. One FSA commander acknowledged that “Around 70% of Aleppo city is with the regime. It has always been that way. The countryside is with us and the city is with them,” while another rebel commander vowed to make Aleppo “burn” for this lack of support for the rebels, while yet another insisted the city must be “dragged” into the revolution.
By January 2013, the grim reality of life under FSA/Nusra rule had become apparent. A US State Department assessment described life under rebel rule in Aleppo: “There are hundreds of small groups (10-20 fighters) spread all over the area of Aleppo . . . The FSA has [been] transformed into disorganized rebel groups, infiltrated by large numbers of criminals. All our efforts with MCs [military councils] were abolished. . . . Warlords are a reality on the ground now. . . . A [failed] state is the most likely outcome of the current condition, unless adjustment [is] done. . . Rebel violations are becoming a normal daily phenomenon, especially against civilians, including looting public and private factories, storage places, houses and cars.” As a result of FSA criminality, Nusra was “gaining popularity” due to their discipline and refrain from participating in the looting, according to the report.
Nusra continued to play a prominent role in the rebel occupation of East Aleppo for much of the next four years. In March 2013, the Washington Postreported that Nusra “assumed control of bakeries and the distribution of flour and fuel” in the city, and was the dominant rebel faction in establishing the “Sharia authority” to govern the city according to a fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic law.
Other indications of FSA collaboration with Nusra come from Colonel Abdul Jabbar al-Okaidi, the head of the Revolutionary Military Council in Aleppo, which, according to the Telegraph, was one of the main rebel recipients of US military aid. In an interview with an opposition media outlet, al-Okaidi claimed that Nusra was actually part of the FSA, stating that Nusra “constitute perhaps 10% of the FSA in the city of Aleppo and in Syria.” This mirrored then Secretary of State John Kerry’s claim that maybe 15 to 25 percent of the rebels were “al Qaida and the bad guys.” Oddly, Kerry cited these numbers to try to prove that “[t]here is a real moderate opposition that exists,” ignoring the fact that whatever groups he referred to as moderate were collaborating closely with al-Qaeda (Nusra).
Al-Okaidi has met personally with former US ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, whom he personally thanked for aid shipments to the FSA, as well as with US Congressman Adam Kinzinger in September 2014. Okaidi has been interviewed in the Western Press, for example, in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz when he led the rebel offensive to capture Aleppo in 2012 and by CNN in conjunction with Kininger’s meeting with Syrian rebel representatives in 2014.
Al-Okaidi and his US-backed Aleppo Military Council have worked closely not only with Nusra, but with ISIS as well. After a ten month campaign, FSA brigades were finally successful in capturing the Menagh air base, located one hour from Aleppo city, in August 2013. The FSA was only able to do so, however, with the help of fighters led by prominent ISIS commanders Abu Jandal and Abu Omar al-Sheshani. The New York Timesreported that weeks of “relentless suicide vehicle bombings on the walls of the base” turned the tide in the battle, and that afterward “al-Okaidi, the head of the United States-backed opposition’s Aleppo military council, appeared in a video alongside Abu Jandal, a leader of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria [ISIS]. In camouflage, Colonel Okaidi offered thanks to ‘our brothers al-Muhajireen wal Ansar [Jandal’s battalion] and others, adding: ‘We’re here to kiss every hand pressed on the trigger.’ He then ceded the floor to Abu Jandal and a mix of jihadist and Free Syrian Army leaders, who stood together, each praising his men, like members of a victorious basketball team.”
In September 2014, the Los Angeles Timesquoted several fighters from Hazm Movement (a “vetted” rebel group that received TOW anti-tank missiles from the US) in Aleppo as explaining that, “Nusra doesn’t fight us, we actually fight alongside them. We like Nusra,” through relations between the groups would eventually sour, when in March 2015 Nusra attacked various Hazm bases and confiscated its weapons, essentially dissolving the group.
Al-Monitor reports that Nusra reinforced its presence in Aleppo in February 2016 (having previously lost influence there to ISIS), as a column of Nusra tanks and trucks carrying medium and heavy weapons resembling a military parade entered the city by way of the al-Kastelo road. Nusra was then at the forefront of the fighting when the final battle for the city between rebels and Syrian/Russian forces began in the fall of 2016. When the Syrian government attempted to liberate East Aleppo from Nusra and its FSA counterparts, the Western press described the Syrian government’s efforts as “genocide” and repeated unfounded rebel allegations of Syrian government war crimes, including that women in Aleppo were committing suicide to avoid being raped by Syrian government soldiers.
The Western press characterized the defeat of al-Qaeda in Aleppo is the “fall” of the city, rather than its liberation, even as the massacres of the civilian population predicted by Western journalists failed to materialize. Instead, reports emerged that rebels had murdered civilians attempting to flee from rebel controlled areas to government controlled areas of the city, and that large numbers of Syrian displaced persons and refugees began returning to their homes in East Aleppo in the months after it returned to Syrian government control, thus slowly reversing the flight of civilians from the city that occurred in the summer of 2012 when rebels first invaded it.
Idlib province is located in northwest Syria, along the border with Turkey, with Idlib City serving as the provincial capital. By July 2012, Nusra was playing a large role in assisting the rebels in Idlib province. Time magazine reported that “’Abu Mohammad, a local FSA commander with 25 men, said he dealt with the Jabhat [Nusra] because he needed their ‘explosives, bullets and other things … They have experience that I can benefit from, and I can also give them some help, information that benefits them.’” Time notes further that by July 2012, Nusra had “a presence in at least half a dozen towns in Idlib province as well as elsewhere across the country, including strong showings in the capital of Damascus and in Hama, according to the Jabhat member and other Islamists who are in contact with senior members of the group.”
During this period, foreign support for the rebels increased markedly, as Qatar was using C-130 transport aircraft to deliver weapons to Turkey which would then be delivered to rebels in Idlib province. The New York Times quoted one former US official who described how Qatari efforts, with assistance from then CIA head David Petraus, resulted in a “cataract of weaponry” flowing to the rebels in Syria. The NYT noted as well that “The Qatari flights aligned with the tide-turning military campaign by rebel forces in the northern province of Idlib, as their campaign of ambushes, roadside bombs and attacks on isolated outposts began driving Mr. Assad’s military and supporting militias from parts of the countryside. As flights continued into the summer, the rebels also opened an offensive in that city — a battle that soon bogged down.”
In November 2012, the Washington Post provided details of a report from an NGO affiliated with the FSA regarding the influence of Nusra in Idlib and elsewhere, noting that, “In Idlib province, west of Aleppo, Jabhat’s ranks number 2,500 to 3,000, or about 10 percent of the total number of FSA fighters there,” suggesting that Nusra was considered part of the FSA itself.
Also in November 2012, FSA brigades and Nusra were able to capture a key Syrian military base. The BBCreported that, “Hundreds of FSA fighters – led by the jihadist groups al-Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham and the Islamic Vanguard – have besieged Taftanaz Military Airport in Idlib province. . . . Rebel fighters broke into the airbase on Wednesday night after days of fighting, and by Thursday had seized control of more than half of it. On Friday morning, the Local Co-ordination Committees (LCC), an opposition activist network, reported that the FSA was now in full control,” once again indicating there was little if any distinction between the FSA and Nusra.
In February 2013, another joint FSA/Nusra operation led to capturing another key Syrian military base in Idlib, this time in Wadi Deif. Time magazine reports that the Nusra Front and other rebel groups, including the FSA’s Idlib Revolutionary Military Council, headed by Colonel Afif Suleiman, renewed the assault on the Wadi Deif military base and other targets in Idlib. Taking the base was a crucial step in controlling the M5 highway that allows the Syrian government to transport military supplies from Hama and Damascus north to Idlib and Aleppo. All factions involved committed to obey rulings of a Sharia committee established to distribute spoils of war between the groups, which had been a point of contention previously. The Nusra commander leading the operation told Time that “We invited all of the leaders of the brigades here,” and that “They have all sworn to the court to work together. God willing, this will serve as an example to others.”
In May 2013, the Long War Journalreported that Nusra and seven different FSA brigades carried out a large joint operation in Idlib province involving 2,000 fighters, eight tanks, a BMP armored vehicle, as well as mortars, rockets, machine guns, and other heavy weapons, noting that “The Al Nusrah Front explained that it decided to assist the Syrian rebel units after they failed to take control of the camps despite laying siege to the area for more than three months. . . .The al Qaeda-linked terror group also said that in another attack, on June 14, it worked with four other rebel groups to overrun ‘the Military Housing Foundation’ in Idlib.” During that operation, Nusra partnered with Ahrar al-Sham, as well as with FSA brigades Liwa al-Tawhid, and Liwa al-Haq.
In February 2014, the commander of the US and Saudi backed Syrian Revolutionaries Front, Jamal Maarouf, said that his group was happy to fight alongside al-Qaeda, and that he had provided weapons to Islamist rebels (he did not specify which groups) at the behest of his Saudi sponsors during a battle at Yabroud.
On May 25, 2014, SOHRreported that “Four al-Nusra Front fighters carried out suicide attacks this morning, driving vehicles packed with explosives into four regime forces’ checkpoints in the Jabal al-Arbaeen area near Ariha city,” while Emirates Today reported that “Fighters of the Free [Syrian] Army and Islamic brigades followed up the bombings by storming and controlling roadblocks and buildings.”
On October 27, 2014 the Independentreported that “Syria almost lost its second city to the jihadists of Isis and Jabhat al-Nusra last night when hundreds of fighters stormed into the provincial capital, Idlib, captured the newly installed governor’s office and began beheading Syrian army officers. By the time government troops recaptured the building, at least 70 soldiers – many senior officers – had been executed, leaving one of the oldest cities in Syria in chaos” before the Syrian army was able to repel the rebel assault. EA Worldviewreported that FSA fighters took part in the assault on Idlib city as well, noting that “Insurgent forces, including Jabhat al-Nusra and the Free Syrian Army, attacked this morning from the north, south, and west and captured several checkpoints on the perimeter of the city. They then moved on positions such as the stadium and the College of Education.”
Some tensions between Nusra and other opposition rebel groups did appear. In November 2014, al-Nahar reported that Nusra fighters executed 13 members of an opposition rebel group in a town in the Idlib countryside, shooting them in the back. The reason for the clashes was not known, though the factions had fought side by side against the Syrian government previously. In March 2015 al-Monitor reported that Nusra attacked both the Syrian Revolutionaries Front and the Hazm movement (both groups had fought with Nusra previously) and that the groups had “collapsed within a few hours in the Idlib countryside” and that Nusra seized both groups’ weapons depots.
Relations between Nusra and other Western-backed rebel groups in Idlib remained strong however, while close US-ally Qatar sought to improve its relations with Nusra. In March 2015, Reutersreported that Qatari intelligence officials had met with Nusra leader al-Jolani “several times in the past few months to encourage him to abandon al Qaeda and to discuss what support they could provide,” even though “the ideology of the new entity is not expected to change,” suggesting Qatar desired such a change for public relations reasons.
US planners sought better relations with Nusra as well. Syria analyst Charles Lister, writing in Foreign Policy, noted that US planners encouraged FSA brigades to coordinate with Nusra to launch a spring offensive against a number of cities and towns in Idlib province still under Syrian government control.
The campaign involved an assault on Idlib city in March 2015 as well as an attack on Syrian government check points in the al-Ghab plain in April 2015. When Nusra took control of most of Idlib city, the opposition government in exile (based in Turkey) considered moving its headquarters to Idlib so it could begin to operate from within the country. The opposition government enjoyed strong support from Qatar and later received direct US funding.
On April 22, 2015, Nusra (by then known as Jaish al-Fateh) launched three simultaneous offensives, with support from FSA factions (Liwa Forsan al-Haq, the 1st Coastal Division, Liwa Suqor al-Jebel, and others) in Jisr al-Shigour, the Mastouma military base, and the nearby al-Qarmeed and Sahl al-Ghab checkpoints. FSA groups used US-provided TOW anti-tank weapons in these offensives. Nusra suicide bombings helped capture the National Hospital in Jisr al-Shagour. By late May, the opposition capture of Idlib province was complete, as Nusra took control of the town of Ariha.
Syria analyst Charles Lister, writing in Foreign Policy, observed that the opposition gains in Idlib province during this period were the result of several months of extensive planning, and that “The operations also displayed a far improved level of coordination between rival factions, spanning from U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) brigades, to moderate and conservative Syrian Islamists, to al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and several independent jihadist factions.”
In addition to highlighting increased FSA/Nusra cooperation, Lister also notes that US planners had directly instructed their FSA proxies in Idlib to cooperate with Nusra. Lister writes, “The involvement of FSA groups, in fact, reveals how the factions’ backers have changed their tune regarding coordination with Islamists. Several commanders involved in leading recent Idlib operations confirmed to this author that the U.S.-led operations room in southern Turkey, which coordinates the provision of lethal and non-lethal support to vetted opposition groups, was instrumental in facilitating their involvement in the operation from early April onwards. That operations room — along with another in Jordan, which covers Syria’s south — also appears to have dramatically increased its level of assistance and provision of intelligence to vetted groups in recent weeks.”
Lister finishes the article by arguing that US cooperation with al-Qaeda (Nusra) is the best option for US planners: “[T]here still remains no better alternative to cooperating with al Qaeda, and thus facilitating its prominence. If the West wants a better solution, it must broaden and intensify its engagement with Syria’s insurgent groups and considerably expand its provision of assistance to a wider set of acceptable groups” echoing a popular view among Western and Gulf think tank analysts that Nusra was worthy of US support.
Lister expanded further on this subject, writing in the Huffington Post that, “none of the major victories in Idlib since early-April would have been possible without the crucial rearguard actions of U.S.— and Western-backed FSA units and their externally-supplied artillery shells, mortars and American-manufactured BGM-71 TOW anti-tank missile systems. . . As this author revealed in early-May, the depth of coordination between Western-backed FSA factions, Islamists, Jabhat al-Nusra and other jihadists has increased markedly in Idlib since April, both due to a natural need for cooperation on the ground, but also thanks to a tacit order to do so from the U.S.- and Saudi-led coordination room in southern Turkey [emphasis mine].”
Lister also notes that,” Specifically in Idlib, Jabhat al-Nusra also began unilaterally imposing a harsher level of Sharia justice, including stoning men and women to death, restricting women’s dress and freedom of public movement, and enforcing the closure of shops during prayer time.”
Roughly one year later, in March 2016, relations deteriorated between Nusra and the 13th Division, one of the major FSA brigades in Idlib province. After cooperating to capture Idlib one year before in a joint operation, Nusra killed seven Division 13 fighters in Ma’arat al-Numan, and took a dozen more as prisoners after a night-long gun battle. Nusra was able to defeat Division 13 “in large measure because none of the other FSA factions in the town were willing to help their allies. Most prominent among the nearby FSA divisions that sat on their hands was another U.S.-backed faction, Fursan al-Haq, led by another Syrian Army defector, Col. Fares Bayyoush,” according to reporting in Foreign Policy.
Nusra continued to consolidate its position of dominance in the province. In February 23, 2017 the Washington Postquoted an official with the U.S.-backed FSA Fastaqim rebel group as saying he and his fighters had jointed Ahrar al-Sham because “Al-Qaeda is eating us,” while also noting that “A video posted on YouTube this week by the new Nusra-led alliance showed its fighters destroying a government gun position using one of the U.S.-made TOW antitank missiles that were supplied to the moderate rebels.”
While Nusra threatened to subsume some smaller, weaker, FSA brigades, cooperation between Nusra and other FSA brigades continued, in particular between Nusra and the US-backed Free Idlib Army (FIA). Syria Deeplyreports that the FIA was formed in 2016 when three FSA brigades merged and that US had supplied all three groups with TOW anti-tank missiles. Syria Deeply notes further that the FIA receives support from the CIA operated MOM operations room in Turkey, while its actions are “intertwined with the military plans and operations of local extremist groups.” According to reporting in the Long War Journal, in March of 2017 the FIA cooperated with Nusra (by then known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham), Ahrar al-Sham, and a number of smaller FSA brigades in a large offensive in northern Hama in which opposition rebels assaulted over a dozen villages and towns. Nusra foreign fighters initiated many of the assaults, carrying out suicide bombings the towns of Suran, Maardes, and Qamhada, where a large truck bomb was employed. The FIA itself focused on assaulting the regime-controlled Zayn Al Abdeen Mountain.
In mid-July 2017, an intra-jihadi civil war erupted, as Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham began to fight for control of Idlib. Nusra quickly defeated its former ally, which had been one of the strongest rebel groups in Syria since 2011, thereby cementing Nusra’s hold on the province, including Idlib city. Nusra also won control of the “lucrative Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey and surrounding territory near the frontier including checkpoints and key roads.” Syria analyst Sam Heller noted that, “Inside the northwest, there’s now no one who can challenge the clear, hegemonic control of [Nusra].”
Yarmouk camp, with a pre-war population of some 200,000, was the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Syria. Palestinians in Yarmouk, as in the rest of Syria, attempted to remain neutral in the conflict, however, these efforts soon failed as both the rebels and the regime attempted to draw the Palestinians of Yarmouk and other Palestinian camps into the conflict.
In February 2012, a senior regime security official warned the Palestinian leadership in Yarmouk to “keep the camp quiet,” implying that the Syrian army would unleash considerable violence on the camp if rebels were able to infiltrate it. The rebels were determined to do just that, however, against the wishes of Yarmouk’s residents. Rebel groups under the direction of then Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, sought to occupy Yarmouk, in an effort to use it as a base for launching attacks on Damascus, as it is located on the southern outskirts of the city, only a few miles away from Assad’s presidential palace and the Damascus airport, and could be supplied from rebel controlled districts and rural areas further to the south.
As a result, during the spring and summer of 2012 opposition rebel groups detonated a car bomb in the camp and assassinated a number of pro-regime Palestinian Liberation Army (PLA) commanders (a regime sponsored militia in which Palestinian refugees performed compulsory service, but which had not participated in the Syrian conflict).
Rebels then massacred 17 young PLA conscripts traveling by bus near the Neirab Palestinian camp outside of Aleppo on July 11, 2012. According to one PLA commander, “half were shot, while the other half were tortured and then beheaded.” Rebels also made public threats stating that pro-regime Palestinian leaders were “legitimate targets.”
Members of Palestinian factions, in particular the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC) then began fighting alongside the Syrian army against rebels in neighborhoods adjacent to Yarmouk, thus breaking the commitment to neutrality. In August 2012, the PFLP-GC organized self-defense militias to prevent rebel fighters from infiltrating the camp. The efforts of the Popular Committees to protect the camp from rebels came amid allegations PFLP-GC members continued to help the Syrian army fight rebel groups outside the camp as well.
Rebels, including brigades from the FSA and Nusra, were finally able to invade and take control of the camp in December. The Guardianreported that, “In December 2012 the FSA and the al-Qaida affiliate, Jabhat al Nusra were ready for a concerted attack to capture Damascus and topple Assad. Yarmouk was the gateway to the capital, closer to the centre than any of the other suburbs where the regime was losing control. The crisis came to a head on 16 December, when a Syrian air force plane bombed Yarmouk in what the government later claimed was a mistake. Dozens of civilians were killed. Brigades from the FSA and Jabhat al Nusra seized the opportunity to enter the camp – and in response, the government launched a hail of artillery shells, turning most buildings on the edge of the district to rubble.”
As a result of the rebel occupation of the camp and subsequent fighting with the Syria army, the majority of residents of Yarmouk were forced to flee. Of this period, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) commented, “In December 2012, fierce clashes erupted in Yarmouk, an area of Damascus home to approximately 160,000 Palestine refugees. The intensity of these clashes and the widespread use of heavy weapons caused numerous civilian casualties, severe damage to property and the displacement of 140,000 Palestine refugees and thousands of Syrians.”
When talks to negotiate the exit of both the Syrian army and the rebels failed, the remaining Yarmouk residents began to suffer both from jihadist rule and from the Syrian government imposed siege. Rebels soon began looting homes, taking over hospitals and stealing medicine. The government imposed siege made food, water, and basic necessities scarce, forcing residents to depend on intermittent UNRWA humanitarian aid deliveries. Government and rebel use of heavy artillery and mortars led to significant destruction in the camp, and scores of civilian deaths. Civilians attempting to leave the camp feared being detained by the Syrian security forces enforcing the siege at check points on the camp’s edges, but also feared retribution from rebel groups for “defecting” to the government side if they tried to escape rebel rule.
In April 2015, Nusra fighters facilitated the entry of ISIS fighters into Yarmouk. The BBC reported that “Monitors say IS and the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front, who have fought each other in other parts of Syria, are working together in Yarmouk.” Several thousand residents who managed to escape the camp and take shelter in a school in an area under Syrian army control told of ISIS atrocities, including one boy who saw ISIS fighters using a severed head as a soccer ball, and a women who described how “’Daesh’s [ISIS] arrival meant destruction and massacre. Their behavior’s not human and their religion is not ours.”
Clashes between ISIS and local Palestinian rebels (who are loyal to Hamas and had previously supported Nusra’s initial invasion of the camp) exacerbated the humanitarian situation, forcing UNRWA to cease the already limited aid deliveries to the camp. The Guardianquoted one Yarmouk resident as stating, “There is no food or electricity or water, Daesh [Arabic acronym for Isis] is killing and looting the camp, there are clashes, there is shelling. Everyone is shelling the camp. . . As soon as Daesh entered the camp they burned the Palestinian flag and beheaded civilians.”
The Syrian government tightened the siege, reaffirming their concern that ISIS fighters controlled territory so near the heart of the Syrian capital. Al-Jazeera reporter Stefanie Dekker explained that “It is a complex situation. The government forces control the northern part [of the camp] towards Damascus. It is their priority to keep the capital safe. . . The fact that ISIL [ISIS] fighters are less than 10km away is of a huge concern. If they allow a humanitarian corridor, who will be coming out?”
This concern was shared by Russia. Journalist Charles Glass notes that according to one analyst familiar with Russian decision-making, “In autumn 2015, it was clear Damascus could fall.” This coupled with the success of US efforts to assist Nusra and the FSA in capturing Idlib earlier that year, constituted a “red line,” that Russia would not tolerate. As a result, Russia “increased air support and sent ground forces to guarantee the survival of Syria’s government, army, and institutions. Its action saved Damascus from an insurgent onslaught and gave the Syrian army the upper hand in the long seesaw war.”
With ISIS threatening Damascus, US planners had felt they were close to achieving their aim of forcing Assad to step down. However, they did not anticipate the possibility of decisive Russian intervention. Of this period, then Secretary of State John Kerry explained that “the reason Russia came in is because ISIL [Islamic State] was getting stronger. Daesh [Islamic State] was threatening the possibility of going to Damascus. And that is why Russia came in. They didn’t want a Daesh government and they supported Assad. And we know this was growing. We were watching. We saw that Daesh was growing in strength. And we thought Assad was threatened. We thought we could manage that Assad might then negotiate. Instead of negotiating, he got Putin to support him.”
Kerry made this comment while speaking to a group of Syrian opposition members at the Dutch Mission of the United Nations in New York. Oddly, the New York Timesreported on this meeting at the time, but omitted any mention of the Kerry’s shocking admission that US planners welcomed the ISIS assault on the Syrian capital.
Nusra and ISIS later turned on one another in Yarmouk, and fought for control of the camp for the next two years, with ISIS making significant gains in April 2016. By this time only 10,000 civilians remained. ISIS refused to let additional civilians leave the camp and had taken over the Palestine Hospital to treat its own fighters, while residents continued to fear ISIS snipers and shelling on the one hand, and government mortars on the other. By June 2017, the Syrian government was attempting to negotiate the evacuation of Nusra and ISIS fighters as part of the “four towns” deal, which efforts were ultimately unsuccessful. As of the time of writing (October 2017), ISIS continued to occupy most of Yarmouk camp, and fighting between ISIS, the Syrian army, and other rebel factions continued, as did the suffering of the few Yarmouk residents who had been unlucky enough to be trapped in the camp, but lucky enough to still be alive.
Deir Ezzur province and city are located in the Eastern part of Syria, bordering Iraq. The province is home to many of Syria’s largest oil fields. Nusra Front collaboration with the FSA was evident by July 2012. That month, the Guardianinterviewed Abu Khuder, who founded one of the earliest FSA brigades in Deir Ezzur province. Abu Khuder described how Nusra members had provided him with a truck rigged with two tons of explosives, which was crucial in expelling government forces from a garrison in the town of Mohassen. Impressed with Nusra’s military experience and expertise, Abu Khuder split from the FSA and joined Nusra. However, he continued to work with the FSA, stating “We meet almost every day. . . We have clear instructions from our [al-Qaida] leadership that if the FSA need our help we should give it. We help them with IEDs and car bombs. Our main talent is in the bombing operations.”
In April 2013, opposition rebels captured the majority of Deir Ezzur province. Speaking to the State Department-funded news site, Syria Direct, FSA spokesperson Omar Abo Laila claimed the “FSA alone rules Deir Ezzur,” but acknowledged receiving assistance from Nusra on the battle field. Leila described how “The FSA usually starts and supervise operations and Jabhat a-Nusra follows at the later stages. The battle of Shams al-Furate [Euphrates Sun] to liberate Deir e-Zor military airport is an example.”
In fact it was unclear which group, the FSA or Nusra, was in control of Deir Ezzur province. For example, Laila claimed that 95% of Deir Ezzur province’s oil fields were under FSA control. However, this was disputed by opposition activists who claimed to the Financial Times that “many of those oilfields are now under the control of Jabhat al-Nusrah, the al-Qaeda-linked rebel group.” Despite this, the European Union lifted sanctions on the sale of Syrian oil to help the rebels raise funds for military operations.
In the fall of 2013, as rebels took control of the province’s last and largest oil field, al-Omar, the New York Timescited the pro-opposition SOHR as stating that Nusra and the Saudi-backed jihadi rebel group Jaish al-Islam were the factions involved in taking over al-Omar. Any mention of the FSA was notably absent, suggesting that the FSA and Nusra in Deir Ezzur were either largely indistinguishable, or that the FSA had, for public relations reasons, simply taken public credit for Nusra’s initial capture of the province.
But the al-Omar and other Deir Ezzur oil fields did not remain in the hands of Nusra for long. In June 2014, ISIS militants were ascendant, having captured Ramadi, Fallujah and Mosul in Iraq, thereby prompting ISIS leader al-Baghdadi to proclaim the establishment of the so-called Caliphate. Shortly thereafter, in July 2014, ISIS militants launched a lightning military campaign into eastern Syria, capturing large swathes of territory and essentially erasing the old colonial border between the two countries. In the face of the ISIS’ military advance, Nusra militants fled the oil fields in Deir Ezzur, allowing ISIS to capture them without a fight. Al-Jazeerareported that, according to one ISIS commander, the Nusra militants “fled like rats.”
Control of these oil fields provided a major source of revenue for ISIS, but also likely helped the terror group arm itself, as did the oil fields captured by ISIS in Iraq. Munitions researcher Damien Spleeters of Conflict Armament Research (CAR) explained how oil fields captured in Iraq by ISIS “provided the industrial base—tool-and-die sets, high-end saws, injection-molding machines—and skilled workers who knew how to quickly fashion intricate parts to spec” needed by ISIS to mass produce its own munitions.
When ISIS occupied the town of Abu Hamam in Deir Ezzour province in July 2014, local fighters from the Shaitat tribe rebelled. ISIS was able to easily defeat the local fighters thanks to a new influx of weapons captured from the Iraqi military in Mosul. ISIS militants massacred some 700 tribesman, many by decapitation. The town was depopulated, with many escaping to Turkey. The Washington Postreported that refugees from the town were puzzled as to why the US bombing campaign was at that time helping the Yezidi population across the border in Iraq and Kurds in the northern Syrian border town of Kobane, but not coming to the aid of the tribes of Deir Ezzour. One refugee lamented that “We saw what the Americans did to help the Yazidis and the Kurds. But they have done nothing to help the Sunnis against the Islamic State.” In response to these complaints, Gen. Lloyd Austin, the US Central Command leader said the US goal was preventing the Islamic State from projecting power in Iraq only, rather than in Syria. “Iraq is our main effort, and it has to be. . . .And the things we are doing right now in Syria are being done primarily to shape the conditions in Iraq.”
Similar US disinterest in preventing the growth of ISIS was evident elsewhere. After conquering Deir Ezzour, ISIS continued its push Westward towards Damascus. In May 2015, ISIS conquered city of Tadmur at the site of ancient Palmyra, famous for its Roman ruins, and which lies in Homs province on the road between Deir Ezzour and the Damascus. CNN reported of the ISIS assault to take Tadmur that “After at least 100 Syrian soldiers died in fighting overnight, Syrian warplanes carried out airstrikes Thursday in and around Palmyra . . . But there’s no indication that Syrian ground forces will try to take back the city, 150 miles northeast of Damascus, the capital. Nor that any other countries such as the United States will come to the rescue. ‘The world does not care about us,’ the Palmyra resident said. ‘All they are interested in is the stones of ancient Palmyra [emphasis mine].’” The fall of Tadmur to ISIS occurred at a time when ISIS was able to capture the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in the southern suburbs of Damascus, allowing ISIS to threaten Damascus from two directions.
As discussed above, then Secretary of State John Kerry explained how US planners welcomed the ISIS advance on the Syrian capital, as they thought it would give them leverage against Assad and thereby force him to step down through negotiations, thus giving power in Syria to pro-US rebel factions. This attitude may explain why US efforts to bomb ISIS and stop its advances in Iraq and northern Syria were not coupled with a similar effort to stop the terror group’s advance in Deir Ezzour, Tadmur and Damascus.
In March 2016, roughly one year after ISIS conquered Tadmur, the Syrian army was able to recapture it. When early reports emerged of the Syrian army’s success emerged, then State Department spokesperson Mark Toner was asked in a press conference if the US government preferred that the Syrian army recapture the city, or that it remain in ISIS hands. Toner refused to affirm that the US government would prefer to see the Syrian army retake the city from ISIS, stating instead that the US wished for progress on the political track of negotiations. Toner’s response also alludes to the US strategy, as explained by Kerry of using the growth of ISIS as a tool to force Assad to step down.
That US planners took a positive view of the growth of ISIS should not be surprising, given details about US policy preferences found in the well-known Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) memo from 2012, which explained that “there is the possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist principality in Eastern Syria, and this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime,” with the word “Salafist” referring to the fundamentalist and fringe version of Islam espoused by ISIS, Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, and the government of Saudi Arabia.
ISIS continued to control most of Deir Ezzur province for the next three years, with the notable exception of parts of Deir Ezzur city, which were under siege by ISIS but under government control and protected by the Syrian army. In its sections of the city, ISIS introduced religious police, along the Saudi model, directed by a Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, and filled the schools with teachers from Tunisia, Iraq and Morocco, who would implement the ISIS educational curriculum. Chemistry, physics, philosophy, social sciences and math were eliminated.
ISIS conducted major offensives to take the city entirely in December 2014 and September and October 2015. A major ISIS goal was to capture the Deir Ezzour airport. Control of the airport was crucial for the Syrian army, allowing the government to airdrop military supplies to its forces in the city, as well as food for the civilians still inside. The Syrian army also held strategic areas atop Jabal al-Tharda, a mountain overlooking the city, giving it the high ground when fighting ISIS forces and the ability to protect the airport.
In September 2016, US forces controversially bombed Syrian army positions on Jabal al-Tharda, killing 100 Syrian soldiers and destroying Syrian army tanks and artillery. This allowed ISIS to advance on the mountain and take over strategic areas needed to further its assault on the city and making it more difficult for the Syrian government to re-supply its forces by air.
US planners claimed the bombing of the Syrian army was by accident, suggesting they mistook Syrian army positions for ISIS positions, and that ISIS was the intended target. There is evidence to suggest the contrary, namely that the bombing was no mistake and US planners meant to target the Syrian army, as discussed in detail here by journalist Gareth Porter, and Australian academic Tim Anderson here.
Finally, in September 2017, the Syrian army was able to break the ISIS siege, liberate the city, and push ISIS out of the province.
US Planners View Nusra as an Ally
The pattern of US bombing in Syria also suggests that US planners viewed Nusra as an ally in the fight against the Syrian government. The US bombing campaign against in Syria largely avoided targeting Nusra, and instead focused on targeting ISIS. US efforts to degrade ISIS seem to have been undertaken at least in part to benefit Nusra.
The US began a widespread bombing campaign against ISIS in August 2014 after it had been growing in strength for over a year, and had conquered several major Iraqi and Syrian cities, including Raqqa, Fallujah, Ramadi, and most significantly, Mosul, and after the organization was threatening to march on both Baghdad and Erbil, the capital of Iraqi-Kurdistan. President Obama stated that he refrained from initiating military operations against ISIS during the organization’s rapid advance through Western Iraq in order to put pressure on then Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to step down. When Obama finally initiated a bombing campaign against ISIS, he claimed this was undertaken to prevent a possible genocide faced by Iraq’s minority Yezidi population (strangely this was not a concern until Maliki agreed to step down). US foreign policy experts quietly suggested another motivation, however. The New York Timesreported at the time that “Analysts view the organization [Nusra] as well placed to benefit from American strikes that might weaken the Islamic State [ISIS].”
That US planners viewed Nusra as its ally was evident several weeks later, in September 2014, when the US carried out air strikes against the so-called Khorasan Group. More specifically, the strikes targeted Muhsin al-Fadhli, a Nusra commander and also a long-time member of al-Qaeda and associate of Osama Bin Laden. Al-Fadhli was said to be planning attacks against Western targets, operating under the protection of Nusra.
While it was clear to most observers that the Khorasan group was a cadre of fighters and commanders belonging to Nusra, US officials took pains to suggest that they were not striking Nusra itself, but rather a supposedly separate organization, which it labeled the Khorasan group.
In the US Central Command (CENTCOM) press release announcing the strikes, US officials stated they did not target the Nusra Front “as a whole” but rather the “Khorasan Group whose focus is not on overthrowing the Asad regime or helping the Syrian people.” Implicit in this statement is the dubious claim that Nusra is helping the Syrian people.
The language of the press release suggests that US planners were not opposed to Nusra because it was fighting to overthrow Assad (a goal in line with official US policy), and that they had only taken action against the so-called Khorasan group because it had been planning terror attacks carried out against Western targets.
Researchers at the Long War Journalobserved that CENTCOM was making a false distinction between the Khorasan Group and Nusra, given that Nusra itself did consider the US bombing as an attack on the broader organization.
Another target of the September strikes appears to have been former French spy and Nusra bomb maker, David Drugeon. The reaction of US-sponsored rebel groups (who had been tracking Drugeon) to the airstrikes also suggests that it was common knowledge that Nusra and US intelligence agencies were allies. McClatchyreports that “The Syrian rebels said they were surprised when American missiles targeted Drugeon on Sept. 23 in the first series of U.S. airstrikes in Syria. They had expected the American action to target the Islamic State, but not also the Nusra Front, which has worked closely with the rebels in their efforts to topple the government of President Bashar Assad [emphasis mine].” US planners targeted Drugeon in an additional airstrike on his car in November 2014.
In March 2015, US planners bombed Nusra targets once again, after Nusra fighters attacked a US-backed rebel group from the Hazm movement (with whom Nusra had previously collaborated, as described above), capturing their base and weapons, including US supplied TOW anti-tank weapons. The CENTCOM press release again mentioned the Khorasan group by name, rather than Nusra.
In July 2015, US-trained rebels known as “Division 30” were attacked by Nusra militants after the division entered Syria to fight ISIS. US officials were confused, however, as to why Nusra would attack them. The New York Timesexplains that US military trainers “did not anticipate an assault from the Nusra Front. In fact, officials said on Friday, they expected the Nusra Front to welcome Division 30 as an ally in its fight against the Islamic State. . . ‘This wasn’t supposed to happen like this,’ said one former senior American official. . . . A senior Defense Department official acknowledged that the threat to the trainees and their Syrian recruiters had been misjudged, and said that officials were trying to understand why the Nusra Front had turned on the trainees. . . Division 30’s leaders called on all nationalist Syrian insurgents to ‘stand firm and proactively’ against what they called an unprovoked attack, and asked ‘the brothers in the Nusra Front’ to ‘stop the bloodshed and preserve the unity.’” In response, US planners undertook additional airstrikes against Nusra targets.
In April 2016, US planners bombed several Nusra targets, but once again used the Khorasan name to describe the target of their attacks, and reminded observers that the Khorasan group was planning attacks against the West as the justification for the strike. Foreign Policyreported that “Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook was careful Monday to portray al-Suri [the target of the strike] as a member of al Qaeda rather than al-Nusra.”
One month later in May 2016, after Nusra militants massacred 19 Alawite villagers from the town of Zara in Hama province, US officials rejected Russian offers to coordinate air strikes against Nusra, which the Russian air force was carrying out in conjunction with UN Security Council resolutions. US officials once again emphasized that the US was focused on targeting ISIS, not Nusra. Pentagon spokesman Jeff Davis explained that “We do not collaborate or coordinate with the Russians on any operations in Syria. Russian operations are supporting and enabling the Assad regime and our focus is solely on degrading and defeating [ISIS].”
In November 2016, US planners seemed to finally reverse course, and began targeting the Nusra Front more broadly. They acknowledged the previous tacit understanding between the US and the Nusra militants they were now bombing. The Washington Postreports that “Officials who supported the shift said the Obama administration could no longer tolerate what one of them described as ‘a deal with the devil,’ whereby the United States largely held its fire against al-Nusra because the group was popular with Syrians in rebel-controlled areas and furthered the U.S. goal of putting military pressure on Assad.”
What then was the purpose of the strikes on the so-called Khorasan Group? Two reasons seem apparent. The first is that US planners targeted Nusra militants, such as Muhsin al-Fadhli and David Drugeon, because they were in fact planning terror attacks on Western targets (as they stated publicly). Though the US approved of Nusra’s efforts to fight the Syrian government, they could not allow a terror attack to take place in the West, and therefore pro-actively took military action to prevent such specific attacks, but not to degrade Nusra generally.
The second reasons seems to be that US planners undertook such strikes to send messages to warn Nusra that attacking US rebel assets (such as Division 30) in Syria was a red line not to be crossed. As long as Nusra focused its efforts on fighting Assad (in line with US objectives), they would not be subject to US attacks. The few airstrikes carried out by US planners against Nusra, in response to specific, unacceptable Nusra actions, would convey this. In other words, as long as Nusra was collaborating with US-backed rebel groups (which the typically did, as described above) they would not be targeted.
What is clear is that US planners took a somewhat different approach to Nusra than they did to ISIS. US planners undertook a massive bombing campaign against ISIS in certain areas, knowing this would strengthen Nusra. US bombing largely destroyed the ISIS capitals of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria. The US did bomb Nusra targets, but these bombings were rare, and seemed to be in response to very specific and exceptional instances when Nusra seemed to be going rogue. US planners have not undertaken any large-scale US bombing campaign against Nusra in Idlib province, which it controls, for example. In fact US planners were explicitly encouraging their FSA proxies to cooperate with Nusra in Idlib.
Despite the sustained US bombing campaign against ISIS, US planners still saw ISIS gains against the Syrian government as helpful at times, as articulated by Secretary Kerry, and as is evident from events in Yarmouk, Palmyra and Deir Ezzur, as described above.
The evidence presented above shows that the US-backed brigades known as the Free Syrian Army have collaborated with extremist rebel groups affiliated with al-Qaeda, in particular the Nusra Front, in many of the most crucial battles of the Syrian conflict. As the US and its Gulf allies have funded and supported the FSA, financially, militarily, and in the media, it is reasonable to suggest that in fact the US has collaborated with al-Qaeda, if only indirectly. This contradicts the consistent claims made in the Western press, including among leftists, suggesting that the Syrian government has attempted to support extremist rebel groups in order to discredit the “moderate” Syrian opposition, in an alleged effort to appeal to the West. In fact, just the opposite is true, as recent Syrian government victories against the Nusra Front and ISIS also show. If indeed the US ever had a binary choice between supporting the Assad government, on the one hand, or extremists from al-Qaeda on the other, it is clear that in fact the US chose to support al-Qaeda, in the form of Nusra. US planners did so in an effort to topple the Assad government and thereby weaken its main regional rivals Iran and Hezbollah. Unsurprisingly, US intervention in Syria has had terrible consequences for the Syrian people, as the conflict between the rebels and the Syrian army has ruined much of the country. Such an outcome was easy to predict, and yet US planners funneled massive amounts of weapons into the country, typically by way of their Saudi and Qatari partners. Further, living under al-Qaeda rule is not something that Syrians, including Syrian Sunnis, welcome, and yet US planners supported the growth of al-Qaeda in Syria in order to accomplish its own foreign policy goals. It is often claimed that US planners seek to “stabilize” the Middle East. However, the US intervention in Syria serves as yet one more reminder that US policy in the region has sought to do just the opposite, at the cost of great human suffering for Syrians, as it did for Iraqis and Libyans before them.
A common claim in the mainstream narrative about the Syrian conflict is that the “Assad regime” is “colluding” with the notorious terror group, ISIS. Some commentators even suggest that the Syrian government actually created ISIS in an effort to “Islamize” the Syrian revolution, and thereby destroy the supposedly secular, democratic, moderate rebel forces allegedly fighting for freedom against the Syrian dictatorship. By doing so, Assad would force “the world to choose between his regime and ISIS.”
One oft-cited aspect of this alleged collusion is the claim that the Syrian government purchases oil from ISIS. One such article comes from the Daily Beast in December 2015, and is entitled, “Revealed: Assad Buys Oil From ISIS,” while the Telegraph published an article in April 2016 entitled, “How Isil colluded with Assad to make $40m a month in oil deals.” Similar articles have appeared in Western press over the past three years, including in Newsweek, the Wall Street Journal, the Independent, Fox News, Reuters, the New York Post, Business Insider, and Fortune.
The strongest proof of this alleged collusion comes from documents captured from ISIS during a US raid in May 2015. The Wall Street Journalreports that ISIS’s number two oil manager, Abu Sayyaf, who was killed in the raid, had received a memo in which “Abu Sayyaf’s boss requested guidance on establishing investment relationships with businessmen linked to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.”
When one takes a closer look at why the Syrian government buys oil from ISIS, however, it is clear that there is nothing sinister about this and can hardly be characterized as a deliberate attempt to support ISIS to accomplish nefarious political goals. The Syrian government lost control of its last major oil field (the al-Omar field in Deir-Ezzur province in the sparsely populated east of the country) to U.S. and Gulf backed rebels from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Nusra Front in November 2013. Roughly 7 months later, ISIS militants then captured these oil fields from Nusra Front and FSA fighters during their lightning offensive to take Deir-Ezzur province in July 2014.
Ever since losing control of these oil fields, the Syrian government has struggled to provide the energy that Syrians living in government controlled areas need simply to survive (to run hospitals, produce and transport food, heat homes, facilitate trade and commerce), and to supply its military with the oil needed to fight ISIS itself, as well as to combat the US/Gulf funded insurgency in the heavily populated west of the country, namely in Damascus, Homs and Aleppo. The Syrian government has therefore had little choice but to purchase oil from ISIS. Failure to do so would result in a humanitarian catastrophe and complete collapse of the Syrian state. The Syrian government has made these oil purchases from ISIS out of necessity, as any government looking out for its own population would, all while the Syrian army continues to fight the terror group, despite Western media claims to the contrary.
Alarmist headlines which seek to suggest that the Syrian government is deliberately “colluding” with ISIS in an effort to support the terror group are part of the long standing propaganda campaign to tarnish the reputation of the Syrian government, and obscure the efforts of the US and its Gulf allies to support extremist rebels in Syria (whom the West would consider terrorists in other contexts) in an effort to use these groups as a tool to accomplish US foreign policy goals in the region. I discuss these claims in greater detail below.
FSA and Nusra Front Rebels Capture Syria’s Oil Fields
Syria’s main oil producing fields lie in the sparsely populated east of the country, in Deir Ezzur province, near the Iraqi border. In April 2013, rebels from the US-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) and from the al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front jointly assaulted Deir Ezzur province in an effort to capture these oil fields.
The State department funded news site Syria Direct published an interview with the spokesman for the FSA General Staff Eastern Area, Omar Abo Laila, on April 25th 2013, in which he indicated that the FSA “alone rules” Deir Ezzur and that it controlled roughly 95% of the oil fields in the province, including the al-Wared, al-Taim, al-Tannak and al-Kamb oil fields, and that the FSA was actively looking for investors to help develop the fields. The Financial Timesreported that the European Union would be lifting its embargo on Syrian oil from rebel controlled areas in order to allow the rebels to sell oil to fund their military operations.
Abo Leila acknowledged the contribution made by militants from the al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front to help the FSA take control of the province, noting that “The relationship between the FSA and Jabhat a-Nusra is like that between any two armed groups in this revolution. They share the same objective, which is to remove Bashar al-Assad’s regime and his agents. The FSA usually starts and supervises operations and Jabhat a-Nusra follows at the later stages.” Indeed, cooperation between the FSA and Nusra Front in the Deir Ezzur region had existed since at least July 2012. Nusra Front rebels in the village of Mohassen told the Guardian at that time that “we meet almost daily” with FSA fighters, and that “We have clear instructions from our leadership that if the FSA needs our help we should give it. We help them with IEDs and car bombs. Our main talent lies in bombing operations.”
Direct evidence of Nusra involvement in taking the oil fields came from reports that Nusra militants clashed with government supported tribes in the area in April 2013. Reuters reported that, “Masrib tribesmen called for help from Assad’s forces against Nusra, according to the [Syrian Observatory for Human Rights] and a fighter with the Islamist group. Nusra responded by blowing up 30 houses after the battle, in which 17 rebels were killed, at least four of them foreigners, the fighter said on Skype. ’They (the villagers) killed some of our men and mutilated their bodies, which immediately mobilized the (Nusra) Front … we saw that they were getting help from the regime, which sent them weapons and ammunition,’ he said on Skype.”
However, if FSA claims of control of the majority of Deir Ezzur province and its significant oil resources were true, this control didn’t last long. In early May 2013, just weeks after the FSA spokesperson declared control of the province, a wave of fighters defected from the FSA to the Nusra Front throughout Syria, including in Deir Ezzur. The Guardianreports that “Jabhat al-Nusra is winning support in Deir al-Zor, according to Abu Hudaifa, another FSA defector. ‘They are protecting people and helping them financially. Al-Nusra is in control of most of the oil wells in the city.’”
It is unclear how ownership of these oil fields changed hands from the FSA to Nusra. Its possible the FSA simply relinquished the oil fields to Nusra as its fighters defected to Nusra, or its possible that Nusra and the FSA captured the fields jointly to begin with, and FSA spokespersons were tasked with the public relations role of appealing to the EU to lift the sanctions on oil sales, and to recruit investors to allow further development and distribution of the oil resources (if this was the case, the FSA had to publicly claim full control of the fields as a result).
I speculate that Nusra was, at minimum, in joint control of these fields along with the FSA to begin with, if not in primary control, given the timing of the dispute that erupted between the head of the Nusra Front, Muhammad al-Joulani, and the head of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Baghdadi’s actions at the time make it clear he anticipated Nusra would be a major beneficiary of the oil revenue from the newly captured fields.
Al-Baghdadi had helped found the Nusra Front in 2011 by sending al-Joulani from Iraq to Syria, along with cash and small group of fighters. Joulani’s task was to establish a branch of al-Qaeda in Syria to take advantage of the unrest then sweeping the country. In April 2013, al-Baghdadi announced the merger of Nusra and ISI, declaring that the organization would now be known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS). Al-Joulani however seemed surprised by this declaration, and refused to obey al-Baghdadi’s orders. Al-Joulani insisted that Nusra would remain independent of ISI, and he declared allegiance to Osama bin Laden’s long time deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the head of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, rather than to al-Baghdadi. This dispute ignited a war between the two al-Qaeda offshoots that still continues.
Though often considered theologically/ideologically driven by by terrorism experts, the rift between both groups appears to have resulted simply from a dispute about how to share oil revenue of the newly captured Syrian oil fields.
Indeed, this is the view of journalist Theo Padnos, who was kidnapped by Nusra militants and held captive by them for over two years, giving him the opportunity to interact at times with top Nusra commanders. According to Padnos, “The real issue between the Nusra Front and the Islamic State was that their commanders, former friends from Iraq, were unable to agree on how to share the revenue from the oil fields in eastern Syria that the Nusra Front had conquered.”
Baghdadi’s effort to merge Nusra and ISI took place at the exact time that Nusra militants, along with the FSA, were taking control of the majority of the Deir Ezzur oil fields (April 2013). If Nusra was in true control of the oil fields, rather than the FSA, it would make sense that al-Baghdadi would rush to declare the merger between his organization in Iraq and the Nusra Front in Syria in order to make sure he controlled the significant revenue that would come from these fields. By refusing to swear allegiance to al-Baghdadi, and swearing it instead to al-Zawahiri, who was located in distant Pakistan, and who now held a largely symbolic rather than operational role in the global jihadi movement, al-Joulani was able to maintain control of this new income stream from the Syrian oil fields and remain at the head of one of the most powerful Syrian rebel factions.
In November 2013, al-Joulani’s fortunes further improved, as Nusra militants captured the last major oil field in Deir Ezzur under Syrian government control, the al-Omar field. Sky News (UK) reported at the time that “Islamist rebels claim they have seized Syria’s largest oil field, potentially cutting off President Bashar al Assad’s supply of almost all local crude reserves. If confirmed, the loss of the al-Omar oil field in the eastern Deir al-Zor province could leave Assad’s military forces relying almost entirely on imported oil in their campaign to crush the rebel uprising.”
Sky Newsreported also that “Rami Abdelrahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, claimed the capture of al-Omar meant ‘nearly all’ of Syria’s oil reserves are now in the hands of Islamist units, including the al-Nusra Front. ‘The regime’s neck is now in Nusra’s hands,’ he said.”
Abdelrahman’s view that the Syrian government was essentially now a hostage to Nusra was echoed by the New York Times which observed that “A group of Syrian rebel brigades, including an affiliate of Al Qaeda, seized a large oil and gas field from government forces on Saturday, opposition activists said, further depriving the government of President Bashar al-Assad of the resources it needs to remain solvent [emphasis mine].”
Abdulrahman does not mention that the FSA took part in capturing the al-Omar field, further confirming its previously junior role in taking other oil fields in Deir Ezzur just a few months before. Speaking to the New York Times, Abdulrahman does mention however that the Syrian rebel group known as the Army of Islam (Jaish al-Islam) participated alongside Nusra in the operation to take the al-Omar field. The Army of Islam is a Salafi-Jihadi rebel group created by Saudi Arabia and for which US officials have expressed public support. The Army of Islam advocates “cleansing” Syria of its Alawite and Shia minorities, seeks to establish an Islamic state in Syria, and is outspoken in its opposition to democracy.
Two months later, in January 2014, accusations that the Syrian government was purchasing oil from the Nusra Front first appeared in the Western press. The Telegraph published an article at that time entitled “Syria’s Assad accused of boosting al-Qaeda with secret oil deals, with the subtitle “Western intelligence suggests Bashar al-Assad collaborating with jihadists to persuade West the uprising is terrorist-led,” and which quoted an anonymous Western intelligence official as the source of its information.
The Telegraph notes that, “The source accepted that the regime and the al-Qaeda affiliate were still hostile to each other and the relationship was opportunistic, but added that the deals confirmed that ‘despite Assad’s finger-pointing’ his regime was to blame for the rise of al-Qaeda in Syria.”
That the Syrian government was primarily to blame for the rise of al-Qaeda in Syria was of course an odd accusation to make, given that US allies in the FSA and Army of Islam had just helped al-Qaeda (Nusra) capture the very oil fields that the Syrian government “needs to remain solvent” and which allowed Nusra to hold the Syrian government’s “neck” in its hands.
Now that Nusra controlled Syria’s major oil fields, the Syrian government had little choice but to purchase oil from the group in order to keep Syrian society functioning, provide for the needs of Syrian civilians living under government control, and provide oil to the Syrian army in the fight against the US/Gulf supported insurgency threatening Syria’s most important and largest cities, Damascus, Homs and Aleppo, in the West of the country. There was simply no way, despite receiving some oil imported from Iran, that the Syrian government could replace almost the entire supply of energy needed for the country to function without purchasing the oil produced from its own oil fields, now unfortunately under Nusra control.
But the al-Omar and other Deir Ezzur oil fields did not remain in the hands of the Nusra Front for long. In June 2014, ISIS militants were ascendant, having captured Ramadi, Fallujah and Mosul in Iraq, thereby prompting ISIS leader al-Baghdadi to proclaim the establishment of the so-called Caliphate and to change the name of his group from the “Islamic State of Iraq and Sham” to simply, the “Islamic State.” Shortly thereafter, in July 2014, ISIS militants launched a lightning military campaign into eastern Syria, capturing large swathes of territory, including the city of Raqqa, and essentially erasing the old colonial border between the two countries. In the face of the ISIS’ military advance, Nusra militants fled the oil fields in Deir Ezzur, allowing ISIS to capture them without a fight. Al-Jazeerareported that, according to one ISIS commander, the Nusra militants “fled like rats.”
Padmos commented on this period as well, explaining, “I didn’t know it at the time, but the Nusra Front was losing its war with the Islamic State, the group often referred to as ISIS. From conversations with guards and other prisoners, I gleaned that the two organizations were about equal in strength and that under no circumstances would the Islamic State be allowed to touch the oil fields, the real prize in Syria’s east. But in mid-June, when I was allowed to watch TV for the first time since my capture, I saw a map covered in Islamic State logos.”
As a result, ISIS leader al-Baghdadi was able to gain by military means the oil revenue he had previously failed to secure when he tried to “merge” Nusra and ISI one year before. The Syrian government was then forced to begin purchasing oil from ISIS. The “regime’s neck” was now in the hands of ISIS, just as it previously was in the hands of the Nusra Front.
Middle East commentator Fawaz Gerges, noted in his book “ISIS: A History,” that “Interestingly, ISIS first prioritized the the fight against al-Nusra and other opposition militias rather than the fight against Assad’s forces (page 191).” Though Gerges does not venture a guess as to why, the answer is obvious when you keep in mind who controlled Syria’s oil fields, and the significant revenue they could provide. Nusra had the oil fields, Assad did not.
Yes, the Syrian Army is Fighting ISIS
Though the first priority of ISIS was to fight the Nusra Front, ISIS and the Syrian government have been fighting each other throughout the conflict. Journalists accusing Assad of “colluding” with ISIS through oil purchases belatedly acknowledge that the Syrian government is fighting ISIS, thereby undermining their own claims. It would not make sense for the Syrian government to buy oil from a terror group it was also fighting, unless it had no choice but to do so.
The April 2016 Telegrapharticle mentioned above (“How Isil colluded with Assad to make $40m a month in oil deals”) acknowledges that “the two sides forged a mutually beneficial arrangement despite being at war with one another [emphasis mine].”
Similarly, a December 2015 Reuters article entitled “Islamic State oil is going to Assad, some to Turkey, U.S. official says,” quotes U.S. Treasury Department official Adam Szubin as noting “ISIL is selling a great deal of oil to the Assad regime. The two are trying to slaughter each other and they are still engaged in millions and millions of dollars of trade [emphasis mine].”
Szubin was likely referring to fighting between the Syrian government and ISIS in both Deir Ezzur city and in the nearby historic city of Palmyra. ISIS militants had overrun Palmyra six months before Szubin’s comments, in May 2015. CNNreports that some 100 Syrian soldiers were killed by ISIS militants while trying to defend the city, while the Telegraph reports that some were beheaded in the street after their capture. Fighting continued between the two groups for the next ten months, until the Syrian army liberated the city in March 2016 with Russian assistance.
Journalist Robert Fisk highlighted the story of Syrian general Fouad Khadour, who fought for years against ISIS and participated in the effort to liberate Palmyra. Fisk writes that Khadour “had led his soldiers into Palmyra under constant mortar attack. Many of them had died stepping on the mines which Isis had so artfully laid beneath apparently well-trodden dirt roads.” Khadour was finally killed by a mortar while fighting ISIS east of Palmyra in the hills around al-Arak in July 2017.
The Syrian government has also fought ISIS for years in an effort to prevent Deir Ezzur city from falling into the hands of the terror group. ISIS has imposed a siege on the city since December 2014, completely surrounding it, and requiring the Syrian government to airlift humanitarian aid to the city’s civilians and military supplies to the Syrian army fighting to protect them. Timereports that “The people in the government-controlled section of Deir ez-Zor make up the largest single community in Syria under siege from any side in the brutal civil war, according to the U.N. The Syrian government is fighting to keep the city in part because the battle ties down ISIS forces that might otherwise push west toward Damascus” and that government soldiers in the majority Sunni city “seemed determined to fight on, knowing that defeat would almost certainly result in their slaughter. The local Sunni Shaitat tribesmen, who fight with the army, are witness to ISIS’s brutality. After the tribe resisted the ISIS takeover of the local oil fields in July, the militants executed at least 700 of them, according to locals and a human-rights group. Few doubt that the fate of the defenders of Deir ez-Zor would be any different if ISIS prevails [emphasis mine].”
In the Western Media, Necessity Becomes “Collusion”
Despite alarmist headlines in the Western press suggesting that ISIS oil sales to the Syrian government are part of a collusive relationship to support one another as part of a sinister plot to destroy the “moderate” Syrian opposition, these articles themselves often acknowledge that the Syrian government had little choice but to purchase oil from ISIS, and that much of the oil was purchased not by the Syrian government directly, but by private Syrian business persons and civilians in need of fuel for the sake of basic survival.
In the Daily Beast article from December 2015 mentioned above, the author does his best to smear the Syrian government, arguing “We know ISIS has a discreet arrangement with a neighbor, but it’s not Turkey. The Syrian regime has done business with ISIS from day one.” The author nevertheless admits that “We don’t know how much oil ISIS has delivered to Assad, but there’s no doubt he needs it. For the first half of 2015, the regime’s oil output was less than 10,000 barrels a day. That was before pro-Assad forces retreated from even more oil-rich territory [emphasis mine].”
In addition to acknowledging that the Syrian government needs ISIS-produced oil, the author then goes on to describe how the majority of this oil reaches Syrian government controlled areas. Crucially, this occurs in a manner that has nothing to do with the Syrian government purchasing the oil at all. Rather, it reaches these areas (after being refined to become gasoline) through basic free market capitalist means:
The majority of ISIS oil is purchased by locals inside ISIS territory. ISIS doesn’t operate its own fleet of tanker trucks. That would be a waste of resources and manpower. Instead, the group relies on hundreds of middlemen who provide their own trucks and pay for the oil in cash at ISIS-controlled fields. . . The trucks don’t have to go far to sell ISIS oil. In fact, it’s cheaper and easier for them to sell oil to locals who run basic refineries in the countryside, not far from the main oil fields in eastern Syria. . . . With few exceptions, these backyard refineries are just stills in which small batches of oil are heated and the resulting vapor is condensed into low-grade fuel. The owners, usually desperate Arab families who don’t belong to ISIS, run several at a time. The work is dirty and dangerous; the scene is apocalyptic. Toxic plumes of black smoke, scorched earth, soot, and explosions make Mad Max look tame. Hundreds if not thousands of these stills are now active across Syria. Combined, they provide tens of thousands of barrels in daily refining capacity. Fuel from these refineries is sold at roadside pumping stations or in bulk to middlemen who deliver it to population centers where demand is greater [emphasis mine].
Interestingly, civilians and armed groups in opposition held areas purchase fuel from ISIS in exactly the same way that Syrians in government-held areas do, showing that Syrians in both government and opposition areas have little choice but to do so. Researchers from the London School of Economics described the process they refer to as the “diesel domino effect” in which farmers, civilians, and even Western-supported aid groups purchase fuel that originates in ISIS controlled areas and thereby help fund the terror group:
Most opposition controlled areas are rural areas. Before 2011 their economy was centered around agriculture and animal farming, trade and industry in these areas are also centered around agriculture. The availability and price of diesel is crucial to the economy of these areas since most agricultural activities depend on diesel which is used for operating machinery (plaguing, harvesting, pumping water, transport). . . . The country side areas of Idleb and Aleppo have borders with ISIL-controlled areas. Crude oil arrives from ISIL-controlled oil wells to be refined at new small privately owned refineries. It is then either sold locally at 2.5 times the price in Damascus, or smuggled to Turkey where it can be sold for an even higher price. Even home-use gas like butane cylinders are only available on the black market-which means that, even when people cook their food or warm their houses in the freezing winters, civilians have to indirectly pay armed actors and war profiteers through the inflated prices of the fuel they use. . . .Many of the projects funded by international donors and INGOs in Syria, such as field hospitals and civic defense, all of which require fuel either for machineries or for the generation of electricity, are not provided with a source of legitimate fuel as part of the project support. Instead, they are offered funds to cover the cost of the fuel. Unless the fuel problem is solved part of these funds are going to the hands of ISIL and war profiteers from armed actors and associated traders on all sides including the Syrian government [emphasis mine].
The Western press has of course not published articles describing opposition purchases of fuel originating with ISIS as collusion.
Assad’s “Darkly Cynical Master Plan”
Though the Syrian government was being held hostage by ISIS and purchased oil from it out of necessity, and though the Syrian government has fought many bloody battles against the terror group, articles continue to appear in the Western press accusing Assad of “colluding” with ISIS as part of a “darkly cynical master plan,” to use the words of the Business Insider.
The Western press has made these accusations about Syrian government support for ISIS despite the fact that US/Gulf-backed rebel groups have fought side by side with extremists from Nusra (for example in Aleppo) and at times even ISIS itself (for example at the Menagh air base), on many occasions throughout Syria since 2011.
Yet more strange is that these accusations are leveled at the Syrian government despite the fact that US officials have stated both that they initially welcomed the growth of ISIS and that close US allies in the Gulf actually funded ISIS.
US planners saw the growth of ISIS as a way to exert leverage on Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to step down as part of a negotiated solution that would allow the pro-U.S. Syrian opposition to take power. In a meeting with members of the Syrian opposition at the Dutch Mission to the United Nations in September 2016, then Secretary of State John Kerry explained, that “the reason Russia came in is because ISIL [Islamic State] was getting stronger. Daesh [Islamic State] was threatening the possibility of going to Damascus. And that is why Russia came in. They didn’t want a Daesh government and they supported Assad. And we know this was growing. We were watching. We saw that Daesh was growing in strength. And we thought Assad was threatened. We thought we could manage that Assad might then negotiate. Instead of negotiating, he got Putin to support him . . . but for us politically, we have a congress that will not authorize our use of force. Congress will not pass that. And so we’re trying to help the best way we can. But we finally decided the best thing we can do is to try to have a political solution where the opposition is part of the government and you can have an election and let the people of Syria decide who they want [emphasis added].”
Further, in September 2014 Senator Lindsey Graham asked US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey if any major Arab ally of the US “embraces” ISIS. Dempsey replied bluntly, “I know major Arab allies that fund them [emphasis mine].” The U.S., however, took no action against its allies (presumably Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait) for funding ISIS, and yet persisted in claiming that Assad and the terror group were colluding.
Because the Syrian government is in desperate need of oil to prevent the collapse of the Syrian state, to provide for the needs of the millions of Syrians living in government held areas, and to fight the US/Gulf sponsored insurgency threatening Syria’s major population centers, it is reasonable for the Syrian government to purchase oil from whomever it is able, including Nusra or ISIS, just as rebel groups, Western aid agencies, and civilians in opposition held areas have.
While it is reasonable for the Syrian government to purchase oil from ISIS, the fact that the Western media focuses heavily on this fact, and attempts to report it in a way that suggests Assad is part of a grand conspiracy to strengthen ISIS in order to discredit and weaken the supposedly moderate Syrian armed opposition, raises several questions.
First, why was the U.S. supporting rebel groups (from the FSA) who were openly working together with al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate (the Nusra Front) to conquer Deir Ezzur province, and take control of Syria’s oil fields? Why did the European Union lift sanctions to allow the FSA to sell this oil, when it was known that the FSA was working closely with the Nusra Front? Did Western intelligence officials not anticipate that Nusra would benefit from these oil sales? Does this mean that the US and EU were “colluding” with al-Qaeda?
If these U.S.-backed rebel groups were openly fighting side by side with al-Qaeda, should they be considered “moderate”? Is there a significant difference between the “moderate” opposition and the “extremist” opposition? Does Assad need to convince the West that it must to choose between him and the extremists, when U.S.-supported rebel groups (FSA) have fought side by side with these extremists for years and when close U.S. allies have created rebel groups (Army of Islam) that share the same Salafi-Jihadi ideology as al-Qaeda? Wouldn’t this mean the US chose the extremists over Assad from the beginning of the Syria conflict, as the extremist groups had the best chance to overthrow the Syrian government, which is the result U.S. planners hoped for? If the U.S. was using the growth of ISIS as leverage to force Assad to step down, why would Assad wish to “collude” with ISIS to help make the group more powerful? Was it part of Assad’s plan to lose virtually all of Syria’s oil resources to a hostile group, which resources he needed for his government to “remain solvent”? How would doing so be in Assad’s interests?
Why are conspiracy theories that Assad colludes with ISIS repeated without question in the Western press, while statements from a top American general that America’s close Arab allies fund ISIS are completely ignored? Why is it taken for granted that Assad created ISIS, when the Saudi foreign minister has admitted ISIS is the Saudi government’s “answer” to the Shia-dominated government in Iraq? How is Assad responsible for the rise of al-Qaeda and ISIS when the ideology of ISIS has roots in Wahhabism, the official ideology of the Saudi state?
In my view, the concerted effort on the part of the Western media to accuse Assad of colluding with ISIS is part of the long standing propaganda campaign to demonize the Syrian government, and obscure the efforts of the US and its Gulf allies to themselves support many of the extremist rebel groups now fighting to destroy the Syrian state, causing considerable misery and suffering for millions of Syrians as a result.
As the Syrian government and its Russian allies conducted a campaign to re-capture the northern Syrian city of Aleppo from U.S.-backed rebel groups in December of 2016, Western media outlets gave the impression that the Russian air force was mercilessly bombing defenseless civilians in the city, and lamented supposed Western inaction in the face of alleged Russian and Syrian crimes. The idea that the West needed to come to the aid of Aleppo’s civilians in the face of the Syrian and Russian onslaught was ubiquitous in the Western press. One commentator writing at CNNclaimed that, “time and time again, the free world has looked away,” from Aleppo, while another, writing in the Washington Post,asks “how can the world stand idly by” and suggests that what was happening in Aleppo constitutes the “genocide of our time,” thus invoking past tragedies in Rwanda, Bosnia, and the Holocaust.
As a result, when Syrian and Russian forces re-captured the eastern section of the city from rebel groups, this was described as the “fall” of Aleppo in the Western press. If one assumes the Western narrative is correct, that Aleppo fell when Syrian and Russian forces drove opposition rebel groups from the city, one must assume that Aleppo’s residents supported the rebel presence and their efforts to fight the Syrian government.
This does not appear to be the case, however. Rather, the rebels’ presence in Aleppo appears to resemble more of an occupation of the city by armed religious extremists, which most (though not all) of Aleppo’s civilian inhabitants were happy to be free of. In Aleppo, there was never an uprising against the Syrian government which was overwhelmingly supported by the local population. Instead, rebels from the Syrian countryside and from outside Syria itself infiltrated Aleppo and imposed the war on Aleppo’s civilians. Without the real popular support necessary to sustain any guerrilla campaign, these rebels were only able to maintain their hold on parts of Aleppo for four years due to massive external financial and military aid from U.S. and Gulf intelligence agencies.
Because Aleppo’s residents did not support the rebel groups, one must conclude the city was in fact “liberated” by Syrian government and Russian forces. Sadly, the longer the U.S. and Gulf-backed rebel occupation of Aleppo continued, the more death and destruction resulted.
Who Were the Rebels in Aleppo?
To begin, it is important to ask, “Who were the armed rebels who controlled East Aleppo, and whom Syrian and Russian forces were trying to defeat?” It appears the rebels in Aleppo consisted largely of religious extremists, rather than of “moderate” or “secular” rebels as was often assumed in Western media coverage.
The conservative-leaning Institute for the Study of War issued a report in March 2016, indicating that the Syrian revolution continued to be dominated by jihadist rebel groups, and that two of these groups, Ahrar al-Sham and the Nusra Front, were among the primary “power brokers” in the Aleppo region.
The Nusra Front was created as the Syrian branch of the al-Qaeda in Iraq (now known as the Islamic State, or ISIS), led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Al-Baghdadi established the Nusra Front by sending a cell of fighters from Iraq to Syria in August 2011, roughly 6 months after protests against the Syrian government broke out as part of the Arab Spring. The cell was led by Abu Mohammad al-Joulani, a Syrian that fought for al-Qaeda in Iraq previously. The Nusra Front carried out its first known attack a few months later in Damascus in December 2011. Al-Joulani later decided to break from al-Baghdadi, refusing to merge Nusra with ISIS at al-Baghdadis instruction in April 2013. Al-Joulani instead swore allegiance to al-Qaeda head Ayman al-Zawahiri directly and became al-Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria.
Ahrar Al-Sham calls for jihad against Shia Muslims and other minorities in Syria, and has worked closely with the Nusra Front and has publicly praised Mullah Omar of the Taliban. Ahrar Al-Sham’s founder, Abu Khalid al-Suri, had long standing links to Al-Qaeda, before he was killed in February 2014 in Aleppo. According to reporting from the Long War Journal, the leader of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, Ayman al-Zawahiri named al-Suri as his “representative” in Syria. Al-Suri attempted to mediate the dispute between the Nusra Front and ISIS at the time the two groups split. Al-Suri was previously a courier for Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan, and Spanish officials allege that he received surveillance tapes of the World Trade Center from the operative who made the videos and delivered them to al-Qaeda’s senior leadership in Afghanistan.
In September 2014, much of the leadership of Ahrar al-Sham was killed in a large explosion. As a result, Hashim al Sheikh (also known as Abu Jaber), was elected as the new leader of the group, which role he filled for one year before stepping down. Abu Jaber had previously been a recruiter for al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), helping Jihadists to travel from Syria to Iraq to fight, and then was arrested by the Syrian government and imprisoned from 2005 to 2011. After Ahrar al-Sham was formed, he became the deputy to Abu Khalid Al-Suri (mentioned above) who was then Ahrar’s leader (emir) of the Aleppo area.
Another Ahrar al-Sham commander, Abu Hani al-Masri, fought with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, Somalia, and Chechnya, and was the al-Qaeda commander responsible for defending Kandahar airport for the Taliban in 2001 when U.S. and allied forces sought to topple the Taliban government.
The Nuri al-Din al-Zinki Brigade also had a strong presence in Aleppo. Al-Zinki is an allegedly moderate rebel group which received CIA support in the past, including TOW missiles, and which became notorious in 2016 when a video of one if it’s commanders beheading a young Palestinian boy was shared widely online.
Another rebel group active in Aleppo was the Tawhid Brigade of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The Tawhid Brigade was formed in July 2012, allegedly at the behest of Turkish intelligence to facilitate the first rebel offensive to take Aleppo. The Tawhid Brigade later joined various rebel umbrella groups, and has worked closely with the Nusra Front in joint operations, both in Aleppo and Damascus. In October 2012, Tawhid and Nusra fighters jointly assaulted the Hanano military barracks in Aleppo. In late 2013, Tawhid leader Abdul-Aziz Salameh advocated “eradicating the Nusayris,” using a pejorative slur for Alawites, the Shiite Muslim offshoot that makes up 12% of Syria’s population, and from which President Bashar al-Assad hails.
All four of these groups (Nusra Front, Ahrar al Sham, Nur al-Din al-Zinki and the Tawhid Brigade) have worked closely together and have carried out joint military operations. In July 2012, al-Zinki and Tawhid jointly assaulted the Salhuddin neighborhood of Aleppo. In October 2012, Tawhid and Nusra fighters jointly assaulted the Hanano military barracks in Aleppo. Nusra and Tawhid launched two joint suicide attacks in April 2013 in the country side of Damascus. Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham cooperated in a 2015 joint offensive that captured the provincial capital of Idlib in the north of Syria, which then prompted Russian intervention into the Syria conflict.
These groups cooperate politically as well. In September 2013, all four signed a statement opposing the Syrian National Council (the western-backed political front of the Syrian opposition) and calling for the imposition of sharia law in Syria.
This is not surprising given that the Nusra Front has pursued a deliberate policy to cooperate with fellow rebels groups in order to embed itself within the broader Syrian anti-government armed insurgency, in an effort to then incorporate these fellow groups into the Nusra Front after fighting together side by side for a time. Joulani explained in an interview how, “Preserving good relations with the other groups and treating them well and turning a blind eye to their mistakes is the foundation in dealing with the other groups…as long as they don’t change.”
This willingness was largely mutual. In March 2013, Riyad al Assad, the founder of the FSA and one of its top commanders, described the willingness of the FSA to cooperate with Nusra. He described the Nusra Front as “our brothers in Islam,” saying that “We have offered martyrs and other things and, accordingly, nobody should blame us for this matter. . . . The Nusra Front has proved it is proficient in fighting and has treated the people very nicely.”
In short, while these rebel groups are indeed distinct, and under separate leadership, it is wrong to suggest that the rebel groups active in Aleppo which are considered as “moderate” in the Western press are somehow not connected to the Nusra Front, or in other words to al-Qaeda. This is an important point to consider when we attempt to understand who it is that the Syrian government and its Russian allies were fighting in Aleppo, whose rule the civilians in Aleppo were forced to live under, and who the Western powers, including the United States, were supporting.
Did Aleppo’s Residents Support the Rebels?
It is well known that in the early days of the Syrian uprising, Aleppo was considered a “regime stronghold,” indicating loyalty among its residents to the Syrian government and its president, Bashar al-Assad. At the start of the Syrian uprising, lack of support from the residents of Aleppo was a source of frustration for those protesting in other parts of the country. A common refrain among protesters at that time was, “Aleppo, where are you?” When protests against the government finally did appear in Aleppo for the first time, in August 2011, this was almost six months after the beginning of protests in other Syrian cities. The Guardianreported that the biggest protest that day, in the Sakhour neighborhood, consisted of just 1,000 people (in a city of 2 million), and described Aleppo as “more invested” in the Syrian government than other cities.
An important event in the early period of the uprising was the double car bombing of the military security headquarters in Aleppo in February, 2012. Reporting on the massive explosion, the New York Timeswrites: “In Aleppo, a bastion of government support, the dual explosions wounded about 235 people, state television said, 14 of them critically. State television repeatedly broadcast images of disemboweled victims lying amid jumbled concrete wreckage. One of the buildings appeared flattened and the other was a rose-colored, five-story expanse of shattered windows and cracked masonry.” This bombing was claimed by the Nusra Front. It is hard to imagine that Aleppo’s residents, already inclined to support the government, would be enthusiastic of the coming of the jihadist rebel groups in light of such a terror attack.
Several months after the bombing, in July 2012, the rebels finally managed to make in-roads into Aleppo. This set the stage for them to capture the Eastern section of the city. Al-Safir, a leading Lebanese newspaper with a generally pro-Syrian government slant, provides an account of the rebel assault on Aleppo based on sources within the Tawhid Brigade, and notes that Tawhid members joined with Nusra Front members to initiate the attack. At the time of the assault in Aleppo, the Tawhid Brigade was part of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which is typically known as the “moderate” Syrian opposition in the Western press. In practice, in Aleppo, cooperation between the FSA and the al-Qaeda affiliated Nustra Front was very close, as mentioned above, and as the experiences of kidnapped journalist Theo Padnos illustrate.
It does not appear that the rebels attempting to take control of Aleppo were from the city itself, but rather from the rural areas surrounding Aleppo. The Guardianreported that in July 2012 “Opposition sources said fighters from rural areas around Aleppo had been converging on the city of 3 million people” and that “dozens of FSA rebels had penetrated deep inside the city.” The Guardiannotes as well that in just the two days prior to their report, some 30,000 Syrians had fled Aleppo to Lebanon. It would be odd to see such massive civilian flight from the city if the residents were welcoming the rebels and looking forward to the city being liberated from Syrian government control.
This further calls into question whether the urban residents of a cosmopolitan, multi-religious city would approve of the coming of rebels with extremist religious views that advocate killing the city’s Alawi and Christian minorities, in particular given Aleppo’s large Christian population. Rebel persecution of Christians throughout Syria had been widespread since the start of the uprising in the spring of 2011. A common slogan chanted in anti-government protests throughout Syria was “Alawites to the grave, Christians to Beirut,” suggesting that some of those supporting the revolution hope for the ethnic cleansing of Syria’s Christians to neighboring Lebanon. While reporting from Syria in August 2012, journalist Robert Fisk quotes a Syrian friend as noting that “The Christians are protesting. . . The Greek Catholic Archbishop of Aleppo has just made an appeal to the Western powers not to send weapons to the fundamentalists. The Syrian Catholic church in Aleppo has now been bombed.”
Rebel control of Aleppo city and its surrounding countryside resulted in a number of kidnappings of Christians. In April 2013, two Orthodox Christian bishops, Gregorius Yohanna Ibrahim of the Syriac Orthodox Church and bishop Boulos Yazigi of the Greek Orthodox Church, were kidnapped while themselves traveling from Aleppo to the Turkish border to help the negotiate the release of two priests, Michael Kayyal and Maher Mahfouz, who had been kidnapped.
Before the uprising, Aleppo’s Christians numbered some 250,000. However, by November 2014, some two years after the rebels capture the eastern section of the city, the number had dwindled to roughly just 100,000, predominantly in the government held west.
Aleppo’s Muslims did not appear to welcome the takeover of their city by religious extremists either. Several Western journalists provided early descriptions about the newly rebel-controlled areas of Aleppo, including Martin Chulov (August 2012), James Foley (October 2012), and Steven Sotloff (February 2013). All describe disillusionment among civilians with life under rebel rule there.
Writing for the Guardian, Chulov quotes a rebel commander as acknowledging that, “Yes, it’s true. . . Around 70% of Aleppo city is with the regime. It has always been that way. The countryside is with us and the city is with them. We are saying that we will only be here as long as it takes to get the job done, to get rid of the Assads. After that, we will leave and they can build the city that they want.”
Chulov acknowledged that even while in the city, it was difficult for him to get a feel for whether residents supported the rebels as, “None wanted to talk.” Chulov also discusses the fact that foreign jihadists were beginning to enter the city. One rebel he interviewed welcomed the foreign presence, because “they are brave and very good fighters,” while another rebel was less enthusiastic, “They’re a very big problem. . . . They don’t understand Islam and they will make things more difficult for all of us.”
Writing for the Independent, journalist Kim Sengupta observed in June 2013 that “Jabhat al-Nusra was a small unimpressive group, big on jihadist talk, short on action, when I first met them in Aleppo last summer . Now they are the largest and most effective of the rebel battalions.” This suggests that although the Syrian rebels who initially took the city were not particularly welcomed, residents of Aleppo would tolerate the rebel presence even less over time, as the rebel ranks grew with more and more foreigners, who espoused even more extreme religious ideas than their Syrian rebel counterparts.
Nor was kidnapping limited to the Christians, as the phenomenon soon became a defining feature of life in Aleppo under rebel rule. Peter N. Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch discussed the rise of kidnapping for ransom in Syria, explaining in June 2013 that “The kidnappings have been going on for about a year, it’s really intensified. It started mostly when fighting broke out in Aleppo. . . . In cities like Aleppo, the kidnappings for ransom that are taking place have very significantly undermined support for the opposition. Because in general, civilians are very fearful of these kinds of kidnappings, especially people with wealth. [Bashar al-] Assad’s regime was known for brutality, but this kind of insecurity didn’t exist for wealthy business people. They knew if they stayed out of politics, they could live secure lives.”
Further, the presence of the rebels led to the wide-spread destruction and depopulation of many areas under their control. Sengupta described how by August 2012, the Salheddine district of Aleppo was largely empty, as rebel factions fought Syrian government forces there: “There are very few civilians to be seen in Salheddine, whose deserted streets are filled with fallen masonry, shattered glass and twisted metal. The dead are much more in evidence, bodies lying in the open, the rising stench from the ones buried in debris.” According to one Syrian rebel with whom Sengupta was embedded, Syrian forces in Salheddine “have been firing from the tanks, but all they are hitting are empty buildings.” Sengupta writes as well that “The only human voices, however, were hurried conversations in doorways between fighters; the people who lived here have gone.” Sengupta notes that the Bustan al-Qasr neighborhood in Aleppo had had a population of 300,000 before rebels took control of the area, but that it had fallen to “around 40,000 as the exodus rises,” while quoting a resident who said “The Migs and helicopters [of the Syrian government] are the reason we’re leaving.”
Veteran Middle East correspondent Patrick Cockburn, who spent a significant amount of time reporting from Syria, described the result of the rebel take-over of any given Syrian city this way: “The military tactics of both sides ignore the well-being of civilians in the cities. Armed rebel units move into the suburbs, whether they are welcome or not. In some places, like the large township of Douma on the outskirts of Damascus, the Muslim Brotherhood has always been strong and the FSA is popular. In others, particularly in Aleppo, the arrival of the FSA is regarded with dread. Local people know what will happen next. Government artillery opens fire and bombs are dropped from the air. The population flees and the contested district becomes a ghost town. The rebels loot government offices, schools, factories, and shops. “
Certainly the Syrian government bears significant blame for such destruction, but Aleppo’s residents must not have been grateful that rebel fighters took control of parts of the city against their wishes to begin with. In October 2012, Foley quotes one Aleppo resident with such feelings, Faez Shoaip, 63, who used to be a taxi driver in Brooklyn before returning home to Aleppo eight years before: “We don’t like Bashar, we don’t the like regime. We want them to go out. But there is an easier way. Kill everybody? Destroy the country just to change the regime? It’s too much,” while Sotloff quotes an Aleppo resident named “Sharqi” who initially welcomed the rebels into the city, but who was soon not happy about their presence: “We organized food deliveries for them at the front. We were so happy to finally be doing something for the revolution. But after a few months, we saw who these people really were.” Sotloff also notes the shortage of bread, gas and cooking oil that characterized life after the rebels’ arrival. Many residents reported waiting in line four hours or more to buy bread. When Sotloff asked a local grocer, Anwar Khuli, about his thoughts on allegations that rebels had recruited children as fighters, the grocer responded, “These guys will do anything to win, even if it means destroying our youth. . . They have already destroyed our country.” Sotloff concludes that, “What’s clear is that as the grisly battle for Aleppo enters its six month its residents are slowly losing faith in the FSA,” while it seems Sotloff may have been mistaken to assume resident’s had much faith in the FSA to begin with.
Another account from inside Aleppo then comes from the Syrian journalist Edward Dark (a pseudonym), who was active in the early months of the uprising, helping organize peaceful protests. In May 2013, he described how “Aleppo was raided by the rebels” in 2012 (as opposed to liberated), and gives a lengthy description of what the coming of the rebels meant for the city’s residents:
Rebels would systematically loot the neighborhoods they entered. They had very little regard for the lives and property of the people, and would even kidnap for ransom and execute anyone they pleased with little recourse to any form of judicial process. They would deliberately vandalize and destroy ancient and historical landmarks and icons of the city. They would strip factories and industrial zones bare, even down to the electrical wiring, hauling their loot of expensive industrial machinery and infrastructure off across the border to Turkey to be sold at a fraction of its price. Shopping malls were emptied, warehouses, too. They stole the grain in storage silos, creating a crisis and a sharp rise in staple food costs. They would incessantly shell residential civilian neighborhoods under regime control with mortars, rocket fire and car bombs, causing death and injury to countless innocent people, their snipers routinely killing in cold blood unsuspecting passersby. As a consequence, tens of thousands became destitute and homeless in this once bustling, thriving and rich commercial metropolis.
Dark summarizes his feelings, concluding that the coming of the rebels “was a shock, especially to those of us who had supported and believed in the uprising all along. It was the ultimate betrayal.”
At roughly this time, two incidents further eroded Syrian support for the rebels, presumably in Aleppo as well as in other parts of the country. In May of 2013, a rebel commander from the Farouq Brigade of the FSA cut out the heart of a dead Syrian Army soldier and took a bite from it in front of a crowd of his fighters. Video of this went viral and was viewed widely throughout Syria. Soon thereafter, in July of 2013, rebels in the poor Shaar district of Aleppo publicly shot and killed a 14 year old boy three times in the face for making what they considered to be an insulting comment about the prophet Muhammad. The boy had been selling coffee in the street. The video of his face, with a hole where is nose and mouth should have been, went viral on Facebook and Twitter
Where Does Information About Aleppo in the Western Press Come From?
This is also roughly the time when the presence of independent journalists in rebel-held northern Syria came to end, as a result of a string of kidnappings of Western journalists that made reporting from cities such as Aleppo simply too dangerous, and as jihadist rebel groups began to threaten local Syrian journalists if they reported any information critical of the rebels.
Journalist James Foley was kidnapped by jihadist militants near the northern city of Idlib in November 2012 and was beheaded by the Islamic State two years later in August 2014. In Aug. 14, 2012, Austin Tice was kidnapped by unknown assailants. His fate remains unknown. In August 2013, Steve Sotloff was kidnapped by FSA fighters as he tried to return to Aleppo by road from Turkey. He was sold to Islamic State militants, who finally beheaded him a year later in August 2014, shortly after James Foley. Journalist Theo Padnos (mentioned above) was kidnapped in October 2012 by the Nusra Front, and held captive for some 2 years, including for a time in Aleppo’s children’s hospital, before being released when the Qatari government intervened.
In the summer of 2013, freelance journalist James Harkin described phoning a Syrian fixer in Aleppo, just after the fixer had been released after two weeks in a “jihadi prison.” The fixer, who seemed “scared out of his wits,” had only this advice for any journalists contacting him about coming to the city: “Don’t come to Aleppo” was all he kept saying. “Do not come,” providing a further clue that Western journalists were no longer safe in East Aleppo, and that jihadist rebel groups held significant sway in the city.
In contrast to Western journalists, Syrian journalists are able to live and work in rebel-held territory; however, they faced considerable constraints which prevented them from accurately describing the situation on the ground. Syrian journalists are likely to be detained or killed for reporting news deemed unacceptable to the rebel factions controlling the areas in which they work.
In May 2016, UPIreported on a number of such cases, and describes how, “The fighters of al-Nusra Front, considered the al-Qaida affiliate in Syria, have also spread out across the country and have a presence in most areas controlled by opposition factions. The group’s power over the media increases the farther north one goes. Its power is greatest in Aleppo and Idlib, due to the presence of other factions in the north that share many of its ideological principles.” UPI also quotes an activist from Idlib in northern Syria who notes that “A journalist must maintain good relationships with the ruling factions. . . They simply cannot work as journalists if they do not.”
With the lack of independent reporting in Aleppo, and elsewhere in Syria, the Western press uncritically reported information from pro-rebel sources regarding events on the ground, while at the same time refusing to view statements from Syrian government spokespersons or Syrian state media as credible.
One pro-rebel source that is almost universally cited by Western media outlets was the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), founded by a Syrian exile living in England named Rami Abd al-Rahman. The New York Timesdescribes SOHR as “virtually a one-man band,” led by Rami and operating “out of a semidetached red-brick house on an ordinary residential street” in Coventry, England. Rami is a member of the pro-Western Syrian opposition which seeks to overthrow the Syrian government. Rami is clear about his desire to see Syrian President Bashar al-Assad deposed, noting to Reuters that, “I came to Britain the day Hafez al-Assad died, and I’ll return when Bashar al-Assad goes.” In November 2011, the Times of Londonreported on a meeting between “leaders of Syria’s opposition,” including Rami, and UK foreign secretary William Hague who has spearheaded the UK’s efforts at undermining the Syrian government. The SOHR also receives funding from both the European Union, and from another “one European country that he declines to identify,” according to the New York Times. It seems likely the unnamed country is the UK, given Rami’s ties to Secretary Hague. Rami operates a network of a few hundred activists inside Syria that provide him information. Presumably they would be under the same restraints for Syrian journalists noted above, namely that they are unable to report information critical of jihadist rebel groups.
Not only journalists, but Western analysts located in Washington, DC also turn to rebel spokespersons for information. These analysts are employed by think tanks funded by the U.S. defense industry who have a financial interest in promoting regime change and war in Syria and by Gulf nations who fund jihadist militants in the Syria and whose stated foreign policy goal is the overthrow of the Syrian government. The New YorkTimes quoted one former Brookings Doha Center scholar (the center is funded by the Qatari government) as saying, “There was a no-go zone when it came to criticizing the Qatari government,” providing an idea of the latitude these analysts have to criticize the pro-rebel (in other words pro-Qatari) perspective on the conflict.
One prominent example of a Syria expert to whom Western media outlets often turn is Charles Lister, who is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center and an analyst with the IHS Jane’s Terrorism & Insurgency Centre, a think tank established by IHS Markit, which is a private firm that has an Aerospace, Defense & Security division. Lister has a seemingly direct line to speak with rebel commanders from various jihadists factions, including access to “face-to-face engagement with the leadership of over 100 opposition groups from across the entire Syrian spectrum,” according to his Brookings bio.
A further pro-rebel source for the Western media was the “White Helmets,” a group dedicated to rescuing civilians that seems to be both a propaganda outlet and humanitarian organization at the same time. Created and funded by the U.S. Government, White Helmets leaders became go-to sources for Western journalists, despite evidence they have staged both fake rescue videos and fake Russian airstrikes. Many photos have also emerged on Facebook and Twitter showing the connections of White Helmets members with Nusra Front militants. Western support for the White Helmets seems to be part of well-coordinated public-relations campaign to push for a no-fly zone in Syria, which would cause a considerable escalation of the conflict.
Western coverage of the conflict in Aleppo based on these sources helped to obscure the basic fact that Aleppo’s residents were opposed to rebel control of their city, and were in fact living under what amounts to an unwelcome occupation by jihadist rebel groups, whose fighters originated from outside of Aleppo, whether from the Syrian countryside or from outside Syria entirely.
Bias in reporting on the situation in Aleppo reached its apex when Syrian and Russian forces prepared to recapture Aleppo in the fall of 2016. The Western press published article after article of pro-rebel propaganda, making suspect claims about alleged Russian and Syrian government crimes.
For example, as mentioned to begin this article, the Washington Post published an op-ed contending that Syrian and Russian forces were carrying out the “genocide of our time” in Aleppo. On November 17, 2016, the Washington Postpublished an op-ed which was co-written by Raed Saleh, the head of the White Helmets, which made the alarmist claim that “More than 250,000 in Eastern Aleppo could die after the next 20 days” due to “mass starvation and restricted access to lifesaving medical care.” On December 12, 2016, the Daily Beast published an article in which the headline included claims that women in East Aleppo were choosing “suicide over rape,” that the Syrian Army was carrying out “mass executions,” and most fantastically, that children were being “burned alive” by the Syrian Army, based on information solely from a rebel spokesperson.
Rebel Crimes Against Aleppo’s Civilians
While fantastic claims about Syrian government and Russian atrocities were highlighted in the Western press, rebel attacks on residents in government-controlled west Aleppo were ignored. In November 2016, as Syrian and Russian forces continued their attempts to defeat the rebels, journalist Rhania Khalek visited government-held west Aleppo and described how:
I’m still haunted by what I saw at Al-Razi Hospital in what was then government-held West Aleppo. I watched as one ambulance after another dropped off civilians wounded by rebel mortars fired into residential neighborhoods around the clock. Medical staff quickly went to work on a man whose chest was pierced by a piece of twisted metal. A frantic woman lingered close by, shouting, “He’s the only son I have left!” The man was soon pronounced dead and the woman collapsed in agony. Down a crowded hall, 10-year-old Fateh stood on a blood-smeared floor, crying beside a gurney where his 15-year-old brother, Mohammad, was lying. Blood had soaked through the bandage on his leg, but the medical staff was too busy with more life-threatening injuries to take notice. The boys were lucky to be alive. They had been moving furniture out of the house with their younger cousins earlier in the day when they were struck by rebel mortars. Their 6-year-old cousin, a girl, was in the ICU. Their 4-year-old cousin, a boy, had been killed. Across the street, grieving families waited outside the morgue to identify the bodies of their recently deceased loved ones. A group of sobbing children explained to me how they had watched their father die that morning from the balcony of their apartment. A rebel mortar struck him as he was parking his car. Meanwhile, a shell-shocked father told me his 10-year-old son was shot and killed by a sniper while fetching water on the roof.
Also largely ignored in the Western press was the fact that many residents in Aleppo sought to flee rebel held areas for the safety of the government controlled west of the city, but the rebels prevented them from doing so. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged that, “Certain elements of the opposition have threatened people who are going to leave and have in some cases prevented humanitarian assistance from being delivered. That is a very serious offense also,” while Robert Coleville of the UN office of Human Rights also claimed on December 9th 2016 that the Nusra Front and the Abu Amara Brigades kidnapped and killed an unknown number of civilians over the past two weeks who had asked the armed groups to leave their neighborhoods. The Independentreported the story of Khaled Kaddoura and his wife Samira, who upon escaping East Aleppo and reaching government-controlled West Aleppo, told “how hundreds of east Aleppo militiamen prevented at rifle-point thousands of civilians from fleeing their enclave over the past two weeks, how they shot dead six people, including a pregnant woman, and of how, after Samira and Khaled had reached the west of the city with their son, the Islamist Ahrar al-Sham arrested Khaled’s 27-year old brother Hamzi and sentenced him to execution.” Khaled is quoted as saying that, “The militias came to our house after we crossed, they stole from our shop and smashed our home to warn other people not to do the same thing we did. They had told me that if we left east Aleppo, the government would execute us, but when we came here they didn’t.”
While many civilians attempted to flee from rebel controlled areas, others actually chose to fight against the rebels when it became clear that Syrian and Russian forces were finally coming to their aid. Syria analyst Ben Heller interviewed pro-rebel Aleppo-based activist Mohannad “Abu al-Majd” Makhzoom regarding the reasons that rebel efforts to hold East Aleppo failed. Makhzoom indicated that “In some instances civilians started fighting the revolutionaries. . . Some were working directly with the regime, whereas others just felt wronged and didn’t identify with the revolution, so they decided to return to the regime.”
Support among Aleppo’s civilians for the Syrian government was confirmed when the majority of those fleeing Aleppo as part of a negotiated evacuation in December 2016 chose to flee to areas under Syrian government control. It is this evacuation, which included both rebels and civilians, which ended the fighting and allowed the Syrian government to retake full control of East Aleppo. Patrick Cockburn notes that “There was an implicit assumption that all the inhabitants of East Aleppo were firmly opposed to Assad and supported the insurgents, yet it’s striking that when offered a choice in mid-December only a third of evacuees– 36,000 – asked to be taken to rebel-held Idlib. The majority – 80,000 – elected to go to government-held territory in West Aleppo. This isn’t necessarily because they expected to be treated well by the government authorities – it’s just that they believed life under the rebels would be even more dangerous. In the Syrian civil war, the choice is often between bad and worse.”
Interestingly, the percentage of civilians choosing to flee to government controlled areas (80,000 out of 116,000) mirrors the estimates of civilian support among Aleppo’s civilians for the Syrian government provided by the rebel commander in 2012, when the rebels first captured the city. As noted above, the commander admitted that “Yes, it’s true. . . Around 70% of Aleppo city is with the regime. It has always been that way. The countryside is with us and the city is with them.”
While Syrian and Russian bombing of rebel held areas certainly killed civilians, it is difficult to argue that Syrian and Russian forces were committing genocide when a majority of civilians in the area affected by their bombing chose to flee to areas under their control.
Another common feature of Western reporting was the idea that East Aleppo was full of civilians, and that therefore every bomb dropped by the Russian air force on the city must necessarily be killing scores of innocent people, rather than rebel fighters. Western media commonly claimed that 250,000 civilians remained in the areas besieged by Syrian and Russian forces. This cannot be true given the numbers of civilians actually evacuated from the city when a ceasefire was negotiated to end the fighting (116,000), and given the fact that civilians had fled from large parts of the rebel-held section of the city already in August 2012 as a result of the fighting, leaving many areas of East Aleppo largely depopulated. As mentioned earlier, Sengupta reported that in the rebel controlled parts of East Aleppo she visited, “There are very few civilians to be seen in Salheddine,” “They have been firing from the tanks, but all they are hitting are empty buildings,” “the people who lived here have gone.”
Indeed it should not be surprising that almost half of the civilians would have already left the city. Anyone with the money and means to do so would naturally leave any war zone, political preferences aside, leaving only the poor behind.
Much of the Western narrative in Syria revolves around the idea that the rebels are somehow protecting civilians, when it fact it is the rebel presence that causes danger for Syrian civilians, as it invites attacks from the government (in addition to the danger to civilians from the rebels themselves). Ending the violence in Aleppo required only that the rebels evacuate the city, which they were reluctant to do, for their own reasons, which had nothing to do with saving civilians.
As mentioned above, the fighting in Aleppo finally ended when an evacuation deal was struck between Russia and the rebels. Negotiations were led on the rebel side by Al-Farouq Abu Bakr, Aleppo commander for Ahrar al-Sham. According to Abu Bakr, the Russians insisted on an evacuation of both the rebels and the civilians under their control, rather than an evacuation of the civilians only. This is so that the rebels would not be able to remain and continue to fight. Abu Bakr noted that the rebels “only agreed to leave the city when it became clear that they had no alternative.” The rebel reluctance to evacuate the city, despite the opportunity to end the fighting and save the lives of any civilians that would inevitably be killed if fighting continued, was expressed by Nur al Din al Zinki commander Omar Salkhou. He lamented that evacuating Aleppo meant surrender, and the end of his dreams of revolution: “So I guess we’re supposed to give up the revolution, then, that we should surrender . . . But if we went out to the countryside, they’d follow us to the countryside. If we went to the borders, they’d follow us to the borders . . . Where am I supposed to go and leave the revolution?”
And what happened when Syrian government forces finally took control of Aleppo? There was no massacre of civilians or genocide as predicted in the Western press. Western journalists visiting Aleppo after the Syrian government took control largely described how civilians were doing their best to rebuild their lives and return the city to a state of normality. On December 21st 2016, as the last rebels were being evacuated from Aleppo, the Los Angeles Timesdescribed a “carnival like atmosphere” as “large crowds had filled the Basel stadium in Aleppo” to attend a celebration of the Syrian government’s victory. Voice of Americareported on December 23rd that “Hundreds of Syrians returned to Aleppo on Friday to check on their homes after the last rebels left the city Thursday. Residents wrapped in heavy coats crossed into neighborhoods that had recently been dangerous front lines during the battle for Aleppo, sorting through the wreckage for personal belongings. Some of them had not been able to reach their homes for five years.” Time magazine reported how Aleppo’s Christians were busy celebrating Christmas in the St Elias Cathedral for the first time in five years, and that “Hundreds of people danced and celebrated in the Azizya neighborhood, where the public Christmas tree had gone unlit since rebels took the eastern half of the city in 2012.”Reutersreported a month later how “Some semblance of normality returned to battle-scarred Aleppo for a few hours on Saturday as local soccer clubs Al Ittihad and Horiyah met in the first derby in the city for five years.”
One Turkish journalist visiting Aleppo after the government recaptured the Eastern part of the city suggested that Assad was largely still popular, despite the destruction resulting from the war against the rebels. He quoted a professor from Aleppo University as saying:
I oppose the regime, but I have to admit Assad managed the crisis well. At the moment, we have no alternative to him. If there were an election today, he would get more than 70% of the vote. Of course, my criticism of the regime hasn’t changed. People put their criticisms on the back burner temporarily because they realized the country was about to disintegrate. It wasn’t the right time to settle scores with the regime. But when the war is finally finished, people will want drastic changes. The government is aware of this mood and is trying to change some things. Be assured, nothing will be the same as before.
Did Syrian and Russian Forces Kill Civilians in Aleppo?
Does this mean that all accounts of Syrian and Russian forces killing civilians in Aleppo are simply Western propaganda? This is of course is doubtful. The Syrian government and their Russian allies may have used excessive force to re-take Aleppo in December 2016, as the Syrian government did in Hama in 1982 in an effort to suppress an Islamist-led uprising and assassination campaign at that time. This is very different from claiming the Syrian government committed genocide or was deliberately trying to kill as many civilians as possible, as alleged in the Western press.
Excessive use of force in such situations is regrettably typical of most governments. Looking back at similar historical situations suggests that any state attempting to defeat an insurgency that is deeply embedded in a populated city will kill many civilians, many unnecessarily.
One relevant comparison is the U.S. attempt to subjugate (or liberate, pick your word) Fallujah in Iraq in the spring and fall of 2004. It is clear that the U.S. committed war crimes, including the use of chemical weapons and taking over the city’s general hospital. As one U.S. tank commander commented, “You sometimes wonder what the appropriate use of force is, but Fallujah was just a joke as far as the amount of force we could use,” while one American official was “struck by the stench of corpses” lying in the streets when visiting the city after the U.S. assault. 
Fallujah provides another, more recent example worth noting. In June 2016, Iraqi Security forces, affiliated Shiite militias (the Popular Mobilization Units), and the U.S. air force liberated Fallujah from ISIS militants. Reports surfaced of the disappearance of military aged males after the Iraqi forces took control of the city. The Independent reports that a spokesman for the United Nations Office for the High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR) claimed that “up to 900 men and boys who fled their homes near Isis’ former stronghold of Fallujah remain missing in Iraq after being abducted by a militia accused of torturing, shooting and beheading civilians.”
The disappearance of some military aged men from Aleppo was reported as well after Syrian fores took control of that city. Robert Coleville of the UN office of Human Rights (mentioned above) stated on December 9th, as evacuations of civilians from Aleppo got under way, that his office had received disturbing reports of the disappearance of hundreds of men after crossing to areas under control of the government.
A review of U.S. and Iraqi efforts to liberate Mosul from ISIS is also useful. On December 7th 2016, the Guardian reports that U.S. warplanes bombed a hospital in Mosul, claiming the Islamic State militants were using it to fire at Iraqi forces. The monitoring group Airwarsnotes that the number of U.S. airstrikes in Mosul was “escalating steeply in the final months of the Obama administration” and that from October 17th through January 20th, U.S. forces killed 294 civilians in Mosul, and that by February 2017, “airstrikes by the U.S.-led Coalition are now claiming the lives of more civilians than Russia’s brutal aerial campaign” in Syria now that the Russian effort to recapture Aleppo is winding down, while U.S. campaign to recapture Mosul is at the same time intensifying. The U.S. killing of civilians in Mosul intensified yet further in the months after President Trump’s election.
Reports of civilian disappearances and deaths due to airstrikes in Aleppo, Fallujah, and Mosul are deeply disturbing . The tactics of the Syrian, Russian and U.S. governments deserve harsh criticism. However, despite these serious allegations, none in the Western press would assume that Fallujah or Mosul has “fallen” after being re-captured from ISIS by U.S.-backed Iraqi security forces.
For this reason of course it is helpful if the Western press reports on actual Russian and Syrian government crimes (rather than relaying unsubstantiated claims told to them by rebel spokespersons). However, even such honest reporting would provide a one sided accounting, as the Western press at the same time largely fails to report on the civilians in government controlled areas killed by rebel rockets and snipers. Imagine if the Western press only reported crimes committed by U.S. and Iraqi forces in Fallujah and Mosul, while remaining silent about the the civilians killed by ISIS in those cities.
What Really Drove the Conflict in Aleppo?
Finally, it is important to remember what was really driving the conflict in Aleppo. It is commonly acknowledged that for any successful insurgency or guerrilla movement to succeed, the rebels must have support from the local population. With little popular support, how did the rebels in East Aleppo manage to hold on to a significant portion of the city for over four years?
It is clear this is due to U.S. and Gulf support for the rebels. Sam Heller conducted interviews with rebel commanders and Western diplomats in January 2017 in which they told him how the “rebels’ backers had stocked their rebel allies with money and weapons and been prepared to give more—to funnel money into the siege so rebels could purchase weapons and supplies from Kurdish neighborhoods or corrupt elements in the regime’s Syrian Arab Army.”
The Financial Timesreported that a regional diplomat described how “People have this perception the Americans weren’t very involved [in Syria]. But that’s not true – they were, and to a miniscule level of detail for a while in places like Aleppo when [the CIA program] started.”
Further, in what he certainly thought was a closed door session, U.S. Special Envoy to Syria Michael Ratner made a shocking admission, namely that U.S. and Gulf support for rebels in Aleppo, and Syria more broadly, was likely the prime driver of the conflict, and therefore of the suffering of Syria’s population.
Ratner, in responding to claims the U.S. had not done enough to support Syria’s rebels, explained to members of the Syrian opposition that, “when you pump more weapons into a situation like Syria, it doesn’t end well for Syrians, because there is always someone else who is going to pump more weapons in for the other side. The armed groups in Syria get a lot of support, not just from the United States but from other partners. . . . But pumping weapons in causes someone else to pump weapons in and you end up with Aleppo.” During Ratner’s comments, Secretary Kerry interjected that, “Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, a huge amount of weapons coming in. A huge amount of money.”
This is what allowed the rebels to hold East Aleppo for over four years, despite little popular support from Aleppo’s civilians. In other words, U.S. and Gulf support allowed these rebels to maintain their occupation of the city against the wishes of the majority of its residents. Aleppo’s civilians paid the price of this, whether as a result of atrocities suffered directly at the hands of the rebels or as a result of the violence used by Syrian and Russian forces to retake the city.
In my view, U.S. efforts to destabilize and overthrow the Syrian government, which started with covert financial support to Syrian opposition groups in 2005, and ended with “pumping” in huge amounts of money and weapons to jihadist rebel groups after 2011, deserve a large share of the blame for the calamity that has befallen Aleppo, and Syria as a whole. Bashar al-Assad and his Russian and Iranian supporters have certainly killed many innocent civilians, but it is important to ask whether it was legitimate for foreign powers to create an armed insurgency led by religious extremists in Aleppo, and to help them take and maintain control of the city for over four years against the wishes of its residents. In my view there is no legitimacy to such a project. It is a positive thing that rebels have been evacuated from Aleppo, and that the city is now fully under Syrian government control. Now that the fighting has stopped, Aleppo’s residents (whether Sunni or Alawi or Christian) can go forward with rebuilding their lives.
Had the rebels succeeded in defeating the Syrian government and controlling Aleppo completely, the various rebel armed groups themselves would have likely then fought for control of the city among themselves, destroying it further. If one armed faction were to win out, no doubt the most brutal and extreme of them all, Aleppo would then be lucky to resemble Kandahar under the Taliban, or worse. Supporting such an outcome is nonsensical from a Western perspective, and yet that is what the Western media was almost universally advocating by lamenting the “fall” of Aleppo to the Syrian government.
Sadly, Syrians don’t have the choice between living in a Western style democracy that respects human rights on the one hand, and a brutal police state on the other. Their choice, thanks to U.S. and Gulf support for al-Qaeda affiliated religious extremists, is between a police state and a Taliban-like regime governed by competing warlords. For that reason, civilians in Aleppo are lucky to be rid of the rebels, and would have been rid of them years ago, if not for intervention from the U.S. and its Gulf partners. Had the rebels been defeated years before, many lives and considerable destruction would have been spared. For these reasons, it is indeed fair to say that Aleppo was “liberated.”
“Syria, Descent into the Abyss, An Unforgettable Anthology of Contemporary Reporting,” by Patrick Cockburn, Robert Fisk, and Kim Sengupta, Independant Print Limited, Kindle Edition, 2014, page 166.
The Western narrative of the Syrian conflict, which began in the Spring of 2011, suggests that the Syrian people began to peacefully protest for an end to the Assad regime, which then responded with brutal oppression; killing, imprisoning and torturing innocent Syrian civilians in an effort to maintain power. In time, Syrian soldiers defected from the army (because they refused orders to shoot peaceful protesters), began to arm themselves, and created the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to fight the regime. The West then began to support the Syrian rebels, in an effort to protect civilians and allow Syrians to realize their aspirations for democracy and freedom.
The Syrian government of course rejects this narrative, claiming instead that it has the support of the majority of Syrians, and is in fact the victim of a “conspiracy” or “plot” by the Western powers to support “terrorists” in an effort to overthrow it.
While Western journalists at times report on claims of such a plot by Syrian officials, the tone of such reports is always from the perspective that that these claims are regime propaganda meant to justify the killing of civilians. There is no attempt to analyze the claim or determine if it might have some merit. It is simply taken for granted that Syrian government claims are not credible. In contrast, Western officials’ counter-claims ridiculing the Syrian government view are assumed to be true and quoted uncritically, as are claims by spokespersons of Western-backed Syrian rebels.
As skeptical as one should certainly be regarding claims by any government, a closer examination of US policy toward Syria, as well as of the development of the Syrian conflict over time, suggest that in fact there was (and still is) a Western plot to overthrow the Assad government and replace it with one more friendly to US interests. This plot has resulted in US support for Islamic militant groups that, in other contexts, would be considered terrorists by the West.
Given that the Syrian government has faced a foreign inspired plot before (the campaign of assassination and terrorism carried out by a militants from a Muslim Brotherhood offshoot in the early 1980’s, backed by Israel and Jordan), that US efforts to overthrow Assad long predate the 2011 uprising, that armed gunmen were indeed attacking Syrian police and security forces from the first weeks of the protests, and that the US and its regional allies (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and Israel) have openly supported Syrian rebel groups (financially, militarily, and through public relations efforts), including groups who espouse the ideology of Salafi-Jihadism (the same ideology espoused by al-Qaeda and ISIS), Syrian government claims of such a plot should be taken seriously.
Evidence of such a plot is abundant and openly available in the Western press if one takes the care to look. Sometimes, it turns out, plots are real. In this essay, I will discuss each of the above mentioned claims in additional detail.
The Syrian Government has Faced Foreign Plots Before
In his book “Assad: The Struggle for the Middle East,” historian Patrick Seale details how from 1977 to 1982, the Syrian regime, led by Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez, faced a campaign of bombings and assassinations by militants from the Islamic Front, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, which very nearly toppled the regime, and to which Assad responded with considerable brutality.
According to Seale, some of the victims of the Islamic Front terror campaign “were prominent officers and government servants but others were professional men, doctors and teachers and the like, who were not involved with the regime and were therefore undefended. Most of them were ‘Alawis which suggested that the assassins had targeted the community and were deliberately setting out to sharpen sectarian differences. . . (page 317).”
Seale emphasizes the importance of the June 1979 Aleppo Artillery School massacre, in which Islamic militants murdered thirty two Alawi army cadets. “A member of staff, Captain Ibrahim Yusuf, assembled the cadets in the dining hall and then let in the gunmen who opened fire indiscriminately (page 316).”
In June 1980, Assad himself narrowly escaped death after militants threw two hand grenades and shot bursts of machine gun fire at Assad while he waited to welcome an African dignitary. In response, Assad’s brother, Rif’at sent army units to the prison in Palmyra, where soldier’s murdered some 500 Muslim Brotherhood members held by the regime (page 329).
The terror campaign and brutal Syrian government response famously culminated in a showdown between the Syrian army and Islamic militants in 1982 in the town of Hama. On February 2nd, 1982 militants ambushed an army unit. Roof top snipers killed some 20 soldiers. When army reinforcements were sent in, the local militant commander put out the call for a general uprising throughout Hama. According to Seale, “At this signal hundreds of Islamic fighters rose from their hiding places. Killing and looting, they burst into the homes of officials and party leaders, overran police posts and ransacked armories in a bid to seize power in the city (page 332).” By the time the Syrian army was able to crush the uprising three weeks later, between 3,000 and 20,000 Syrians lay dead (depending on whose estimates one believes) including Islamic militants, Syrian security forces and civilians living in the city (page 334) .
Important for our purposes is that the Islamic militants enjoyed external support, from both the Jordanian and Israeli governments, who wished to see Assad overthrown, and that as result, the militants “had a fortune in foreign money, sophisticated communications equipment and large arms dumps (pages 335-336).” Further, Seale writes that Assad was convinced of US support for the militants, given the “discovery of US equipment in the hands of the guerrillas, and especially sophisticated communications equipment of a kind, he claimed, that could only be sold to a third-party with US government permission (page 336).”
This experience colored the views of the current Syrian government when the initial protests and attacks by armed groups against Syrian security forces began in the Spring of 2011.
Why Does the US Want to Overthrow the Syrian Government?
Flynt Leverett, former senior Middle East analyst at the CIA and senior director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council during the first Bush Administration, described the reasons why US planners have long wished to overthrow the Syrian government. Writing in “Inheriting Syria: Bashar’s Trial by Fire” in 2005, Leverett highlight’s Syria’s strategic importance to the US interests in the Middle East, and the Syrian government’s resistance to these interests. Leverett explains that Syria is a “swing state” in the Middle East, and that since the establishment of the Assad regime in 1970, US policy toward Syria has been motivated by an interest in bringing Syria into the pro-US camp and therefore “tipping the regional balance of power against more radical or revisionist actors,” in particular Iran (page 8). Leverett complains however, that the US has “had to cope with Syrian resistance on a variety of fronts” since 1970, which resistance includes opposition to US support for Israel’s annexation of the Syrian Golan Heights, Syria’s “largely successful campaign to repulse Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon,” Syria’s “inauguration of a strategic alliance with Iran” which “ran against American moves throughout the 1980’s to bolster [Saddam’s] Iraq as a bulwark against the Islamic Republic’s revolutionary influence.” Leverett notes further that “As the Bush administration launched its military campaign against Saddam’s regime in 2003, Bashar [al-Assad] not only opposed the war but authorized actions that worked against the US pursuit of its objectives in Iraq (page 10).” Leverett also discusses Syrian support for Palestinian militant groups (PFLP-GC, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad) and the fact that Syria “has for many years been the principle conduit for Iranian military supplies going to Hizballah fighters in southern Lebanon” and that Syria “continues to see its ties to Hizballah as an important tactical tool in its posture toward Israel (pages 12-13).”
Leverett then wonders whether the best course for “changing problematic Syrian behaviors” would entail US efforts to “ratchet up economic, political, rhetorical pressure on Damascus,” on the one hand, or “coercive regime change” on the other (pages 17-18).
It must be noted here that the unprovoked Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 (killing some 10,000 Lebanese) and the unprovoked US invasion of Iraq (based on a series of fabrications) in 2003 (killing some 200,000 Iraqis) have caused immense human suffering, as has Israel’s ongoing colonization and occupation of Palestine (now reaching its 50th year). It is therefore inappropriate to refer to Syrian resistance to these US/Israeli policies as “problematic,” from a moral perspective. To its credit, Syria was opposing US/Israeli aggression in these instances. Also of note is that human rights concerns are not among the reasons cited by Leverett for proposing the overthrow of the Syrian government. Rather it is Syria’s challenge to US and Israeli aggression and hegemony in the region that necessitates regime change, from the US perspective.
US Plans to Overthrow the Assad Long Predate the 2011 Uprising.
The US desire to topple the Syrian government reaches back to at least 2001, when prominent neoconservatives in the US government threatened to invade not only Iraq, but also Syria and Iran.
Former US General Wesley Clark discusses a conversation he had with a “senior general” a few weeks after 9/11 at the Pentagon, in which the general purportedly showed Clark a memo from then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s office which advocated a strategy to “take out seven countries in five years,” which would start with Iraq and Syria and end with Iran. That Syria and Iran were at that time potential US targets for regime-change was later confirmed by then Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith.
These plans to intervene militarily in Syria seemed to have been put on hold due to the difficulties the US military faced in Iraq at the hands of Sunni and Shiite armed groups opposed to the occupation. However, US planners were still actively looking for concrete opportunities to covertly destabilize the Syrian government.
In early 2005 the Bush Administration began to markedly increase funding for Syrian opposition groups, including some within Syria, leading to “persistent fears among U.S. diplomats that Syrian state security agents had uncovered the money trail from Washington,” according to the Washington Post.
By 2006, US planners were seeking to exploit the fact that many Islamic militants were traveling through Syria to join the fight against US forces in Iraq, and to turn these fighters against the Syrian government, according to a classified December 2006 cable written by William Roebuck, Political Counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus.
With the coming of the Arab Spring in 2011, popular anti-government protests broke out in various Arab countries, leading to the downfall of pro-US dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen. US planners saw the chance to exploit the nascent protest movement that had also emerged in Syria, in order to destabilize and ultimately overthrow the Syrian government, and by extension weaken Syria’s Iranian and Russian allies.
In June 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton exchanged emails with an adviser, Sydney Blumenthal, in which they discuss whether the Syrian government could be overthrown in the manner in which US-supported rebels were then seeking to overthrow the Ghadhafi-led Libyan government. Blumenthal wrote in a June 2011 email to Clinton that, “Likely the most important event that could alter the Syrian equation would be the fall of Qaddafi, providing an example of a successful rebellion.”
Syrian Security Forces are Attacked from the Early Days of the Uprising
Protests in Syria began in early February 2011 in the southern city of Deraa, when several youths were arrested and tortured by Syrian intelligence for writing anti-government slogans on the wall of a school. These events were followed by protests in Deraa. Coincident to these peaceful protests, armed groups began attacking Syrian police and security forces, apparently with weapons smuggled in from outside the country. On March 11th, Reutersquoted Syrian state media as reporting that “security forces seized a large shipment of weapons and explosives and night-vision goggles this week in a truck coming from Iraq.” On the same day, Israel National Newsreported that 7 Syrian policeman were killed in clashes with protesters (or more likely, armed militants, given the number of police killed). On March 23rd, Al-Jazeeracites Syrian state media reporting that an armed gang attacked an ambulance near the Al-Omari mosque in Deraa, killing a policeman, a doctor, a paramedic and the ambulance driver, and that Syrian state television showed footage of weapons that were found stock piled in the same mosque. On April 5th, CNN cites Syrian state media as reporting that unidentified men shot and killed two police officers during a routine patrol in the town of Kafar Batna. On April 11th, nine Syrian soldiers traveling by bus near the town of Banyas were killed by unknown gunmen. Syrian opposition members immediately claimed the soldiers had been killed by fellow soldiers for refusing to fire on civilians, however, this was debunked by Syria expert Joshua Landis, whose Syrian wife was able to speak with the brother-in-law of one of the dead soldiers to confirm details of the attack. Journalist Sharwine Narwani reports that on April 25th, nineteen Syrian soldiers were killed by unknown gunmen. Narwani also provides names and links to Youtube video footage of funerals for several Syrian soldiers and police officers killed in April 2011 in Homs, Hama, and Damascus. On April 29th, four Syrian soldiers were killed and 2 others kidnapped in Deraa, according to Syrian state media, as cited by the Saudi newspaper, Al-Riyadh. Al-Jazeera journalist Ali Hashem reported seeing groups of armed men passing into Syria from Lebanon in May. Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbarcites Syrian state media in reporting on June 11th that the provinces of Latakia and Deraa saw funeral processions for dead members of the police and security forces who had been targeted by armed groups, and that sheikh Anis ‘Eirut issued a call for help from the residents of Banyas, who demanded the “quick intervention of the Army to stop the gangs represented by known people to arrest them and sweep their areas.” On June 4th in Jisr al-Shagour, Syrian state media reported that 120 members of Syrian security forces were killed by unknown attackers, however Landis was only able to confirm the deaths of ten soldiers, four of whom were decapitated. On June 7th, the Independent’s Robert Fisk noted that, “For well over a month, I have been watching Syrian television’s nightly news and at least half the broadcasts have included funerals of dead soldiers.” The Christian Science Monitorreported in June that weapons dealers in neighboring Lebanon were having trouble finding weapons to sell, as prices of common items such as AK-47s and rocket propelled grenades had increased significantly in recent months, and that “The demand is huge . . . They’re all going to Syria.” Narwani also mentions the observations of Dutch priest, Frans Van der Lugt, who had lived in Syrian city of Homs since the 1960’s before his killing in 2014, and who noted that “From the start, I saw armed demonstrators marching along in the protests, who began to shoot at the police first.” As noted above, reports from Syrian state media are typically dismissed by Western observers. In the case of soldiers who are killed by armed opposition groups, however, the fact that Syrian state television has so frequently aired footage of the funerals of these dead soldiers provides strong evidence that the Syrian uprising was not, as a whole, peaceful, despite the many peaceful protests opposition activists did in fact organize.
The above mentioned violent attacks aside, Syrian security forces certainly used unjustifiable violence and fired on peaceful protesters in the early days of the uprising. Journalist Nir Rosen wrote how “I have been to about 100 demonstrations in Syria. In many of them I had to run for my life from live gunfire. I was terrified. The demonstrators who go out every day since March know they are risking their lives.” This is, sadly, not surprising as most governments respond to popular protest with violence. Demonstrations during the Arab Spring in Iraq, Egypt, Bahrain, and Yemen have all seen security forces fire on protesters, while US forces fired on protesters in Fallujah in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. However, the armed and violent aspect of segments of the early Syrian opposition should not be ignored, especially when coupled with years of US threats to topple the Syrian regime. Surely these factors colored the response of the Syrian government to the uprising, reinforcing the view that the government was the target of a foreign-inspired terrorist plot reminiscent of the events of 1977-1982 discussed above. Syrian government fears would soon prove justified once US and Gulf backed efforts to support Salafi-Jihadi rebel groups in Syria became clear.
The US Arms Salafi-Jihadist Rebels in Syria
US efforts to arm Syrian rebels via its regional allies date from at least January 2012. The New York Timesreported that American officials described how, “[f]rom offices at secret locations, American intelligence officers have helped the Arab governments shop for weapons, including a large procurement from Croatia, and have vetted rebel commanders and groups to determine who should receive the weapons as they arrive,” and that a “former American official said David H. Petraeus, the C.I.A. director until November, had been instrumental in helping to get this aviation network moving and had prodded various countries to work together on it,” noting also that the arms airlift to Syrian rebels had started in January 2012 and “has grown to include more than 160 military cargo flights by Jordanian, Saudi and Qatari military-style cargo planes.” The NYT cited a former American official who noted that, “People hear the amounts flowing in, and it is huge.”
A Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) memo acknowledged that by August 2012, the Syrian rebel groups were dominated by religious extremists. The DIA memo notes that “The Salafists, the Muslim Brotherhood, and AQI [Al-Qaeda in Iraq] are the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria,” contradicting the Western media narrative suggesting that the opposition was largely secular and “moderate.” Despite this conclusion, US support for the Syrian rebel groups continued, primarily by way of its allies, Saudi Arabia and Qatar..
Open Saudi and US support for rebels advocating Salafi-Jihadism is illustrated by their relationship with Zahran Alloush, the now deceased leader of a Syrian rebel group known as the Islamic Army (Jaish al-Islam), which Saudi Arabia played a crucial role in creating. Alloush’s father is a prominent Wahhabi cleric. Alloush embraced Wahhabism (the fringe version of Islam from which Salafi-Jihadism rises), including the concept of takfir, leading him to refer to Shiites as “rejectionists” (rafidha), and “Zoroastrians” (majus) and thus not Muslims, therefore justifying their killing. He stated that his goal was to “cleanse” Syria of all Shiites and Allawites, and to “destroy their skulls” and make them “taste the worst torture in life before God makes [them] taste the worst torture on judgment day,” employing rhetoric indistinguishable from that of ISIS.
Alloush has also declared his hostility to democracy. The pro-Saudi Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar reports that Alloush is “responsible for the disappearance of Ruzan Zeituna,” who is a well-known human rights lawyer, and that Alloush is “famous for his attacks on advocates of democracy,” and that he “embraces Salafi-Jihadi ideology and calls for an Islamic State, and is opposed to the democratic and republican systems.”
The Telegraphreported in November 2015 that the Army of Islam was using captured Syrian soldiers and kidnapped Alawite civilians as human shields by holding them in cages near public squares in areas under its control.
Syria expert Joshua Landis noted in December 2013 that “Alloush has gone out of his way to keep good relations with Jabhat al-Nusra [the official branch of Al-Qaeda in Syria]” and that Alloush has said, “his relationship with Nusra is one of brotherhood with only superficial ideological differences that can be settled with shari’a and discussions,” leading Landis to argue that “the ideological differences between the Front and al-Qaida are not deep.”
In November 2013, the Army of Islam joined with other major Syrian Jihadist factions to form the Islamic Front (al-Jabha al-Islamiya) and Alloush became its head military commander. In December 2013, the Washington Postquoted a US intelligence official as saying, “We don’t have a problem with the Islamic Front.”
When Alloush was killed in a Russian airstrike in December 2015, the pro-Saudi Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar, surmised that Russia intended to “direct a blow against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia with the assassination of one of its most prominent trusted persons in the Syrian opposition,” further making Saudi sponsorship for Alloush clear.
Qatar has also proven a crucial ally in US efforts to fund Salafi-Jihadi rebels as part of the effort to overthrow the Syrian regime. Foreign Policyreports that in an effort to help Syrian rebels, Qatar “sent planes to move an estimated 3,500 tons of military equipment in 2012 and 2013, reportedly with the CIA’s backing,” and that working with Qatar is easy given that “‘Their inter-agency process has about three people in it,’ said one former U.S. Official.”
Qatar is the main provider of support to Ahrar Al-Sham, a Salafi-Jihadist rebel group that calls for Jihad against Shia Muslims and other minorities in Syria, and that has worked closely with the Nusra Front (Al-Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria). Notably, the two groups cooperated in 2015 a joint offensive that captured the provincial capital of Idlib in the north of Syria, which then prompted Russian intervention.
Ahrar Al-Sham’s founder, Abu Khalid al-Suri, had long standing links to Al-Qaeda, before he was killed in February 2014. According to reporting from the Long War Journal, the leader of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, Ayman al-Zawahiri named al-Suri as his “representative” in Syria. Al-Suri attempted to mediate the dispute between the Nusra Front and the Islamic State at the time the two groups split. Al-Suri was previously a courier for Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan, and Spanish officials allege that he received surveillance tapes of the World Trade Center from the operative who made the videos and delivered them to al Qaeda’s senior leadership in Afghanistan.
In September 2014, much of the leadership of Ahrar al-Sham was killed in a large explosion. As a result, Hashim al Sheikh (also known as Abu Jaber), was elected as the new leader of the group, which role he filled for one year before stepping down. Abu Jaber had previously been a recruiter for al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), helping Jihadists to travel from Syria to Iraq to fight, and then was arrested by the Syrian government and imprisoned from 2005 to 2011. After Ahrar al-Sham was formed, he became the deputy to Abu Khalid Al-Suri (mentioned above) who was then Ahrar’s leader (emir) of the Aleppo area. Another Ahrar al-Sham commander, Abu Hani al-Masri, fought with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, Somalia, and Chechnya, and was the al-Qaeda commander responsible for defending Kandahar airport with the Taliban in 2001.
Despite Ahrar Al-Sham’s ties to Al-Qaeda, the Obama administration did not list Ahrar al-Sham on its list of terrorist organizations, and the group was allowed to publish an Op-ed in the Washington Post in July 2015, while a sympathetic article about the group was published in the New York Times one month later. These articles seemed to be part of a US campaign to paint the group as “moderate” despite its Jihadist ideology, ties to Al-Qaeda, and praise of Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban in Afghanistan, describing him as the embodiment of “the true meanings of Jihad and sincerity” after his death. The NYT tried to justify Ahrar Al-Sham’s praise of Mullah Omar, by citing a cleric close to the group who contends that it “contained only an extremist minority.” A senior figure from Ahrar Al-Sham, Labib Nahhas, was then quietly allowed to visit the United States in May 2016.
In September 2014, when asked to comment about Qatar’s role in supporting Jihadist militant groups in Syria, the State Department made clear that Qatar is “a valuable partner to the United States” and plays “an influential role in the region through a period of great transformation.”
A less formal description of the Qatari and Saudi role in Syria was provided by former CIA field officer Robert Baer: “[T]here are just too many groups. The Saudis and the Qataris are doing everything through intermediaries. People are being handed out money and told to ‘go blow shit up.’”
Remarks made by Vice President Joe Biden and comments by Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey also suggest that US allies sent many of these weapons to extremist rebel groups in Syria (including even ISIS), rather than to so-called “moderate” rebels. Speaking at Harvard University, Biden claimed that “Our biggest problem is our allies” who “poured hundreds of millions dollars, and tens thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against al-Assad, accepted the people who would be in supply for Al Nusra and Al Qaeda and extremist elements of Jihadists coming from other parts of the world.”
In 2014 Senator Lindsey Graham asked US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey during a Senate hearing if any major Arab ally of the US “embraces” the Islamic State (ISIS). Dempsey replied bluntly, “I know major Arab allies that fundthem,” after which Graham suggested this was understandable because these allies “were trying to beat Assad.”
Rather than a rogue entity supporting extremist groups against US wishes as Biden claims, however, Saudi Arabia is a crucial US ally in supporting such groups. The New York Timesreported that “When President Obama secretly authorized the Central Intelligence Agency to begin arming Syria’s embattled rebels in 2013, the spy agency knew it would have a willing partner to help pay for the covert operation. It was the same partner the CIA has relied on for decades for money and discretion in far-off conflicts,” making reference to the conflicts in Afghanistan and Nicaragua in the 1980’s, while the Wall Street Journal reported in August 2013 on the importance of Prince Bandar bin Sultan (former Saudi Ambassador to the US, and by this time the head of Saudi intelligence) in providing “what the CIA couldn’t: planeloads of money and arms” to Syrian rebels.
The Growth of Jihadist Rebel Groups in Syria Serves US Interests
Given that the 9/11 attacks were carried out by al-Qaeda, it seems odd that US planners would endorse Saudi and Qatari support for Islamic militant groups in Syria. Logic dictates that if US planners were really fighting a “War on Terror” as is typically presumed, the US would have taken action against their Gulf allies, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, once it became clear that these countries were supporting Islamic extremist groups. The US took no such action however. This is because Gulf support for such Sunni Jihadist groups was beneficial for accomplishing stated US government goals in Syria.
Speaking in a meeting with members of the Syrian opposition at the Dutch Mission to the United Nations in September 2016, Secretary of State John Kerry explained the growth of ISIS in Syria served US interests, namely to pressure Assad to negotiate his exit from power.. Kerry explains that “the reason Russia came in is because ISIL [ISIS] was getting stronger. Daesh [ISIS] was threatening the possibility of going to Damascus. And that is why Russia came in. They didn’t want a Daesh government and they supported Assad. And we know this was growing. We were watching. We saw that Daesh was growing in strength. And we thought Assad was threatened. We thought we could manage that Assad might then negotiate. Instead of negotiating, he got Putin to support him [emphasis mine].”
Given the evidence cited above, it is therefore no surprise that the Syrian government views the conflict currently engulfing Syria as a Western-inspired plot to overthrow it, in a replay of the foreign-inspired campaign of assassination and terrorism faced by the Syrian government from 1977-1982. Sometimes plots and conspiracies are real, then as now.
US efforts to overthrow the Assad government and militarize (through support for Islamic extremists) any opposition to Assad all but guaranteed that any legitimate, peaceful movement for democracy would fail, that much of Syria would be destroyed, and that tens of thousands would die, and millions be displaced, whether outside the country, or internally. Such results were entirely predictable, given the results of US intervention in Iraq since 2003 and Libya in 2011.
This is illustrated by comments made by US Special Envoy to Syria Michael Ratner, who explained that, “when you pump more weapons into a situation like Syria, it doesn’t end well for Syrians, because there is always someone else who is going to pump more weapons in for the other side. The armed groups in Syria get a lot of support, not just from the United States but from other partners. . . . But pumping weapons in causes someone else to pump weapons in and you end up with Aleppo.”
Failure to acknowledge the reality of the US plot to overthrow Assad, and to insist instead that the conflict in Syria is merely between a brutal dictator on the one hand, and peaceful, democratic activists and “moderate” rebels struggling for their freedom on the other, merely reinforces the false narrative of the conflict promoted by the Western powers. Such a narrative serves the geopolitical interests of the US and its regional allies, rather than the interests of the Syrian civilians the West purports to care for.
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Scott talks to Dave DeCamp about the OPCW's efforts to discredit a pair of whistleblowers, both of whom are former employees who claim their findings were expunged from the organization's official reports on the alleged chemical weapons attack in Douma in 2018. The...
Scott interviews Matthew Hoh about Joe Biden's history pushing for the war in Iraq and his subsequent attempt to whitewash this record. When Hillary Clinton faced Barack Obama in the 2008 primary, Hillary's record in support of the war was a major factor in Obama's...
43 Minutes PG-13 Pete invited the founder and lead host of the terrestrial radio show Free Talk Live to come on the show. FTL is broadcast on over 200 radio stations 365 days a year delivering messages of voluntaryism, anarchy, cryptocurrency, peace and whatever the...
46 Minutes PG-13 Pete invited Monica Perez to return to the show to go over what we know about the coronavirus and to theorize as to what the lasting implications of a global pandemic scare may be. Monica is the host of The Monica Perez Show on WSB radio in Atlanta...
64 Minutes Some Strong Language Pete invited Thaddeus Russell to return to the show. Thaddeus is the author of "A Renegade History of the United States" and is the founder of Renegade University Thaddeus addresses a host of topics including what he calls the "higher...
66 Minutes Suitable for All Ages Pete invited Stephan Kinsella to return to the show. Stephan is an American intellectual property/patent attorney, author, and anarcho-capitalist. Pete asked Stephan to come on and share his opinion that China is in fact, NOT "stealing...
On FPF #457, I discuss the deep state is rolling out Russiagate for the 2020 election. Now Trump and Bernie have been accused of receiving Russian support in this election cycle. Just like in the first Russiagate, no one has presented evidence of the alleged Russian...
On FPF #456, Will Porter returns to the show to discuss the evolving justification for Trump's assassination of Soleimani. Will explains how the Trump admin has now given several reasons that they needed to and had the power to kill Soleimani. Will and Kyle look at...
On FPF #455, I discuss the Senate voting on a War Powers bill to constrain Trump's ability to start a war with Iran. Trump has continued on the presidential tradition of killing whoever he wants, and he is unbound by the Constitution. The House will also need to pass...
On FPF #454, I discuss recent progress made in negotiations with the Taliban. The US and Taliban will soon implement a reduction in violence pact. If successful, the pact could be the first step in a peace deal between the US and the Taliban. However, there are a lot...
CEO of Factom, Paul Snow, gives me the 101 on Factom. We also discuss blockchain use cases (especially having autonomy over your digital ID and data), tokenization, and the overall importance of bitcoin and crypto. This is how we become sovereign individuals. Factom...
@krakenfx 's "COSO" (Chief Open-Source Officer 😉) @pierre_rochard indoctrinates me on FOSS, Austrian Econ, Volcker, The Fed, & Lightning ⚡️We also debunk #bitcoin FUD & EMH. Thanks for coming on, dude! Listen on all Podcatchers!...
Parker Lewis of Unchained Capital gives the 101 on fractional reserve banking, quantitive easing, the problems of the current financial system, what money is, and why we need bitcoin. Check out the Unchained Capital Blog
Freedom Zealot Podcast March 11, 2017: If he can withstand one final assault from the evil people who have stolen 20 years from his life, Christopher Tapp -- wrongfully convicted of murder in 1998 -- can walk out of prison a free man on April 25....
Freedom Zealot Podcast February 11, 2017: What good is "extreme vetting" when the Regime selects refugees who can be radicalized by the FBI? Why should we entrust our safety to the Regime's demographic central planning apparatus?...
Freedom Zealot Podcast February 4, 2017: There are two varieties of Trump Derangement Syndrome on display -- both of them inspired by the idea that he is an anomaly. One leads to riots over Trump's exercise of the deadly powers of his office; the other celebrates it....