THE ISLAMIC STATE IN SOUTHERN SYRIA

1511-CTC-sentinel-cover-240x310Author(s): Aaron Y. Zelin and Oula A. Alrifai

Abstract: Much attention has been given to the Islamic State’s military and governance activities in northern and eastern Syria, but there has been less focus on its slow and steady growth in the southern theater. Since July 2013, it has been building a presence in a number of locales around Damascus, with the eventual goal of taking the city. While such aspirations are still far beyond the group’s military capabilities, it has actively rolled out soft-power strategies. Focusing on the Islamic State’s activities in the north and east of Syria could prevent a complete understanding of what it is attempting to accomplish.

The headlines from the Syrian war have focused for the most part on the north and east of the country. The media has tended to concentrate its attention on, for example, efforts by Kurds to push back against the Islamic State or Russia’s air campaign. There are good reasons for this. First, it is difficult for Western reporters to cover the fighting in other areas of the country. In addition, the north and east are where many of factions fighting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, whether revolutionary, Islamist, or jihadi, have been strongest. It is also where territory was first taken from the regime and where jihadi groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra control parts of Idlib governorate and the Islamic State has set up its self-styled Wilayat al-Raqqah and Wilayat al-Khayr (Dayr al-Zur).

Despite this current focus on the north and east, the southern theater could be more important to the outcome of the Syrian civil war. The regime is based in Damascus, the capital of Syria. Damascus is one of several seats of the former caliphate, and occupying it would provide immense legitimacy. While Damascus is unlikely to fall in the near term, the continued buildup of the Islamic State’s assets and presence in the surrounding area could provide a longer-term threat not only to the regime and the rebels fighting it, but also for Jordan and perhaps Israel.

To better understand the history, evolution, capabilities, and future trajectories of the Islamic State in southern Syria, this article will examine the group’s activities in the area starting with its first attempt at building up its network in 2013. We will argue that the ultimate goal is to control Damascus.

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Al-Zarqawi’s Facilitation Network
The roots of the Islamic State’s ability to penetrate southern Syria were in the creation of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s Damascus network. Much as Pakistan served as a staging ground for the anti-Soviet jihad in the 1980s, Syria played this role last decade in relation to the conflict in Iraq. U.S. officials stated that 90 percent of the foreign fighters traveling to Iraq went through Syria.[1] Many of these individuals were put up in safe houses led by al-Zarqawi’s man in Syria, the Iraqi Badran Turki Hishan al-Mazidi (better known as Abu Ghadiya).[2] These networks were also integrated with the Bashar al-Assad regime through bribes and the smuggling networks that lined the pockets of local officials—and the relationship even extended to some training.[3] It was also a way for the regime to get intelligence about these networks while also providing some opportunity to shape them to the regime’s liking. But, as in the case of Pakistan several decades earlier, these attempts backfired, spurring a long list of attacks and bombings.[4]

The network in Damascus also relied on locals, with the town of al-Hajr al-Aswad and its adjacent al-Yarmuk Refugee Camp just a few kilometers south of the city providing a backdrop for the local growth in Salafi ideas in the late 1990s. One of al-Zarqawi’s key operatives there was Shaker al-Absi, who had been based there since 1996. He had been involved with the network that planned and executed the attack on American USAID worker Laurence Foley in Amman, Jordan in 2002 and he would eventually become the leader of Fatah al-Islam in Lebanon in 2006 and 2007.[5] To illustrate the importance of this base, it was reported that allegedly up to 1,000 Palestinians in al-Yarmuk Refugee Camp signed up to fight in Iraq in 2003.[6] A lot of the facilitation and logistics for this took place in mosques in the Damascus area, with imams, such as Mohammed Majid (better known as Mullah Fuad), exhorting fighters awaiting approval to continue their journey to Iraq.[7]

When the Islamic State of Iraq (its name at the time) dispatched operatives to create Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria in July 2011, it relied on these same networks and connections to build up a presence in the Damascus area.[8] Even Jabhat al-Nusra’s first two attacks were in that region.[9] Some of these individuals would then defect to the Islamic State after the split with Jabhat al-Nusra in April 2013, allowing the group to start operating in southern Syria. Until the infighting between the Islamic State, more secular revolutionaries, and Islamist rebels in January 2014, the Islamic State was at a minimum accepted by groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyyah (HASI). This allowed Islamic State fighters to operate unimpeded, which it would take advantage of.

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Hezbollah’s Victory in Qalamoun: Winning the Battle, Losing the War

David Schenker and Oula Abdulhamid Alrifai

May 20, 2015. Also available in العربية

The group will no doubt continueimgres helping the Assad regime hang on, but the war’s heavy attrition, Syria’s demographic realities, and rebel gains elsewhere in the country all point to a seemingly inevitable fall.

This weekend, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah gave a speech about the Lebanese Shiite militia’s impending victory in the Syrian border district of Qalamoun. The two-week campaign has seen Hezbollah forces aligned with Bashar al-Assad’s regime roll back a coalition of Sunni Islamists from key positions in the strategic region. Yet while Nasrallah waxed triumphant during his speech, the victory is pyrrhic and likely temporary — Hezbollah and Assad may have won the battle, but they are losing the war for Syria.

Qalamoun’s Importance

In recent years, rebel forces have been using Qalamoun as a base for operations around Damascus, and the region also serves as a critical line of communication with their Sunni backers in eastern Lebanon. At the same time, Assad regime forces backed by Hezbollah and Iranian militias depend on the north-south highway that runs through Qalamoun and connects Damascus with other provinces, including Homs. Equally important, the region links Damascus to the regime’s core supporters, the nominally Shiite Alawites who reside on the coast (for more on these Alawite enclaves, see Policy Focus 132, The Potential for an Assad Statelet in Syria).

Last summer, forces from the “Islamic State”/ISIS and al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) occupied the Lebanese border town of Arsal, in the process snatching dozens of soldiers and security officers. Arsal is also home to an estimated 40,000 Syrian Sunni refugees. In late August, ISIS beheaded two of its captives, one Sunni and one Shiite, and has since killed two others while continuing to hold some twenty-five hostages. Two months later, JN forces overran a Hezbollah outpost in Brital — about thirty miles southwest of Arsal, in Lebanon’s Beqa Valley adjacent to Qalamoun — killing eight Shiite militiamen and wounding twenty others.

While Arsal remained on ongoing but perhaps tolerable irritant for Hezbollah, overall rebel activity in the area increased the urgency of an effective Shiite response along the border. Prior to the Hezbollah-led offensive in Qalamoun, an estimated 3,000-5,000 ISIS, JN, and affiliated fighters were deployed along the frontier. In March, rebel forces launched a series of attacks against Shiite militia positions in the area, later followed by significant advances further north in Idlib and Hama — gains made possible by a new degree of cooperation among Sunni militias under the banner of Jaish al-Fatah (the Army of Conquest). Rebel advances in the southern regions of Quneitra and Deraa only added to Hezbollah’s concerns.

The Battle for Qalamoun

Since November 2013, the Syrian army has been actively targeting major towns in Qalamoun with airstrikes while fighting rebels on the ground alongside Hezbollah forces. The current Hezbollah-led offensive — joined on May 5 in al-Nabak and Yabroud districts in the Qalamoun Mountains — is a more intensive effort to clear and hold territory. Reports in the Arab press have mentioned battles for strategic hilltops in the area, but there is little reliable coverage of individual clashes. Not surprisingly, Hezbollah’s al-Manar satellite television network has been consistently reporting high rebel casualties and tactical setbacks. At the same time, the group has provided press junkets in Qalamoun for Lebanon-based Western journalists. On May 16, the New York Times featured a story about one of these press tours, complete with a description of a staged Hezbollah patrol.

Propaganda aside, rebel forces in Qalamoun do appear to be losing ground. According to Nasrallah, Hezbollah and the Assad regime have regained control of 300 square kilometers in the region, and reports that the group is now closing on the Syrian town of Flita would seemingly confirm this claim.

Less clear, however, are the costs for Hezbollah. Nasrallah admitted that thirteen of his fighters had been killed in the previous two weeks, but this low figure strains credulity given the high number of purported fatalities on the rebel side. Indeed, earlier today, the Lebanese daily an-Nahar published a list of twenty-three Hezbollah militiamen known to have been killed in the battle. More broadly, Lebanese skeptics have begun to suspect that the group is keeping the bodies of some of its dead fighters on ice, rationing funerals as the war drags on in order to propitiate Shiite public opinion.

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Growing Rebel Capabilities Press the Syrian Regime

Jeffrey White and Oula Abdulhamid Alrifai

April 27, 2015. Also available in العربية 

imagesGiven the major setbacks the regime has suffered over the past week, now is a good time to apply maximum pressure on Assad, whether to force genuine diplomatic negotiations or accelerate a full military defeat.

On April 22, a coalition of Syrian rebel forces launched a major operation, “The Battle of Victory,” to drive Assad regime forces from the northern Idlib province. Conducted with jihadist elements in a leading but not exclusive role, the campaign follows the successful capture of the provincial capital at the end of March. The current operation is larger and broader in geographic scope; it has produced some of the most serious fighting of the war and could mark a turning point.

If the rebels can consolidate and exploit their latest gains, the regime will have suffered another major defeat in a string of setbacks since February — a sequence of events that suggests failing capacity among government and allied forces. The rebels would then be poised for further offensive operations in the north, and the boost in morale would likely energize them on other fronts. Moreover, much of the credit for their success would accrue to Islamist factions, including those linked to al-Qaeda, further strengthening their military and political position in the north and likely boosting it elsewhere in Syria as well.

The regime may yet be able to stabilize the situation, however. If so, it would signal that it is still in the fight and capable of vigorous military action.

The Idlib Campaign

The current offensive encompasses the area between Jisr al-Shughour and Ariha in southern Idlib province, and the northern al-Ghab plain of Hama province. These areas make up a dogleg salient of regime-held territory extending from Latakia province to just south of Idlib city. Rebel strategy appears to center on exploiting the regime’s highly vulnerable position there in order to break its hold on the province and create conditions for follow-on operations elsewhere in the north.

Planning for the campaign may have begun as early as December, and rebel forces initiated serious operations against the salient in late March with the storming of Idlib city (see PolicyWatch 2396, “The Battle for Idlib: Military Implications”). This set the conditions for broader, ongoing operations in the salient and northern Hama.

Round two of the campaign has been a more complex event — a major operation with multiple objectives requiring multiple coordinated actions. As in the battle for Idlib city, a number of different rebel groups are involved, including Jaish al-Fatah (Army of Conquest), the umbrella group that comprises al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, Jund al-Aqsa, Jaish al-Sunna, Sham Legion, Liwa al-Haqq, and Ajnad al-Sham. They are acting in cooperation with six other rebel groups: Jaish al-Islam, al-Sham Front, Suqur al-Sham, al-Ghab Plain Faction, Jabhat al-Sumood, and the First Coastal Unit, which launched operations on the al-Ghab plain. Three other al-Qaeda-affiliated foreign elements are fighting alongside them as well: Katibat Turkistani (a.k.a. the Turkistan Islamic Party or TIP), Jund al-Sham, and Jabhat Ansar al-Din (an umbrella group for smaller factions, including the Chechen-led Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar and the Moroccan-led Harakat Sham al-Islam).

The rebels have once again been able to achieve a significant concentration of forces and heavy weapons. Ten to thirteen thousand fighters have reportedly taken part — a plausible figure given that sixteen different groups are involved. They appear very well armed with plentiful ammunition. Heavy weapons employed include T-55, T-62, and T-72 tanks, BMP infantry fighting vehicles, rocket launchers, mortars, and vehicle-mounted heavy antiaircraft machine guns (12.7, 14.5, and 23 mm). Several types of antitank weapons have been heavily used, including RPG-7s, RPG-22s, M79s, and TOW missiles. Rebel videos show numerous accurate TOW attacks on regime armored vehicles and positions.

Rebel tactics in the current campaign are similar to those employed in the battle for Idlib city. Fighters have isolated and assaulted regime strongpoints in the countryside, cutting lines of communication within the salient. Urban areas have been bombarded, infiltrated, and taken in close combat; locations posing strong resistance have been attacked by suicide-vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (SVBIEDs).

Government-aligned sources provide some picture of the regime’s order of battle. At the beginning of the offensive, its forces again comprised a mix of regulars from the 11th Division’s 87th Brigade (already battered in the Idlib city battle), personnel from the National Defense Force, elements of the “Tiger Force” (one of the regime’s most effective combat units), and possibly elements of the 54th Special Forces Regiment. . Reinforcements sent to the battle area reportedly include elements of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party militia and the 106th Republican Guard Brigade, the 40th Tank Brigade, and Hezbollah forces.

Initially, the regime tried to maintain its hold on urban areas and the strongpoints spread throughout the salient. Some local counterattacks were conducted, at times successfully, but units at many positions appear to have fought alone until overrun; in certain cases, regime forces abandoned their positions rather than face destruction. The regime again attempted to use its air force to disrupt rebel operations but largely failed; poor weather early on probably played a role in this failure. The regime is now using airpower to heavily strike military and civilian areas seized by the rebels.

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The Lawfare Podcast, Episode #118: Oula Abdulhamid Alrifai on One Syrian’s Story and One Country’s Tragedy

favicon-largeBy Benjamin Wittes

Saturday, April 11, 2015, 1:55 PM

When Oula Abdulhamid Alrifai was just shy of 19 years old, she fled her hometown of Damascus, Syria with her family; her parents were facing death threats from the Bashar Assad regime. She came to Washington in 2005, and since then, as she has gone to college and started a career in Washington Mideast policy work, she has also watched in horror as her native land has self-destructed. What began as a people’s revolution has turned, as she puts it, “very dark,” as the murderous regime which chased her from her home faces off against murderous jihadists from Al Qaeda and ISIS—with average Syrians caught in the middle. Oula, who now works at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, sat down with me last week to talk about her own story—and her country’s—in a moving interview about what it’s like to leave a place just in time to see it engulfed in flames and savagery. We talked about the literally millions of refugees who have not found asylum in America, and about the international community’s failure to protect Syrians from the predations of both their own government and the opportunistic foreign jihadists who showed up as things got bad.

This was a very personal interview for me. Oula’s step-father had been a visiting fellow at Brookings some time before he had to flee Syria, and as a result, had a close relationship with my wife. When the family left Syria, they thus initially came to our house, where they stayed for a few weeks until they settled in an apartment of their own. The events Oula describes in this interview are fresh in my memory, though I had never previously heard her take on them. As Oula is the first to say, she is one of the luckiest of the Syrians displaced by the madness that has destroyed that country. She is here. She is not in a refugee camp. She has gotten an education. There are literally millions of displaced Syrians whose stories are even more harrowing than the one she tells here.

Listen here:

https://www.lawfareblog.com/lawfare-podcast-episode-118-oula-abdulhamid-alrifai-one-syrians-story-and-one-countrys-tragedy

Assad Plays America the Fool… Again. Assad’s Regime is Just as Bad as ISIS.

 By Aaron Y. Zelin, Oula Abdulhamid Alrifai
Bashar_and_Asma_al-AssadLast decade, Assad’s regime fooled Washington into believing that he would bring about reform. He did not. The lack of institutional and economic reforms led to the uprising and civil war in Syria. It is a shame then that Assad is fooling Washington a second time, now arguing he is the lesser of two evils compared to ISIS, an argument that has influenced Secretary of State John Kerry, who is now calling for negotiations. Assad’s regime is just as bad as ISIS. If Washington falls for Assad’s manipulation and deceptions again, what will be the result? The stakes are greater now than in the last decade and the security situation more tenuous, so why would anyone put trust in a regime that has not only failed its own people, but also blatantly conned Western leaders not once, but twice?
Assad’s “reforms” were nothing more than a thin cover for further corruption. There was never a real intention to improve economic or living conditions. Not only was the international community fooled, but many Syrians bought into the lies. It did not take long for the “ophthalmologist” to be proven short-sighted as protesters took to the streets in Damascus in February 2011 chanting “Syrian people will not be humiliated!” Forty percent of Syria’s population was living under the poverty line and more than twenty-five percent of young men were unemployed. Consequently, many Syrians were immigrating to neighboring countries looking for work and a better life.
According to United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), between 2003-2004, two million Syrians could not obtain basic needs. Fifty-six percent of Syria’s rural population depend on agriculture for survival, and in 2004, more than seventy-seven percent of them were landless. Today, the situation is substantially worse despite Assad’s June 2014 referendum campaign dubbed“Sawa” to “improve” Syria’s economy. In fact, the overall poverty rate has now reached eighty percent.

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Not Alright With Syria’s Alawites

Growing Resentment Splinters Assad’s Power Base

Hamas is going through a rough patch, so what is it singing about?

By Matthew Levitt, contributor, and Oula Abdulhamid Alrifai and Kelsey Segawa

A boy wearing an Al-Qassam Brigades headband is carried by his father during a Hamas rally in Gaza CityHamas is, to put it mildly, going through a rough patch. It acceded to a National Unity Government agreement in which none of its key demands were met; it is in the process of relinquishing control of the Gaza Strip, which it had ruled since 2007, to its Palestinian rival, Fatah; it lost key support from benefactors, first in Tehran and then in Cairo; and it suffered hundreds of casualties, the destruction of dozens of tunnels, and elimination through use or destruction of some two-thirds of its rocket arsenal during the 50-day war with Israel in July and August. Hamas spent three to five years digging these attack tunnels into Israel, at the cost of tens of millions of dollars, and has nothing to show for its effort — ingenious though it was. Even as donors pledge billions of dollars for Gaza reconstruction, a large portion of the money is actually intended for Palestinian Authority (PA) budgetary support and even actual reconstruction funds are to be provided only through the PA, not Hamas.

As it now struggles to regain its footing, Hamas has presented different public faces to various audiences. Khaled Mashal, Hamas’s leader, conveyed a relatively moderate and reasonable message when he granted an interview to Charlie Rose of PBS in August, for example. But the propaganda Hamas prepares for local consumption, in Arabic, is very different indeed.

As The Washington Post recently reported, Hamas’s radio station in Gaza “reports on the sunny side of [the] Islamist movement’s rule.” But that’s not the half of it. Arabic language output from the group tends to be far more violent and uncompromising than the public face Mashal put forward for PBS. Videos known as nasheeds are a popular medium for spreading propaganda. A typical nasheed shows members of Hamas’s Qassam Brigades training and supposedly battling Israelis, as rousing music plays. In the six months leading up to the summer conflict, the lyrics of Hamas’s nasheeds urged violent confrontation against Jews and “sons of Zion,” in defense of Arabs’ land and honor. One such soundtrack urges watchers to “strike the Jews,” while others promise endless battle and refusal to compromise. Messages of blood and violence are reiterated in nearly every video, paired with religious obligations to fight in the name of jihad. “We swear to attack you with the Army of Mohammad, wait for us sons of Zion,” threatens one. “In one hand we carry our Qur’an and in another we carry our rifle,” boasts another.

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