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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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

Partner with the Syrian Rebels

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By Oula Abdulhamid Alrifai

In his speech on Wednesday, President Obama announced that the United States will increase training and arming for the moderate Syria rebels. Given the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), that is the correct move: Syria’s moderate rebels are as important as ever. Much like the Kurdish peshmerga in nearby Iraq, they could serve as a strategic partner for the Obama administration and its budding international coalition in Syria. In fact, since any serious attempt to counter the self-styled Islamic State will require sustained military action inside Syria. The moderate and militarily effective Syrian rebel groups, such as Harakat Hazm or the Syrian Martyrs’ Brigade, are uniquely positioned to be of assistance. And, importantly, they are eager to do so.

Since the start of the Syrian revolution, the opposition has sought a strategic partnership with the United States. But after years of broken promises, many are dubious of the Obama administration. They do not want to be used in the fight against ISIS, then left to fend for themselves against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and the country’s other jihadist groups. Nor do they want to be latter-day sahwa fighters, the Sunni tribesmen in Iraq who aligned with the United States to oust al-Qaeda but were then left to confront the sectarian machinations of Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s prime minister at the time, on their own.

Therefore, in order to overcome this crisis of trust between the Syrian opposition and the United States, the Obama administration must view the rebels as allies in the battle to bring stability back to the Middle East — which is in the interest of the United States and other Western powers. The Obama administration could, for example, ensure that the rebels can protect their areas from aerial bombardment by the Assad regime, or perhaps provide them with advanced weaponry to push back against pro-Assad militias from Aleppo to Damascus and southern Syria. Absent such measures, Syria’s moderate rebels will continue to fare poorly on the battlefield. More concerning, however, is that defections from the Free Syrian Army to groups like ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate will continue unabated and may even increase.

However, if the Obama administration does in fact enlist the rebels in its newest effort to destroy ISIS, then this could swing the momentum on the battlefield in their favor. Once they start taking real control of areas — at present, the rebels hold comparatively less territory than the Assad regime and ISIS — then the Syrian Opposition Coalition can begin to carry out its political duties by working with local councils, helping provide social services, and eventually organizing local elections to bring some semblance of stability to rebel-controlled areas. Admittedly, that is quite a ways off, but the first step in stabilizing Syria is remembering that what is left of the moderate opposition is not a burden to America, but rather an important ally.

Oula Abdulhamid Alrifai is a research assistant in the Program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute. A political refugee from Syria, Oula is involved in the Syrian protest movement.

Source:

Fikra Forum The Washington Institute for Near East Policy 

Dutch priest dubbed ‘Syrian of Syrians’ is assassinated at his monastery in Homs

Oula Abdulhamid and Father Frans van der Laugt. The last time Oula saw him. Syria/2004

Oula Abdulhamid and Father Frans van der Laugt. The last time Oula saw him. Syria/2004

“He was always pushing us to move forward past our difference and to dream and coexist as Syrians,” said Oula Abdulhamid, 27, the daughter of a prominent Syrian dissident, who had known the priest since childhood and described him as a “grandfather” to her. “Because of him, I learned so much about my country.”

“He said he would be the last person to leave and would suffer the same fate as his people,” said Abdulhamid, who is now based in the United States. “And people are dying there, and now he’s dead too, murdered.”

Full Article: By Loveday Morris

 A Dutch priest who had steadfastly refused to leave the besieged Syrian city of Homs was assassinated by masked gunmen Monday, a killing that robbed Syria of one of its most high-profile interfaith figures.

The Rev. Frans van der Lugt, 75, a Jesuit who had lived in Syria for almost 50 years, was shot in the head in the garden of his monastery in a rebel-held area, according to colleagues and Syrian opposition fighters.

It was unclear who carried out the killing, as rebels and the government blamed each other. But residents said tensions have been high over a possible cease-fire agreement that would evacuate more civilians from rebel-held areas of the city, similar to agreements brokered in the Damascus suburbs in recent months. Extremist rebel groups had objected to further evacuations, said Khaled Erksoussi, head of operations at the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.

The priest was “a Syrian among Syrians” who refused to abandon his adopted people even when it meant risking his own life, Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans said. In a statement, the Vatican called van der Lugt a “man of peace” who wanted to remain faithful to the people to whom he had dedicated his spiritual service.

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