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Assad and ISIS – the ‘marriage of convenience’ is over

By the end of the 15-year Lebanese Civil War, nearly every party had allied with and subsequently betrayed every other party at least once. The age-old pattern is the same: groups like ISIS began in Syria by ingratiating themselves with the local population, as they are doing in Mosul now, offering free fuel, electricity supplies and appearing to restore security to the streets. Next they will provide food and medical services. At first, in such charm offensives, they seem to be a godsend, then in stages, the reality reveals itself and their hard-line Islamist agenda comes to the fore, with compulsory Quranic schools, summary public executions and enforced veiling of women. But just as this was not the real Syria, neither is this the real Iraq. Women will pull their headscarves out of their handbags to put them on at black-bannered checkpoints, then stuff them away again.

In the early months of the Syrian Revolution extremist rebel groups like Jabhat al-Nusra accounted for no more than 3-4 per cent of the rebels overall, maybe reaching 10 per cent around Aleppo. While most fighters in Al-Nusra are from Syria, the extremist group ISIS which appeared over a year later than Al-Nusra in April 2013 is both foreign-led (by an Iraqi) and foreign-dominated. Its fighters come mainly from Saudi Arabia, Libya and Tunisia, though there are also Chechens, Kuwaitis, Jordanians and Iraqis as well as a few Pakistani Taliban and even Chinese. Dressed in their Pakistani-style tunics and menacing black balaclavas, brandishing their weapons, they form a stark contrast to the conservative but moderate Sunni Muslims who make up 74 per cent of Syria’s resident population. Typical communiqués use language like: ‘Our army is full of hungry lions who drink blood and eat bones.’ It is hard to imagine their ideology ever taking root in Syria, despite their ceaseless propaganda videos on YouTube and their thousands of tweets – all the rebel groups have their own highly active Twitter accounts.

Many Syrians told me long before the revolution that the Syrian brand of Islam is close to the tolerant Sufi Islam of Ibn Arabi and Al-Ghazali – open to all and with no coercion. Yet groups like ISIS are so intolerant they even started to ban tobacco as un-Islamic in areas they controlled in Syria’s north, not just alcohol and what they called ‘immoral entertainment’.  The kind of Syria they are trying to usher in would end up destroying the country’s very identity, its tolerant character. Moderate Syrians have begun social media campaigns against them with slogans like: ‘DAESH [Arabic for ‘ISIS’] GO OUT. Bashar and DAESH are one. We didn’t have a revolution against a tyrant for another tyrant to come and control us in the name of religion!  Those who belong to Syria, Syria is for all of you. Those who belong to Al-Qaeda, go to Afghanistan!’ Dozens of Arabic language Facebook pages have been set up rejecting ISIS, its Islamic credentials and its brutal tactics.

The rebel group ISIS now controls the oil fields in Syria’s north eastern provinces. They have broken the pipelines, creating environmental disasters, then welded on crude taps from which they fill queues of tankers. The valuable cargo is then trundled mainly into Turkey and sometimes even into regime-held areas of Syria, where prices rocket. It is a money-making exercise, free of overheads, that has turned the bearded chiefs into millionaires. Thousands of amateur refineries have sprung up, converting the crude oil to petrol, diesel and mazout heating oil, sold in smaller canisters to anyone who has the money. None of them will give that up without a fight. As the ISIS accounts captured in recent days have revealed, the rebels have accumulated huge funds from this oil and from looted Syrian antiquities, enabling them to pay good salaries to new recruits and to acquire proper weaponry for them. From their Syrian headquarters in Al-Raqqa on the Euphrates, they have in recent days swept east into Iraq and taken the second city of Mosul along with vast tracts of adjoining territory, capturing along the way much heavy weaponry from the American-supplied Iraqi army.

So now the equation has changed. Assad and ISIS should be mortal enemies ideologically, yet they have never fought each other. ISIS militants have slept sound in their beds without fear of regime air strikes and barrel bombs. Whereas the Assad regime was before quite happy to turn a blind eye to ISIS and its atrocities in the north and in Al-Raqqa, content that its energies were being directed towards fighting the more moderate rebels, now ISIS has become a real threat.

Therefore it should come as little surprise that as The Times today reported, Syrian government forces for the first time bombed ISIS bases in eastern Syria and Al-Raqqa ‘acting in co-ordination with the Iraqi government’. The Assad regime has re-done its calculations, and is now banking on the expectation that its air-strikes against ISIS will also earn it grudging gratitude from the West. Bashar al-Assad must even be thinking this is his chance to become rehabilitated in the eyes of the international community, and undergo a transformation from ‘murderous dictator’ to ‘saviour from Islamist barbarians’.

The UN Chemical Weapons deal last autumn only happened because there was a rare consensus in the international community and no blame was attributable. Maybe such a consensus can be found again, this time to rid both Syria and Iraq of the growing extremist groups like ISIS. Maybe moderate elements from the rebels too can find a common cause and unite against this greater Al-Qaeda-affiliated menace whose terrorist jihadi agenda threatens not just Syria and Iraq’s future but the future of the entire international community. Maybe it will be Syria’s second revolution, a revolution in which even the ‘silent majority’ may find its voice.

In the meantime we can expect more Syrian air strikes against ISIS bases – their ‘marriage of convenience’ is over.

[This post includes extracts from the book My House in Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution ]

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This post includes extracts from the book.

This post includes extracts from the book.

#Syria – Who is driving the car?

Unbelievably antiquated, an ISIS model maybe? [DD]

Unbelievably antiquated, an ISIS model maybe? [DD]

The crisis in Ukraine has taken the spotlight away from Syria of late,  unfortunate timing, since  huge developments are going largely unnoticed inside Syria. These developments are all being driven by a race to achieve a tangible outcome before 10 June, the date currently set for the Syrian presidential elections, when Bashar Al-Assad could become ‘president for life.’ But who is racing and who is driving the car?

The first racer of course, and the one with most to lose, is the Syrian regime. In recent months it has probably become the favourite to win, now that it has developed such a clever race strategy, making high profile propaganda stunts like yesterday’s release of 13 Greek Orthodox nuns and their three maids in exchange for many more female prisoners and even a few children detained inside regime prisons. Between now and June it is doing whatever it can to project itself as Syria’s only saviour, guardian of the minorities, defender against ‘terrorism’. It is on a course to what it calls ‘reconcilation’ (musaalaha). The car windows are blacked out, so no one on the outside knows who is driving or how many are in the car. Transparency has never been a virtue in Ba’athist eyes.

Shady saloon on Straight Street, Damascus [DD]

Shady saloon on Straight Street, Damascus [DD]

The second racer, extremely determined to knock all other racers right off the track, is the grouping of Al-Qa’ida-affiliated opposition groups. Their ruthless driving technique has served them surprisingly well so far, enabling them to capture whole swaths of northern and eastern Syria, including some oil wells, very handy for pit stops. Their image is in serious need of a boost in the international media, and maybe the release of the nuns will give them that, now that the ladies have said how ‘sweet’ the Jabhat al-Nusra rebels were to them. The particularly rabid extremist group ISIS (Arabic Daesh) looks like it might have been thrown out of the car.

The third racer, something of an outsider for the last year or two and often dismissed as a hopeless case, is the group of moderate,  secular opposition groups loosely known as the Free Syria Army (FSA). But might it come from behind with a sudden surge? Many reports are now appearing, since the driver was changed from General Salim Idriss based in the north, to Colonel Abd al-Ilah al-Bashir based in the south, which suggest that a late bid will soon be made, supported by western intelligence and Saudi backers, to overtake the favourite in the capital. Its car will need to be ultra-serviced and revved-up to achieve that.

Damascus taxi - the FSA maybe? [DD]

Damascus taxi – the moderate FSA maybe? [DD]

Most certainly not driving the car, probably not even in the race any more, is the Geneva ‘peace process’, widely seen as a complete waste of time and money, nothing but a brief media circus. Respected mediator Lakhdar Brahimi, the poor man who never even had a car of his own, is said to be on the verge of resigning his ‘mission impossible’. The Ukrainian crisis has now resulted in a rift in Russian/American relations, so cooperation in the Syrian political arena, recently looking so rosy, is now indefinitely on hold.

Going backwards, like Geneva II [DD]

Going backwards, like Geneva II [DD]

So who is driving the car of Syria? Does anyone even know? What we do know is that the Syrian car is on an unknown course, with unknown drivers, while others, often with the best of motives, try desperately to push it one way or another, convinced they know a better route. Whether or not any of them will succeed before the car loses its way, gets derailed or just straightforwardly crashes is anyone’s guess. Perhaps the best outcome is that it just runs out of petrol and everyone has to get out and push.






Chemical immunity in Damascus

Carefree child playing the courtyard of the Umayyad Mosque, June 2010 [DD]

Carefree child playing the courtyard of the Umayyad Mosque, June 2010 [DD]

The priceless mosaics with scenes of Paradise, Damascus Umayyad Mosque, June 2010 [DD]
The priceless mosaics with scenes of Paradise, Damascus Umayyad Mosque, June 2010 [DD]


The peaceful mood of the photos above has long since gone in Damascus. For months now the friends living in my house in the Old City have been saying they noticed strange symptoms among themselves of coughing, eye-watering and extreme fatigue. They wondered about chemical weapons but knew no one would believe them if they mentioned anything, so as usual, they kept silent and hoped it would pass.

Now that a huge chemical attack has taken place nearby in the eastern Ghouta, where my caretaker lives, they also know there is no way the regime will permit the UN inspection team to go anywhere near it to investigate. The team will be virtual prisoners in their hotel, unable to go anywhere unless escorted by government minders and then only to places which the regime is content for them to see – in the full knowledge there will be nothing conclusive to find.

To imagine that the UN inspection team will be free to go to where it pleases, is not to understand the regime at all, not to understand its games. Of course the team will be told it is too dangerous to go there, that it cannot go for its own safety, that they, the regime, are responsible for its safety, so are just doing their duty. The excuses will be fulsome and convincingly explained.

The truth is that the UN inspection team, sitting in its hotel in Damascus little over half an hour’s drive away from the site of the chemical weapons attack, is impotent, as is the international community. Once again the Assad regime will run rings round them, laughing privately at how easy it is to retain power when you have a vast security apparatus, held in place by the like of Hizbullah and Iran. They have chemical immunity.

Only Israel may decide the time has come to take action.

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