Sunday, December 30, 2012

Who is Responsible for the Failure at Wadi Deif?

The Battle for control of Wadi Deif, a military base just east of Maarat al-Numan, began in mid-October and continues more than two months later. For some rebels, the length of the battle and the accompanying destruction of Maarat al-Numan, represents a failure. A fact finding commission published a report on the battle in early December which placed responsibility for the failures on a number of people, including a sheikh, a businessman, and a rebel leader.

Sheikh Ahmad Alwan
in Dubai in Winter 2011
The sheikh is Ahmad Alwan, a religious leader who spent the most of 2012 in the United Arab Emirates. He appeared to Maarat al-Numan in the fall and began agitating for an attack on Wadi Deif. According to the report, while some battalion leaders wanted to conduct a study on the relative capabilities of the rebel and regime forces in the area, Sheikh Alwan insisted that the rebels “have the ability to burn Wadi Deif in five hours.” Alwan was also accused of forming the Ibad al-Rahman Brigade during the course of the battle from battalions that were already associated with other brigades, creating new divisions within rebel ranks. 

Marwan Nahas, described as a businessman, is criticized in the report for not supporting the Military Council, instead focusing on creating a political party as the city was bombed. The report claims that he only appeared on the front lines for photo opportunities. Marwan Nahas and Ahmed Alwan were also accused by some residents of Maarat al-Numan of kidnapping and torture. 

Abdul Baset Maamar, a Muslim Brotherhood intermediary, was also accused of precipitating the ill-advised operation. He arrived in Maarat al-Numan in September with money from the Brotherhood, which the report alleges he used to coerce the rebels into attacking Wadi Deif, proclaiming that he would only give funds to groups that participated in the operation. 

Idlib Military Council leader Afif Suleiman was also criticized for not including the Shuhada Suriya and Ahfad al-Rasul Brigades in the battle plans in an alleged effort to control the distribution of captured material. This echoes accusations made earlier by Shuhada Suriya’s leader Jamal Maaruf. 

The struggles at Wadi Deif boil down to continuing division among rebel ranks. Although the rebels are able to launch and maintain large joint operations, their campaigns lack coherence due to competition for loot, uneven funding and, according to this report, firebrand clerics who lack an understanding of battle field realities.

    1) Maarat al-Numan
    2) Wadi Deif Military Base

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Battle for Idlib City Approaches

Syrian rebels have secured towns across Idlib province, but the provincial capital, Idlib city remains in regime hands. Although Idlib's rebels often speak of liberating the city, it appears that the battle for the city may finally be approaching. In the northwest corner of the province, a number of rebel groups led by the Shuhada Idlib Brigade have finally captured the Harem citadel, after getting bogged down in the city for two months as regime fighters stubbornly held on. Subsequently, the Shuhada Idlib Brigade released a statement announcing that the brigade would withdraw from Harem within three days and redeploy to the outskirts of Idlib city in order to focus on attacking regime checkpoints in coordination with other brigades in the area. Meanwhile, the Yusuf al-Athimah Brigade posted a statement on December 24, announcing attacks on checkpoints on the outskirts on Idlib city in preparation for the city's liberation.

Part of the drive to finally focus on Idlib city stems from the reality that there are not many other prizes left for the rebels to pursue in northern Idlib. Some Idlib rebel groups are now operating in Aleppo, such as the Idlib Tawhid Brigade, Jabhat Thuwar Saraqeb, and Shuhada Suriya, which are fighting for control of a series of regime arms depots southwest of Aleppo city in Khan al-Duman. These powerful groups will have to return of Idlib if the rebels hope to take Idlib city.

The regime’s grip on Idlib city has been firm since rebels were pushed out of the city in March. Attacks increased around the city in late summer 2012, but were limited to one-off assaults, not large scale maneuvers aimed at forcing the regime out of the city. Although the regime’s position is anchored by the Mastoumah military base located five kilometers south of the city, there is no airbase near Idlib city, leaving the regime’s supply routes vulnerable to a siege.

                                    1) Harem
                                    2) Idlib City
                                    3) Mastoumah
                                    4) Khan al-Duman

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

How Should Idlib's Islamists be Handled?

The Idlib Revolutionary Council held a meeting in Reyhanli, Turkey this week in which a new member was elected to the council and rules of procedure were adopted. Continuing the council’s policy of operating in the public eye, unique for political activists, videos of the proceedings were posted on YouTube. More significant, however were the rebel groups not represented at the meeting: The Idlib Tawhid Brigade, the Yusuf al-Athima Brigade, and battalions from Ahrar al-Sham and Suqour al-Sham.

These are the Idlib's most Islamist groups (with the exception of the Tusuf  al-Athima Brigade whose religious ideology is unclear). A statement was posted on the Idlib Tawhid Brigade Facebook page denouncing the election for “not represent(ing) the actual revolutionary movement.” The statement claimed that the election was held “without the knowledge of these forces and without their representation.” The Yusuf al-Athima Brigade later denied being part of the statement, saying they were taking a wait and see approach to the council.

It seems that the most extreme Islamist groups are being frozen out of Idlib’s internal political process which is aimed at administering the liberated areas. This raises a familiar debate: Is it wise integrate extremists into the political process and hope that doing so moderates them, while running the risk of allowing extremist groups to dominate? Or is it better to marginalize them and prevent extremists from influencing the legitimate political process, while possibly forcing them to use violence to pursue political goals? These are questions that moderate Syrians have to address as the rebels gain decisive control over large swaths of the country.

Statement posted on the Idlib Tawhid Brigade Facebook page

Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Regime's Foreign Fighter List

In late November, the Syrian government presented the UN Security Council with a list of 142 foreigner fighters killed in Syria from September through November. A week later, the Syrian newspaper al-Watan published the list. The list is by no means comprehensive, as even some foreign fighter deaths reported by regime sources did not make the list. But if one assumes that the list is representative of the total foreign fighter population (and it may not be), there are some interesting pieces of information.

Despite Saudi Arabia’s efforts to curtail the flow of its citizens into Syria, the country claims the most fighters on the list. Second on the list, and with the most fighters relative to total national population is Libya. This in not surprising given that the seized Sinjar Records documenting foreign fighters arriving in Iraq over the Syrian border also showed Saudi Arabia with the most total fighters and Libya with the most fighters per-capita. 11 Afghans made the list as well, all killed in the north. It is surprising that Afghans would be fighting in Syria given the ongoing fighting in their own country and the fact that none were in the Sinjar Records.

More surprising was the ages of the killed foreigners. The list provides ages for 51 of the 142 fighters. The average age is 39, not the young impressionable youth often pictured as international revolutionaries. The average age of the fighters in the Sinjar Records was 24 years old, more in line with expectations.

The list includes the date and location of each fighter’s death. The incident with the most foreign deaths was the rebels’ October 11 capture of a regime base at an olive oil factory in Saraqeb in which three Turks and six Saudis were reportedly killed. This may confirm the common refrain that large numbers of foreign fighters are joining Ahrar al-Sham of the Jabha Thuwar Suriya network. A number of rebel groups participated in October 11 Saraqeb raid including the Saraqeb-based Jebel Thuwar Saraqeb Brigade, Suqour al-Sham and the Iman Brigade of Ahrar al-Sham.

It is possible that these foreigners were an independent group that followed the sound of fighting, but it is also possible that they were members of Ahrar al-Sham. One video of the attack showed a fighter wearing a Shalwar Kameez, a Pakistani style of dress that has become popular among some Arab jihadists.