Archive for October 14th, 2016

Assad may take Aleppo – but then he faces a war against the victors

Mona Alami

Thursday 13 October 2016

President Bashar Assad’s forces are further consolidating their presence in the war-torn city of Aleppo where the area occupied by a besieged opposition shrinks day by day.

While the Aleppo battle appears to be strengthening Assad’s position as Syria’s leader, the sheer complexity and diversity of the forces fighting there underline the regime’s brittle decentralization as a result of manpower shortages and the system’s growing militarization.

In a recent interview with AP, Assad declared he would not stop until he regained control over all of Syria. If Assad captures Aleppo, he would technically be in control of Syria’s three largest cities – Damascus, Homs and Aleppo – and thus reinstate his authority.

Yet Assad’s hegemonic status has been eroded by manpower shortages and the growing influence of a wide array of militias whose loyalties often lie outside of Assad’s direct sphere of control.

Native shortfall

As of 2013, Syria’s army had lost half of its forces, shrinking from 220,000 before the war to approximately 110,000, according to International Institute for Strategic Studies estimates.

By last October, over 70,000 men had skipped their compulsory military service in provinces controlled by the regime, Now Lebanon reported. The latter reacted by adopting a two-pronged approach, either arresting youth or imposing mandatory conscription to state employees, teachers and prisoners.

To offset the bleeding, the Assad regime has become in large part reliant on militias, whether provincial, religious, linked to political and army bodies, business figures or foreign-backed.

According to Syria expert Aron Lund, the National Defense Forces (NDF), the largest militia network in Syria, was created through the rebranding and restructuring of local Popular Committees and seems to act with considerable autonomy.

Researcher Aymen Jawad Tamimi has identified other militias that exist alongside the NDF. Some militias have a religious base, for example, local Shia militias which, according to Tamimi, are linked to Hezbollah. These include Quwat al-Ridha or Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi.

Some, such as Liwa al-Sayyida Ruqayya and Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi, are linked to the Syrian army’s elite Fourth Armored Division. There are also Christian militias such as Quwat al-Ghadab and Sootoro.

Second, there are militias affiliated to business figures such as Assad’s cousin Rami Makhlouf and the charity he owns and runs, Al-Bustan Association, namely, Kataeb al-Jablawi, Deraa Alwatan and the Leopards of Homs.

Third, Tamimi has listed several militias affiliated to political parties and intelligence services such as the Lions of the Eternal Leader, Fawj Maghawir al-Badiya, Quwat Dir’ al-Amn al-Askari; some affiliated to military security, including Lions of the Euphrates (Amn Dawla) and Tiger Forces (Air Intelligence); and finally the Baath Battalions.

“These militias operate to a large extent within the structure of the government or the provincial council or the army,” says Maen Tolla, a researcher from Turkey-based think tank Omran Dirasat.

Foreign fighters to the rescue

According to an AFP article, about 7,000 Iranian Revolutionary Guards are deployed in Syria while a group of 3,000 Iraqi volunteers from Abu Fadl Abbas currently defend the Shia holy site of Sayyida Zeinab south of Damascus.

Another 3,000 Afghan “Fatimids” have fought in Deraa province in the south and 7,000 Hezbollah fighters have played an instrumental role in Qussay, Qalamoun and now Aleppo, according to sources within the party.

Additionally, last month about 1,000 fighters from the Iraqi Haraket Nusjabaa, a Shia militia, was sent to Aleppo. Another foreign party, the Lebanese Syrian Socialist National Party (SSNP), has been involved in Syria under its armed wing Nusur al-Zawba’a (Eagles of the Whirlwind) which guarantees security in several Syrian towns  including Homs, Latakia and Wadi Nassara, according to Tamimi.

The regime’s growing dependency on local and foreign militias is slowly building the potential for a complete breakdown of order, with militias having either competing backers or different localized agendas. This phenomenon is more specific to militia groups created or financed by wealthy patrons or foreign players.

Illustrating this rivalry is the case of Kata’ib al-Jabalawi, a Shia militia which harbors hostility to the Syrian army and all the battalions and militias loyal to it, including Hezbollah, according to Tamimi’s reports.

Syrian sources have also reported clashes between loyalist militias such as the Desert Hawks and the Air Force Intelligence-affiliated Tiger Forces over diverging economic interest and territorial control. Similar incidents have taken place between the NDF and other militia forces in Qalamoun and between Hezbollah and the Syrian army in Aleppo.

According to rebel accounts, mistrust also prevails between pro-regime factions, which prefer to handle each quitaa (military division) independently from one another. A leaked recording of a Hezbollah fighter in Aleppo, accusing allies of having fled the battle, is a case in point.

Pyrrhic victory?

Assad may remain for now the arbiter to many of these militias. “He has the power to reach out and punish when needed,” says Jihad Makdissi, who acted as the regime spokesperson before his defection in 2012.

However, Assad will be increasingly forced to compromise with newly empowered militia commanders if he is to retain their support. Militia commanders will be naturally gaining more autonomy as state funding declines and the more capable they are of creating a system of taxes and extortion in areas under their control.

In addition, militias affiliated to foreign backers such as Hezbollah or Iraq’s Hashd al-Shaabi may prove to be more loyal to their international patrons. This system’s militarization has translated to the political scene with parties pushing for more influence. For example, Liwaa Baqer and the SSNP were able to secure seats in the last parliamentary elections, points out Tamimi.

Assad’s gains in Aleppo may grant him the credibility he is looking for, yet it may be another pyrrhic victory as he may now have to contend with many allies and powerful lieutenants.

Source: Middle East Eye.


Doctor in besieged Aleppo launches legal action against the Russian Federation

October 12, 2016

Yesterday afternoon three initiatives were being launched – from Russian jets, blitz bombing Aleppo markets in their most brutal onslaught to date – from Westminster where protest raged and ministers could suggest no action and from Aleppo. One of the few remaining doctors, struggling with fellow medics to treat the wounded survivors of yesterday’s market place bombings was filing a direct legal challenge to Russia in the European Court of Human Rights. This David and Goliath action is based on critically important legal principles.

Dr Moawyah Al-Awad is a cardiologist who has been working in Al Quds hospital in Aleppo since 2012. The hospital now operates from an undisclosed location, its original site having been destroyed by a deliberate airstrike on 27th April 2016.

His claim against Russia is based on its violation of his right (and that of his patients) to life (Article 2) and of his right (and that of his patients) to live free from inhuman and degrading treatment (Article 3).

On 29th September the circumstances in Aleppo were described to the UN Security Council by the its chief humanitarian official Stephen O’Brien in the following terms “Let me be clear, east Aleppo this minute is not at the edge of the precipice it is well into its terrible descent into the pitiless and merciless abyss of a human catastrophe unlike any we have witnessed in Syria. Syria is bleeding. Its citizens are dying. We all hear their cry for help”.

Dr Al-Awad’s action sets a standard beyond rhetoric. The case lodged with the European Court has, at his request, been sent to the UK and French foreign ministries, and those of the US and other European countries. It has been provided to all relevant UN bodies and special rapporteurs. It is now entirely up to them, as well as to the European Court, to utilise his initiative. An initiative taken by an exhausted doctor working 20 hour shifts in punishing conditions under fear of immediate death.

Source: Middle East Monitor.


Gaza population passes two million for first time

Wednesday 12 October 2016

The population of the Gaza Strip surpassed two million for the first time in its history, officials announced on Tuesday night.

The births of two babies on Tuesday night brought the total population of the 365km/sq coastal enclave to over two million, a statement issued by Gaza’s interior ministry said.

The two-millionth person in the Gaza Strip, a newborn named Waleed Shaat, was born on Tuesday evening.

Shortly afterwards, a girl named Lana Ayad was born, becoming the 2,000,001 person in Gaza.

The Gaza Strip – which has been under an Israeli military blockade for years – currently has a population density of over 5,100 people per sq/km.

This makes it one of the most densely populated territories in the world, just ahead of the British territory of Gibraltar.

Gaza also has one of the world’s highest birth rates, with an average of 4.4 children per woman – falling from a peak of 8.3 children per woman in 1991.

During September, authorities in Gaza registered 4,983 new births, giving an average birth rate of 166 per day, or seven infants per hour.

At current rates, the Gaza Strip’s population is estimated to reach at least 2.1 million by 2020.

The area could also be “uninhabitable” by the same date, according to a UN report issued last autumn.

The report warned that the Gaza Strip has been “ravaged” by three military operations in six years that have left development “not only hindered but reversed”.

Source: Middle East Eye.


Lebanese military judge claims former mufti affiliated to Daesh

October 12, 2016

A Lebanese military judge announced yesterday that the former mufti of the Rashya neighborhood in Al-Beqaa District, Bassam Al-Tarras, had been arrested over his alleged affiliation to Daesh, a Lebanese security source said.

According to Anadolu Agency, the official Lebanese Al-Wataniyah News Agency reported the security source as saying: “The representative of the government in the military court, Judge Saqr Saqr, indicted the detained Sheikh Bassam Al-Tarras.”

The indictment, the source said, included two other fugitives known as Mohamed Qasim and Mahmoud Rabei. The source said that Al-Tarras contacted Daesh knowing that it was a terrorist organisation.

According to the source, the case of Sheikh Al-Tarras was transferred to an investigative judge of the military court.

Al-Tarras was previously arrested on the eve of the Muslim celebration of Eid Al-Adha over allegations of his suspected affiliation to terrorist organisations.

The Committee of Muslim Scholars, a body representing Sunni religious scholars in Lebanon, called for mass demonstrations against the Al-Tarras’ detention, stating that the authorities were obliged to release him.

Anadolu Agency reported a source as saying that the Committee of Muslim Scholars is to hold an emergency meeting in order to “take an appropriate decision in response to the measure” against Al-Tarras.

Source: Middle East Monitor.


Russian media indirectly confirm Assad regime dumping bodies in Mediterranean

October 12, 2016

A Russian-government aligned news agency has perhaps indirectly confirmed that Assad regime forces are dumping the corpses of “women and children” into the Mediterranean Sea.

In a report published earlier this week, Sputnik News’ Arabic edition published a report that quoted a Russian mariner involved in Moscow’s Syria intervention, claiming that “terrorists” were killing civilians and then disposing of their bodies in the sea.

“[Russian] naval forces regularly find the corpses of civilians who were savagely killed by the terrorists near the northern coast of Syria, most of them women and children,” the unnamed Russian naval officer said.

Moscow and its ally, President Bashar Al-Assad, frequently brand all Syrian opposition forces as “terrorists” whether they are Daesh or not.

The Russian mariner also said: “[The corpses] are recovered on board ships to be transported to Tartous so that they may be buried in accordance with Islamic law.

Tartous is a coastal town that is home to a Russian naval base that is reportedly being expanded into a more permanent facility for a Russian fleet to be based in.

No coastal holdings for Syrian opposition

There are a number of concerns that have been raised with the Russian report, however.

The Syrian opposition factions, including groups such as Daesh and Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham, formerly the Al-Nusra Front, have no coastal holdings or territories. In fact, the Syrian opposition and various armed rebel groups are all based in in-land Syria.

In comments to MEMO, Syrian journalist Muhammad Fares said: “It’s as if the besieged ‘terrorists’ in the inner cities have giant catapults to throw the bodies hundreds of kilometers from Raqqa or Aleppo into the coastal waters around Latakia.”

Fares accused the Russians of misinformation, explaining that “the Russian media is putting such a piece out because they are counting on ‘Syria news fatigue’ and so they think they can get away with it.”

“The so-called ‘terrorists’ that Russia are talking about are besieged…and there is no link between [rebel-held territory] and the sea in any way,” Fares told MEMO, placing much doubt on the Russian claim.

“Putin’s and Assad’s media outlets live in la-la land…Assad’s army [are the ones] who throw [their] opponents’ bodies into the Mediterranean,” the Syrian journalist concluded.

The Syrian regime has been responsible for the overwhelming majority of civilian deaths since the civil war erupted in 2011. The UN has said that 400,000 Syrians have lost their lives in the conflict, and recent attempts to end the conflict have failed, leading to intensified violence against opposition-held Aleppo.

Source: Middle East Monitor.


Recognize Palestine Walk reaches Australian capital

October 11, 2016

John Salisbury has reached the Australian capital Canberra in an effort to encourage the government to recognize the State of Palestine.

Starting at the Sydney Opera House on 2 October, Salisbury arrived at Parliament House today. He was greeted by fellow activists who held a reception for him.

On Facebook Salisbury wrote: “5am start this morning. Freezing cold as I set off in the darkness,” ahead of his final leg to the seat of government.

Supporters commended his efforts. Amal Moradi wrote on Facebook: “Amazing achievement, the world needs more John Salisbury’s.”

While Diane Dounas wrote: “Thankyou [sic] so much John for your incredible efforts to help bring about justice for the indigenous Palestinian people. You are a true hero!”

Salisbury submitted a petition calling on the Australian government to recognize the State of Palestine. “Congratulations on making it to Parliament House and being able to present those precious signatures, David. Now may our government please recognize and respond to the situation in Gaza and Palestine,” Maree Minter wrote in support of Salisbury’s initiative.

Source: Middle East Monitor.