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Syria: Executive Summary tryout, 4/7

To give you an overview of the latest news, we’ve organized the latest Syrian developments in a curated summary.

U.N. ‘Alarmed’ by Violent Zaatari Protests

Weekend protests in Zaatari refugee camp, which houses over 588,000 Syrians, have alarmed U.N. observers. The AP reports that 28 Jordanian policemen were wounded and that tear gas and live ammunition were used to subdue protesters. A protester was also reported to have been killed.

Protests in Zaatari refugee camp, which houses over 588,000 Syrians, have alarmed U.N. observers.

“The U.N. refugee agency says a ‘heated demonstration’… turned to ‘a violent one’ after hundreds, possibly thousands of refugees started throwing rocks at a police post,” the wire says. “The agency said Sunday that the protest started over a refugee family being held there after police detained them and a driver who tried to smuggle them out of the camp.”

Surge of Violence Across Syria Kills Over Two Dozen

The New York Times reports that violence flared across the country on Sunday, killing more than two dozen rebel fighters in Homs and Damascus.

“The explosion in the Old City of Homs occurred when a car bomb that rebels were preparing detonated prematurely. It killed 30 to 40 fighters, including two field commanders, according to insurgents reached by telephone and text message in the area, which the government has blockaded,” writes Anne Barnard and Mohammed Ghannam.

Violence flared across Syria, killing more than two dozen rebel fighters in Homs and Damascus.

“The episode, reported differently by state news media and an antigovernment monitoring group, was significant for several reasons. It showed that some fighters in the Old City are still planning large attacks despite the government’s continuing siege, and despite its offer of a truce and amnesty that scores of their comrades have accepted. And in an indication of the divisions the blockade and amnesties have sown, one former insurgent said the bombing had been planned by one group of fighters to kill others.”

Break in War Brings Brittle Calm

The Times also reports on a fragile calm in Damascus, where the Syrian government, feeling “magnanimous” and confident of victory, is offering some of its opponents a truce.

The message from the government is clear: It is winning, and it can afford to be magnanimous.

As “government forces seize the last insurgent strongholds along the Lebanese border, securing the strategic corridor from Damascus to the coast, President Bashar al-Assad’s home region, the message from the government is clear: It is winning, and it can afford to be magnanimous. It is offering what it calls reconciliation to repentant opponents, and some are accepting,” writes Anne Barnard.

“The change of atmosphere here in the Syrian capital is unmistakable. The boom of shelling no longer dominates the days and nights. Tensions over security are draining from the city like air from a balloon. Checkpoints remain ubiquitous but sentries are relaxed, even jocular, teasing strangers, ‘Any bombs?'”

Al-Qaida Calls for Arbitration Over Killing of its Official

The AP reports that al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahri called on his fighters to find out who was behind the Feb. 23 killing of Abu Khaled al-Suri, the organization’s chief representative in Syria, calling the assassination an act of “sedition” and highlighting the ongoing conflict between rebel fighting groups.

He endorsed a previous call for Islamic arbitration over the death of al-Suri.

“‘All Muslims should not help anybody who blows up the headquarters of the holy fighters, or who sends them car bombs and human bombs,’ he said in a recorded message posted on militant websites late Friday, referring to the Islamic State’s tactic of attacking rival rebels with bombings. ‘Whoever commits such sins, should remember that he is fulfilling for the enemies of Islam what they were unable to achieve on their own.'”

Al-Suri died “when two suicide bombers blew themselves up inside the militant leader’s compound in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. While he did not mention the Islamic State [of Iraq and the Levant] by name, it was clear he was accusing the group and staking out a hard stance against it. He also endorsed a previous call for Islamic arbitration over the death of al-Suri, to be overseen by the Nusra Front — the official al-Qaida affiliate in Syria.”

Suggested Reads from Our Editorial Team

Guardian: Hezbollah Claims it Has Helped Assad Win Syria Conflict

Reuters: Assad Tells Russian Ex-PM, ‘Active Phase’ of Syria War Over This Year

AP: Gunman Kills Dutch Priest in Syrian City of Homs

Al Jazeera: Syria’s Opposition Radio Makes Waves

Who’s fighting Bashar? How to tell Syria’s jihadis apart

Courtesy of Freedom House.

Back when the U.S. considered striking Assad, some argued that a U.S. intervention would indirectly help al-Qaeda. They were right in a the enemy of my enemy is my friend kind of way. Syria’s war has many working parts. Perhaps the most misunderstood of those is the influence and goals of its various Islamic armed groups. I think they can be divided into two parts.

The first are (or, in one case, were) the al-Qaeda offshoots. Some of the best organized and most successful rebel groups, like the Islamic State of Iraq and as-Sham (ISIS) and Jabhat al-Nusra, have imposed their “reckless” Sharia law over captured towns and are practicing state building in Central and Northern Syria. Nusra, for example, runs the bus service in rebel-held Aleppo, and the ISIS is entrenched in the central city of Raqqa. ISIS is made up of largely foreign fighters– men from North Africa, Russia, China and Western Europe– and is itself an offshoot of the militant Islamic State of Iraq, a group founded during the early days of the US invasion in 2003. Nusra is homegrown. They’re fighting to topple Assad and establish an Islamic state.

Both groups have a history of infighting, so much so that in February al-Qaeda disavowed ISIS, ostensibly for instigating firefights with other groups and coordinating with the Assad regime.

One Syrian, a mujahideen from Idlib, thinks the difference between the two groups is this: when they’re in charge, ISIS applies their laws immediately and punishes naive lawbreakers at will, while Jabhat al-Nusra “begins in the mosque,” teaching their rules before applying them. This may not be true everywhere, but it characterizes the reputation of the two groups.

The ISIS operates throughout northern Syria and parts of the east as well. And when you hear people talking about foreign fighters in Syria, it’s likely that those guys are fighting for ISIS.

(The remainder of this section is an excerpt from “Al-Qaeda’s Governance Strategy in Raqqa” by Chris Looney)

Such is the situation in Raqqa, a city in northeastern Syria with approximately one million inhabitants now under control of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), the most powerful Al Qaeda (AQ) affiliate currently operating in Syria. Since ISIS came to power in May, its abuse of Raqqa’s citizens has been well documented. It has begun to enforce its extreme interpretation of Islam upon the city’s residents, forcing women to “cover their beauty,” banning tobacco products, and brutally repressing dissident voices.On the surface, this violence appears to be indiscriminate and irrational. Yet, it is also organized and tactical.

For a group that has never before fully controlled a large city, the transition from insurgent to administrator has hardly been smooth. Still, ISIS has managed to develop a robust, systemic strategy of governance for Raqqa that links the city to sister strongholds in Iraq. Through the control of goods and services, ISIS has made the city’s residents dependent on it. As intricate as it is oppressive, this strategy is serving ISIS well; ISIS has consolidated its authority in Raqqa as it expands its reach over much of eastern Syria and Iraq.

ISIS shows no signs of weakening in Northern and Eastern Syria. On the contrary, because of its strategy of governing ISIS has grown stronger in the face of increased opposition to its rule. ISIS placed greater importance on asserting full control over the city than on winning the goodwill of the populace. It solidified its rule through intimidation, rather than the more diplomatic means that Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) had employed.

This strategy was evident by the public executions of May 14 that the group used to announce its presence. From that day, ISIS began to arrest dissidents. It currently holds approximately 1,500 prisoners in Raqqa, often mistreating and torturing them. A pillar of this crackdown has been the Islamification of the city.Christians, who have a long history in Raqqa and who made up 10% of its population before the war, were not aggressively persecuted under JN. Though churches were closed and services suspended, families were able to remain and continue their lives unmolested. Yet as ISIS gained control, violence against Christians increased.

The group held public bible burnings, destroyed churches, and kidnapped priests, causing most of the city’s Christians to flee. Despite the ensuing backlash, these actions did achieve a significant strategic objective for ISIS, an organization that makes no pretense about preserving minority rights.

By expelling Christians, it has paved the way for a series of indoctrination programs that aim to promote both religious purity and the AQ principles through youth reeducation and a careful manipulation of civil society. For ISIS, this is a long term strategy.

The group seems confident in its ability to maintain power for an extended period of time, and while it is comfortable sustaining its rule through coercion in the short term, ISIS has also engineered a series of initiatives aimed at rebuilding its reputation among the community. In addition to writing textbooks for schools, ISIS has sought to reframe itself as part of the mainstream revolution, countering the widely held belief among locals that it either collaborates with the regime or is made up primarily of foreigners who have no connection to Syria. Many of its prisoners are labeled as regime sympathizers, and the Alawite population has been driven from the city.

In addition, it has targeted media outlets in an attempt to control the flow of information. In early November, the Raqqa Information Center (RIC) shut its doors after one of its correspondents was beaten and “accused of treason and espionage.” In casting the RIC as hostile towards the revolution and implying a connection with the regime, ISIS has continued in its bid to reposition itself as liberators moving the city forward into the post-Assad era rather than as an occupying force regressing to autocracy. The shutdown of the RIC and other media outlets has also served to somewhat isolate Raqqa from the rest of Syria.

Though residents still have many other ways to access information, the media blackouts have been reinforced by other actions designed to create an environment where Raqqans are increasingly dependent on ISIS for basic goods and services. In September, ISIS closed the only remaining foreign exchange office in Raqqa, which had allowed money to be sent into the province from abroad. The group also controls the majority of wheat and oil coming into the city and provides food relief packages to families throughout the region. As this dependence increases, ISIS undoubtedly hopes it can transform it into loyalty and gain popularity among the community. In implementing this strategy of dependence, ISIS has also expanded the connection between the territory it controls in eastern Syria and its strongholds in Iraq.

For an organization that does not recognize colonial borders, fusing the two regions is of key strategic importance as it works towards the establishment of an Islamic emirate. The flow of funding from Iraq into Syria has been a source of strength for ISIS, allowing it to outpace rival opposition groups. Through extortion and other criminal techniques, ISIS is able to raise an estimated $8 million a month in Mosul alone.

By using this funding to take advantage of poorly governed territories in Raqqa, eastern Syria, and Anbar province, ISIS has carved out a safe haven from which it has the ability to conduct external operations. Although ISIS may be focused on consolidating its rule locally and expanding its sway within Syria and Iraq for the time being, attacking the West remains a long term strategic objective.

The other group of Jihadists share many goals with the al-Qaeda affiliates, but are significantly harder to read.

The second group aren’t quite as extreme, though their goals are not as clear as al-Qaeda’s: most of them, like Aleppo’s Liwa al-Tawhid, were self-proclaimed moderates six months ago before, the U.S. cancelled plans to attack Assad. They’ve recently begun unifying various banners, such as the recently formed Islamic Front, rebuking the West’s claim that rebels lack central leadership. They’re becoming increasingly organized, just not the way the West wants.

(The following is an excerpt from “Rebels Consolidating Strength in Syria: The Islamic Front” by Aaron Y. Zelin)

Formally announced on November 22, the Islamic Front includes groups from three prior umbrella organizations: the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF), the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front (SILF), and the Kurdish Islamic Front (KIF). From the SIF, Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya (HASI), Kataib Ansar al-Sham, and Liwa al-Haqq joined, as did the KIF as a whole and former SILF brigades Suqur al-Sham, Liwa al-Tawhid, and Jaish al-Islam.

None of these groups has been designated by the U.S. government as a foreign terrorist organization. Although these groups previously kept their individual names under the SIF and SILF, they will no longer do so under the IF, though it may take time to phase out the original names. This was confirmed the same day as the IF announcement, when SIF leader Hassan Aboud put out a directive dissolving his organization.

Four days after the IF was announced, it released an official charter. Much of the document’s basic architecture is similar to that put out by the SIF in January, but the new version is filled with more generalities, likely to accommodate differing ideas among member groups.

A few of these points are worth highlighting. First, the charter calls for an Islamic state and the implementation of sharia, though it does not define exactly what that means. The IF is firmly against secularism, human legislation (i.e., it believes that laws come from God, not from people), civil government, and a Kurdish breakaway state.The charter states that the group will secure minority rights in post-Assad Syria based on sharia — this could mean the dhimma (“protected peoples”) system, or de facto second-class citizenship for Christians and other minorities, but this remains to be seen. The IF also hopes to unify other rebel groups so long as they agree to acknowledge the sovereignty of God.

There are already rumors that the southern-based Ittihad al-Islami li-Ajnad al-Sham could join. The IF’s number-one goal is “the toppling of the regime,” which includes “bringing an end its legislative, executive, and judicial authority along with its military and security institutions, and the just and fair prosecution of all involved in shedding innocent blood and those who supported them.” This signals that the group has no intention of participating in the Geneva negotiations process.

Likewise, six of the seven groups in the IF signed a joint statement with other factions in late October declaring Geneva II a conspiracy and warning that any rebel participants would be tried for treason in rebel courts. At the same time, the charter also notes that the IF is willing to deal with international actors as long as they “do not show enmity toward it.”

Many of the groups in the IF already have loose or informal relations with Saudi Arabia (most notably Jaish al-Islam) as well as Qatar and Turkey through NGOs such as the Humanitarian Relief Fund (IHH) and al-Khayriyya.

Lastly, the charter supports the presence of foreign fighters in the Syrian rebellion: “These are brethren who have supported us in the struggle, and their support is appreciated and they are thanked for it. We are required to ensure their safety.” Therefore, the IF is unlikely to turn on these fighters or eject them from Syria when the conflict ends. In fact, some IF groups have foreigners within their ranks, most notably HASI.