Hezbollah is Learning Russian

Hezbollah’s entrance into the Syrian conflict to help support the floundering regime of Bashar al-Assad has cost it dearly. An estimated 1,300 of its fighters have been killed, a large portion for an organization that has fielded only 6,000 to 8,000 combatants in Syria. Social services, key to Hezbollah’s populist program in Lebanon and crucial to many within its Shia constituency, have been reduced to pay for the conflict.  The military strain has even forced the group to recruit teenagers for domestic security roles and offensive operations in Syria.

While the group has had to adjust to many pressures from the Syrian conflict it has also benefited, both due to the combat experience and the entrance of a new and powerful ally. Moscow’s decision to intervene in Syria this past September on behalf of the Assad regime has brought with it a number of tactical and strategic benefits that have and will continue to bolster Hezbollah in Syria, at home and in any future confrontation with Israel. For more read my piece in Carnegie Endowment’s Sada journal.

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Death from Above: Russia, the Syrian Regime and Civilian Targets

The successful implementation of a cessation of hostilities in Syria looks doubtful. The Assad regime with the help of Russia, Iran and Hezbollah has mounted an increasingly deadly campaign to crush rebels in the north of the country. It comes at a time when all sides should be enacting confidence building measures. Meant to cut off the opposition from the Turkish border and surround the country’s largest city, Aleppo, the regime’s assault is taking a heavy toll on the civilian population. Making matters worse, on Monday Bashar al-Assad and his Russian allies targeted hospitals and schools using aircraft and by some reports, cruise missiles. It resulted in at least 46 dead and dozens injured.

Turkey, France and the UN say these attacks violate international law, while Russia has categorically denied it carried out the attacks on three hospitals and one school. In a bizarre and nonsensical statement by the Russian Defence Ministry, Moscow even attacked Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) for not providing information about the locations of the hospitals in Maarat al-Numan and Azaz which were targeted by the bombardment. The Syrian ambassador blamed the US for the strikes, a laughable assessment.

stopbombing

The pattern is clear. According to Physicians for Human Rights, as early as 2011 government forces attacked hospitals in Damascus, Homs and Hama, impeded medical transport and detained and tortured doctors who treated wounded civilians. The organization has mapped these war crimes and documented a total of 336 attacks on health care facilities, 285 of which were carried out by the Syrian regime, another 12 by Russian forces. Furthermore, Amnesty International has documented the murder of 569 health care professionals between April 2011 and October 2014, a number that is likely to be much larger.

As shown by these figures, these deliberate attacks on healthcare facilities are not new. The fact that Russia is participating in what has, since the beginning of the conflict, been a policy of attacking medical facilities and those who work in them, should not come as a surprise. David Nott, a physician who has worked in Syria told BBC World Service that, “If you take out a healthcare worker, you take out healthcare for about 10,000-20,000 people and they won’t feel secure in the area and will feel that they need to leave.” Dr. Nott is right, the targeting of healthcare services by the Syrian regime is meant to ensure that civilians in rebel held areas fear living there and leave. Though, it is also part of a systemic effort by the regime, which has been on display since the beginning of the conflict, to ensure that rebels do not build up governance capacities within the territory they hold. This includes targeting bread lines and water infrastructure with barrel bombs, airstrikes and artillery.

For more, see my interview with CTV National News.

Kill Them Wherever You Find Them

The following are the final messages of the nine lions of the Khalifah who were mobilized from their dens to bring an entire country – France – to her knees. This is how the latest release from Al-Hayat Media Center, the Islamic State’s foreign language propaganda arm, introduces viewers to the assailants that carried out last November’s terrorist attack in Paris. On Friday, 13 November, nine attackers targeted six separate locations across Paris, killing 130 and injuring another 368, roughly a third of them critically. As mentioned in a previous post, the events of 13 November made the attack the deadliest in France since World War II and may have been the deadliest attack in a Western city since 9/11. The attack began at 21:20 with a suicide bombing at the Stade de France, where French President Francois Hollande was in attendance to watch a soccer game against Germany. As two other suicide bombers targeted the stadium, another team of assailants shot up a bar and restaurant in the 10th district, near the Place de la Republique at  21:25 before moving on to target a cafe and pizzeria on rue de la Fontaine au Roi at 21:31. Another gun attack attack occurred on Rue de Charoone at 21:36, four minutes before a suicide bomber targeted Boulevard Voltaire. The deadliest attack began at 00:20 in the sold out 1,500 seat venue, Bataclan concert hall. Three attackers, wearing suicide belts, entered the concert hall, shooting indiscriminately with Kalashnikov assault rifles. When police stormed the building all three of the assailants managed to detonate their explosives. The machine gun fire and bombs resulted in the death of 98 people and the critical injury of another 99.

                                   The French banner for Kill Them Wherever You Find Them

Kill Them Wherever You Find Them portrays the nine attackers (Abul Qa’qa’ al-Baljiki, Dhul-Qarnayan al-Baljiki, Abu Fu’ad al-Farsani, Abu Rayyan al-Faransi, Abu ‘Umar al-Baljiki, Abu Qital al-Faransi, Ali al-Iraqi, ‘Ukasharh al-Iraqi, and Abu Mujaed al-Baljik) as heroes, defending their coreligionists in the face of external intervention by the West in what seems to be viewed by the assailants as both a religious war in the Muslim world and a cosmic battle against the Christian West. To drive this message home, the Islamic State-based members of the Paris cell are shown executing murtad, apostates, after their statements have been completed, a mark of cruelty that has come to define Islamic State media outputs. Interestingly, it is the foreign fighters that are tasked with beheading their hostages, while the Iraqi members merely shoot their victims to death. The attackers also embrace the term terrorist, using it proudly and calling upon their coreligionists in the West to carry out attacks, using any means available, a call that the Islamic State has echoed repeatedly, whether through its official spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani or individual Western members.

Abu Rayyan al-Faransi (Omar Ismail Mostefai), the last of the attackers to speak on film, highlights the importance of researchers understanding the legacy of jihadist thought. Aby Rayyan echoes Abdullah Azzam, the ideologue who spread the belief that jihad was fard ‘ayn (individually obligatory) when he calls on countrymen to emigrate to the Islamic State. While all of these facets of Kill Them Wherever You Find Them are important for further understanding the Islamic State, its ideology, goals and threat to the West, it is the release of the video itself that is the most important.

                                                 Mostefai claiming jihad is an individual duty

Kill Them Wherever You Find Them proves that the Paris attack was centrally directed by the higher echelons of the Islamic State, if not the group’s supposed Caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The fact that the video was released by Al-Hayat (the same outlet that releases the official Dabiq magazine and has produced a number of other high quality videos threatening the West) shows that the group played a much larger role than some previously had thought, and that the events in Paris were not merely inspired, with the Islamic State claiming responsibility after the fact, as it has done before. In fact, the first of the nine assailants to appear on film, Abu Qital al-Faransi, states, “I was sent by [Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi] to cleanse the earth of disbelievers. Once the beheading is finished, he states, “soon on the Champs de Elysee”.

What is more chilling is this latest release ends with a clip from British PM David Cameron’s address to the French people, standing in solidarity with them after the Paris attacks. A caption then comes across the screen: Whoever Stands in the Ranks of Kufr Will Be A Target for Our Swords And Will Fall In Humiliation. It is likely that the next plot orchestrated within the so-called Caliphate will be attempted in the United Kingdom.

The Syrian Regime’s Hollow Victories

On 3 February, Syrian regime troops and their allies reached the encircled towns of Nubl and Zahraa to the north-west of Aleppo city. Predominantly Shia, the two towns had been surrounded by rebel forces for much of the last three-and-a-half years. Under Russian air cover, Hezbollah, Shia militas and Syrian government forces pushed out from the village of Hardatnin, through Musrassat Khan and into the two regime bastions. In doing so they effectively cut off rebel held areas in eastern Aleppo city from the Turkish border crossing of Bab al-Salama, a crucial supply route for food, oil and weapons.

                                 A map of the regime’s progress in Aleppo (@PetoLucem)

This victory was one of three major regime achievements over the past few weeks, all of which relied heavily on foreign fighters in leading roles and the use of Russian air support. 26 January saw Syrian troops, allied militias and Hezbollah capture Sheikh Miskeen, in Dara governorate. The town, held by rebels since 2014, had connected the Jordanian border to rebel bastions in the capital, Damascus. While it has been reported that intra-rebel tensions contributed to its fall, the concentration of Russian air power on Sheikh Miskeen and the use of Lebanon’s Hezbollah on the ground were instrumental in its capture.

                                              Capture of Sheikh Miskeen (@PetoLucem)

The regime victory in Sheikh Miskeen came close after the 12 January capture of Salma, in Latakia governorate. The town had been the last major rebel bastion in what is a regime stronghold on the coast of the Mediterranean. During the regime operation a video emerged of Russian commanders overseeing the battle and a few days later, footage from a Russian-led press tour of Salma highlighted the significant role Russian special forces played in its capture. Salma and neighbouring rebel held areas had been under the control of the opposition for the past three years and provided them with a strategic overview of the surrounding area. It was believed that rebels had planned to use Salma to push further into Alawite dominated Latakia governorate, to target the Syrian President’s coreligionists and pressure the regime.

                             Regime capture of Salma, Latakia Governorate (@PetoLucem)

It is telling that the first flag to be raised above Nubl and Zahraa after the siege had been broken was that of Lebanon’s Hezbollah. These regime victories were achieved years after rebels had initially captured strategic areas in the country’s north, east and south and only with the help of outside actors. At minimum, there is enough video, picture and reporting evidence to assume that the Syrian regime was incapable of achieving these military gains on their own. Even if rumors of Russian special forces involvement are discounted due to a lack of evidence in the cases of Sheikh Miskeen and Nubl and Zahraa, it is clear that Hezbollah played a major role in the capture of the two former villages. Furthermore, according to pro-regime sources, it seems that Russian special forces at minimum are in the process of expanding their presence on the ground in Aleppo governorate.

                                     Nubl and Zahraa militia pose with Hezbollah fighters

This reliance on outside actors begs the question, will the Syrian regime be able to consolidate these victories and reestablish governance over areas once held by the opposition? Up until the Russian intervention on 30 September, sparked by the falling fortunes of the regime, it seemed as if a rebel victory in Syria was inevitable. A second governorate capital had been lost in Idlib. The city of Palmyra, the middle point between the Islamic State-held western portions of Syria and Damascus had also fallen under control of the diabolical group. The Syrian army and its allies had also not managed to make any significant gains in the year before. The toll of the five year battle for Syria’s future was beginning to have a large impact, the Syrian army had lost roughly 50,000 men, allied militias 36,000 and Hezbollah, 900 fighters, more than the 60,000 domestic and foreign rebel fighters that had been killed in the course of the conflict.

The regime’s ability to take advantage of its recent victories isn’t only a matter of manpower, it is also one of legitimacy. Since March 2011 when the government of Bashar al-Assad decided to shoot its way out of the revolution, it has employed starvation, barrel bombs, and chemical weapons in order to make up for its lack of manpower, in turn causing untold suffering on the majority Sunni Muslim population. Unlike domestic Syrian troops and their rebel counterparts, at some point those foreign Shia militias from Iraq, Hezbollah from Lebanon and of course, the Russian military and air force will have to return home, leaving behind a regime that has increasingly relied on minority groups to defend its hold over much of the Syrian population. Once this occurs the regime may again face calls for change to the country’s governance system and possibly, if it can not come to an equitable arrangement with opposition supporters, experience yet another civil war. With the faltering of the Geneva III peace process it seems that the regime and Russia are not yet willing to acknowledge the demographic, political and military realities of conflict, and Syria’s future.

Paris Attacks Radio Interview

On Saturday, November 14 I was asked by 580 CFRA News Talk Radio in Ottawa to comment on the attacks in Paris. Many of the details of the attack, including the identities of the perpetrators, were unknown at the time. While the Islamic State had claimed responsibility, it was unclear as to whether the group played a direct or indirect role in the worst attack in France since WWII and possibly the most deadly attack in a Western city after 9/11.

We now know that Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a Belgian national who had fought with ISIS in Syria, masterminded the November 13 attacks that saw nine militants claim the lives of 170 and injure another 368 people. Abaaoud, who grew up in the Molenbeek suburb of Brussels, an area known for terrorist activity, had escaped Belgian authorities in January 2014 after a raid in the city of Verviers resulted in the death of two suspected terrorists. According to an interview with Abaaoud in Dabiq, the Islamic State’s English-language magazine, he and the two deceased had returned to Belgium “to terrorize the crusaders waging war against the Muslims.” While it is not known whether Abaaoud had made it back to the Islamic State in Syria after the raid, as he had claimed in Dabiq, when the Belgian appeared again it was to carry out a sadistic attack on innocent civilians in Paris.

The events of November 13 have changed political calculations, reignited debates and, sadly, resulted in increased public displaces of bigotry. In Canada, the United States and elsewhere in the Western world, politicians have addressed public worries about Syrian refugees after authorities in France found a fake Syrian passport on the body of one of the assailants. Some of these politicians have taken calculated steps to ease these fears, others have played to the worst fringe, spewing hate and misconception. For the later and their constituencies, it should be important to remember that out of the 750,000 refugees that have been resettled in America since 9/11 not one has been arrested on domestic terrorism charges. Refugee policy is not the only issue up for debate, those over Islam have vehemently reemerged, with some arguing that the religion is the problem, while others have aptly pointed out that the situation is much more complex.

In the internationally realm Western leaders have been pressed to more thoroughly defend their anti-Islamic State strategy and play a bigger role in the fight. France and Russia have increased cooperation over the skies in Syria, a knee jerk reaction by the government of Francois Hollande. Prime Minister Trudeau of Canada has had to defend his government’s promise to end participation in the bombing mission, though the majority of Canadians want it continued or even expanded. Britain, whose government had previous voted against bombing the Syrian regime, has already launched its first airstrike in Syria, hours after UK lawmakers voted in favor . While much of the media has focused on the air, a debate over what should be done on the ground is of utmost importance.

I briefly addressed these and other issues in my interview with CFRA below.

Securing Lebanon, Widening Divides

As I write this post it has been reported by The Daily Star that militants near the Lebanese town of Arsal have killed two soldiers, almost immediately after the army had secured two captured soldiers. For now it seems like the al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra is responsible, prompted by the arrest of one of their commanders. The troops were attacked at the Wadi Hmayyed checkpoint on the outskirts of this Sunni town, located in the Shia-dominated Bekaa Valley, on the border with Syria. Whether locals were involved or it was the work of Syrian jihadists, or a mixture of both, this event is further evidence of the deepening cleavages between the state and Lebanon’s Sunni population.

The civil war, which has ranged next door and will celebrate its morbid fourth anniversary next March, has put intense strain on the Lebanese state. Sunnis, who have suffered under Syrian occupation during and after the civil war, viewed the uprising in 2011 as a chance to change the political dynamic in Lebanon. With the regime of Bashar al-Assad gone, so they thought, a Sunni government in Damascus would allow them to reverse Hezbollah’s prominence in the political sphere, and eventually, its monopoly on violence–a monopoly that should be reserved for state institutions.

The Syrian revolution faltered: a lack of leadership on behalf of the West; competing regional Sunni powers backing different proxies; the ensuing power vacuum exploited by al-Qaeda and now its dangerous offshoot the Islamic State; and the oil wealth of rich Gulf donors and their alacrity to back Salafi groups, turned an opportunity for mainstream Sunni politicians into a quagmire with dangerous consequences.

Now, over three years into the conflict, Sunni politicians have begrudgingly come to accept the fact that the Syrian revolution threatens to pull the Lebanese state into another civil war, one that would see the rise of Salafi militants within the country, and further threaten their control over the poorest rungs of Sunni society. By signing onto the security plan, which de-facto includes a cooperative relationship between the military and Hezbollah (which is fighting on behalf of the regime in Syria and created the catalyst for spillover into Lebanon, with Sunnis wanting to take out their revenge within Lebanon) these politicians have helped put the state in direct opposition to downtrodden Sunnis and the groups they back.

For more on this dynamic and the current state of Sunni-government relations in Lebanon read my piece for Carnegie Endowment’s Sada: Middle East Analysis, entitled Securing Lebanon, Widening Divides.