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Yemeni-American's Felony Precludes Him from Holding Public Office

Mohamed Albanna in court on December 20.

On January 22, the Supreme Court of New York State rendered a judgement in the case of Mohamed Albanna, city councilman-elect and convicted felon. In a long-awaited decision, the court ruled that Albanna, who plead guilty to the federal crime of operating an unlicensed money transmitting business in 2006, is thus "ineligible to assume the office of city councilman."

In 2002, the New York Times profiled Albanna, a prominent businessman in the Lackawanna, NY, Yemeni-American community. He, along with two of his relatives, had just been arrested and indicted for illegally sending hundreds of thousands of dollars to Yemen. Albanna, incidentally, also served as vice president of the American Muslim Council of Western New York – an Islamist organization whose president, Dr. Khalid Qazi, has a long history of "Islamic extremist activity, including raising money for an Al Qaeda charity and serving as a director of a Pakistani intelligence operation aimed at buying influence with American politicians."

Albanna's nephew, Jaber Elbaneh, was identified as "uncharged co-conspirator B" in another Buffalo-area case – that of the Lackawanna Six – wherein six young men were charged with forming a terrorist cell. The Washington Post noted that Albanna had emerged as "one of the most visible community advocates for the young defendants. [He] described the suspects as family men who played soccer and were between jobs."

Albanna's nephew, Jaber Elbaneh, is a wanted fugitive.

According to a 2006 article in The Buffalo News, U.S. Attorney Terrence P. Flynn said that, "In early 2002, Lackawanna Six member Yahya Goba used Albanna's hawala – an illegal, unlicensed money-transmitting company – to send money to Kamal Derwish, an alleged recruiter for the al-Qaida terrorist network, in Yemen."

"Authorities have never alleged that any of the money was used for terrorist purposes, but Flynn said that, because no proper records were kept, authorities have no way of knowing."

Albanna's familial connections to terrorism notwithstanding, he was sentenced to five years in prison and three years of probation for sending more than $3 million to Yemen. Federal investigators were unable to prove that Albanna sent money directly to Yemeni terror cells.

Though Albanna's city council opponent, John Ingram, challenged the legality of Albanna's bid for the office during the campaign, Albanna's attorneys initially managed to show that his offenses did not "involve moral turpitude." He was thus allowed to run for the city council post, and won the seat.

Finally, in an appeal brought by the Lackawanna City mayor, the Supreme Court of New York ruled that Albanna's conviction did involve moral turpitude. Albanna admitted to having

operated an illegal money transmitting business that transmitted more than $3.5 million to Yemen over a 13½-month period; transmitted money to Yemen from individuals who did not fully and accurately identify themselves; transmitted money to Yemen without inquiring about the source of the money or why it was being sent; made false entries in a money transfer ledger to hide the identities of certain senders and recipients; failed to file required currency transaction reports for cash transactions in excess of $10,000; and knew that his business did not have the required license to transmit money.

Samantha Rose Mandeles (@SRMandeles) is a coordinator at Islamist Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.

By Samantha Rose Mandeles  |  February 1, 2018  |  Permalink

Campus Watch Responds: Mairav Zonszein

In a January 10 article, Mairav Zonszein accuses Campus Watch of "market[ing] Israel's image," "assaulting and delegitimizing those who advocate for Palestinian rights," and having helped "write the handbook" on blacklisting.

It's difficult to suppress an eye roll when reading the many critics of Campus Watch. The song (very old) is always the same: Israel-loving Zionist haters collude to suppress free speech, attack professors who criticize Israel or defend Palestinians, and do other unspeakable things. But a brave few, a happy few, a band of others somehow manage to overcome the blackout imposed by Zionist censors to publish erroneous, misleading, hyperbolic, sanctimonious retorts (take that!) in high profile, globally-distributed publications read by millions. Yawn.

The latest champion of light to engage the forces of darkness -- er, I mean, the latest charlatan to play the victim and make laughably false charges against Campus Watch (and others) is one Mairav Zonszein, who, we are told, "wrote her MA thesis on the changing nature of what it means to be pro-Israel in the American Jewish community."

Changing indeed. Whereas the innocent might be forgiven for thinking that being "pro-Israel," or pro-anything, would involve defending said entity from unscrupulous persons given to smearing, misrepresenting, and otherwise working to weaken or even destroy the object of their attacks, the nature of these actions has changed, you see. And keeping up with these changes means turning nature on its head, so that words come to mean their opposite: pro- = anti-; affection = hostility; survival = extinction.

Get it? Clever, no? No?

Zonszein's screed appeared in the January 10, 2018 issue of The Forward. It begins

Even before BDS came onto the scene, primarily in the wake of the Second Intifada in 2000, a whole cadre of groups was founded whose mission is essentially to market Israel's image, which necessarily means assaulting and delegitimizing those who advocate for Palestinian rights, since that makes Israel look bad. These include StandWithUS, The David Project, Campus Watch, NGO Monitor, Honest Reporting, and more recently, The Canary Mission, and the AMCHA Initiative.

Alas, several corrections are in order: Campus Watch was founded in September, 2002, primarily in the wake of 9/11 (not the Second Intifada). We are not in the business of marketing "Israel's image," nor of "assaulting and delegitimizing those who advocate for Palestinian rights" -- although we do respond to attempts to smear and delegitimize us (modern life ain't beanball).

Middle East studies is among the most politicized and biased fields in all the humanities and social sciences.

Rather, CW critiques the entire field of Middle East studies (which includes but goes far beyond Israel) because this key discipline is among the most politicized and biased in all the humanities and social sciences. (See our mission statement here.)

Her next charge moves from the malicious to the bizarre: "By excluding all those who challenge Israeli government policies, these organizations have effectively assumed a monopoly over Jewish legitimacy vis-a-vis the state of Israel."

CW is unconcerned with "Jewish legitimacy," whatever that is, vis-a-vis Israel or anything else. Surely the writer knows that critics (or champions) of Israel or any other state come in all ethnicities, religions, nationalities, etc. Our sole concern is with the rigor and objectivity of a professor's scholarship and teaching.

The contemporary left reacts to criticism as if the boot heel of the state were being used to smash opponents.

Finally, Zonszein limps home with this: "Not only is it not surprising that Israel has created a blacklist; we know where it learned its tactics. The Jewish American community wrote the handbook on blacklisting Jewish dissent."

Please. CW staff, whatever their religion, are hardly in a position to blacklist anyone. It is a sad comment on the contemporary left that its adherents consistently react to criticism in articles, blog posts, and social media as if the boot heel of the state were being used to smash opponents and usher in a new age of despotism. (CW is a project of the Middle East Forum, a private think tank; we neither possess nor seek governmental powers.) Perhaps their intellectual vacuity spurs them to exaggerate their plight, especially in an age that champions false victimhood as virtue. Whatever the root of their maladies, however, CW continues to defend itself from attack -- time after time after time.

Winfield Myers is director of academic affairs at the Middle East Forum and director of Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.

By Winfield Myers  |  January 31, 2018  |  Permalink

No News in Republican and Democratic Views of Israel

A recent Pew opinion survey showing 79 percent sympathy for Israel over the Palestinians among Republicans versus a mere 27 percent among Democrats has aroused a furor in pro-Israel circles. But this sort of ratio has been around through the twenty-first century with little change.

By way of proof, note the 13 opinion surveys I collected between 2002 and 2018 at a blog titled "Republicans and Democrats Look at the Arab-Israeli Conflict." Arraying the surveys together (carefully done by my researcher, Delaney Yonchek), one finds that attitudes remaining consistent within specific bands. Favorable Republican attitudes to Israel range between 59 and 84 percent, averaging 73 percent. Favorable Democrats attitudes range between 24 and 64 percent, averaging 44 percent.

Yes, the 2018 Pew poll does show a wider gap than ever (52 percent), but Republican pro-Israel sentiments have been higher and Democratic pro-Israel views have been lower, so it's well within the 16-year range.

In other words, there is no dramatic shift in outlooks. The pattern of far more positive Republican and less positive Democratic attitudes has been in place for many years. Nothing has happened of late to suggest this pattern will end. Obama and Trump have both done their part to confirm this trend.

It's also worth a look at attitudes toward the Palestinians. Republican sympathy toward them is vanishingly small, from 1 to 16 percent, with an average of 8 percent. Democratic favor ranges from 9 to 27 percent, averaging 18 percent – not exactly a huge number.

Assuming the two parties have about the same number of supporters, ignoring Independents, and averaging their totals, one gets 59 percent of party members favorable to Israel and 13 percent favorable to the Palestinians, a 4.5 to 1 ratio. That in turn fits the average over the decades as established by the Gallup poll.

I'd say Israel stands in good stead in the United States. Yes, it could undergo a collapse of support such as happened in Europe in the aftermath of the Venice Declaration of 1980, but so long as conservative support remains inconsistent, this remains a distant prospect.

Daniel Pipes (DanielPipes.org, @DanielPipes) is president of the Middle East Forum.

By Daniel Pipes  |  January 31, 2018  |  Permalink

'Martyrs' of Dir' al-Watan (V Corps)

Al-Hajj Muhammad Ja'afar (center).

Readers of this blog will be familiar with Katibat Dir' al-Watan (Homeland Shield Battalion), which is an affiliate of the Russian-backed V Corps (aka 5th Legion) and is led by al-Hajj Muhammad Ja'afar (originally from the north Lebanese border locality of al-Qasr, also known as Qasr). The group has both Syrian and Lebanese fighters in its ranks, with many originating from localities spanning the porous borders between Homs countryside and north Lebanon, as many Lebanese citizens have long lived in villages on the Syrian side of the border. Katibat Dir' al-Watan's most notable engagement so far has been the broader eastern campaign against the Islamic State.

Though the Islamic State's territorial reach has been greatly diminished, it still clings to some land on the borders between Syria and Iraq and is capable of launching deadly strikes, exploiting a lack of attention devoted to the area in comparison with previous efforts on the part of both the Syrian government and its allies as well as the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. On 25 January, the Islamic State attacked Katibat Dir' al-Watan positions in the Deir az-Zor countryside near the borders with Iraq, killing approximately 30 fighters, according to a statement from Katibat Dir' al-Watan circles:

The armed terrorist groups launched a wide attack since the middle of the night and fierce battles occurred on the positions belonging to Katibat Dir' al-Watan of al-Hajj Muhammad Ja'afar in the al-Kashma area and the al-Ghariba area in Deir az-Zor countryside, but the terrorist groups were entirely destroyed on the battlefield and all the neighbouring hills were seized. As a result of these confrontations that were decisively resolved since 3 p.m., with all pride and honour we present around 30 martyrs. And the burial will be set at a subsequent time.

As is often the case with reported and self-reported death tolls for groups in particular battles, not all the names of the 'martyrs' will be disclosed for various reasons. However, as regards the 'martyrs' that have been publicised, I have been able to obtain additional information on them via contact with the group. I will present this information below as I believe it can offer some more insight into the composition of the group.

Name: Bilal Fahad Hamoud
Origin: al-Faruqiya (border village in Homs countryside)
Year of birth: 1991
Number of children: N/A
Name: Khalid Shahada al-Daho
Origin: al-Bajajiya (border village in Homs countryside)
Year of birth: 1990
Number of children: Two daughters
Name: Mohsen Salim al-Salim
Origin: al-Ghasaniya (border village in Homs countryside)
Year of birth: 1983
Number of children: One son, one daughter
Name: Waseem Mahmoud al-Ali
Origin: al-Faruqiya
Year of birth: 2000
Number of children: None (unmarried)
Name: Muhammad Hussein al-Salim
Origin: Akum (border village in Homs countryside)
Year of birth: 1988
Number of children: Two sons, one daughter
Name: Ala' Hussein al-Muhammad
Origin: al-Bajajiya
Year of birth: 1985
Number of children: Three daughters
Name: Yusuf Tarad al-Dankawi
Origin: al-Ghasaniya
Year of birth: 1992
Number of children: None (unmarried)
Name: Bassam Ibrahim al-Ali
Origin: al-Salmiya (Hama)
Year of birth: 1990
Number of children: One son, one daughter 
Name: Salim Mustafa Kanyar
Origin: al-Wa'er (Homs city)
Year of birth: 1989
Number of children: One son, one daughter
Name: Abd al-Rahman Khidr al-Hada
Origin: al-Bajajiya (but had lived in al-Qasr)
Year of birth: 1998
Number of children: None (unmarried) 
Name: Hassan Saleh al-Muhammad
Origin: al-Aqarabiya (border village in Homs countryside)
Year of birth: 1991
Number of children: None (unmarried)

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a research fellow at Middle East Forum's Jihad Intel project.

By Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi  |  January 27, 2018  |  Permalink

Interview with YPG Spokesman Nouri Mahmoud

Originally published under the title "Interview with the YPG Spokesman."

YPG spokesman Nouri Mahmoud. Photo by author.

Qamishli, Syria - The People's Protection Units (YPG) is the main force within the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). On 19 January, just outside Qamishli city, I was able to conduct an exclusive interview Nouri Mahmoud, the spokesman for the YPG. We discussed a variety of issues including the situation in Afrin (where Turkey has since launched an operation under the name of 'Olive Branch' against the SDF), relations with foreign powers like the U.S., Iran and Russia, and even the independence referendum held in the Iraqi Kurdistan region in September 2017.

Rather than commenting on this interview at length, I simply present the transcript below (slightly edited for clarity).

Firstly as an introduction, can you tell me when the YPG was established, what was the foundational aim for the units, in what areas has it fought, and how many martyrs does it have until now?

Concerning the YPG's establishment, since the beginning of the revolution: young men and girls of this society undertook to protect their society, beginning from the streets. We began from the streets, for thus was the security [situation] in Syria.


Da'esh: Islamic State
YPJ: Women's version of the YPG.
PKK: Kurdistan Worker's Party
AKP: Justice and Development Party of Erdogan in Turkey.
YBS: Sinjar Resistance Units (Yezidi forces in Iraq linked to the PKK).
al-Sham: Damascus
PYD: Democratic Union Party, the main political authority in SDF areas.

In the beginning we undertook the protection of our areas and our streets. From that time, we brought about from this same opportunity for the community that it should hold its councils, discuss, and build the first project under our protection. That was in 2012 approximately, more or less, until this day. This matter developed from street to city, and from city to the north of Syria.

We can say that after we came out of the framework of the street and reached the city, the society developed its project in order to resolve its affairs and put in place a system in its cities, and they developed the project of the sectors- or the cantons. And after that, we can say that there is another project now: the federal system of north Syria in the framework of the areas that the SDF protects. And we as the YPG and YPJ are a part of these forces. After bringing an end to Da'esh, in particular in Raqqa, there is now another project for all of Syria, and it is a political project: the Syrian Democratic Council, aiming for the democratization of Damascus or Syria generally.

As for the number of martyrs, we can say that we have offered thousands of martyrs. As for our numbers, they have exceeded 50,000: between 50,000 and 70,000 as the SDF.

But the YPG is the main component of the SDF?

It is the main force, and not the main component. The main force: the YPG and YPJ since the beginning, waged war or defended. Indeed, we defended in Sere Kaniye [Ras al-Ayn] and Kobani the society and its gains and we managed to destroy the terrorist groups in Sere Kaniye, supported by Turkey in particular. And for the first time, we were the ones able to stop Da'esh in Kobani. Before Da'esh reached Kobani, Da'esh announced itself in Raqqa and claimed that it is the capital of its claimed Caliphate, and despite the existence of all the armies in the region, whether the current regime army, the Turkish army, the Iranian army, the Iraqi army, or even the Peshmerga. All of them were present.

The room where I interviewed Nouri Mahmoud. Note the YPG logo with "general command" inscribed below it. Photo by author.

Despite that, Da'esh announced its terrorist organization and reached the borders of Baghdad and the borders of Damascus, and likewise it announced itself in many of the countries of the Middle East and undertook terrorist operations in Europe and Asia, and they were expanding until they reached Kobani. In Kobani for the first time we as the YPG and YPJ proved before the world that it was possible to stand in the face of the greatest global terror and afterwards diminish it whenever the time extended. So we have powerful experiences in the global war on terror. And we can say that SDF after the great battles in Raqqa and now Asifat al-Jazeera in Deir az-Zor, the SDF in all its forces inside it has acquired great experiences. But in the beginning we as the YPG and YPJ, we have been the most experienced force in the war against Da'esh. Therefore we have been an important part of the SDF. But now we can say the SDF is a force formed from all the components present in the north of Syria, and is the only force that has been able to protect society and preserve for society the opportunity to develop its projects, protecting their affairs in the beginning, from the house of the people to the sector and today to the federation of north Syria, and the suggestion of a political solution for all of Syria in the Syrian Democratic Council.

What proportion of the SDF is YPG approximately? 80%, for example? Or you don't know the proportion?

We don't want to define the proportion, nor do we account for each other on this basis. We are Syrian society and we have natural responsibility. This is Syria, our homeland. We are always ready to protect every inch of Syria, wherever it is.

Of course there is the Turkish campaign against the Afrin region. How is the YPG responding to this attack/campaign? For example, have YPG reinforcements arrived from the sectors of Kobani and Jazeera to Afrin? How did they arrive in Afrin if reinforcements have gone?

In truth, the Turkish people and Turkey generally were always a strong support for the revolution of Rojava and north Syria. The Turkish people, or the peoples present in Turkey, stood as human shields in Sere Kaniye and Kobani, protecting Sere Kaniye and Kobani for days, weeks and even months, such that it brought matters under control in Sere Kaniye and Kobani was liberated. Peoples present in Turkey have been helping this revolution and undertaking the obligations of neighbours with the revolution of the north of Syria, or all of Syria. But the current authority in Turkey that wants to rule and impose itself on Turkey and all the Middle East: as you know, since the beginning of the undertaking of revolution by the people of the Middle East, the AKP and its head Recep Tayyip Erdogan especially built a palace composed of a thousand rooms in Istanbul, and wanted to return to the Ottoman Sultan way and build an Erdogan sultanate, and they relied on the Muslim Brotherhood specifically, and as you know, in Egypt, Tunisia, there were parties called Justice and Development and the Justice and Nour Party, from these names that were very close to this aspiration. This authority- and not Turkey- the current authority that has exploited and seized all the institutions present in Turkey works for its interest only for the sake of the regime of one man, who is the president of the Turkish Republic, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. So he has waged war against us since the beginning of the revolution.

This war is not new. In Sere Kaniye, the Turkish gates were open for Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham. And we proved for the first time that al-Qaeda was participating in the war on Sere Kaniye. Whether arms, mercenary gangs, or logistics, all of this was coming from Turkey, and at the same time, their wounded were going to Turkey to receie treatment. In Kobani as well, for the first time, this authority brought down through the borders of Syria and opened the route for the Da'esh terrorists to surround our forces in Kobani in order to bring it down. And as you remember, Erdogan was saying: 'Kobani has fallen, and is about to fall.' It was their slogan in that area. But we as YPG and SDF today were able to thwart these masks whether under the name of the Free Army or Arab Spring, or under the name of religion that Da'esh represents. These are the masks that failed in the matter. And the AKP and its head Recep Tayyip Erdogan supported these forces in all forms. And today, we see that no power or force has remained in these terrorist groups or this terrorist organization Da'esh, so today Erdogan and his party are exploiting the Turkish army/Turkish military establishment whose obligation it is to protect Turkey: they are exploiting it to attack Afrin.

The main reason is the democratic understanding and project being developed in the area, in north Syria and Afrin. He wants to wipe out this project because this project with regards to him is the main reason for the failure of the Erdogan sultanate project he was aiming to organize in the Middle East. He was saying that in the Middle East, each state after another would fall like domino blocks. So the attack now on Afrin is an attack on the democratic understanding that is being developed and will be the only hope for the Syrian people in all its components and creeds. As for how to go, this question is one of intelligence: from where to where, how we go, this is something that concerns us and no one else.

It is not necessary to clarify how to go, but have reinforcements arrived from Kobani and Jazeera to Afrin?

Afrin can protect itself. Yesterday we saw, I don't know if you have been following Afrin, the city of Afrin from children, sheikhs, women and youth: all of them were in the streets and shouting that they would protect Afrin with all the force they had, and that they would be going on the path of Kobani, and that the current Turkish authority must understand that Afrin is by no means less than Kobani, and that the battle will be greater than the one for Kobani, and the resistance will be greater than in Kobani. Therefore Afrin has the ability to protect itself. Afrin has its mountains, its people. Also the YPG, Jaysh al-Thuwar present in the area and other factions: all of them will protect Afrin. And before now also, the current authority in Turkey and its mercenary gang from Euphrates Shield tested themselves to Ein Daqna, and their fate was failure.

A former MP for the PKK in the Syrian parliament said today to al-Watan newspaper that is loyal to the regime that the most preferable solution for Afrin is to raise the flag of the Syrian Arab Republic in Afrin, and that the YPG must...

Don't ask me about people who jest, or jesters, the likes of which you are speaking about. This jester, this person does not concern me.

Not about this person, but...

The Kurdistan Workers' Party or PKK: it does not concern me what they say...

Sure. But what is your opinion on the suggestion of raising the Syrian flag in Afrin to prevent the Turkish attack on Afrin?

The problem for the Syrian people is not with the Syrian flag, but it is the current regime is the regime that must change. The people chanted for freedom and democracy. They did not chant for this regime or this person, this side or this party. The Syrian people want freedom and democracy. We protect this people so that they may attain freedom and democracy.

Are you saying that the solution for the Syrian crisis generally is the departure of Bashar al-Assad from power?

Departure or democratization of the regime goes back to the society and its people. And the people rules. This isn't my opinion. I don't want my opinion or that of any party to be applied: I want it to go back to the society, and societ‎y's opinion to be applied. If the society wants Bashar al-Assad to rule, fine. But what we see now in Deir az-Zor: the regime boasts that it has liberated Deir az-Zor, Mayadeen, Albukamal and these regions, but all of the Deiri people are with us. More than 500,000 people- nearly a million Deiri citizens- fled to the north of Syria under the control of SDF because of the presence of the regime in Deir az-Zor. If this [the regime] were the most representative solution for the Syrian people, would the Syrian people have been displaced from Deir az-Zor, fled from Deir az-Zor and come to the north of Syria under the control of the SDF? Therefore, we want society's opinion to be applied, and society's aims, which are freedom and democracy, to be realized.

So the only solution must be elections without any problems and the people choose the authority...

Yes. Of course Syria has come to have forces like SDF formed from all the components and creeds. So this force has managed to open up the opportunity in the areas in which it has protected society to set up legislative, implementation and service councils, justice [system], internal security, so society has been able to establish its institutions in a form dozens or hundreds of times more preferable than the current regime. Therefore, Syria will realize freedom and democracy.

How are YPG's relations with America and Russia generally?

We have previously announced more than once that we- especially with the U.S. and international coalition (Britain is also a part of this international coalition)- had a strategy to put an end to Da'esh. This strategy began from Kobani, and today, as Da'esh is about to come to an end in Deir az-Zor, after the development or the success of this strategy, many of the forces or armies present including that of the regime have parasitically exploited our victories and now it [the regime army] is claiming that they are victorious, but the Syrian people departs towards us. And after putting an end to Da'esh, we are on a new agreement or new strategy: to bring stability to Syria...or establishing stability, or securing stability in Syria.

And do you expect the Americans will remain in Syria in order to help you in this project of stability?

Until now, we and the Americans are agreed on the opinions to put an end to Da'esh and terrorism, and keeping oppression away from society, even if some of the authorities present in the region have other opinions. But we are agreed on putting an end to terrorism, bringing stability and keeping away any oppression or attack on this society that resisted the greatest terrorism in the entire world and bore the entire world [burden] in this region. So I consider that we, the Americans and the international coalition have succeeded in great work and we can succeed in much greater matters. But now the current strategy is the stability of Syria, and in the future, whether or not we stay with each other, I am sure that we will undertake very good and very great works for the future of Syria, and that Syria will turn into a model of the Middle East, and will be the starting point for global peace, if God wills.

If tomorrow the Damascus government decided to recognize the federal region of north Syria as an official federal region within Syria, you don't have a problem with that?

We don't have a problem. We are prepared to discuss, and we don't want to partition Syria. And we don't want to draw new borders, but rather we are torn apart by the borders present in the region. All the borders constitute a problem for us. These borders that divide a city from another, like Qamishli, which is divided from Nusaybin. I may have my sister or brother there and I am here, and I can't go to Turkey because of the policies of this authority and that authority. So it's not about new borders in Syria, but we want al-Sham to be democratic. We want the society in this state to be a free society, that has free will, and that the assumption for society is that there should be the open field before it to be expressed.

Do you have any relations with Russia, and what is Russia's role in the Afrin events currently?

We consider Russia to be a great state and must play a positive role in Syria and not only consider its interests. It must consider its global centre and deal according to this centre. But what we see now in Idlib and Afrin is that there is a Turkish imposition on Russia as Turkey fears for its interests, and it [Russia] is on the point of accepting that Turkey should intervene in Afrin, especially after the failure of the current Turkish authority in its invasion operations in Idlib days ago. The current authority has imposed itself on Russia to exchange Afrin for Idlib. Therefore what we see now in Russia, despite the fact it is a great state in the world and must be a force of the solution, we see that is more fearful for its interests than what it is developing or offering from opinions, ideas and projects that benefit this society, and benefiting this region. So it is very weak on these points and embracing its narrow interests more than the greater interests.

Has Russia withdrawn from the Afrin area?

I don't think that Russia will withdraw from the Afrin area.

They are present in Afrin but there was talk from Turkey that they withdrew.

Turkey today: Turkey has a method of special war or method of rumour so it publishes rumours and lies and accusations in order to gain legitimacy to intervene in northern Syria. Turkey accuses us of terrorism as the YPG, but we put an end to the greatest terrorism in the world, and this Da'eshi terrorism, every senior figure of this terrorism we have arrested in the war, bore the passport stamped by Turkey. And they accuse us of terrorism! This authority is the main supporter or is the mother of terrorism that announced itself in Syria.

Does the YPG still want to connect by land the Afrin area with the Kobani area and Jazeera area?

After putting an end to Da'esh, after the end of Da'esh, we believe in dialogue. And we will protect our society from any attack or any side. We will protect our society without hesitation and with sacrificial spirit. Relying on our acquired experiences over the past years, we will protect our society to the last shot against any attack. And we do not want to wage war, but rather we want to resolve the cause politically and open the space for society to resolve the Syria issue and attain its aims in a democratic and free manner. So if any side wants to impose itself by means of force and arms on society, we will stand in its way, defending our society and legitimacy of society, the societal council, mutual consultation of society and the societal project. So this will be our stance. And we don't have aims and objectives to open the borders from here or separate this town there from that town, but rather we want Damascus to be democratic, and for all components of Syria to be free.

Do you have any relations with Iran? There are those who hate the YPG and say that through the YBS, it helps Iran to bring in arms to Syria in order to support Iran and its allies in Syria.

Iran has opened the route and now has the Shi'i crescent, beginning from Iraq to Lebanon wherein it can take all that it deals in all the way to the Mediterranean Sea, so it does not have a need to build [another route], and Iran is the state that is an impediment before the democratization of Syria. Iran stands in the way of democracy in Syria, in order to protect its interests, and Iran is sowing war, supporting war in Syria in order that the [inaudible] and violence should continue in it.

There is talk that the Americans hope that if they stay in Syria it will be possible to get Iran out of Syria. What do you think of that?

You are asking me questions I have nothing to do with. Why are you asking these questions? We work for the sake of democracy and freedom. We do not want hostility of any side towards another. We want solutions that serve society and not authorities only. That is our aim. And we ask that they do not drag us into global politics that our society has no place in. Our aim is as clear as the Sun: we want democracy and freedom, nothing more.

And the interests of the Syrian people.

Yes, yes,

Are there currently relations with the Iraqi government?

Yes. That appeared from the SDF on the borders and in order to protect the borders, that appeared in the media and general view.

Is there coordination with the Iraqi government in order to protect the borders?

Yes, yes. There is coordination with the Iraqi government in order to protect the borders.

Are you not afraid of the Hashd Sha'abi?

Why should we be afraid of the Hashd Sha'abi? What are the reasons that should make us fear the Hashd Sha'abi?

If you think it is an Iranian project, possibly it is a problem?

We overcame the greatest global terrorism: Da'esh. Iran was present, the Hashd Sha'abi was present, and all the armies were present. All of them lost battles with Da'esh, but we were victorious. And we proved before the entire world that we were victorious before all, and we put a stop to the Da'esh expansion in Kobani. No force can boast that it put a stop to Da'esh. Da'esh reached the borders of Baghdad and al-Sham, and announced itself in many of the countries of the Middle East and carried out terrorist operations in Europe and Asia. For the first time in Kobani, youth and girls of this society: they are the ones who put a stop to Da'esh and put a stop to the expansion of Da'esh, and now we are putting an end to them, on the point of destroying them entirely: that is, geographically we are putting an end to them, and after that, we will work on putting an end to the cells present among society and the poison [?] they planted among society. So where was the Hashd Sha'abi?

But there are people who say the YBS is affiliated with the Hashd Sha'abi, but can you clarify that this is not true?

I don't represent the YBS. I represent the YPG. You can ask the YBS about this.

But it's difficult to connect with them. But the YBS was affiliated with the YPG...

You hear Turkey's opinion more than the opinion of the society in the north of Syria. I criticize you from this angle. The north of Syria has institutions more than the states present in the Middle East. The north of Syria has many societal institutions, whether women's institutions, society institutions, economic institutions, education, health. All these institutions are present. But what we see is that they make accusations against the PYD, claiming [?] it has simple bases, and [inaudible] the citizens of the land. But you know it. What is the role of the PYD in the area? Or they speak of the Kurdish forces, when more than 50% of the SDF is Arab. You can go and see for yourself.

Yes, I have seen Arab fighters even within the YPG.

Not just Arabs. There are Armenians, Assyrians, Circassians, Turkmen, Muslims, Yezids, Christians: all of them present within the SDF. But you insist and accuse us of party-[ism] or nationalism...

I am not accusing.

Turkey is accusing. But you as journalists are influenced heavily by the policies that Turkey undertakes towards us.

May I ask: are you from Qamishli?

I am from Kobani.

Did you study at university?

I did not study in university. When I was 16 years old, I was imprisoned in the Palestine branch for more than 6 months despite the fact that I was below the legal age. Since that time, I have been a person of revolution, struggling for the sake of attaining freedom and democracy.

Were you always in YPG? Or were you in the FSA?

The YPG is not older than 6 years, but we are from the heart of the revolutionaries.

What is the situation in Sheikh Maqsoud in Aleppo city? Is the YPG present there?


Is there an agreement between you and the Syrian government?

We protect Sheikh Maqsoud. The society in Sheikh Maqsoud wants us to protect Sheikh Maqsoud. Sheikh Maqsoud has great importance, and Sheikh Maqsoud proves that we are Syrians, and that we don't have a project like Mas'oud Barzani's: partitioning Syria. Had we been wanting to partition Syria, we would have overlooked Sheikh Maqsoud, Rukn al-Din [Kurdish quarter in Damascus], Zuhr Ava, Ashrafiya and the other areas present.

Does the Syrian government offer public services for Sheikh Maqsoud?

The people of Sheikh Maqsoud protect themselves by themselves, while the regime army and the mercenary gangs connected with Turkey- or the terrorist groups: all of them attacked Sheikh Maqsoud. Despite that, Sheikh Maqsoud displayed the greatest resistance. The resistance of Sheikh Maqsoud was greater than Kobani, but in media not much was said about it. But Sheikh Maqsoud has been resisting from the first day until now without stopping, against this group or that group, defending itself in order to protect our Syrian identity.

Yes. I ask because there has been talk of raising the Syrian flag in Sheikh Maqsoud. Do you know about this?

They said we have sold Sheikh Maqsoud, or bought, or we have become businessmen...As a result of our presence in Sheikh Maqsoud, and we are Syrians, and Sheikh Maqsoud is a part of Syria, just as the north of Syria is a part of Syria. And we have a project of democratic federalism: it is a societal project, discussed by Syrian society in north Syria and now suggesting it for all of Syria.

What was your opinion on the Kurdistan referendum? Was it a mistake?

It is something that has passed. What we can say is that it harmed Iraq. It was an adventurous risk not for the Kurdish people or the Iraqi people, but rather for a party or person.

For Barzani's interests, you mean.

Whatever it was. It was an adventurous risk not in accordance with the current leadership or democratic leadership and freedom in Iraq. Therefore, it planted fitna [strife] among all. Iraq has lost a lot by this referendum.

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a research fellow at Middle East Forum's Jihad Intel project.

By Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi  |  January 24, 2018  |  Permalink

Dispatch: The Syrian Democratic Forces' Border Guards

All photos by Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi

A graduation ceremony, attended by U.S. military personnel, for members of a new border force in northeast Syria.

Qamishli, Syria – There has recently been some confusion in media regarding plans for so-called "Border Forces" of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). U.S. officials seemed to backtrack on the existence of such an initiative following outcry from Turkey, but on the ground the training and organizing of these border forces are going ahead.

In fact, it is openly being advertised to journalists inside the SDF areas. Today at 10 a.m. local time in the vicinity of the Sabah al-Khayr silos in the Hasakah countryside (to the south of Hasakah city), I attended the graduation of the second contingent of the SDF border forces. At the graduation ceremony, personnel of this contingent were waving SDF and Self-Defence Forces banners. Overseeing the ceremony were SDF officers and trainers as well as some U.S. personnel. It should of course be noted that the presence of the Americans is no surprise, as the U.S. is helping to train, arm and equip these fighters.

The ceremony was quite open in referring to the concept of border forces. "This force will be a foundational force to protect the borders of north Syria," proclaimed the announcer at the graduation ceremony. Note that 'north Syria' is understood to refer to the official name of the SDF-held areas: the Democratic Federation of North Syria.

The 250-member contingent has both Kurds and Arabs in its ranks.

In the same speech, the announcer also spoke of the border forces as intended to protect "all the borders of Syria," likely in reference to the official SDF goal of a united Syria that adopts a federal system. This force is intended to repel any group/entity that "threatens the security and stability of Syria." He further emphasized that the courses to build up the border forces would continue.

The following details could be ascertained from conversations with the newly trained fighters and their supervisors:

The contingent numbers some 250 fighters and has both Kurds and Arabs in its ranks, ranging in age from young to old. Indeed, one of the fighters I managed to speak to was an Arab from Ayn Issa in Raqqa countryside. However, it would appear that a plurality if not majority of the fighters are from the Kobani area. Some of them have little knowledge of Arabic. As a Kurdish trainer from Hasakah explained, this is because these Kurdish fighters grew up in the Kobani area without proper access to education to learn Arabic.

The contingent will be deployed between Tel Abyad and Kobani along Syria's border with Turkey.

The particular assignment of this contingent is to function as a border protection force, approximately between Kobani and Tel Abyad along the border with Turkey. The monthly salary will be approximately 70,000-90,000 Syrian pounds, varying according to assignments. The system of work and leave will be roughly 12 days of work and 3 days of leave permit. The training course lasted for 19 days. As far as prior experience goes, some of the fighters were already in the SDF before training to become part of the border forces, while others are new recruits.

Given that the borders of SDF territories are so long, the overall size of the border force will have to be very large. Eventual numbers in the range of 30,000 or more were not disputed.

The announcer also said these words during the graduation speech:

There are today threats on Syria's borders in Afrin, Jarabulus, Kobani, Ras al-Ayn, all of Jazeera [canton], even Idlib. For this reason, the establishment of the border guard forces is a legitimate right for the SDF.

It is difficult to see how this could not be aimed at least in part at deterring Turkey from attacking SDF areas. In addition, the fact U.S. personnel were present means they must be aware of this).

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a research fellow at Middle East Forum's Jihad Intel project.

By Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi  |  January 20, 2018  |  Permalink

The National Ideological Resistance and the Local Defence Forces

A poster of National Ideological Resistance "martyrs."

Readers may remember that some time ago I wrote about the National Ideological Resistance (aka Imam al-Mahdi Army), a Syrian Hezbollah-brand group with its primary base and origins in the Tartous-Masyaf area and led by Sayyid Hashim Muhammad Ali. The National Ideological Resistance has fought in a variety of areas (including Damascus, Palmyra and Aleppo) and has claimed dozens of 'martyrs'. It has also proclaimed the establishment of affiliates in the northeast of Syria and Quneitra.

What has become of the group today? What is its status in the wider milieu? The National Ideological Resistance still exists on the ground, but despite its Syrian Hezbollah image, the organization officially asserts that it is independent. As Sayyid Hashim put it to me in a statement recently:

It [the National Ideological Resistance] is not affiliated with any side, but it works with all sides and on all fronts without a direct affiliation. We do not have an affiliation with the [Iranian] Revolutionary Guard or Hezbollah. We are from all components of the Syrian people and throughout the lands of the Syrian Arab Republic, but we work with all national sides and those of friends.

For the reader's understanding: the جهات صديقة he speaks of normally refers to foreign allies of the Syrian government.

The statement contrasts with many other groups that also have a Syrian Hezbollah image but actually profess affiliation with Hezbollah/Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Many of these groups, rather than being isolated local entities, have become integrated into the Local Defence Forces (LDF) structure, which is backed by Iran and has an affiliation with the IRGC but at the same time is also on the registers of the Syrian armed forces.

Al-Khal in front of a portrait of Saleh al-Ali, an Alawite who led a revolt against the French in 1919.

However, while the National Ideological Resistance is officially professed to be independent as an organization, it must be noted that fighting contingents that have existed under its wing have an affiliation with the LDF. The most notable case is that of al-Khal ('The Uncle'), who is originally from Tartous and is involved with the National Ideological Resistance. A page entitled "Local Defence Forces: Tartous sector" has featured photos of the "al-Khal contingents" stationed in Aleppo province, in particular the Afrin area. These contingents are sometimes described as "border guard" forces: that is, apparently acting as border guards between the government-held areas and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces/YPG in the Afrin area. These contingents led by al-Khal have been linked with Fawj al-Nayrab of the Aleppo LDF.

As al-Khal himself explained to me regarding his relationship with Sayyid Hashim and the LDF: "We [Sayyid Hashim and I] are with each other, but I have taken forces from the [National Ideological] Resistance and affiliated them with the Local Defence." He explained that he joined the LDF around 8 months ago, which would correspond to April 2017, the same month in which the LDF received recognition from the Syrian government. That is, those within the LDF who had evaded obligatory service, reserve service and deserted the army would have their status regularized and the summoning status for obligatory/reserve service altered to the LDF, whereas civilians working with the LDF could have recruitment contracts of two years subject to extension within the 'People's Army' (al-Jaysh al-Sha'abi). Regarding the LDF sector affiliation of his contingents, al-Khal explained it as follows: "I am the recipient of personnel in Tartous who are working in Aleppo."* As with other LDF contingents, operations are not necessarily confined to the sector/area of origin.

In short, this case continues the trend of integrating forces into larger networks and highlights the importance of not simply counting groups as individual entities for the sake of producing simplistic statistics.

* It will be noted from the LDF administrative decisions in April 2017 that relatively few personnel are recorded under the Tartous sector in comparison with sectors like Aleppo and Damascus.

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a research fellow at Middle East Forum's Jihad Intel project.

By Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi  |  January 17, 2018  |  Permalink

And a FOURTH Foreign Imam Promotes Hatred—Cancel His Visa!

Clockwise from top left: U.S.-based imams Abdullah Khadra, Aymen Elkasaby, Raed Saleh Al-Rousan, and Ammar Shahin share common tastes in headwear and an abiding hatred of Jews.

The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) has yet again discovered an extremist imam who delivered an anti-Semitic sermon in Arabic, this time in Raleigh, NC. The imam, Syrian-born Abdullah Khadra, spoke on December 8, 2017—the same day as the violent sermon delivered by Aymen Elkasaby in New Jersey, and that of Raed Saleh Al-Rousan in Houston, which followed the Trump administration's acknowledgment of Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

Just as the others did, Khadra called upon Muslims to "contribute to regaining" control over Israel, saying, "The Prophet Muhammad gave us the glad tidings that at the End of Time, we will fight those Jews until the rocks and the trees will speak: Oh Muslim, this is a Jew behind me." Here, Khadra was referencing the infamous Hadith which continues, "...there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him."

Along with the Davis, CA imam Ammar Shahin, who in July 2017 called on Muslims to kill Jews around the world, this brings the number of extremist imams revealed by MEMRI since 2017 to four.

Astoundingly, all four of these imams came to the United States using a student visa or a religious-worker (R-1) visa. Khadra first came to America on an R-1 visa in 2011. (In April 2017, he was reported to be applying for political asylum.) Elkasaby's employer applied for an R-1 visa for him in 2016.

Shahin came to the United States in 1999 on a student visa — initially to study computer science, but then remaining as a perennial student of Arabic, Islamic Studies, and Islamic Sciences. (He is currently a PhD student at the Islamic University of Minnesota, which is known for pervasive links to extremism.) Similarly, Al-Rousan came to the U.S. in 2007 from Jordan to pursue a master's degree at the Graduate Theological Foundation in Indiana, almost certainly using a student visa.

Visa holders who incite violence in this fashion should jeopardize their legal status in this country.

As the saying goes, once is happenstance, twice is coincidence... but four times? America has no need to import hatred from abroad, to infect its own communities. An easy first step is to simply enforce existing law. The Trump administration's "extreme vetting" program imposes no new requirements on visa applicants, merely providing the resources and bureaucratic mandate for screeners to apply the requirements that already are in place. Beyond that, visa holders who incite violence in this fashion should jeopardize their legal status in this country. Abuse our hospitality, and we have no reason to continue extending it.

All we need is the political will to enforce our own laws, and to protect the U.S. Muslim community from the virus of foreign hatreds.

Oren Litwin is a research fellow for Islamist Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.

By Oren Litwin  |  January 12, 2018  |  Permalink

Terror Threat Forces Christmas Closure of Ancient Egyptian Monastery

Originally published under the title "Ancient Egyptian Monastery Closed and Christmas Canceled."

Saint Catherine Monastery in Sinai

Local authorities decided to close down the Saint Catherine Monastery in the Sinai Peninsula, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, on January 5 and January 6, when Christmas church services are held according to the Orthodox calendar.[1] The general directorate of tourist police further ordered all tourist companies not to lead tours to the historic monastery.

Although the official reason for temporarily closing down the building and canceling Christmas is due to the establishment of a plan for the development of the surrounding area as befits a World Heritage Site, it is believed that the order came as a precautionary safeguard against Islamic terrorists targeting the site and any foreign tourists visiting it during the Christmas holiday.

Built in the mid-sixth century, the Saint Catherine Monastery is one of the oldest monasteries in the world; additionally, it has the oldest continuously operating library in existence, with many precious manuscripts.

Although surrounded by high, thick walls, the Christian site has increasingly come under terror threats, particularly as the Sinai Peninsula is a hotbed of jihadi activity, where Coptic Christians are openly persecuted and sometimes slaughtered.

The monastery was targeted last April, when unknown gunmen opened fire on an Egyptian police checkpoint guarding it, killing one policeman and wounding four. The Islamic State later claimed the attack.

Raymond Ibrahim is a Judith Friedman Rosen Fellow at the Middle East Forum.

[1] Because most Orthodox Churches, including the Coptic Church, observe Christmas on January 7, church services are held the night before, on January 6, into midnight January 7.

By Raymond Ibrahim  |  January 5, 2018  |  Permalink

Fawj al-Karbala'i: Republican Guard Affiliate

A martyrdom poster for Fawj al-Karbala'i fighter Al-Hajj Abd al-Qadir Ahmad al-Dais. Note the Shi'i Sayyida Zainab shrine depicted in the background.

The elite Republican Guard is one of the main actors on the government side in the Syrian civil war that set up auxiliary formations. Prominent examples include the Popular Defense Forces (Quwat al-Difa' al-Sha'abi) primarily based in the Qalamoun area near the border with Lebanon and Liwa Sayf al-Haq, whose base is in the Sayyida Zainab area but has operated in the Qalamoun area. The Republican Guard has also aimed to extend its reach into towns where it might compete with other formations for influence, such as the 'reconciled' Damascus countryside town of al-Tal.

Fawj al-Karbala'i (The Karbala'i Regiment), named for its leader who goes by the name of al-Hajj Abu Ali al-Karbala'i, is a group that has most recently come under the Republican Guard umbrella of 'Ittihad Jaysh al-Asha'ir (Union of the Army of the Tribes). It should be noted that a Jaysh al-Asha'ir (Army of the Tribes) was also set up by the Republican Guard for the southern province of Dera'a in December 2017.

According to a source from Fawj al-Karbala'i, the group was established in 2014. Its engagements have so far included the areas of Aleppo, Damascus, Homs and Deir az-Zor. Although the name of al-Karbala'i (of Karbala', the Shi'i holy city in Iraq) may be taken to suggest that the group's leader is from Iraq, he is in fact Syrian. Based on the name he has assumed and various photos of him, he is likely Syrian Shi'i.

Abu Ali al-Karbala'i at the Sayyida Ruqayya shrine in Damascus.

Prior to the existence of a meaningful profile of Fawj al-Karbala'i on social media, some references to the group turn up on pro-government pages that feature posts alleging corruption and criminal behavior. One of the figures these posts focus on is Wahib Saqr, a Syrian army general originally from Jableh who was killed fighting the Islamic State in east Aleppo countryside and earned the nickname 'Saqr Halab' (Hawk of Aleppo) for his role in the fighting there.

One of these posts from January 2017, for example, denounces Wahib Saqr as the "hero of fictional battles...and the king of plundering and acts of theft," alleging that he engaged in such actions in Aleppo, Khan al-'Assal (west Aleppo countryside) and Deir az-Zor. The post mentions his alleged "dealing in sugar, cigarettes, rice and flour," which appears to refer to the war profiteering that developed out of the extended Islamic State siege of government-held areas of Deir az-Zor. These actions are said to have been carried out to the detriment of the "heroes of the air college" in Aleppo who "have been continuing day and night in working on strengthening the lines of defense with the minimum means and available individual weapons." For context, "the air college" refers to the area of Kweiris airbase to the east of Aleppo city, about which more below. Among the alleged thieves working for Wahib Saqr, the post alleges, is the "leader of a so-called group, al-Hajj Abu Ali al-Karbala'i, the one called Abu Firas (Muhammad al-Meqdad): for he and his group are responsible for cutting up olive trees and stealing the property of citizens in the villages that have been liberated."

Abu Ali al-Karbala'i (left) with Tayseer Khalil (right), leader of the Popular Defence Forces.

A similar post from December 2016 calls him Abu Firas al-Der'awi (suggesting he is originally from Dera'a), describing him as "leader of the al-Karbala'i group, and it is a group comprising many thieves...and the greatest calamity is that this group is located within the points of protecting Kweiris military airbase," which was besieged by the Islamic State until November 2015, when Syrian government forces backed by Iranian and Russian allies broke the siege. Wahib Saqr is said to have been one of the leaders of the campaign to break the siege, meeting his son Ala' who had been among the besieged personnel in the airbase.

However, operations after breaking the siege were primarily confined to protecting the periphery of the airbase, as the focus shifted to retaking Aleppo city in its entirety. Once that had been completed by December 2016, attention turned towards recapturing the remaining eastern Aleppo countryside from the declining Islamic State, partly aiming to block further advances by the Turkish-backed 'Euphrates Shield' group of rebels. In relation to the campaign pushing into the eastern Aleppo countryside, a post from February 2017 mentions acts of plundering by some groups linked to Wahib Saqr and other groups claiming affiliation with Suhail al-Hasan's Tiger Forces. Among the former is the "al-Karbala'i group led by a person from Dera'a, a traitor to the homeland." The result of the plundering is that "people have begun raising their hands and saying: if only they had not been liberated" in reference to the countryside areas east of Aleppo.

It is difficult to come by information on Wahib Saqr's involvement in operations prior to the Aleppo theatre in 2015-2017, where it appears he was particularly close to the Arab Nationalist Guard. While Fawj al-Karbala'i's deployment to the periphery of Kweiris airbase is corroborated, the source from Fawj al-Karbala'i denied that Abu Ali al-Karbala'i is from Dera'a. Rather, he is a doctor from Homs. The source also affirmed that Fawj al-Karbala'i had been working with the Republican Guard from the outset of its formation. From one post, it is evident that Fawj al-Karbala'i has been linked with the Popular Defence Forces.

al-Hajj Khalid (third from left) and Abu Ali al-Karbala'i (fourth from left). Jum'a al-Ahmad on furthest right. One of the photos put out as part of the announcement of 'Ittihad Jaysh al-Asha'ir.

'Ittihad Jaysh al-Asha'ir was formed in October 2017. Under Republican Guard leadership, the conglomeration most notably includes Fawj al-Karbala'i and a group led by Sheikh Tamam al-Tarkawi, who appears to have been involved with air intelligence. Posts on the establishment of 'Ittihad Jaysh al-Asha'ir also mention a leadership role for one al-Hajj Khalid (Abu Hussein), who is better known as the leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-linked group called Liwa al-Baqir. Included as part of these posts are photos that include Abu Ali al-Karbala'i and al-Hajj Khalid as well as Jum'a al-Ahmad, another prominent figure in Liwa al-Baqir. All that said, the source from Fawj al-Karbala'i said that "al-Baqir has no relation with Jaysh al-Asha'ir," presumably referring to Liwa al-Baqir as a formation.

'Ittihad Jaysh al-Asha'ir offers a monthly salary of 50,000 Syrian pounds, with recruitment open for people from ages 18-42, including those wanted for military and reserve service and those who evaded the draft or deserted, for whom there is the possibility of taswiyat al-wad' if they have not committed a crime of murder. 'Ittihad Jaysh al-Asha'ir does not accept military personnel on active duty. The schedule operates according to 15 days of work and 15 days of rest each month.The group's base is in Damascus at Governorate Square.

Since its inception, 'Ittihad Jaysh al-Asha'ir's most notable campaign has been in the eastern region, including the Albukamal area. At the present time though, focus has shifted towards the Hama-Idlib front where intense fighting is taking place, reflecting a wider withdrawal of forces (including foreign militias) that participated in the campaign to retake the eastern regions from the Islamic State. Indeed, there has been an extensive mobilization of forces for the Hama and Idlib countryside campaigns. Meanwhile, the Syrian army and local militias seeking new recruits have mostly been left to hold ground in Deir az-Zor, with a small Hezbollah presence remaining as well.

Abu Ali al-Karbala'i in Deir az-Zor (left) and on the road to Mohassan in Deir az-Zor.

The turn of many forces back towards the west has created problems as the Islamic State has not fully lost territorial control in the province. As the leader of Liwa al-Imam Zain al-Abidin who is currently in Deir az-Zor put it to me: "In the Albukamal countryside, we have martyrs daily in the areas [we] control, especially after the withdrawal of the Nimr [Suhail al-Hassan] and his forces and the withdrawal of Liwa al-Quds who have headed towards Idlib...there is only a small number [of the allied forces: Hezbollah, Iraqi factions etc.]. Currently the goal is to preserve the areas the army has seized."

As Hassan Hassan has argued, much of the eastern campaign on both sides (i.e. government and allies on one hand and Syrian Democratic Forces with U.S. coalition on the other) has focused on flag placing and claiming seizure of territory before proper control was asserted. The result is that we still have an active Islamic State insurgency in the border areas.

By now there are multiple auxiliary formations that focus on recruitment of tribesmen, such as the Forces of the Fighters of the Tribes and the Sha'itat Brigade that are affiliated with the military intelligence. Fawj al-Nabi al-Akram, which originated in the Syrian Hezbollah Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi and developed links with the 'Da'esh Hunters,' also featured tribal fighters among its 'martyrs' in the push towards the east. The group even took an alternative name of Kata'ib al-Hashd al-Asha'ir [al-Bakara] 313 (Battalions of the Mobilization of the Tribes: [al-Bakara] 313) in addition to the old name of Kata'ib al-Imam al-Ali. Indeed, the group's commander- Ayub Abd al-Sheikh, aka Abu Azzam- was killed in Deir az-Zor in autumn 2017. He was originally from the al-Zuhur neighborhood of al-Hasakah city, and had the nickname of 'Jaguar of the al-Bakara,' in reference to the al-Bakara tribe that dwells in al-Hasakah and Aleppo provinces (in the latter case forming the foundation of Liwa al-Baqir).

Abu Ali al-Karbala'i (furthest left) with Sheikh Aws al-Khafaji (centre), the leader of the Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Forces.

In a similar vein, leader of Liwa al-Imam Zain al-Abidin tells me that in coordination with al-Hajj Azra'il of Lions of the Eternal Leader, he would like to set up an initiative called Quwat Abna' al-Furat (Forces of the Sons of the Euphrates), focusing on tribal recruitment. The initiative may end up being supported by Hezbollah or the military intelligence.

For his part, the source from Fawj al-Karbala'i says his group has recruited in particular from the tribes of the central and eastern regions of Syria. The concept of tribal dynamics does not of course play a central role in every part of Syria, but it is clear the government and its allies considers tribes to be potentially useful for creating local holding and offensive forces in areas of Syria where they matter.

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a research fellow at Middle East Forum's Jihad Intel project.

By Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi  |  January 1, 2018  |  Permalink

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