A Rebel Crime and Western Lessons in Syria

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on July 24, 2016

Abdullah Issa on the back of a truck with Harakat Nooradeen al-Zengi fighters who will soon behead him

Abdullah Issa on the back of a truck with Harakat Nooradeen al-Zengi fighters who will soon behead him

A horrifying video emerged on Tuesday of a teenage boy being beheaded. This had occurred the day before around Handarat in Aleppo, northern Syria. The boy had been fighting for Liwa al-Quds, a militia of the regime of Bashar al-Assad, composed mostly of Palestinians from the Nayrab camp and likely also from the unofficial settlement at Ayn al-Tal near Handarat. The rebel group that took him captive and then murdered him was Harakat Nooradeen al-Zengi, which had previously received support, including TOW anti-tank missiles, from the United States’ covert program run by the Central Intelligence Agency, though that support ended nearly a year ago. The episode is important in itself, and underlines some trends, namely al-Zengi’s evolution and the dynamics underway in northern Syria, where the U.S. is preparing to intensify its de facto policy of collaborating pro-Assad coalition against Jihadi-Salafist terrorist groups, which are strengthening al-Qaeda.

Harakat Nooradeen al-Zengi

One of the first complications with al-Zengi is the sheer variety of ways to transliterate the group’s name. Nooradeen can be Nooridin, Noorideen, and Noor/Nur al-Din/Deen; Zengi can be Zangi and Zinki, among others. Harakat means “movement,” though sometimes the organization is referred to as kataib (brigade) instead. Nooradeen refers to the twelfth-century Seljuk atabeg of the Zengid dynasty, whose life’s project was the reunification of the Islamic community. Nooradeen managed to secure rulership between Mosul and Aleppo, and by the time of his death had added Damascus to his realm—therefore controlling most of Syria. Nooradeen also had formal control of Egypt—though de facto power was with his deputy and successor, the legendary Saladin al-Ayyubi—after sweeping away the Fatimid Empire, bringing the country back into the Sunni fold after two centuries of rule by the Mustali Ismailis. Nooradeen had, in course of his unification of Syria, done battle with the Nizaris, a radical splinter of the Ismailis born of a succession struggle in the Fatimid Caliphate in 1094, who are better-remembered to history as “The Assassins“.

Al-Zengi was formed in late 2011 in north-western Aleppo as the rebellion militarized in self-defence against the Assad regime’s widening crackdown. Led by Shaykh Tawfiq Shahabuddin, al-Zengi was involved when the revolution came to Aleppo City in July 2012 and has been part of every major Aleppine alliance since then.

Al-Zengi was briefly part of Liwa al-Tawhid, once the most powerful rebel group in Aleppo, now defunct with a large chunk of its membership in al-Jabhat al-Shamiya (The Levant Front).

Tapping into mainly Saudi finance networks of “conservative Salafi clerics who are hostile to al-Qaeda,” al-Zengi became part of al-Jabhat al-Asala wa-Tanmiya (The Authenticity and Development Front), whose branding occasionally shows up still.

When Jaysh al-Mujahideen formed in January 2014 to expel the Islamic State (IS) from Aleppo, it was local rejection of the extremists by the opposition that propelled it but there was certainly logistical and financial help from the Saudis. Jaysh al-Mujahideen still exists, albeit much smaller after al-Zengi and several other constituent brigades left.

Al-Zengi signed onto al-Tahaluf al-Islami (The Islamic Alliance) in September 2013; though it collapsed nearly as soon as it was announced it led on to another alliance—of which al-Zengi was not part—known as al-Jabhat al-Islamiyya (The Islamic Front), which also disassembled very quickly but whose brand has been rather longer-lasting, a sort of Salafi alternative to the Free Syrian Army (FSA), closely overseen by Ahrar al-Sham.

Notably, while al-Zengi has been associated with the mainstream armed opposition ideologically and until recently (see below) militarily, it never accepted the FSA branding. There are allegedly some Sufi components to al-Zengi and while the group can certainly be described as Islamist, its nature really is that of a conservative, localist group. Over time it has “adopted a pseudo-Salafi discourse” and trappings—such as long beards—that became a revolutionary fashion statement.

In the aftermath of the uprising that Hafez al-Assad crushed at Hama in February 1982, “the most benign religious activities were subject to drastic limitations” (p. 70). These restrictions loosened in the 1990s and loosened further under Bashar—at least far enough to allow the setting up of a jihadist paramilitary movement in Aleppo whose recruits the regime helped send into Iraq to join IS’s predecessor. Nonetheless, beards and other symbols of piety continued to attract the attention of the mukhabarat, so taking on such symbols became a means of anti-regime protest and defiance. “We could never grow [beards] before the uprising. This is the tough rebel look,” as one insurrectionist laughingly explained in 2012.

Later, religious symbols became a means by which rebels could draw external resources, from states like Qatar and Turkey and from networks in Kuwait especially but other Gulf countries, too. Given Saudi internal arrangements[1] there is an irony that Riyadh emerged “as the chief supporter of the most secular segment of the opposition,” but such was the case and it is precisely by the Saudi support to al-Zengi that its orientation away from the extremists may be known. For the Saudis in Syria, the objectives were two: to support groups opposed to the increasingly-Iran-dependent Assad regime and to support groups not linked to the Muslim Brotherhood or even harder-line revolutionary Islamists, both for reasons of its own internal stability and because such groups were in the orbit of Turkey and (most importantly in the Saudi mind) Qatar. Locally-focussed conservatives and apolitical Salafists, tribally-based forces, and nationalists were the beneficiaries of these policies.

Shaykh Tawfiq, who sold everything he owned to join the revolt, has proven to be pragmatic or a chameleon, depending on one’s perspective, and has tracked most of the major ebbs and flows in the rebellion. For example, after IS’s infiltration of Syria and its public declaration of its presence in April 2013, there were attempts to deal with it non-violently before the rebellion went to war with IS in January 2014. In the summer of 2013, Hizballah had open intruded into Syria at al-Qusayr and Assad had launched a massive chemical weapons attack on Ghouta, which was followed by a Western failure to punish him for it despite promises to, and preparations made with, the armed opposition for a round of military strikes. By late 2013, sectarianism was inflamed and forces associated with the West were discredited. Rebel leaders, including Tawfiq, therefore tried to contain IS by “trying to out-Muslim each other“: a lot of the discourse was granted to IS, but the rebels sought to keep their sons away from the organization and its methods, and to quarantine its influence. After the fighting began in 2014, the lines were drawn more clearly and the popular narrative shifted away from sectarianism and religious militancy.

In May 2014, al-Zengi was a signatory to the “Revolutionary Covenant,” a statement of principles that could have been issued by a secular organization. Later in the month, al-Zengi withdrew from Jaysh al-Mujahideen and thereafter received increased support from the Military Operations Command in Turkey—known by its Turkish initials, MOM—which coordinates the support for rebel groups in northern Syria between the U.S. (CIA), Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates. Al-Zengi had received TOW anti-tank missiles through the MOM by the summer of 2014. When the Levant Front was created on 25 December 2014, al-Zengi was a founding member.

The Conundrum of al-Qaeda

The first half of 2014 saw mounting challenges to Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Qaeda in Syria), as the mainstream opposition grew more assertive on one side and the Islamic State declared its caliphate on the other, drawing away significant numbers of al-Nusra’s foreign fighters and severely weakening (eventually destroying) its most powerful branch in Deir Ezzor. In July 2014, al-Nusra shifted to a more harsh public face, away from its pragmatism. There were also indications that what would later be known as the “Khorasan Group,” the al-Qaeda “central” (AQC) veterans dispatched to Syria, were plotting external attacks against the West. With the leak of an audio tape of al-Nusra’s leader, Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, suggested al-Nusra was about to set up an Emirate, it looked as if al-Nusra was about to go to war with the rebellion.

In early 2015, according to Charles Lister, al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri wrote to al-Jolani—the first time since the 2013 letter to al-Jolani and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, ordering the latter to stand down and return IS to Iraq. Al-Zawahiri “outlined a new and comprehensive strategy for Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria. … Zawahiri specifically called on Jolani to better integrate his movement within the Syrian revolution and its people; … to use strategic areas of the country to build a sustainable Al-Qaeda power base; and to cease any activity linked to attacking the West.” Al-Nusra soon thereafter did return to its previous “pragmatism” and formed the Jaysh al-Fatah coalition that swept the regime from Idlib City in March 2015.

On 21 July 2014, less than ten days after the leak about al-Nusra’s plans for an Emirate, al-Zengi was among those who released a statement saying that it was “suspend[ing] any and all forms of cooperation and coordination with Jabhat al-Nusra.” In late December 2014, al-Zengi became a founding member of the Levant Front, which included a spectrum of rebel groups and took funding from both responsible and less responsible opposition-supporting states. The Levant Front was formed in no small part because of concerns about al-Nusra’s growing assertiveness, and very specifically took on the FSA branding and the nationalist revolutionary rhetoric and symbolism of the protesters in 2011. But there was a problem.

The Levant Front coordinated with Jabhat al-Nusra. “It’s an arrangement that Washington does not like at all,” The Daily Beast reported at the time. Some U.S.-vetted brigades were “getting too close for our liking to al-Nusra or other extremists,” one U.S. official was (presciently) quoted as saying at the time, though the reasons for this were as explicable then as they are now, and one rebel laid them out plainly and tersely. “What do the Americans expect us to do?” the rebel commander asked. “It is a perilous time for us—Assad is pushing hard.” The regime, led by Shi’a jihadists controlled by the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Lebanese Hizballah—both U.S.-registered terrorist groups—was encircling Aleppo, as it has now successfully done.

(The rebels have tried to explain this dynamic again as the siege of Aleppo City is locked in. “[Western countries] abandon us … and then condemn us when we are forced to seek help [from al-Nusra]. Without them we would all have been killed a year ago. That is not politics. That is life and death,” as one rebel recently told the Guardian. Another rebel—who lamented that “Nusra is going to take us down with them”—was nonetheless even blunter about the reality of the situation: “We are forced to fight with them—it’s not even a choice.”)

In the second half of 2014, al-Zengi and other mainstream rebel groups in northern Syria were caught between an advancing regime and an al-Nusra that was cracking down—without any hindrance from the U.S.-led coalition. In October 2014, al-Nusra dismantled one of the most powerful U.S.- and Saudi-backed rebel groups, al-Jabhat Thuwar al-Suriya (The Syrian Revolutionaries’ Front or SRF), without even an attempt by the U.S. to prevent it. This would shortly be repeated with Harakat Hazm, and happened again earlier this year with Division Thirteen.

Between the destruction of SRF and the formation of the Levant Front, the only thing the U.S. had done was cut off the funding for four of the sixteen groups it had then-vetted—not including al-Zengi and Hazm. People in life-and-death situations make cold decisions, and the U.S. didn’t make it easy to side against al-Qaeda.

In April 2015, the Levant Front was dissolved, and al-Zengi joined Fatah Halab (Aleppo Conquest), an operations room for the defence of Aleppo that does not include al-Nusra. There is a separate operations room in Aleppo that does include al-Nusra, known as Ansar al-Shari’a. The Levant Front was reconstituted in June, and al-Zengi remains a formal member but is operationally independent. As a formal part of the Levant Front, al-Zengi signed on to “The Five Principles for the Syrian Revolution” in Istanbul in September 2015, another statement that was distinctly un-radical in its demands for an end to the Assad regime, its sectarian slaughter of the Syrian population, and the expulsion of all foreign jihadists, including the Iranian-run ones that keep the regime alive.

In the spring and summer of 2015, al-Zengi had become one of the most powerful rebel groups in Aleppo and had drawn sharply away from al-Nusra, which many rebels have had to tactically cooperate with for a long time. Al-Nusra pulled back from northern Aleppo in August 2015 when it seemed Turkey would impose a buffer zone in the area, further widening the physical proximity between al-Zengi and al-Nusra’s areas of operations. (Ultimately, Turkey would not follow-through with this plan because of a U.S. promise to keep the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), east of the Euphrates and to work with Turkey to replace IS in eastern Aleppo with rebel groups friendly to Ankara. That promise was later broken by the PYD, which suffered no U.S. sanction as a consequence.)

On 16 September 2015, a video appeared showing two rebel groups—the Aleppo City Battalions, which had been part of U.S.-vetted Tajamu Fastaqim Kamr Umrat, and Harakat al-Zahir Baybars—joining al-Zengi. Turkey had already been pushing for al-Zengi to be cut off and Baybars joining seems to have been the final straw since Baybars was “accused of kidnapping two Italian humanitarian workers,” presumably referring to Greta Ramelli and Vanessa Marzullo who were abducted in July 2014 and handed to al-Nusra, before being released in January 2015. In mid-October 2015, al-Zengi spokesman Mohamed Mahmoud al-Saed confirmed, with respect to TOWs, “No, we don’t have any,” and the group’s political leader confirmed to Lister this week that al-Zengi was not receiving MOM support.

Even after al-Zengi was excluded from the MOM, it continued efforts to draw closer to Turkey to strengthen itself and perhaps because of these efforts al-Nusra moved against al-Zengi. On 6 October 2015, al-Zengi accused al-Nusra of launching a car-bomb attack against al-Zengi’s headquarters in Aleppo and arrested several dozen al-Zengi fighters. Ahrar al-Sham, among others, intervened to try to restore calm, and after action in the civil and shari’a courts the two agreed to end hostilities. The next day, al-Zengi issued a statement that took back the negative things said about al-Nusra by members of al-Zengi on social media, saying this did “not represent the … official position”. The relationship with al-Nusra was “proceeding on even better terms than what it was in the past,” al-Zengi added, concluding that it was religiously obligated to “combine efforts and fight off the aggressor enemy,” namely the pro-Assad coalition.

Al-Zengi was one of the armed opposition groups that attended the Riyadh Conference on 8 December 2015. Al-Zengi continued to be involved in the major opposition dynamics in Aleppo: trying to hold IS at bay even as Russia’s intervention attacked the anti-IS insurgent groups, allegedly downing a Russian drone, and intermittent attacks on regime positions that were as defensive as offensive, trying to hold off the move towards Aleppo being besieged.

In a paper for the Center for a New American Security, Nicholas Heras noted that the moderate armed opposition, already at war with IS, was the only viable force to marginalize the Jihadi-Salafists like Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham in northern Syria that had, vanguard-style, inserted themselves into the rebellion. “Critical” to this effort, Heras noted, would be al-Zengi, Jaysh al-Mujahideen, and al-Fawj al-Awwal (The First Battalion), groups that “have received U.S. military assistance but in an unsustained manner”. To pull the moderates away from al-Nusra and Ahrar the support these groups offered to the mainstream rebels has to be replaced. Heras suggested deploying Special Operations Forces, which have proven successful with the Syrian Democratic Forces—the front-group for the PYD—to support these opposition groups “in exchange for these groups walking away from coordinating with” al-Nusra and Ahrar. Under U.S. “guidance, such groups could change the balance of power within the armed opposition movement in northern Syria.”

Unfortunately, this never happened and by early 2016 al-Zengi was a diminished force. Without American support, with Russia and Iran having assaulted the mainstream armed opposition while largely leaving IS and al-Nusra alone, and with the pro-regime coalition closing in on Aleppo City, al-Zengi needed support and the insurgency needed unity; as ever, al-Nusra stepped into that void. Al-Zengi was forced, on 28 January 2016, by a lack of money and weaponry to withdraw from frontline positions in Aleppo, being replaced in some cases by al-Nusra. When the PYD seconded Russian air cover in February for an attack on the besieged rebel enclave in Azaz, right after the regime had cut off the Aleppo rebels’ access to the Turkish border, and later that month the U.S. and Russia enacted a fatally flawed “cessation of hostilities” that let the pro-regime coalition’s war continue and debilitated the opposition from responding, the openings for al-Nusra got even wider. Al-Zengi was forced into an operations room headed by an Ahrar official and by March 2016 the Institute for the Study of War, which had just six months previously marked al-Zengi as a “powerbroker” and one independent of al-Nusra at that, now noted that the group had been “sidelined” by al-Nusra and made reliant on it.

The dangers inherent in operating alongside al-Qaeda are obvious. As Hassan Hassan put it, al-Zengi had gotten “too close to Nusra” for reasons of operational necessity, but “there is no such thing as free-riding with al-Qaeda.” Al-Zengi had never been an especially politically powerful organization but the converse part of that equation was its rootedness in the civilian populations behind the lines. And this had recently given cause for concern, with figures like Abdullah Azzam showing up in its dawa material, despite the group having shown no previous Jihadi-Salafist inclinations.[2] As another example, Hassan also mentioned that al-Nusra’s long-time battlefield ally, Ahrar, has been conducting beheadings. This has been rumoured for a while, though some of its sources—such as IS—have made it dismissable. Ahrar was also said to have conducted a suicide bombing in early June. Al-Qaeda’s influence will eventually tell and now has in unmistakeable fashion with al-Zengi. But the trend had been there for some time.

Al-Zengi’s Criminal Record

On 5 July, Amnesty International released a report documenting twenty-four cases of abduction, torture, and summary killing by three constituents of Fatah Halab—al-Zengi, the U.S.-vetted, FSA-branded Division Sixteen, and the Levant Front—and by al-Nusra and Ahrar within the Jaysh al-Fatah de facto government in Idlib. The overwhelming majority of the crimes were committed by al-Nusra and Ahrar, with the Levant Front behind them, followed by al-Zengi, and finally Division Sixteen. The report found:

  • 367 journalists and media activists in Idlib and Aleppo have been abducted by insurgent groups between early 2012 and June 2016, with al-Nusra responsible for the vast majority. Al-Nusra, then the Syrian branch of IS, began this wave of kidnappings particularly over the summer of 2012, led by Amr al-Absi (Abu Atheer al-Absi), which helped make northern Syria so dangerous for independent reporters that the Jihadi-Salafists and the Assad regime could fill the space with their complimentary propaganda—this was a binary fight between them. Many armed groups have attacked those who criticise them but al-Nusra and Ahrar have gone after ideological deviation by journalists operating in insurgent-held areas—destroying newspapers that condemned the massacre of the staff of Charlie Hebdo, for example, and arresting those distributing them. Amnesty interviewed six journalists and activists; five were kidnapped by al-Nusra, one was kidnapped by the Levant Front and then by al-Zengi in 2015.
  • Six civil society activists—three lawyers, two political activists and one humanitarian worker—were kidnapped between 2014 and 2016 in insurgent-held areas, two each by al-Nusra and the Levant Front, one each by Ahrar and al-Zengi. One of the political activists picked up by al-Nusra and the humanitarian worker picked up by al-Zengi said they had been tortured.
  • While there is “very little information concerning the abduction of children in areas controlled by armed groups in Aleppo and Idleb governorates, Amnesty International has managed to document testimonies alleging the abduction of two boys by the Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement in Aleppo and of one boy by Jabhat al-Nusra in Idleb between 2012 and 2015.” One of the Ahrar kidnappings appears to be random—a boy picked up as he headed back into Syria from Turkey to visit a relative—but the other two look political. In the other Ahrar case, the family lived in regime-held territory in Aleppo and the son went to school in rebel-held territory, and in the final case al-Nusra is believed to have kidnapped the boy to pressure the father into joining the group after they took over his village.
  • Attacks on minorities by insurgents are reported. Here Division Sixteen gets its only mention, having allegedly kidnapped twenty-five Kurdish civilians—Amnesty was able to document three—in Shaykh Maqsood, the bitterly contested district of Aleppo City where the PYD has a foothold surrounded by Arab insurgents. From “three activists and two priests,” Amnesty was told of vandalism against churches, forced conversions, and expulsions in Idlib and Aleppo against Christians by al-Nusra and Ahrar. And finally a Syrian Orthodox bishop accused al-Zengi of kidnapping two priests in 2013 and then handing them to al-Nusra.
  • Amnesty documented five instances of torture, four of them by al-Nusra, almost all against secular activists, and one by al-Zengi against the above-mentioned humanitarian worker.
  • Finally, Amnesty documented instances of summary executions by al-Nusra and al-Zengi. In early 2015, al-Nusra had shot a woman to death in Salqin for adultery. On 20 September 2015, al-Nusra sentenced three people to death in Hraytan, two men and a seventeen-year-old boy for homosexuality. By the witness statements, it seems that the two men raped the boy; only the boy was seen being killed. Eleven days earlier, al-Nusra had spearheaded the takeover of Abu al-Duhour airbase, the last regime position in Idlib Province, and afterwards killed around sixty captured regime soldiers. In four separate instances, one in late 2014 and three in 2015, the Levant Front executed regime agents and fighters. The Levant Front insists that its executions are carried out after a fair process, with the deputy of its supreme court saying: “Death sentences are carried out in the detention centre according to shari’a principles. The body is then given to the family for proper burial.”

Al-Zengi, then, stands accused of kidnapping five people (a journalist, two civil society activists, and two priests); torturing one of the civil society captives; and summarily executing nine regime soldiers.

Al-Zengi was among the “armed groups [that activists] described as ‘moderate,’ in that they do not apply a strict interpretation of shari’a, [and] tolerated a limited degree of freedom of expression as long as activists did not openly criticize their conduct,” Amnesty reports. A journalist/media activist, “Louay”—who reports mostly on the regime’s atrocities—says that he criticized these groups directly, leading to first the Levant Front and then al-Zengi kidnapping him in 2015. Though “Louay” himself was not mistreated by al-Zengi while in captivity, he says: “I could hear the sounds of men being tortured through the walls but I did not see them because I was blindfolded.”

The torture documented by Amnesty in Aleppo comes near-universally from al-Qaeda and its allies and subsidiaries like Jabhat Ansar al-Din. Al-Zengi is the one non-Nusra case, and Amnesty describes it thus:

“Halim,” a humanitarian worker, said he was abducted by the Nour al-Dine Zinki Movement on 13 July 2014 when he was supervising a project in one of the hospitals in Aleppo city. During his incommunicado detention, which lasted around two months, he was forced to sign a “confession” extracted under torture. He described his ordeal to Amnesty International:

“I was at the hospital when 10 fighters in a pick-up vehicle came and raided the hospital. They were wearing black clothes and their faces were covered. They took me to al-Qassemiya soap factory, used as a detention centre by the Nour al-Dine Zinki Movement. When you enter the factory there is an open space. To the left, there are nine detention cells—seven for men and two for women—and interrogation rooms. The Free Syrian Police forces told me that the director of the hospital had submitted a complaint against me. They took me to the first cell. I was given a mattress and a pillow. The cell was around 20m2. Ten people were held with me in the same cell but by the time I was released the number had increased to 24. There was a man with me called Mustafa. He said he was tortured using the balingo technique (lifting him off the ground by his wrists handcuffed behind his back). The day I arrived, he was tortured again. We had to help him eat and use the bathroom because he was in severe pain. On the fifth day, I was taken to the interrogation room. The interrogators accused me of spying for the Syrian government and providing them with the hospital’s GPS co-ordinates. I denied this. The real problem was that I had complained to the director of the hospital about misused funds.”

The final accusation against al-Zengi, of kidnapping Christian priests, is plausible but is buttressed by less firm evidence: “A Syrian Orthodox bishop told Amnesty International that on 22 April 2013 two bishops called Youhana Ibrahim and Boulous al-Yazeji were on a humanitarian mission to Aleppo to negotiate the release of priests from Aleppo when they were abducted along with their driver and their friend by fighters believed to belong to the Nour al-Dine Zinki Movement.”

There are two problems. One is the evidence itself. The direct quote from the bishop is: “Through intermediaries we learned that that the Nour al-Dine Zinki group was involved in the abduction, but that the bishops were transferred to al-Nusra custody in Idleb.” This is not exactly first-hand. More broadly, the clergy of the Levantine churches were annexed by the Assad regime a long time ago, including Syriac Orthodox Church Patriarch Moran Mor Ignatius Aphrem II. The regime has portrayed itself as a shield for the minorities, specifically Christians, who have connections in the West and can therefore be used for outreach purposes: to gin-up support among politically activist and influential Christian groups in the United States, and to inject the regime’s wider message—that it is the least-bad alternative—into the public debate in the West. An infamous case is Carmelite nun Agnes Mariam, who inter alia fabricated stories of rebel atrocities and blamed regime atrocities on rebels. Perhaps al-Zengi was involved in this kidnapping, but the source and the way it fits the regime’s narrative of all opposition being Christian-hating Islamist fanatics and friends of al-Qaeda provides cause for scepticism.

The Latest Crime

Abdullah Issa on the back of the truck on which he was murdered, clearly on an IV drip

Abdullah Issa on the back of the truck on which he was murdered, clearly on an IV drip

There is no doubt about al-Zengi’s responsibility for the foul atrocity broadcast across the world on Tuesday, even as many details remained elusive, including how the boy al-Zengi murdered came to join the regime’s Liwa al-Quds militia; how old the boy was (sources varied wildly between twelve- and nineteen-years-old); and why the boy visibly had medical gear attached to him. The latter point seems to be explicable by activists and/or al-Zengi rebels themselves having been treating the boy after he was injured fighting against them, if only to use him in a later prisoner swap, when less merciful elements of al-Zengi seized him and murdered him. There is talk of a local, personal feud in the chain of causation, too.

The boy was named in many sources as Abdullah Issa. There is an identification document—as far as can be told genuine—for al-Zengi’s victim circulating that lists his age as nineteen and shows him as a member of the National Defence Forces, the Iranian-constructed sectarian militia that has eclipsed the national army, since August 2015.

Picture of Abdullah Issa circulated by pro-regime activists

Picture of Abdullah Issa circulated by pro-regime activists

By some accounts, Issa was—despite being in a Palestinian militia (Liwa al-Quds)—a Syrian Alawite from Wadi al-Dahab in Homs City and actually was nineteen-years-old and suffering thalassemia, which is why he appeared so young. A Facebook account belonging to a “Zoze Aisa,” who claims to be Issa’s sister, expressed fury at the notion he was a Palestinian. “He is the son of Assad’s Syria,” Aisa wrote. “How can they turn a brave Syrian fighter into a Palestinian refugee?”

Another account, from “Ehsani2,” named the boy as Abdullah Tayseer. According to “Ehsani2,” “based on hours of conversations with Aleppo residents who knew the deceased, personally,” “he is actually 14. The reason for the discrepancy is because the only way he could obtain this type of ID was for him to be above the age 18. He lied to get it.” While Tayseer was with Liwa al-Quds, “his ID … shows his affiliation to be with Air Force Intelligence. The reason for this discrepancy is that the ID he had on him was out of date. He joined the Quds Brigade a month ago, but was yet to be issued a new ID by this group.” On the matter of the personal feud, “The Zanki fighter who performed the beheading was reportedly angry at having seen his own brother killed recently in Handarat.”

Rebel Reaction and a Sense of Proportion

Whatever the intricacies, the crime remains and it sparked outrage all across the opposition, armed and no, and al-Zengi issued a statement within hours that said the group “denounces and condemns the human rights abuses that were shared on social media sites. … Such abuses are individual errors that represent neither our typical practices nor our general policies.” Al-Zengi announced that “all individuals who undertook the violation have been detained,” and turned over to an investigative committee whose decision al-Zengi was determined to carry out. The statement concluded with barbed remarks about the international community’s willingness to allow the Assad regime to commit atrocities.

From the rebels’ point-of-view, this frustration is easy to understand. Lurid crimes by indigenous rebel groups are relatively rare, which is why those there have been—such as Khalid al-Hamad (Abu Sakkar), the rebel soldier who bit into the lung (often misreported as the heart, for what little it matters) of a dead Hizballah jihadist in 2013—are so memorable. Against this, the pro-regime coalition has systematized war crimes on a scale with few precedents since the Holocaust.

Atrocities are not incidental to the pro-Assad forces; they’re the entire strategy, inflicted in a deliberately sectarian manner intended to radicalize the insurgency by assaulting the pillars of Sunni society and eliminating moderate sources of social control, either displacing them or killing them, opening the way for radical forces promising protection and payback, and allowing the regime to call on international sympathy in putting down the rebellion.

The pro-regime coalition has also ensured that Syria is an international question by deliberately causing an exodus of the population—4.8 million registered refugees so far, with another seven million people displaced inside Syria (out of pre-war population of about twenty-two million). The displacement is a major factor in the rebels’ inability to sustain an alternative governance structure: either the civilians are removed or are put under such painful conditions that they blame the rebellion. Into the long-term, there are indications of a colonial-like policy from Iran’s Shi’a jihadist proxies, which are evidently digging in for the long haul in Syria, no matter how the war plays out from this point. The Iranian-dominated Assad regime would not have expel every opposition sympathizer, which in the regime’s mind means Sunnis; it simply needs to reduce their numbers and concentrations to proportions manageable by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards and their proxies. That process has been seen in areas like Homs and the rebellious districts of Damascus. These actions by the regime and its allies have also led to hardened sectarian lines.

Meanwhile, “the greatest power on earth—the United States of America—has protected not a single Syrian inside Syria,” as Frederic Hof, the former point-man on Syria at the State Department, has noted. Worse, the U.S. has been moving towards Assad’s position in the conflict.

The (justified) sense that the U.S. is not being even-handed will not matter, however. The policy is set and these actions have made al-Zengi politically toxic to the U.S. going forward. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said: “It’s an appalling report, and obviously, we’re very concerned … [I]f we can prove that this was indeed what happened and this group was involved in it, I think it would certainly … give us pause about any assistance or, frankly, any further involvement with this group.” In the “traffic lights system” used for determining where insurgent groups stand, al-Zengi is now permanently outside the green zone that gives access to U.S.-supplied weapons and ammunition.

Going Forward

The immediate-run concern is for justice. Whether Harakat Nooradeen al-Zengi will or can deliver on its promise to hold the perpetrators accountable will clarify the organization’s institutional responsibility for what happened. But even if it punishes those responsible in a transparent and timely manner—unlikely in the circumstances—it will not restore al-Zengi to the list of acceptable interlocutors for the West. Al-Zengi is now a tainted brand. This is understandable, but just as the beheading by al-Zengi underlines the moral hazards the West can incur by engagement, withdrawal comes with its own risks.

“Louay,” the media activist, said: “I was released after public pressure”. As Ibrahim al-Assil of the Middle East Institute pointed out, this is a consistent finding. “[W]hen calls for accountability are made public … there is room to deter armed groups from committing human rights violations,” says al-Assil. “Establishing channels of communications with moderate elements inside these factions can ultimately help push the group as a whole towards moderation.” The desire of Syria’s armed opposition for a relationship with the West means that accountability for criminal activity can be “leveraged,” al-Assil writes, and this can be done “without either disengaging entirely or characterizing all armed opposition groups as extremist.”

Al-Assil concludes by noting the more dire dual risk if the U.S. provides even less support to engageable elements of the armed opposition because of individual atrocities, while doing nothing to hold the regime accountable for its industrial-scale, centrally-planned campaign of torture and mass-murder. Such a policy leaves all insurgents to “feel entitled to do what is necessary to assert their military strength and maintain control of their territory,” and legitimates groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, “who will exploit this anything-goes environment … in the name of defeating tyranny,” presenting themselves as the only actors capable and willing to defend Syrians.

In this regard the failed ceasefire that the U.S. negotiated with Russia in February cannot be overlooked. The reduction in violence that attended the ceasefire led to a flourishing of the moderate opposition: freed from the desperation imposed on them by the all-encompassing violence of the pro-regime coalition, which made survival the only concern, the dependency on al-Nusra evaporated and people could begin again to state their demands for a less corrupt, more representative government that guarded their interests rather than incinerated their cities and their families. But the ceasefire did nothing to address the regime coalition’s ongoing war, which provided a demand to respond that al-Nusra eventually satisfied. The “cessation of hostilities” was all-but dead by the end of April when Syrian regime and Russian jets killed hundreds of people in Aleppo over a ten-day period, stating at every stage that these were anti-terrorist strikes, and with the beginning of a major offensive by the al-Nusra-led Jaysh al-Fatah in southern Aleppo on 5 May the pretence was finally over.

The botched ceasefire has, above all, strengthened the pro-Assad coalition and al-Qaeda and damaged workable elements of the armed opposition who are ideologically opposed to both. The U.S. proposal to move forward by working even closer with the Russians against terrorism is to put this failure on steroids.

Put aside that supporting the Russians in Syria means supporting Iranian-controlled terrorist organizations. Put aside, too, that Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, told John Kerry to his face that Russia intends to treat all armed oppositionists in Syria like al-Qaeda—as in fact Russia has done, and U.S. policy has permitted by altering the whole axis of diplomacy to focus on the symptoms of the Syrian war (the Sunni extremist groups) rather than the causes (the Assad regime and its state supporters in Iran and Russia). No need to mention, either, that al-Qaeda’s major facilitation and funding pipeline operates from Iran, “with the knowledge” of the government, supplying its Syrian branch among others. Just this week the U.S. Treasury designated three more senior individuals within al-Qaeda who operate in Iran, one of them as a “mediator with Iranian authorities.” The so-called “Khorasan Group,” the loose-knit cell of AQC operatives within al-Nusra that focuses on external attacks, had very strong links to Iran, and the concern now about Sayf al-Adel, one of al-Qaeda’s most accomplished military and terrorist leaders, is only possible because Tehran freed al-Adel in dubious circumstances late last year. Leave it all to one side.

Can working with the Russians to defeat al-Qaeda in Syria work? No. Russia’s intention is to eliminate the opposition to Assad, not to destroy al-Qaeda. By the formal end of Russia’s intervention in March, al-Nusra was notably better off than the Western-backed opposition groups. Further, Russia is unable—regardless of intention—to defeat al-Qaeda. Moscow’s instruments include indiscriminate aerial attacks and hyper-sectarian Iranian-controlled ground forces. Both of those inspire greater insurgent unity and a reliance on any actor that can protect and revenge a population under fire—conditions in which al-Nusra thrives. Al-Nusra has very consciously and skilfully tangled itself into the rebellion, taking on the civilian population’s main concerns—security, i.e. the anti-Assad fight, and services—and in return secured social acceptance that can function as a shield if and when al-Qaeda needs it. Vanguardism, in short. The population’s concerns are very real but they are not committed to al-Qaeda’s vision: if others can meet those concerns, they will support them. Legitimate, local forces can, if empowered out of dependency, root out al-Nusra. This is a discriminate task; it cannot be accomplished by threatening to bomb everybody in al-Nusra’s vicinity.

The Assad regime and its friends, notably Russia, have used the crime by al-Zengi to continue saying what they always have: the opposition are all terrorists and criminals and, whatever Assad’s faults, the alternatives to the regime are worse. Politically impossible for the U.S. to supply further support to al-Zengi even if justice is done to the perpetrators, it could well result in the organization splitting. Given that al-Qaeda has clearly been exerting influence over the group that might well be the faultline on which the schism occurs.[3] If the West chooses to wash its hands wholly of al-Zengi, not attempting to maintain connections with workable commanders and units even if they separate from blackballed elements of the group, it could well pitch the entire organization into the arms of al-Qaeda. Even on narrow counter-terrorism grounds—in tandem with the setting up of an Iranian beachhead on NATO’s doorstep—this is a dire outcome, though on present trajectory perhaps a harbinger.








[1] The compact by which Arabia is ruled puts internal social policy in the hands of the Wahhabi ulema and political power in the hands of the House of Saud. Wahhabism is a version of Salafism—and both terms have come in for much misuse as of late, blamed for the existence of the jihadist movement and specifically IS. This is an argument for another day, but suffice it to say that while Wahhabism is undoubtedly a strand within the make-up of IS, it is a great deal more complicated than that, and politically and militarily the Saudi government openly at war with IS.

[2] Last December, the Tony Blair Faith Foundation put out a report that listed the Syrian insurgent groups by ideological affinity, and put al-Zengi in the “Salafi-Jihadi” category. Since the report received a degree of circulation it is worth pointing out how grossly flawed was its description of the ideological composition of the Syrian insurgency. To take just this one category, it included actual Salafi-Jihadist groups like the Islamic State, Jund al-Aqsa, Jabhat al-Nusra, the Turkistan Islamic Party, and Ahrar al-Sham. It also included an array of groups that are not jihadist by any conceivable definition, for example Jaysh al-Islam, which is a Salafist organization rooted in the local culture of the Ghouta area of Damascus, not in the militant scene and intellectual lineage that a group like Ahrar draws on. JAI is engaged in jihad only as a defensive measure, not as a core and eternal tenet of the faith as Jihadi-Salafists must believe. Many of the others did not require even that much nuance: al-Zengi and Tajamu Fastaqim Kamr Umrat are mainstream Islamist-nationalist groups; al-Ittihad al-Islami li-Ajnad al-Sham is a Zaydi Sufi organization. Liwa al-Umma had been functionally non-existent for many months. Just as strange was the inclusion of Imam al-Bukhari Jamaat, a group whose public allegiance is to the Taliban, in the next category down (“Islamist”), with U.S.-vetted nationalist groups like Faylaq al-Rahman, Tajamu al-Izza, and the First Coastal Division.

[3] Al-Qaeda in Syria would rebrand from Jabhat al-Nusra to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS) on 28 July 2016, ostensibly cutting links with al-Qaeda, and JFS would become Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) on 28 January 2017 by merging with several other groups. Two-thirds or more of al-Zengi joined HTS, but the relationship with al-Qaeda did cause a split: a faction of al-Zengi joined Faylaq al-Sham and remained part of the Turkish Operation EUPHRATES SHIELD, the de facto safe zone in north-east Aleppo Province. On 20 July 2017, al-Zengi withdrew from HTS.

14 thoughts on “A Rebel Crime and Western Lessons in Syria

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