Author Archive

For the Atlantic Council: In Syria, cutting and running is not on the cards for Turkey

September 26, 2022 Leave a comment

The real motive behind Turkey’s offer of dialogue with Damascus might be to simply hash out a diplomatic understanding that consolidates Syria’s de facto division in a face-saving manner for Assad. If it leads to increased cross-line trade with regime areas and pressures the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to pick a side, all the better. Given that talk about normalization threatens the US’s entire Syria strategy in regard to ostracizing Assad, Erdogan might also try to use the public debate he has ignited to force the US into serious negotiations about the future of Syria’s north and east.

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Categories: Uncategorized

Latest report for Clingendael: A new conflict management strategy for Syria

September 26, 2022 Leave a comment

The search for peace in Syria faces a deep crisis. The battlefield has reached a stalemate, the Constitutional Committee never emerged from its cul-de-sac, and the UN’s ‘step-for-step’ approach suffers from flawed conceptual underpinnings as well as a lukewarm reception. Meanwhile, Syria remains divided into three areas that risk drifting further apart amid deteriorating humanitarian conditions. This reality on the ground should serve as a marker for recalibrating Western policy on Syria beyond the current focus on sanctions, accountability, and humanitarian aid.

Read the full report here:

Latest for Clingendael: Politicking in Doha.. but will the Syrian opposition shift to more pragmatic diplomacy?

In my first policy brief for the Clingendael Institute in the Netherlands, published on 31 January 2022, Lars Hauch and I discuss a workshop organised by Syrian oppositionists in Doha and what it says about the forces working to topple the Assad regime and the state of the UN-led political process. Below is a brief summary of the paper.

The Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC) and the Syrian Negotiation Commission (SNC) are in dire need of internal renewal and a new political strategy given the deadlock of UN-led peace negotiations. A forthcoming opposition gathering on 4 February in Doha with more than 80 Syrian opposition leaders, activists and academics might offer an opportunity to do so. However, the event’s public face is Riyad Hijab, who is no longer part of the SOC and is seen as pursuing an internal leadership takeover.

The Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC) and the Syrian Negotiation Commission (SNC) are in dire need of internal renewal and a new political strategy given the deadlock of UN-led peace negotiations. A forthcoming opposition gathering on 4 February in Doha with more than 80 Syrian opposition leaders, activists and academics might offer an opportunity to do so. However, the event’s public face is Riyad Hijab, who is no longer part of the SOC and is seen as pursuing an internal leadership takeover.

It is likely that the event will be part of a series that seeks to create a new centre of opposition without creating a new opposition body. Yet, neither Hijab’s internal politicking nor possible legitimacy/efficiency gains from implementation of a parallel SOC internal reform plan will generate a new political strategy for the opposition. This requires creative and pragmatic diplomacy that focuses on, for example, negotiating crossline arrangements between all conflict parties that improve local security and facilitate travel, trade and aid to improve the desperate situation of the Syrian people — in line with the UN’s call for a ‘safe, calm and neutral environment’ (SCNE).

The habits of dialogue and compromise that can gradually develop in this manner could be leveraged at a later stage to address the more complex issues of power sharing and reconstruction once an appropriate window of opportunity has opened up.

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For the Arabic version of this policy brief, please click here.

Categories: Syrian opposition

What the Syrian opposition should do next

After a hiatus of several years, I have returned to writing. This is my latest offering courtesy of Turkey’s Daily Sabah newspaper:

What the Syrian opposition should do next


OP-ED MAY 13, 2021 12:05 AM GMT+3

A sunset seen over the Idlib province, northern Syria, Feb. 15, 2021. (Photo by Getty Images)

After 10 years of revolt, the Syrian opposition is in a state of crisis. The momentum of 2011-2015 – the golden era of the revolution – has ebbed away. Regional and international actors who supported the opposition have migrated their policies from “Assad must go” to accommodating themselves to his continued survival, however awkward and distasteful that might be.

Now, Assad wants to “win” a fourth presidential term and, with the support of some Arab states, rehabilitate himself by taking back Syria’s seat in the Arab League, all the while playing Russia against Iran and positioning himself as the indispensable lynchpin of a minoritarian order in the Levant. The Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC) appears abandoned by its friends and increasingly irrelevant.

At its heart, the opposition’s crisis is one of legitimacy. Yes, militarily it has faced setbacks and financially it has always struggled, but no Syrian on the ground at the time ever expected the SOC to fight a war or manage an economy.

From Day One, its purpose was clear: drawing in decisive Western military intervention that would topple Assad. What the protestors, and later the armed opposition groups, expected from their political leaders in Istanbul was a repetition of the Libyan scenario, and consequently the SOC established its legitimacy on the promise that it can deliver exactly that.

But the leaders of the SOC did not live up to their side of the bargain. The West did intervene militarily, but it was not decisive; the slow stream of weapons to the armed opposition gave Russia plenty of time and pretext to conduct a military intervention of its own.

The U.N. attempts

Faced with Moscow’s armed veto, the SOC’s next move was to reestablish its legitimacy on the basis that it can negotiate an end to the Assad regime. It engaged positively with the United Nations in all the rounds of dialogue despite the obvious lack of seriousness on the part of Assad.

While talks about talks took place in Geneva, the regime in 2016-2019 rolled up one opposition enclave after another, helped by the Russian Air Force and Iran’s extensive militia network. The U.N. Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2254, the only internationally agreed upon formula for ending the conflict, remains almost entirely unimplemented.

The U.N.’s Constitutional Committee, composed of regime and opposition representatives tasked with drawing up a new constitution for the country, has yet to make any serious breakthrough, despite it being formed in 2019.

The regime has procrastinated every step of the way, a situation made worse by Moscow’s interpretation of UNSCR 2254 as essentially a means of rehabilitating Assad and not as a road map for a political transition. The prospect of an unravelling of the regime through dialogue appears increasingly remote, and with each round of failed talks, the SOC loses credibility in the eyes of its constituency.

Who’s active where?

The Syrian war has now evolved into a militarily frozen conflict. What remains of the revolution is now confined to Syria’s northwest, where there is a de facto safe zone protected by the Turkish military and administered partly by the SOC’s Syrian Interim Government (SIG), and partly by the al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).

With no major fighting since 2019, the front lines with regime forces and the U.S.-backed YPG/SDF have taken on a certain permanency. The opposition has been left with 10% of territorial Syria, home to 3.5 million civilians, or roughly 20% of all Syrians still living in the country.

The governance structures in the northwest have grown increasingly tied to Turkey’s own through administrative and infrastructure support extended by ministries in Ankara and provincial authorities, and by the adoption of the Turkish lira to replace the devalued Syrian pound.

Competition over economic resources and demographics between Syria’s three zones of influence represents a new phase in the conflict. Currency prices, oil tankers, drug shipments, smuggling networks, sanctions regimes, international aid and cross line trading corridors are the new tools of war.

The SOC’s opportunity

This presents an opportunity for the SOC. It should seize upon this frozen phase of the conflict to renew its mandate to Syrians by offering the 3.5 million who live under its administration a new social contract, this time based on realistic and tangible goals.

The bargain is quite simple: support us in return for enhanced security, governance and stability in the northwest. This should not be outside the scope of what the SOC can achieve given that it is already succeeding with meager resources.

Right now, civilians in regime areas are fleeing to the northwest because of a failing economy where you must line up for bread and fuel, and where a state salary will buy you only a box of baklava. Despite the far from ideal situation in the northwest, it is still markedly better than life under Assad’s government.

This is a surprise win for the SOC, and it should build upon it as part of a wider strategy for long-term resilience that must also include the settling of the HTS question. This of course is a far cry from what the opposition had hoped for in 2011, but it is the current reality that must be adapted to.

Realism, however, does not mean that UNSCR 2254 should be put aside. On the contrary, the SOC should double down on UNSCR 2254 by pushing for all negotiating baskets, particularly on governance and security sector reform, to be opened for negotiation as a condition to further participation in the Constitutional Committee.

The SOC should also push for a specific track on creating a “safe, calm and neutral environment” for the whole of Syria, which has been called for by U.N. envoy Geir Pedersen in every briefing he has delivered to the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) since 2019.

This environment should begin with a comprehensive cease-fire, followed by the release of detainees and the facilitation of civilian life including trade and access to education and health services.

Security committees, like that of the 5+5 Joint Military Committee of Libya, should be formed under the auspices of the U.N. and the supervision of the main external backers: the U.S., Russia and Turkey.

No progress at the Geneva level can be expected while cross line shelling continues to be routine, and aerial targeting of hospitals and fuel distribution depots an occasional occurrence. Connecting the Geneva track to tangible improvements in real world conditions might be the only way for UNSCR 2254 to remain relevant in the long-term.

What can the SOC do?

The Syrian opposition might not have won the war, but it has not been defeated either. It is still in the game and finds itself allied to an increasingly assertive Turkey.

Assad knows that no further progress can be made in the northwest, Turkey’s Bayraktar drone has made sure of that. But conditions in the northwest can be improved, and those who can help, should.

The U.S. can complete what it set out to achieve years ago of de-linking the SDF from the PKK, increasing inclusivity in the SDF command and ensuring that the SDF does not attack the northwest or Turkey.

The European Union can consider re-extending financial assistance to the SIG to better deliver services and build governance capacity to absorb the growing numbers of internally displaced people escaping poverty under Assad.

The SOC should be pushing for all this not just because it needs purpose and legitimacy, but because it is time for the opposition politicians to reward the perseverance of those 3.5 million civilians whose decision to remain in their country is the most powerful act of resistance, and whose indefatigability the only guarantee of continued struggle for a unified and democratic Syria.

These are the same people that former U.S. President Barack Obama described as “farmers, dentists and folks who have never fought before.” Who would have given them any chance against a Russia and Iran-backed mafia state armed with chemical weapons and an air force?

The Syrian writer Yassin Haj Saleh called it “the impossible revolution.” Let not the coming decade be that of the impossible peace.

Categories: Syrian opposition

Latest for the Majalla: Dreaming of Sweden

February 13, 2014 Leave a comment


Published: 11 February, 2013

Khalil was only seventeen when he decided to take up arms. After attending anti-government demonstrations in his home city of Latakia, he fled to the nearby Turkmen Mountains, where he joined a rebel outfit called the Emigration to God Battalion. Slightly built with thick, shoulder-length hair and an attractive, slightly effeminate face, he wouldn’t strike you as a typical rebel fighter. For an entire year, he put up with poor rations, low ammunition, sleeping rough, being sniped at, and worst of all: shortages of cigarettes.

All this was a price he was willing to pay until the day he was instructed by his commander to occupy the Christian village of Burj Al-Kasab. The residents, who were mostly elderly and unarmed, were given safe passage to Latakia, after which their homes were thoroughly looted—everything was taken, from foodstuffs to doors and window frames. Khalil decided this was not what he had signed up for and fled once again, this time to Antakya, just across the border in Turkey, where he shacked up with friends in a damp basement flat.

Three years ago Khalil dreamed of freedom; now he dreams of Sweden. Escaping the Syrian conflict and all its miseries to the imagined Nirvana that is the streets of Stockholm has become something of an obsession for the teenager. He says he wants to get a proper education and a decent job, and ultimately, to achieve what he and millions like him demonstrated for: dignity. Even if he was to end up working in McDonald’s, it would still be preferable to remaining in Turkey, jobless and without prospects. “At least after a few years in Sweden you’ll get a passport,” he says.

A similar tale is told by Hamdan, a thirty-three-year-old ex-sergeant in the Syrian army turned taxi driver in Antakya. Outraged at the abuses he witnessed in the coastal village of Al-Bayda, he deserted and ended up in a camp designated for army defectors in southern Turkey. Now, you’re more likely to see him behind the wheel of a Kia Rio ferrying passengers to and from Hatay Airport. His aim: to save up enough money to buy passage to Sweden through a network of professional smugglers who will supply him with counterfeit documents allowing him to enter the EU. It will cost him around 8,000 US dollars, a price worth paying, it seems, for the chance to start afresh. “Even if I don’t benefit,” he says, “my children will.”

For Syria’s displaced, the Scandinavian nation has become a depository for their hopes and ambitions, the route of least resistance in their journey to a better existence. It is not difficult to see why. In September 2013, the Swedish immigration agency ruled that all Syrian asylum seekers will be granted indefinite residency because it judged the poor security situation in Syria to be permanent. The asylum seekers will also have the right to bring their families to Sweden, and the right to apply for social housing and access the country’s generous welfare system. Since that decision was taken, the roughly 8,000 Syrians already living in Sweden have had their temporary residence made permanent while many thousands more have made their way there. With dedicated Facebook pages instructing refugees on how best to get to Sweden, the numbers are only likely to rise.

But it is not just the near destitute who are making the trek north. Take Khalid Kamal, a brave young cleric who leddemonstrations in the Sheikh Daher district of Latakia, screaming, “We Want Freedom!” Khalid later went to join the Syrian National Council and even became a rebel leader at one point, using his family’s wealth to fund an armed brigade. But even he has ended up in Sweden. Like Khalil, he has grown disillusioned with the way the revolution has panned out and fears that he may miss this once in a lifetime opportunity to create a new life in Europe. Take also Maj. Gen. Mustafa Al-Sheikh, at one point Hamdan’s commanding officer in the defectors’ camp and a senior Free Syrian Army figure in his own right. He and his family were granted asylum in Sweden late last year after falling foul of the increasingly dominant Islamist factions. There are thousands of such cases: urbane, middle-class, well-educated Syrians finding no place in an environment where wits and moral scruples can be tested to breaking point.

But escape is not without its costs. In October last year, the Sicilian town of San Leone held a ceremony to honor hundreds of refugees who died in two shipwrecks near their coast earlier that month. Many of the dead were Syrians. Of the bodies that were washed up on shore, only five were recognized. The rest were buried by the Italian authorities in anonymous graves. Had they survived the crossing, they would have had to endure many more weeks of hardship, sleeping in woods and traveling at night, begging along the way while avoiding local police. The frozen forests of Bulgaria have already claimed a few.

Louay, though, is lucky. He managed to get resettled in Sweden after convincing embassy staff in Ankara that he was worthy of a place in their society. He is a defected Syrian Air Force pilot who hails from a mixed Ismaili–Christian family, both distinct advantages in the asylum game. He now whiles away the time in the cafés and bars of Antakya as he waits for his papers to arrive before he can board a flight to Stockholm for a new life—one he hopes will afford him the opportunity to continue doing what he enjoys most: flying planes. For the vast majority of Syrians, however, their Swedish dream is likely to remain just that.

Categories: Syrian uprising

Syria’s Brotherhood: Doomed to Repeat the Past

December 14, 2013 Leave a comment

Demonstration against Christians in Damascus, SyriaPublished Dec 5, 2013

In Istanbul last month, the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood launched a new political party known by its Arabic name, Waad (“Promise”.) It will be led by Mohamed Walid, a Brotherhood figure, but his deputy will be Nabil Kasis, a Christian. The party will include a number of minorities, reputedly a third of the membership, while the other two-thirds of the party will be reserved for Brotherhood members and independent Islamists. According to its founders, the aim of the party is “to support the oppressed, to stand with the weak and to uphold justice, and to restore the rights of the Syrian people regardless of ethnicity.”

There are a number of things wrong with this announcement. The first is that the Egyptian Brothers have attempted the same recipe before: the Freedom and Justice Party had a fair sprinkling of Copts and unveiled women. It didn’t work.

The second is the matter of its timing. Coming as the civil war deepens, resulting in the near-total extinction of political life as we know it, the relevance of such a party remains unclear. Some have speculated that it is the result of internal politicking within the Muslim Brotherhood machine, an attempt by a faction within the organization at political re-positioning, but not much else.

But there is something far more problematic. What the Muslim Brotherhood appears to believe is that as long as it demonstrates a willingness to share a political platform with members of religious minorities, and adheres to the language of secular politics, then this alone will be enough to allay the fears of minority communities. This is a naive delusion born out of a fundamental misreading of Syria’s modern history and its own peculiar sectarian problem.

To understand the frame of mind of Syria’s minorities—that is, the collective mindset of Christians, Alawites, Druze and Ismailis—one needs to appreciate the trauma that was the Ottoman experience. The modern history of the Levant has been shaped by minorities vowing never to fall under Sunni Muslim overlordship again and strategizing (rather successfully) to that end. The strategies that these minorities have come up with led directly to the modern nation-states of Syria and Lebanon as we know them today. By recognizing and analyzing these survival strategies, the true extent of the Brotherhood’s folly in investing in the Waad Party becomes all too clear.

When the Ottoman Turks retreated from the Levant in 1918, non-Sunni minorities faced an acute dilemma: how to survive and flourish within societies that were overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim.

The Maronites of Mount Lebanon came up with a survival strategy that was not at all original: secession. They successfully lobbied France to be separated from Sunni-majority Syria, and to be given a state where they could enjoy a monopoly on political power. Thus, the State of Greater Lebanon was created, later to become the Republic of Lebanon.

For the non-Sunni Muslim minorities of Syria, it was a different story. The Alawites and Druze initially went along with French plans to have their own mini-states, but the hostility of the economically influential Damascene and Aleppine bourgeoisie scuttled plans for independence. Long-term discrimination and neglect by the Ottomans denied the Alawites and Druze the chance to form their own states, while quasi-independence under the Ottomans and long-term French patronage enabled the Maronite Christians of Mount Lebanon to fly the coop. Politically and economically, the non-Sunni Muslims of Syria were too weak to go it alone.

The Alawites and Druze opted to be part of a unified Syrian Republic not out of choice, but out of necessity. They still had to meet the challenge of surviving and thriving in a Sunni Muslim-majority country where democracy would entitle them only to a minority share of political power, not enough to clearly guarantee that the Ottoman experience would never be repeated.

Instead of seeking independence, as the Lebanese Christians had done, the non-Sunni Muslim minorities in Syria did quite the opposite: they embraced a secular, socialist brand of pan-Arabism and adopted it as their own. The Ba’ath Party became a magnet for young, aspiring and poor Alawites, Druze and Ismailis, who were drawn to the party’s secular and egalitarian creed.

By adopting pan-Arabism, the minorities had performed a great feat of one-upmanship: they had demonstrated to the Sunni Muslims that they were über-patriots, prepared to relinquish centuries-old sectarian loyalties encouraged by the Ottomanmillet(pluralist) system for the benefit of the entire Arab nation. By appearing to be so, they laid down a challenge to the Sunni Muslim majority to live up to this idealized vision of what it meant to be Syrian.

In reality, it was a ruse. At first, the Ba’ath Party campaigned on issues of social justice such as agrarian reforms, which benefited poor Sunnis as well as impoverished Alawite peasants. But the minorities were not content with remaining farmers. The religious minorities of Syria were still very much obsessed with the Ottoman trauma, and nothing short of a complete capture of power would allay their fears of returning to second-class status. One institution was open to them: the military. It was through an active mass enlistment campaign, and a simultaneous policy of de-Sunnification of the officer corps following the 1963 Ba’ath Party coup, that enabled the minorities to first catch glimpse of the political power that they could enjoy under the guise of pan-Arabism and class warfare.

Ultimate power would eventually be won by a certain Hafez Al-Assad, a scheming Ba’athist air force pilot and son of a minor Alawite notable. The state that he created reflected the collective anxieties of minorities. It was decidedly secular, socialist and obsessed with “national unity.” It was, for all intents and purposes, a reaction against the confessionalism-based, class-riven but pluralistic Ottoman conception of how society should be ordered.

Herein lies the core problem with the Muslim Brotherhood’s Waad Party. Its philosophy is essentially a reworking of the Ottoman model, with its de facto domination by Sunni Muslims (the Brotherhood themselves) and its millet-like quota set aside for representatives of minority communities (Christians, Alawites and Druze). Syria’s minorities, however, have long moved on from that system and are unlikely ever to go back to it willingly. As an attempt to appeal across the barricades of war-torn and religiously-polarized Syria, the Brotherhood’s new party faces a daunting task. As an attempt to form a new social pact between Syria’s warring communities, it is doomed to fail.

Categories: Syrian history

Latest on Syria For Foreign Policy: Rebels, Inc.

November 23, 2013 Leave a comment

Rebels, Inc.

For Syria’s armed opposition, business has become the key to survival. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always mean fighting Assad.




The rebels in Syria have put in considerable effort to toppling President Bashar al-Assad, capturing several northern towns and cities and laying claim to some of the richest provinces in the country. Now they’re in trouble. When President Obama decided to relieve Assad of his chemical weapons rather than topple him, it confirmed to the anti-government fighters what they had always suspected: that the corrupt and ineffective Syrian opposition-in-exile has failed to lobby for military intervention; that the West favors a weakened, “secular” Alawite regime over a radical Sunni one; and that the rebels have become cannon fodder in a regional power struggle over which they have little control.

To overcome their declining fortunes, the rebels have re-tooled their strategy. Their solution has been to place a priority on consolidating the territory they hold and establishing financing networks that will reduce their reliance on fickle overseas backers. The consequence of this strategic shift is what some Syria-watchers have called a “Darwinian shake-down”: small groups have coalesced around larger ones to create “families” of brigades, each with their own identity, organizational hierarchy, and sources of funding. There are now five principal rebel families: theIslamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam, and what remains of the Free Syrian Army. Each of these “families” is competing with the others for oil, wheat, and cross-border trade — assets that are now viewed as the key to long-term survival.

The fate of the Farouk Brigades offers a case study of the forces at work. Once a much-vauntedgroup that received generous arms deliveries from Turkey, the Farouk Brigades was, at one point, the lynchpin of the West’s effort to build a “moderate” opposition. Instead of making the necessary alliances needed to carve out their own fiefdom in resource-rich areas, Farouk’s forces embarked on a disastrous war with two powerful families: Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra. The war ended with Farouk’s expulsion from oil- and grain-rich Raqqa province; it also lost control over the vital border crossing at Tal Abyad that its fighters had liberated in September 2012. Confined to resource-poor and heavily contested Homs province, it failed to draw smaller groups into its orbit and grew progressively weaker, eventually splintering into bickering factions of a few hundred fighters each. The rebels call this process of decline tarahul, or “limpness,” and it often remains imperceptible to those looking in from the outside.

Two a half years into the revolt, opposition-held Syria is Mad Max meets The Sopranos. Groups of brigades now fight the regime one day, fight each other over resources the next, settle differences the day after that, and then return to fighting the regime once more, ad infinitum. In theory, the Sunni rebels who dominate the opposition want democracy and/or Islam. In practice, they are unreconstructed small capitalists who are ripping apart the old state-run economy and creating in its stead a patchwork of fiefdoms where rackets and other profitable enterprises are pursued away from the dead hand of Baathist government — or, for that matter, of any government. This doesn’t bode well for the fortunes of the armed rebellion, which is in desperate need of centralized planning and leadership.

Had American sports ever taken off in Syria, the “Euphrates Knights” would have been a pretty great name for a popular football team. In reality, it’s one of two dozen rebel outfits that operate out of Manbij, a city of 200,000 inhabitants 50 miles east of Aleppo. Shabby and polluted, the city is, like many of its type in the developing world, an experiment in modernity gone bad. But it’s as good a place as any to observe the dynamics now driving armed opposition factions as they desperately avoidtarahul and its deadly consequences.

Liberation came to Manbij in July 2012 at the hands of revolutionaries like Abu Suleiman, a welder and part-time truck driver. His rough-and-ready leadership qualities were rewarded with command of one of the Euphrates Knights’ five battalions. He should be a happy man, but he isn’t. “When we first raised arms, we had only five Kalashnikovs between us and we got around on motorbikes, but at least the people had respect for us,” he says. “Now, 70 percent of those who say they are in the Free Syrian Army haven’t even been to the front line.”

But those would-be rebels have been busy nonetheless. They may not have been fighting, but they’ve been hard at work on what Marxists might be tempted to call a “social revolution.” The rebel fighters — poor Sunnis drawn mostly from rural backgrounds — have long begrudged what they see as a systematic policy of discrimination in education and public sector jobs. They say that the ruling Alawites give preference to their own or other minorities, that the security forces were disproportionately repressive against Sunnis, and that they feel wronged by a system that denied them their fair share of the national wealth. It was this combination of factors, they say, that drove a third of all men in Manbij to search for work in places like Lebanon, usually ending up as low-paid day laborers or farm hands. But now that these same men have kicked the government out, the implications have been somewhat surprising.

About five miles east of Manbij is an oil market. In an open expanse of land, sellers from Hassake and Deir az-Zour meet buyers from Aleppo and Idlib, ascertain the quality of the crude oil, agree on a price, and exchange bills. This market didn’t exist when the regime was around, since the state-owned oil company enjoyed a monopoly over Syria’s hydrocarbons. Now the oil wells scattered across Syria’s east and northeast are the property of whoever lays claim to them — and Syria’s five rebel families have been quick to act. The Aleppo-based Tawhid Brigade, for example, holds the al-Jabbul field east of Safira. The FSA-aligned warlord Saddam al-Nu’aimi controls the wells in Bukamal near the Iraqi border. And the al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra controls the giant Shadadi field in Hassake (albeit with ISIS now breathing down its neck).

The small, low-tech refiners in the rebel-controlled areas face a daunting task as they try to turncrude into gasoline and other oil products using the most primitive (and dangerous) of means (as seen in the photo above). But if they survive the process unscathed, they can at least look forward to a decent profit. With the rebels selling a barrel of oil for anything up to $ 22, refiners can make a profit of 30 cents on every liter of gasoline sold to the public. Those who make their living from road haulage and associated trades have seen their business boom; body shops, for instance, can’t keep up with the demand from truckers who need giant tanks fitted to the backs of their vehicles. Unemployed young men can now make a living selling fuel from roadside kiosks, and mechanics have plenty to do in repairing engines damaged by the low-quality fuel. The free market that the rebels have unconsciously fostered is a win-win for suppliers (the rebels themselves) and consumers (everyone else). Too bad about the environment, of course — but that seems to be the last thing on Syrians’ minds these days.

Hasan al-Ali, the Euphrates Knights’ founder and political leader, belongs to the social class that historian Hanna Batatu calls the “lesser rural notables.” A pharmacist by profession and the son of a clan elder of the Umayrat tribe, Ali was keen to cash in on the oil grab. He negotiated an alliance with Ahmad Issa al-Sheikh, the leader of powerful Idlib-based Islamist group Suqur al-Sham, who is linked to the Jaysh al-Islam “family.” Ali was partially hoping this new alliance could protect the Knights from al Qaeda. But the real motive for the move was all about business.

Supplied with heavy weaponry by Al-Sheikh, the Knights entered into a joint venture with three other rebel outfits in August to seize the al-Shaer oil field in Hama province. That they had to offer the Mawali tribe a stake in the enterprise in return for granting oil tankers safe passage through their territory was a small price to pay for “maintaining the reputation of the firm,” as Ali puts it. The field’s production capacity of at least 2,000 barrels per day (and the T-55 tank parked outside the Euphrates Knights’ headquarters) suggests that there was more than enough oil to go around. “I thank God everyday for Bashar al-Assad,” Ali proclaims triumphantly. “His stupidity has made us aware of what we are capable of. Before we were lazy, but now look at us.”

Oil is not the only way that rebels can make money. Another outfit from Manbij, the Jund al-Haramein brigade, has gone in for the grain racket. In exchange for “protection” from other groups trying to force their flour upon customers, bakeries in the city are obliged to purchase flour sourced exclusively from mills controlled by the al-Harameins. And in case ISIS or Jabhat al-Nusra ever becomes unhappy about this arrangement, the al-Harameins can simply opt for protection of their own — by joining the Ahrar al-Sham family. In September, indeed, Jund al-Haramein announced that it was already affiliating itself with the larger group, a move that should suffice to deter any hostile action.

How are the rebels spending their new-found wealth? Just take a look at the burgeoning car trade. In the bad old days, the government imposed duties as high as 300 percent on imported vehicles, so only a wealthy few could afford to own cars. When the rebels who now control the Turkish border scrapped the charge, Syria’s northern provinces became awash with second-hand cars imported from Eastern Europe, which retail for as little as $4,000 (for a cheap Korean model) to $8,000 (for a proper German mid-size). “Our money is being turned into steel,” complains Ali, who insists that proceeds from his oil venture have been going exclusively to supporting the war effort. But not all of his comrades are as scrupulous. Where they had previously struggled to afford motorbikes, rebel fighters are now seen driving BMW X5s.

The downside to this explosion of entrepreneurial energy is that it comes at the price of actually defeating Assad. The Knights have had to withdraw their forces from the siege of a regime air base atKuwairis, east of Aleppo, to reinforce an attack on a troublesome army positioned in al-Shaer that was taking potshots at their oil tankers. Far more dangerous for the rebel cause as a whole is the steady erosion of morale and fighting spirit that occurs as brigades, having liberated their areas from the regime, find themselves using their military might to protect their economic assets as opposed to carrying on the fight elsewhere.

The implications of this can be seen in today’s battlefield. The regime has begun a determined pushthrough the soft underbelly of the opposition-held north, capturing Safira and threatening to cut off Aleppo from the eastern half of the country. This will prove to be a rude wake-up call to the rebel groups in the area that had grown soft on the spoils of 12 months of liberation. Only planning at the very highest levels of rebel leadership can hope to save the day, but while meetings do sometimes take place between the heads of the main families, often under pressure from regional patrons, these are as much about PR as they are about actually taking action in any concerted or strategic manner. “None of the groups think that they’re going to be part of something,” says one rebel insider. “They all think they are going to be that thing.” It will be seen whether these leaders will ever regulate their rivalry by creating a body like the notorious Commission, the ruling body of the American Mafia. As things stand now, that would be the logical next step in the evolution of the armed opposition.

Under a starry night in Manbij, the omens were not good. Abu Muslim, a battalion commander with Ahrar al-Sham, sat sipping midnight tea with counterparts from the Euphrates Knights at one of their checkpoints at the western approaches to the city, trading information about who had stolen what and who was feuding with whom. During the conversation he made his share of grand claims. His group, he said, had become completely self-sufficient, controlling hundreds of factories in Aleppo and many dozens of oil wells in the East. He boasted that it could field 40,000 fighting men, and that it had 17 tanks in the Aleppo area alone. This sort of exaggeration for the sake of good appearances is routine among Syria’s rebels. But when asked what the future holds for the rebel groups, his response was shot through with grim realism: “We’re going to enter a bloody phase, more bloodier than the present one,” he predicted. “And we’re going to wipe each other out.”




Categories: Syrian uprising
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