Exposing “Ghosts” – An Online Hunt for Assad’s Thugs in Europe

A member of the Shabiha, with a tattoo of President Assad on his disproportionately large left arm
A member of the Shabiha, with a tattoo of President Assad on his disproportionately large left arm

A member of the Shabiha, with a tattoo of President Assad on his disproportionately large left arm

By Koen Kluessien -

 

“We love Assad because the government gave us all the power – if I wanted to take something, kill a person or rape a girl I could […]. The government gave me 30,000 Syrian pounds per month and an extra 10,000 per person that I captured or killed. I raped one girl, and my commander raped many times. It was normal.” This confession describes only one of many atrocities perpetrated by the Shabiha. According to a 2016 country report on Human Rights Practices conducted by the US State Department, these militias systematically perpetrated rape and other attacks on civilian populations. At least 7,672 incidents of sexual abuse were perpetrated since the beginning of the conflict. These predominantly Alawite pro-Assad death squads intimidate, rape, and kill Syrians who oppose the regime. It is no coincidence that Shabiha is Arabic for “ghost” or “shadow”. The militias feel untouchable. Some of these “ghosts” have now found their way to Europe, while their crimes have remained unpunished.

The Shabiha have been around for a long time. In the 1980s and 90s they smuggled food, cigarettes, and other commodities into Lebanon, selling these products with a huge profit. The smuggling was state sponsored and seemingly innocent. However, on the other side of the border luxury cars, guns, and drugs were smuggled from Lebanon into Syria’s state controlled economy. The Shabiha were nothing short of Syrian mobsters and were known for their brutal way of protecting their own business. When Bashar al-Assad came to power, the group was said to be disbanded. However, when the Syrian protestors took to the streets, the Shabiha gangs evolved into militia groups. This time not simply to smuggle products from and to Syria, but also to beat civilians into submission.

The Shabiha are Assad’s militia on steroids, literally. The members of the death squads are often described as wearing trainers and civilians clothes, added with a military style crew cut. What stands out most is their physique. According to one physician many of the members are recruited from bodybuilding gyms and are given steroids. This results in the militiamen resembling a somewhat chubbier and far more scarier version of Arnold Schwarzenegger. It must be added that many of the current Shabiha do not resemble this stereotypical look anymore. Still, they are far from ordinary men.

One question that immediately arises is: why are these fighters granted asylum? And more importantly, what are they doing here? There is not yet a clear cut answer to both questions, but open source research by human rights activists provides us with some answers. Humanitarian asylum is only granted to civilians, not to fighters. UNHCR clearly states that “military activity is incompatible with the very institution of asylum. Persons who pursue military activities in a country of asylum cannot be asylum-seekers or refugees.” Still, government militants are often not seen as a threat to the European way of life. Shabiha smoke and drink, are not devout Muslims, and wear Western clothes. With the authorities unaware of the crimes these militias committed, they are generally seen as people who would integrate into our society easily.

The militiamen are under close scrutiny of a special team within the Dutch police force. Still, even the police often has to rely on anonymous tips from refugees who have recognized war criminals. Militias have also been located by open source researchers in European countries such as Germany, Sweden, and the Netherlands. Still, they feel untouchable, even when they are not directly protected by the Syrian government. The alleged war criminals carelessly post photos of their whereabouts on Facebook and other social media. Luckily, this makes it easier for researches to locate them and link them to photos and videos of them wearing combat uniforms and committing war crimes. Already a number of researchers and organizations are posting the names and details of foreign fighters who have been geolocated in European cities. Combined with eyewitness accounts from victims who are now asylum seekers and human rights reports this information can counter impunity. More importantly, human rights activists have received intelligence that a number of Shabiha have been sent by Syrian regime intelligence (the Mukhabarat) to spy on refugees.

Layth Ayman Munshdi is one example of a fighter that sought refuge in Europe and was tracked down by open source researcher Ben Davies, simply using social media. Munshdi joined a pro-regime militia to fight in the armed conflict Moreover, he took part in executions. He also posted photos of himself standing on the bodies of the dead Sunni men he most likely murdered. Later he was located in Neustadt, Germany simply because he uploaded photos from his new life in Europe. He remained there for several months, until Syrians started posting about the crimes he committed. Munshdi consequently deleted his account, he was then lost out of sight for a while. He now resides in Damascus and rejoined the Shi’a militias in Damascus.

 

Layth Ayman Munshdi as a fighter and as an “asylum seeker” in Greece

Layth Ayman Munshdi as a fighter and as an “asylum seeker” in Greece

 

The human rights activists conducting the much needed open source research are often Syrian refugees themselves. Needless to say, these researchers are biased in one way or another. When one researchers was asked if he would also publish articles on war criminals from the Syrian opposition he stated that he had not yet found any. It is clear that there is a margin of error to the research. Still, they analyze every detail there is to be found about the individuals. The information is then corroborated with human rights organizations on the ground.

Much of the open source research is conducted by human rights activists that are not part of a police force. They provide us with some much needed awareness on the crimes of the Syrian regime, but they lack any form of judicial power. Luckily, some of the pro-Assad militias residing in Europe are now on the radar of police forces and intelligence agencies. Special war crimes units have started interviewing eyewitnesses and victims, in case a Syrian tribunal is ever established. This pro-active attitude is essential to build a case against war criminals. Still, it is unclear if such a war crimes tribunal will ever come to fruition. Many countries see Assad as the lesser of two evils, arguing that to fight ISIL they must maintain diplomatic relations with the Assad regime. Consequently ignoring that the atrocities committed by the regime forces are often as atrocious as those committed by the Islamic State. If the Shabiha escape any form of sentencing, they will forever haunt the minds of their victims.

 

The Power of the UN to protect Humanity – Part I The Security Council

sc-vote-on-syria
sc-foto-2

UN Security Council meeting on Syria, on December 18, 2015. Take a good look at who raised their hands and who did not (State Department photo/ Public Domain)

 

By Iona Mulder -

 

The UN was founded after the Second World War with the primary goal of protecting peace and security in the world. One of the most important elements of this goal is the protection of people all around the world against similar atrocities that were committed by the Nazi regime; these atrocities are now framed as crimes against humanities and genocide. But who decides and how is decided within this unique and powerful international organization, that currently includes 193 states, that action is necessary to confront issues of crimes against humanity? I will provide insight into this question in a series of several articles. The intention is not to be exhaustive, but to provide a top-down overview of the decision-making process of this powerful organization, to show its competence and its weaknesses. This first article begins with the top of the chain were political decisions for action are taken: the Security Council.

Although the UN as a whole can be seen as leading the politics of the international community, its power is bound by the obligation to respect the sovereignty of states. The right to sovereignty means that the UN cannot interfere within national affairs without the permission of the state itself. This rule is the number one principle of international law. However, the Security Council forms the exception; it is the only organ that can in specific situations interfere with this fundamental principle of sovereignty – even with the use of force, often described as “use of all necessary means”. It can do so in the name of the protection of international peace and security, as described in Chapter VII of the founding charter of the UN. Whether a situation is a threat to peace and security and what measures should be taken, will be determined by a vote of the fifteen states that are a member of the council. There are five permanent members, US, UK, Russia, China, France, those countries that were considered as superpowers after The Second World War, and ten non-permanent that change every two years. These world-changing decisions on peace and security issues are made by the representative of the members states simply raising their hand, as if they were in a classroom. Live-streams of the voting meetings can be viewed at the website UN television. A decision, called a resolution, will be accepted when nine of the members vote in favor, and none of the permanent member uses their right to veto a decision.

Since the end of the eighties, the Security Council has often considered widespread international crimes against humanity as a threat to security of the international community. Examples of such situations are Former Yugoslavia, Somalia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, The Democratic Republic of the Congo. The more recent case of South-Sudan shows how the decision-making at the Security Council ideally works. Last November 11th, United Nations Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, made a visit to the young state of South-Sudan. His role as a Special Advisor is to collect information and advice and warn the Secretary-General and the Security Council of the UN on grave human rights violations of ethnic and racial origin that genocide that might escalate into genocide. The reason for his visit was continuing reports of ethnic violence in South-Sudan. In a speech before the Security Council he stated: “Last week, I saw all the signs that ethnic hatred and targeting of civilians could evolve into genocide if something is not done now to stop it. I urge the Security Council and Members States of the region to be united, and to take action.”

Already since 2011 there is a UN mission stationed within South-Sudan named UNMISS with the mandate to protect civilians, monitor, investigate human rights, and to give assistance to build up the new state. Over the years the mission was already expanded. However, as Adama Dieng has specified within his speech before the Security Council, neither the UNMISS nor strong calls upon the South Sudanese government, not even a ceasefire that was established in 2015, have led to a positive progress of the stability and security of the country. On the contrary, the violence has increased and spread over a larger area; the government army is overall feared by the population, and the current South Sudanese President Kirr made statements that incite even more violence among the different political/ethnic groups within the country.

Following Adama Dieng’s advice and call to take action before the Security Council, the Security Council decided last December 16th to expand the UNMISS even more with 4500 soldiers and broaden its mandate. This mandate now includes among other things the unlimited access for the Special Advisor to monitor, investigate and report on incidents of hate speech and incitement to violence and actively participate in the mission in the implementation of the ceasefire, including the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of different armed groups in South Sudan. In this case, the Security Council took the words of the Special Advisor into account and took action to protect the population of South Sudan. There are, however, two loopholes. First of all, the Security Council is not obligated to council the Special Advisor if the member states are not interested in doing so. Secondly, the member states might not vote for any action or one the permanent members can use its right to veto to uphold any action. This often happens when political interest come into play.

The most compelling example nowadays is the case of Syria. Special Advisor Adama Dieng has made fifteen public statements on the desperate situation of the civil population in Syria. He has not once been invited by the Security Council to speak about this subject. Moreover, Russia has used its veto right six times since the beginning of the conflict to uphold a UN Mission with a mandate regarding the protection of civilians or the persecution of those responsible for violence against civilians and the use of chemical weapons. China has taken the same position five times. The reason for Russia and China to do so is their political alliance with the Syrian government. If they would allow such a UN mission to be implemented, this would minimize the power of the Syrian government and thereby damage their political interested. Henceforth, the Security Council is completely paralyzed to take any action. It is undeniable that the Security Council is failing to fulfill its responsibility to protect the population of Syria.

The situation in Syria is the ultimate display that the UN system to prevent any large-scale human right violations is dependent on the political will of the members of the Security Council and primarily the permanent members. The five permanent member states can stand in the way of the protection of many innocent civilians, merely because it is against their own political interest to so, even when all the other members are of the opinion that measures are imperative to secure the safety of certain populations. It is clear that if the Security Council wants to function as is intended by its founders, the voting powers must be distributed more equitably among the UN member states. This very critical note aside, the Security Council intervenes in some situations to protect civil population when a state is unable or unwilling to protect them, as is shown in the case of South-Sudan. The following question is, of course, will this action minimize or halt the violence. The UN human right protection systems involve many other organs than the Security Council and the Special Advisor. Their role, work and the success of their actions on the ground will be discussed in the following articles of this series.

No Place to Hide: War Criminals and Terrorists Among Refugees

Angelos Tzortinis / Getty Images - CC BY-NC
Angelos Tzortinis / Getty Images - CC BY-NC

Angelos Tzortinis / Getty Images – CC BY-NC

 

By Kari van der Ploeg -

This summer the world was shocked when a photo of a little Syrian boy went viral. He was pictured face down in the sand, drowned before the coast of Greece. In no time, the public opinion regarding the European refugee crisis turned emotional. A consensus was reached among the European population that a more empathetic approach to the problem was needed. However, as people started arriving in Europe and the local population saw the practical consequences of the crisis, public opinion soon shifted to anger.

As you can read in Marieke’s article, locals are mostly concerned about the large amount of new refugee shelters that are being set up and the presumed problems that come along with them. How is our government going to find money to feed these people, are the means present to give them social benefits, what if they ‘take our jobs’? Concerns about welfare are supressing the empathy some people once felt. The consequence is that the debate is polarizing and people are becoming increasingly scared. Moderation in the debate is being shunned as everyone needs to be pro or against refugees*. Fuelled by right winged politicians and media, many people no longer see refugees as people escaping war but stereotype them as troublemakers, freeloaders and war criminals. A dehumanizing rhetoric is taking over the debate by referring to refugees in terms such as a ‘tsunami of refugees’ (in other words: a deadly force of refugees).

While reading certain social media content such as the Dutch Geen Stijl’ or the Facebook page ‘NK vluchteling vangen met een vangnet’ (National Championship catching refugees with a safety net – recently removed by Facebook) one comes to believe that the majority of refugees are thugs and terrorists who have come to Europe to convert us to the Islam and rape little girls. Under the pretence of humour, people vocalize their frustrations, anger and fears and push each other into a more violent rhetoric against refugees. Some examples of these comments are: “To what extent are refugees armed exactly? I am reading more and more disturbing things about this”, “They work in groups, they don’t need weapons to rape little girls”** The continuous outpouring of venomous thoughts is  shocking to read. A lot of counter arguments are being heard as well but moderation is hard to find in the debate among common men. It made me wonder how it was possible that the debate has shifted to fast from empathy to concern and anger. Is there any truth to these worries, do we really have to be concerned about our own safety and welfare?

In September, the story of a Syrian man and his seven year old son headed the news when they were tripped by a Hungarian camerawomen as they were trying to escape from a collection point in Roszke village, Hungary. Abdul Mohsen’s life was turned upside down when it became public that he used to be a football coach back in Syria, and he was offered a place on a Spanish soccer coach academy. Mohsen and his son were welcomed personally in the Spanish capital by players of Real Madrid, including Cristiano Ronaldo. Soon after however, the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) accused him of being a member of Jabhat Al-Nusra, an offshoot of Al-Qaida in Syria. They released a statement holding Mohsen accountable for war crimes against Kurds and other civilian minorities since 2011. The PYD published a photo of Mohsen’s Facebook account where he identifies himself as a member of the Al-Nusra front, adding that he fought Kurds near Amudeh, Serekaniya and Afrin.

The incident of Abdul Mohsen poses an example of what many people in Europe are scared of. With a large amount of people streaming in to Europe it is nearly impossible to research the background of every single one of them. According to newspaper ´de Volkskrant´, the Dutch secret services (AIVD) claim that there is no indication to be scared for large numbers of terrorists among refugees. However, prominent public Dutch figures such as Geert Wilders and Bram Moszcowicz fuel fear with fictional numbers and simplistic statements. Wilders claims that 2% of the  refugees that arrive in Europe are radicalized. Moszcowicz added that he is scared that the people that find it normal to behead others are among refugees.  “They don’t allow us to live” he said at a meeting of the Dutch liberal party, the VVD, in September. The AIVD however does not recognize these numbers or sentiments. It is possible that in individual instances a radicalized person could be among the rest of the refugees, but the numbers are in no way as high as politicians claim, according to the AIVD. There is a sound procedure in place to screen those who are entering our country. Last year only a very small number of Syrians were arrested on the suspicion of being involved in possible war crimes. It is also important to note that ISIS actually warns its men not to travel to the West, away from the caliphate. Leaving the caliphate is considered treason and makes it therefore highly unlikely that there are large amount of ISIS members among refugees.

Cases such as the one of Abdul Mohsen focusses a large part of the discussion on the dangers of war criminals among refugees. What people do not realize is that this focus brings dangers of its own. Genuine refugees are being stigmatized and threatened by the local population, whereas the presence of war criminals among them is most dangerous for them. Rena Netjes, Arabic scholar and Middle-East expert spoke with Radio 1 on Tuesday and vocalized the sentiments among refugees. According to Netjes, refugees are scared for Assad’s power, even here. Most of them still have family back in Syria and fear that their family members will be hurt if the Mukhabarat (Syrian Military Intelligence Dictatorate) discovers their identity. Netjes confirms that members of the Mukhabarat are among those who are entering Europe right now. I have spoken with a Syrian refugee myself who told me about similar sentiments. She escaped Syria and the threat of being arrested by the government in 2011, leaving her family behind in Damascus. Knowing that the people she tried to get away from are still among her, makes her feel trapped, she tells me. She is not necessarily scared for herself, but more for what they might do to her family if they find out who she is and why she left Syria.

The debate in Europe has been consumed lately with the fear of the loss of welfare to the influx of refugees. Stereotyping them as war criminals seems like an easy way of channelling these fears, which are sparked by extremely right-winged politicians. It has to be taken into consideration though that the numbers are in fact much lower than for instance the 2% of war criminals among refugees that Geert Wilders claims. Since the 1990s a lot of procedures have been created to screen these criminals and even bring them to trial. This is not only important for our own safety but also for the safety of genuine refugees themselves. I believe it is important that the public debate incorporates a more moderate discourse in which questions will be answered to the European population based on facts instead of fears. It needs to become clear who we are giving refuge to and why we do not need to be scared of them.

 * In this article I define refugees as people that escape war, not to be confused with people that migrate due to economic reasons.

**“In hoeverre zijn asielzoeker/vluchtelingen/immigranten eingelijk bewapend? Lees en hoor hier steeds meer zeer verontrustende berichten over, ook bij mij in de buurt…..” en “Ze opereren vaak in groepjes. Dan heb je geen wapens nodig om dat jonge meisje je wil op te leggen.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“We Fought With Our Bodies and Voices, Not With Guns and Weapons” – Interview With the Cast of ‘A Syrian Love Story’

Jan Seftl/Flickr (CC BY/SA)

 

 

Jan Seftl/Flickr (CC BY/SA)

Jan Seftl/Flickr (CC BY/SA)

By Tayfun Balçik -

 

The IDFA-screening of A Syrian Love Story – a documentary depicting 5 years of the life of a troubled Syrian family filmed against the background of the war,– caused many emotional reactions among  Amsterdam’s Tuschinksi cinema visitors. Some people in the audience cried, some were obviously distressed. The main characters of the film, Raghda (mother), Amer (father), Ricardo, Bob (sons) and Sean McAllister (director) received a standing ovation. The discussion afterwards with journalist Marcia Luyten was too short to be really satisfactory. Therefore, it was great that Koen and I had the opportunity to have an interview with the crew the day-after. Both the family whose story is told in the documentary as well as some of the crew-members were present. It is exactly the visible tensed togetherness of the family which makes ‘A Syrian Love Story’ so moving. After all, we see how revolutionary parents in a dangerous context struggle between their ideals and normal family-life, forcefully catched in Amer’s lamenting phrase about Ragdha in the film ‘You cannot be Che Gueverra and a mother’. The whole audience was witness to a marriage crisis, so closely filmed by Sean that it even felt somehow wrong to watch the evolving drama between a husband and his wife. We saw their children trying to make sense of what was happening between their father, mother and the whole Syrian carnage altogether at the same time. In conversation with Sean, the teenager Ricardo reveals his true feelings about the situation in Syria: “In the beginning I was happy with the revolution. Now, I hate it.” And little Bob’s anger with Assad in his mother’s arms is heartbreaking and a simple but clear reminder to the rationale behind the armed opposition against the Assad-regime. Eventually, the family draws the same conclusion as thousands of other Syrian refugees and leaves their home. First from Damascus to Yarmouk Camp, and then their desperate flight to Lebanon and France. Raghda now lives in Istanbul and is part of the Syrian opposition. Amer lives in France with his children.

 

“Why does the West want Bashar to stay?”

 

Because of the focus on the situation of the family the political discussion somewhat degrades to the background but never fades away. In reaction to a question during the Q&A about the prospects for Syria, Sean McAllister remarked shortly: “I don’t really want to get in that discussion, but the removal of Assad would be one thing to start if you want to talk about future prospects for Syria”. The moderator looked surprised to hear that and asked, “who should remove Assad?” Raghda stepped in and responded with a question, “why does the West want Bashar to stay?” Amer said that he has no hope for Syria.  This interview can be seen as an in-depth follow-up of that short discussion.

The managing director of IDFA, Cees van ‘t Hullenaar, said that he sensed some sort of change in Europe with regards to the treatment of refugees and the Syrian crisis? Do you feel that too Amer?

 

“Not really, it’s getting worse actually.”

 

Yes, yesterday you said there is ‘no hope’ for Syria and there is also mentioning in the film that the Middle-East problem will eventually come to Europe. What do you mean exactly by that?

 

Amer: “I hope the problems won’t come to Europe, but what you see now is that everyday thousands of refugees are arriving in Europe. And those refugees have big problems inside them. There are another 5 million Syrians who are just waiting for their chance to come to Europe too. Why? Because they lost their chances, their homes and everything. So it’s a difficult situation over there, which cannot continue any further without causing bigger problems.”

 

In Europe people fear ‘jihadists’ coming with the refugees. They see this problem as a security issue.

 

Amer (defensively): “I don’t want to see it that way. Daesh (ISIS) comes, Daesh goes. After all, what is Daesh? Daesh’s origins lies in the USA. That problem is not here. The problem here, in Europe, is that families are coming with complicated psychologic troubles, because of the horrific things they saw. And these people will have to start a new life in Europe. But how? They need help. They need at least 10 years to dig ways. And what about the new generation that will come? The kids. How can they be in a school again after what they have seen in Syria? It’s a big problem.”

 

What do you mean with that ISIS originated in the USA?

 

Amer: “In just three months Daesh captured an enormous territory in Syria and Iraq! How could that happen? Where were the eyes of the world, with their big satellites. Really they can’t find Daesh? I cannot believe that. I think they could erase Daesh in one night.”

 

“As long as there are Syrians alive, there will always be hope.”

 

But what would be the interest of the USA in creating Daesh?

 

Amer: “How do you think these group came up? When the revolution in Syria started in 2011, we were the first peoples on the streets. And what did we want? We wanted freedom and democracy like the countries in the West. And still we need the right steps to be taken to have a good life and a good economy.”

 

But yesterday you said you have no hope for Syria?

 

Amer: “I just imagined how it would be if I were in Syria right now. If you have hope for Syrian people, OK, be there, and think about what now? If you are here, in Amsterdam, with girls, with beers, camera’s everywhere, then I can imagine one says I have hope. But if I’m a Syrian in Yarmouk camp near Damascus, or Homs, hope would not be the thing I would think about. In such a situation you just want to stay alive, just want to eat something, some grass or anything!”

Amer’s eyes gets wide open and he talks fast and passionately.

 

Clear. But Raghda reacted differently when you said you had no hope?

 

Amer: “Yes, we have different opinions about it.”

Raghda: “Amer only sees problems. My view is, also during my time in prison: as long as there are Syrians alive, there will always be hope. We will make a comeback as Syrians.”

 

You are from the Syrian opposition, situated in Turkey. What is it exactly that you are trying to accomplish?

 

Raghda: “Mostly I talk with different group representatives, and work together with them as Syrians. We prepare the ground for the day when we go back to Syria. We try to build something and be together.”

 

What about armed groups? Do you also represent them?

 

Raghda shakes her head and leans back: “No, no no.”

 

What should the world do for Syria?

 

Raghda: “We have hope because living Syrians are depending on us. We cannot know what the next steps will be, but we always try. I cannot say everything.” (Laughs).

 

But how do you envision a future Syria, with or without Assad?

 

Raghda (resolutely): “Without.”

 

How do you want to do that?

 

Raghda: “The world, all the governments, support Assad. If the world decides to let Assad go, the killing will stop. This is our message.”

 

Koen: But what about the changes that should take place within Syria? It’s a divided country.

 

Raghda: “The problem is the regime. All Syrians should work together to change the regime. Not just Assad. The Mukhaberat (secret services, TB), they control everything. It’s a big lie that half of the Syrian people support Assad. No, that is not true.”

Amer: “I think the world has no memory or there is a hole in the story. We fought with our bodies and voices, not with guns and weapons. That time we asked the world to help us, to be with us in our fight for democracy. And what did they do? They asked: ‘OK, where is the opposition, who can be a new government in Syria?’ We said: ‘We are the opposition.’ Than they asked to form a union. And we did! Than they said: ‘It’s not enough, do another one.’ We did another one. What after, what do you want? People were starting to get killed in Syria. And the world continued to make a picture, to make a video. And the people in Europe, they all watched on television. For this we died. What after?! Hope is not enough. The memory of the world is bullshit. They must remember when the laique (secular) people started the revolution in Syria. We wanted democracy. People who used religion, who fought in the name God, there are reasons to fight in the name of God, if you have the Islamic way, like we had before: fight for Syria, like a united country. For the people, that was our way. But nobody supported that, nobody moved to do that. How then can we talk about hope or democracy? There is no way you can do that. They put your head on the roof if you say that.”

 

So, the revolution was initially secular?

 

Amer: “There was no religion. There were people from Christian, Islamic, Sunni, Alawi, Shia, Druze, they were all together in the streets. But after that, when nobody supported them and left them weak, nobody gave them anything to continue against Bashar al-Assad.” Resentful: “They let us alone. Most of us died, is now in prison to die more or left the country.”

 

So, before the revolution in 2011, there were no tensions between Sunnis, Alawis and Christians?

 

Amer: “You have to believe me on this one. The ex-husband of my sister, I only knew after four years that her ex-husband was Shia.”

 

You really did not know?

 

Amer: “I never thought about it. It did not matter.”

 

Raghda: “We did not speak or know about whether a person was Christian, Muslim, Sunni or Shia.”

 

“If you were doing this interview in Damascus before 2011, you would have been taken away immediately.” 

 

What exactly was the problem then? (This question was received with laughter.)

 

Sean: “I think one of the problems was if you sleep at night, and you have a bang bang bang at two o’clock in the morning, and you get kidnapped, that is not an acceptable society to live in. That was fundamentally the problem.”

 

They were painting a picture of Syria as a nice multicultural society.

 

Sean: “Well, people were living in fear and they could get kidnapped at any point, fuck all the multiculturalism! She was taken and nobody knew anything were she was taken. The prisons were full of people without any trial. Fuck multiculturalism!”

 

So the multiculturalism before the revolution was a façade.

Sean: “The whole thing was bullocks!”

 

Amer: “If you were doing this interview in Damascus before 2011, you would have been taken away immediately.”

 

Sean: “How could people live like that? Why should anyone live like that?”

Amer: “You cannot write, you cannot move. All the problems are around you. You feel like you live in a cage, even in your bed. All the time you are being watched. You are not safe. All the time you dream about freedom outside. If you go to Lebanon you see more freedom, even though it’s tough sometimes. Yes, of course there were corrupt Alawi people around Assad, in the cities especially. But in the poor villages, Alawi or not, the regime was as oppressive as it was against everyone who was against the dictatorship.”

 

Raghda: “There is no problem between the different communities. The problem is the regime, if he goes, than Daesh and all other problems will go away.”

 

But I hear other voices. People who are afraid of a Islamist or Jihadist takeover. In Christian, Druze, but also Alawi communities. That Assad is protecting them and keeping Daesh down.

 

Amer: “Bullshit.”

Everybody starts laughing.

 

“Telling the truth in such a situation could get their family killed.”

 

Raghda: “People risk their lives when they speak the truth about the Assad regime. What would you do if you know that doors are slammed and people are taken away to get killed? I know many families who have three or four family-members who are taken away by the regime or Daesh. Telling the truth in such a situation could get their family killed.”

 

OK, what if Assad is gone and all the killings stop, how to build-up a community again?

 

Amer: “It’s too late to have a community. Because now, with the country crushed completely, and the opposition is bullshit everywhere, in Turkey and other countries, they are shit, they cannot do anything! There is no opposition actually. But to answer your question, if Assad is down, because his friends don’t support him anymore, I think that the fighting will continue without any goal. They will just fight on. Because they cannot forget their blood! If you are Alawi, and you kill my son, I want to kill you and never stop my war against you. It’s not about “community” now between Alawi, Sunni or Durzi. It’s about revenge in the streets, between neighborhoods. Everybody wants to continue.”

 

Well that is a reason for the international community to come between the warring sides and stop the killing.

 

Raghda: “When the revolution started..”

Amer: “Nobody had a plan..”

 

Raghda: “And we paid with our lives for that. Now people wake up, and try to make something…”

 

Amer (cynically): “I think now it’s a good time, for the big powers in the world like America, England to go and shoot Daesh. But there is nothing to shoot Daesh. They are big liars. They go with air forces and shoot Daesh. To crush more and continue the war. For what? For the time-after, so their companies can come and build a new Syria, which will be good for their economy. It’s a big game and everybody now know what’s happening. So how can I have hope? Who can do anything for Syria? Its not a country anymore. Its like a shape, everybody can touch it, everybody can put a finger everywhere.”

 

Yes, but the killing continues. And some countries in the West and Turkey said there should be a security-zone and no-fly-zone.

 

Amer: “Yes, I support the idea of a security-zone, not just around the Turkish border, everywhere in Syria, if they can support these kids with their families to stay alive and create some perspective for them, maybe so they can have hope later. But the big powers must do that. Not other players, who put their fingers everywhere.”

 

Koen: Do you think that Syria can be one united country again?

 

Sean: “The only way for Syria to be a united country again is to have another dictator. You cannot bring the country together democratically. It’s a divided nation now, it’s impossible to have it like it ever was. I think it will be like Yugoslavia. Carved up. The more interesting question for me was, if we had gotten involved, which was not cool, early on, if we had made that concerted effort and supported the Free Syrian Army to remove Assad, which we didn’t want. What would have been the outcome? Now we have 350.000 people killed. And ISIS is growing. People from Britain are joining them. For me the problem was one man. What do you think?

 

I am for military intervention. Especially after the chemical attack in Ghouta.

 

“I think that was the fundamental thing. We set the red lines and Obama let him go with a lousy deal. The green light was provided for him. And it’s a little line in the film, which goes unmissed (sic): The Middle East problem will come to Europe. We thought we could ignore their problems. OK, fine, ignore Syria. We did, we ignored it until it collapsed into massacre, but now the problems comes from two ways. In refugees, which we see, and in Daesh. Daesh is coming to Britain! And this is what they are going to do: they are gonna start targeting Europe and America. So when we think about Syria, we have to think in terms of our own security, and therefore we have to get involved. We should have gotten involved.”

Amer: “Actually they lie too much. When they say they want to help Syrian people, they want us to die more. They have never given anything. We know the games they play with us. Every day we lost many thousands people. Than we started to know that they lied.”

 

Last question. In the film we also see your struggles as husband and wife. And during one of these fights you explain what it means to be loved by someone and say ‘every man in his life seeks for that person’

 

Amer: “You want me to fight with her again?”

 

Everybody Laughs.

 

It was really beautiful.

 

Amer: “I think every man wants to be loved by the one who he sees as his heart, his love. Not like friends. You can’t remove that feeling, it comes along with love. I am like any man, I want to feel it. And it’s hard. Because I lost it.”

The Rise of ISIS: Its Power Explained Through the Political Dynamics in the Middle-East

anticapitalistes google images
Anticapitalistes/Google Images (CC BY-SA)

Anticapitalistes/Google Images (CC BY-SA)

By Kari van der Ploeg –  

ISIS’ rapid rise of power was accompanied by a severe social media campaign. They confronted the world with gruesome videos of executions of not only westerners, but also Arabs and Muslims. Many people have started wondering why ISIS is killing its fellow Muslims. ISIS emerged as a result of a vacuum of desperation amongst Sunni Muslims. Since the US-led occupation of Iraq in 2003, Sunni Muslims have started to feel insecure, paranoid and under siege. After the Arab Spring, events have made these feelings escalate and lead to violent revolt. Sunnis have felt powerless after losing control in Iraq and are now suffering atrocities at the hands of the government in Syria. The rise of ISIS functions as a clear reaction to these events.

The capitalization of ISIS is directly linked to recent events in Iraq and Syria. The revolution in Syria has nurtured hope for a political comeback among Sunnis in Iraq. Hope was however crushed when, in December 2012, bodyguards of the moderate Sunni Minister of Finance Rafi al-Issawi were arrested by Nouri al-Maliki’s Shia-led government. Feeling excluded and persecuted, peaceful protests emerged in Baghdad and Sunni provinces in northern and central Iraq. Protesters demanded an end to political, civil and economic discrimination against the Sunni community, which had started after the invasion of Iraq by the United States. Soon, protesters realized that Maliki was only offering cosmetic changes, shunning direct negotiations and failing to provide safety measures in Sunni dominated areas. Distrust against the government empowered radical factions. When the Iraqi government attacked a Sunni peace camp at Hawijah, killing fifty people and injuring 110, relations escalated and factions polarized along sectarian lines.

Peaceful protest became violent insurgence. As the government consequently performed ill-planned counteroffensives, shelling Sunni areas and forcing half a million people out of the Anbar region where food became more and more scarce, they have made the Sunni population more susceptible for ISIS’ rule. Corruption and patronage based on party, family or community under Maliki’s government, only contributed more to the marginalization of Sunni Arabs.

The hostility of Sunnis against Maliki and his government has enabled ISIS to gain momentum among Iraq’s Sunni population. The power became divided between the formal political power and Sunni insurgents, refusing to be discriminated. ISIS used these divisions in Iraqi society to rise fiercely and with great speed. Taking over Sunni areas, they were careful not to alienate the local population. Fighters were warned to behave moderately towards the Sunni population. As ISIS spokesperson Abu Mohammed al-Adnani said:

“Accept repentance [to those who have fought alongside the government army] and recantations from those who are sincere, and do not bother those who do not bother you, and forgive your Sunni folk and be gentle with your tribes”

Notwithstanding ISIS brutalities, the Iraqi population currently favors ISIS over its own government. Feeling belittled, demonized and increasingly subject to a central government crackdown, many Sunni Arabs have concluded that their only realistic option is to fight the Shia hegemony, according to the International Crisis Group.

Knowing how things escalated in Iraq explains a tendency among Sunnis to turn to extreme measures. However, it does not explain why Sunni Muslims are so afraid of Shiites and why fighting Shia Muslims specifically is the only way to win back their rights. To find an answer to this question, we have to look at the power dynamics in the region which are inextricably linked to the apocalyptic prophecies of both Shia and Sunni Islam.

According to the prophecies as mentioned in the hadith, Judgement Day will come when the final battle has taken place in Dabiq between the Muslims and the Roman Empire  (i.e. the West). The members of the Islamic State believes they are fulfilling this prophecy. According to the, ‘the Mahdi’ will return when the battle in Dabiq has taken place. Sunni and Shia prophecies differ in their perception of ‘the Mahdi’. Sunnis believe him to be the prophet Muhammed’s successor, who is yet to come into existence. For Shia Muslims, the Mahdi has been born as Muhammed al-Mahdi, also known as the Twelfth Imam or the Hidden Imam, but disappeared. At the end of days he will come out of hiding and bring justice and victory over those who oppose the sharia. Iran uses the prophecy of al-Mahdi as a legitimization for their expansionist behavior. Iran’s rulers are still communicating a dream of reinstating the old Persian Kingdom, also known as the Achaemenid Empire, which stretched from the Balkan in the west to the Indus Valley in the east. By claiming that they have to control this area in order for al-Mahdi to return, they legitimize their actions.

The conflict about dominance over the area between Sunni and Shia groups is used by ISIS to motivate their fighters. The backing of Alawi President Bashar al-Assad in Syria by Iran and Hezbollah confirm ISIS’ anti-Shia conspiracy. ISIS claims that Shia Muslims want to control the whole area and want to convert everyone to Shia Islam. Close relations between Syria and Iran have led to a spur of Shiism in Syria, which makes Syrian Sunnis believe that the government is promoting conversion of Syrians to Shi’ism and shift the country’s demographic balance. This believe is fueled by a growing number of Shia Hawzas and Husseiniyats, which are seminaries where Shia clerics are trained. The establishment of a lot of Shia oriented cultural and financial institutions confirm Sunni fears of the take-over of Shi’ism. The true extent of these allegations is still unclear, but what is certain is that Al Assad’s government is continuously endorsing both the Lebanese and Iranian Shia parties.

Counterbalancing and deterring Shia domination is used as a justification by ISIS for its brutal violence. Its recruits, which are not seldom highly educated, join for this reason. They see it as the only group that is effectively fighting anti-Sunni groups and governments. Frustrations and insecurities have led to the scapegoating and blaming of other groups for their hardship.  Nouri al-Maliki’s system of patronage refusal for compromise has showed that an autocratic, sectarian government only fuels a jihadi problem, rather than diminishing it by repression. Should the Assad regime continue to behave in a similar manner, and should credible Sunni alternatives fail to establish themselves, ISIS will have an opening to maintain their stronghold and become more difficult to defeat.