The enemy’s enemy is a friend: turning a blind eye to the atrocities of the Assad regime

Thierry Ehrmann/Flickr (CC BY/SA)
Thierry Ehrmann/Flickr (CC BY/SA)

Thierry Ehrmann/Flickr (CC BY/SA)

By Koen Kluessien -

Palmyra, once a hub of Greek, Roman and Persian cultures and an important center of the ancient world, has now become known for the bloodbath perpetrated by the Islamic State and the possible destruction of its historical artifacts. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the Islamic State has already executed 217 men, women, and children of Palmyra since 16 May. Although it is important that these atrocities do not go unnoticed, this international attention for the events in Palmyra is exemplary for the media reporting and international politics since the rise of ISIS. Namely, Palmyra (or Tadmor in Arabic) is for many Syrians not only known for its historic landmarks, it is also symbol of the cruelty of the regime of the Assad family that has been oppressing the Syrians for decades. While the international community has been focusing on the bearded killers of the Islamic State who post their cruelties on Youtube, the West seems to have forgotten about the well-shaved President who is still massacring its people in the hidden confinement of Syrian prisons.

Recently, a video surfaced of Syrians in Palmyra taking the street and holding a peaceful protest in which they waved flags and danced to express their hope for change. This video was recorded four years ago. The protesters took to the streets to protest against the cruelties of their own president Bashar al-Assad. The city was home to an infamous prison initiated by his father President Hafez Assad and used for executions and complete massacres in the 80s and 90s. A 1996 Human Rights Watch study reported of a 1980 massacre in which a total of 500 prisoners were killed in one day. On paper the prison was closed when Hafez’s son, Bashar al-Assad, assumed power in 2001. However, the prison was soon re-opened to imprison the vast amount of dissidents. In 2001 Amnesty International reported the detainees were ‘completely isolated from the outside world’ in a place which seemed to ‘inflict the maximum suffering, humiliation and fear on prisoners’ through excruciating torture tactics.

The same demonstrators who took the streets against the oppression of Assad are now hiding in their basements awaiting another airstrike by the government or another massacre perpetrated by the Islamic State. In the meantime, the international community seems to have turned a blind eye to the waves of atrocities the Assad regime is still committing. In August 2012, President Obama stated that Assad’s use of chemical weapons would be a clear ‘red line’ for action by the United States. One year later, 1,500 Syrian men, women, and children were murdered in the infamous sarin gas attacks, perpetrated by the Assad regime. Accountability for this massacre came in the form of a UN directive for the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons. Although the regime agreed to destroy the existing stockpiles, the use of chemical weapons has only increased. On April 16, 2015, the United Nations Security Council heard firsthand accounts of doctors from Idlib in northwestern Syria who had treated the most recent victims of Assad’s barrel bombs, many of which contained chlorine gas.

Samantha Power, US ambassador to the United Nations stated she would take every step possible to hold the perpetrators accountable for this attack. If the UN would take action, this would be the first time since 2013 that Assad is punished for his use of chemical weapons. With the international community still hesitant to intervene in these crimes, Assad clearly does not see any reason to stop his attacks and the use of chemical weapons. According to Jett Goldsmith, investigative reporter for Bellingcat, there have been at least six more sarin or chlorine gas attacks from December 2012 to March 2015. While the method of gas attacks is becoming even more deadly, it seems  hypocritical to have a US-led coalition intervention against the positions of the Islamic State while the Assad regime is still dropping barrel bombs on civilians.

Bashar al-Assad’s cruelties seem to go far beyond the atrocities his father committed. As an Amnesty International report on human rights violations in the Syrian city of Aleppo stated: ‘These violations amount to war crimes and in the case of those committed by the Syrian government are so systematic and widespread that they constitute crimes against humanity’. However, the international community is still holding on to its appeasement politics of ‘the enemy’s enemy is a friend’. This reasoning may be a result of the simplistic idea that the Islamisation of the conflict in Syria is growing. Ironically, the one-sided Western military operations are creating conditions that may push some Syrians into the hands of the same extremists the coalition is fighting. There are still many Syrians fighting the Assad regime with the same principles as when they started the protests during the Arab Spring. However, both the US-led coalition and the Western media have been ignoring their voices, creating a feeling of hopelessness that is favorable for extremists such as the Islamic State. As a man who calls himself Aby Ayman stated in an interview with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights: ‘I can see the appeal of Isis. As much as I don’t like them, I can see that they are leading some Sunni communities towards a dignity that no government will give them.’

The US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State is currently not choosing for a lesser evil, but for a different evil. Resulting in a desperate situation for the Syrian people. As a Syrian cynically stated in an interview with Business Insider, there is not much hope for help from the West: ‘Obama can cover the whole world in red lines. Who cares? We are dying here. And Ban Ki Moon? He is ‘worried’ all the time. Ban Ki Moon is worried, Obama is drawing red lines, everybody is talking and nobody is doing anything.’ If Western countries genuinely want to battle the extremist movements, they will have to listen more to the needs of the civilian population instead of their own pragmatic reasoning.

‘Media Mujahideen’ – The Islamic State and its online warfare

Image: Sean MacEntee/Flickr

 

Image: Sean MacEntee/Flickr

Image: Sean MacEntee/Flickr (CC BY)

By Koen Kluessien -

Israfil Yilmaz is an avid user of many different social media platforms: he posts photos of kittens on his Tumblr page, discusses a wide range of topics on Twitter, answers questions from people around the world on his ask.fm account, and he shares photos with a ‘vintage’ filter on Instagram. He seems to be an average internet user, apart from the fact that he is a jihadist. Yilmaz was a professional soldier of the Dutch army and is currently training jihadists in Syria. Indeed, there are many kittens on the jihadist’s Tumblr page, but they are accompanied by the hash tag ‘#mujahideenkittens’ and quotes like, ‘we live, and die by the sword’. The questions he answers on Ask.fm are not always as innocent as they are with normal users, they will for example be about the weapons he uses in battle. Yilmaz shares photos with a funny Instagram filter, but it will depict himself smiling at the camera with an automatic rifle in his hand. Even his internet alias – normally a quirky online pseudonym – ‘@chechclear’ has an air of violence surrounding it as it refers to a both notorious and gruesome internet video showing the beheading of a Russian soldier by Chechens. Although the manner in which he is sharing his information is the same as the average social media user, the content is rather different.

Yilmaz is no stranger to the media as he is neither too shy to discuss jihad in a live Channel 4 debate, nor afraid of being interviewed by a Dutch news program. The Turkish Dutchman recently also showed up in a number of headlines in which he was accused of marrying a 19-year-old Dutch girl, abusing her, divorcing her already after a few months and eventually selling her to a Tunisian friend. The Dutch girl had changed her name to Aïcha and started wearing a niqab after she had converted to Islam. Aïcha had never met Yilmaz, but was impressed by the Robin Hood-like attitude he presented himself with online. It is unclear if the allegations of abuse and modern slavery are correct, but this case shows how sensitive young people can be to a sly social media user. Although Yilmaz has denied to be a member of any jihadist organization, he has posted words of praise for the Islamic State (IS). Moreover, his sectarian denunciations of Sufi and Shiite Muslims do not seem to underline this claim either. Yilmaz neatly fits into the modern jihadi propaganda machine of ‘media mujahideen: jihadists who use social media to propagate the coming of a caliphate and to recruit new followers.

Islamist militant websites and internet fora had always been hidden in the dark corners of the Internet, most of the time only visible for the intelligence agencies who did their best to find them. Now, the Islamic State is using the same online platforms as any business owner would to promote his company, often in (the more accessible) English instead of Arabic. The Islamic State’s social media tactics range from the cunning tricks of internet savvy youngsters who have grown up in a society surrounded by technology, to the programming of applications that require highly specialized skills – skills that baffle even social media experts. For example, last year the Islamic State created an application called The Dawn of Glad Tidings which could dodge Twitter’s spam filters and send up to 40,000 tweets per day. At the same time the online jihadists are using simpler techniques such as ‘hitchhiking’ along popular, already existing Twitter hash tags. Major events like the football World Cup are often given hash tags such as #Worldcup2014, allowing Twitter users to easily access and post content related to the World Cup. IS used this popularity of the hash tag to spread their message, flooding the news feeds of many football fans.

The Islamic State is not the first jihadist organization using social media, but it does stand out when looking at the quality of their strategy and content. The videos of attacks and training missions often have a quality that seems reminiscent of certain Hollywood movies. For example, the propaganda video Although the Disbelievers Despise It is a 16-minute video showing the beheading of 22 Syrian soldiers which took six hours to make and, according to the Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium (TRAC) and counter extremism think tank ‘Quilliam’, cost approximately 0,000 to produce as the video required multiple HD cameras and expensive editing equipment, making Al-Qaeda’s blurry propaganda videos seem like child’s play. Moreover, the ‘media mujahideen’, or people claiming to be one, cunningly use references to modern culture that are already present in society, and will appeal to some adolescents. Much of the Islamic State online propaganda uses very clear references to videogames, movies, or certain phrases that are popular among young people. For example, one video depicts a random killing spree of Islamic State jihadists shooting from a car, largely resembling a drive-by from the Grand Theft Auto videogame series. The Islamic State is conveying its often gruesome messages with a corporate-like sophistication combined with pop culture references, resulting in a remarkable modern propaganda cocktail. This makes for a shocking contrast of on the one hand seemingly innocent references, and on the other the propagation of very gruesome material.

The way in which these perpetrators glorify their crimes is almost unique in modern history. The fact that you can contact these same perpetrators with a few clicks of a button is remarkable, and the tactics of the jihadists to use seemingly innocent references to propagate material that is often very gruesome is paradoxal.  Moreover, the use of social media for jihadist propaganda is only one of many Islamic State online tactics: online media are also used for moral support to the battlefield and even real-time warfare. What is currently happening online is almost unprecedented, often difficult to grasp and will raise many questions. However, it is important to try to understand the strategies behind this online warfare. Most of Yilmaz’ social media accounts are blocked, but he will pop-up soon enough. I will keep track of him and his fellow jihadists, trying to find answers to these questions.