Peaceful Protest with a defiant message in Maarat al-Nu'man on the first Friday after a fragile ceasefire was announced – image by Khaled al-Essa posted on Facebook, The Creative Memory, Arts/Humanities
They then drove out FSA Division 13 after killing several of its fighters and taking several more prisoners. In an unexpected sequel to these events what followed was a backlash from hundreds of local people. Women and children audaciously drove these jihadists from their posts while men pulled down the JAN flags that had replaced the Free Syria ones. It is noteworthy that JAN shied away from shooting at the civilians here. After a stalled Sharia court ruling that JAN said they would honour, the FSA prisoners were rescued by local people who set fire to the place where they were being held.
Three weeks later a twin aerial bombing raid carried out by the Assad regime hit a marketplace in Maarat al-Nu'man along with the nearby town of Kafranbel, killing 44 civilians and injuring many more. This ceasefire violation may have been in retribution for the bold protest message on full display at the rally or possibly retaliation over Jabhat al Nusra, not included in the ceasefire deal shooting down a Syrian regime plane near Aleppo on 05/04/16 taking the pilot, who ejected alive, prisoner or a response to something else entirely. In any event, it was civilians that ultimately paid the price presumably with the regime's rationale being that anyone in a opposition-controlled area is automatically a terrorist by association.
'Please do not say civil war, it is a revolution hijacked by extreme Islamists and ISIS, destroyed by Assad.'
Kafranbel English tellingly tweeted on 29/01/16 the following somewhat resigned message:
A PUBLIC OPINION POLL
In November 2014 The Arab Centre conducted an opinion poll about the way in which Syria is governed, for Research and Policy Studies at the Doha Institute. They polled 5,297 refugees and displaced people in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and within Syria along the Syrian-Turkish border with a sampling procedure that ensured proportional representation from 377 refugee centres. They were asked about the presidential elections held on 03/06/14. These were only held in regime controlled areas and so polled a limited section of the total population who were living in the area coloured red on the map, illustrated in Slide 8. There were no external monitors present at the polling stations and witness accounts testify that at checkpoints in Damascus everyone was asked to raise their right hand to show the ink on their thumb proving they had voted. Anyone who had not voted was arrested. At the polling stations the vote was not made in private, it was impossible to vote against the government, as anyone who did so would be arrested. Despite this the official turnout was 73.42% and the Ba'ath Party were returned to power with 10,319,723 (88.7%) votes compared with the only other options, National Initiative for Administration and Change in Syria NIACS with 500,279 (4.3%) votes and an Independent candidate with 372,301 (3.2%) votes. Twenty one other candidates did not meet the criteria to stand as a candidate in a presidential election.
Slide 8. Map of territories held by armed groups inside Syria on 03/10/16 by Thomas van Linge on Twitter
This election result contrasts with the views expressed by people in the Doha survey, who were not in regime-controlled areas and so could not vote. Here the vast majority (78%) thought the recent presidential elections held on 03/06/14 were not legitimate. When asked about who was in control of Syria, 28% of respondents identified Iran as one of the two most influential parties with a say in Syrian decision-making and policy formation; a surprisingly smaller proportion (22%) thought Bashar al-Assad and his family were one of the most influential and 16% thought Russia was influential, followed by the Security and Intelligence services (10%) and Hezbollah (7%). A change of regime was the preferred choice for 64%; a further 23% wanted a peaceful resolution and concord between the parties, while only 6% wanted the regime to triumph and for the Opposition to be destroyed. In considering the crucial issue of the future governance of Syria, 50% expressed their support for a civil state, 30% wanted a religious state and 18% were impartial. These opinions could be viewed as biased reporting from a select group of Sunni Muslims opposing the Syrian government and excluded from the election, yet when these views are placed in the context of Syria's demography they are not surprising at all.
Iran is the only strong regional ally to the Syrian Government according to Karim Sadjadpour, at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. This alliance came about after the Assad family allowed Iran to ship weapons to its proxy, Hezbollah in Lebanon to defend Palestine against Israel. Indeed both Hezbollah (designated internationally as a terrorist organisation by the US, Canada, Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, & the UK; the EU specify its military wing as terrorist and the UN does not designate this to be a terrorist organisation) and the Iranian elite Quds Force are reported to have both lost significant numbers of fighters in Syria despite, until recent denials of their involvement. Furthermore, Israel is said to have targeted weapons in convoys travelling from Iran inside Syria towards Lebanon on at least 5 occasions one of which was thought to be a game-changer when six prominent Hezbollah fighters were killed. Russia has two military bases inside Syria that it wants to protect - a naval base in Tartus and Hmeimim, an airbase in Latakia and wants to preserve a presence in the Mediterranean. Iran has 12 military bases inside Syria ostensibly protecting sacred Shia shrines.
The counter charge in a proxy war scenario is that Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey are supporting various players in the opposition [Paul Danahar The New Middle East 2015] Egypt, previously governed by Mohamed Morsi until 03/07/13 was a strong supporter of the opposition movement in Syria until he was removed from power by a military coup. His successor, General Abdul Fattah el-Sisi is supportive of Bashar al-Assad. Interestingly, unexploded ordnance fired by both the Assad regime forces and ISIS have born registration marks: 'made in Egypt' and dated 2012, after the start of the revolution and the embargo on trade of weapons to Syria.
The ethnic composition of Syria has been summarized in a map produced by Dr Michael Izady at Columbia University for the period 1997-2016. Internal and external displacement and death of a large proportion of the population, particularly over the last two years will have affected this picture that is necessarily hard to confirm while the conflict continues. However, if these proportions reflect the ethnic mix at the beginning of the conflict then it means that the native predominant ethnic grouping is Arab Sunni Muslim (59%) followed by Gnostic Alawite (11.8%), Levantine Christian (9.3%), Sunni Muslim and Yezidis Kurds (8.9%), Druze (3.2%) and Sevener Shia Ismaili (2.1%) with the remaining 5.5% made up of seven other ethnic groups.
Dr Izady also maps the tribal composition of Syria onto its ethnic composition at this location.
Syria's Bedouin tribes within the Sunni Muslim group are rarely considered in the context of the present conflict and yet historically they have always been present and make up 12-15% of the total population. In July 2015, Aron Lund at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace interviewed Professor Dawn Chatty, recognised as a specialist in this subject and former Director of the Refugees Studies Centre at Cambridge University, UK:
Her concluding remarks are as follows:
'You do not hear that much about them [the Bedouin] anymore. Even so, they are still very important in their communities and work really effectively at the local level. They run local committees that try to bring in humanitarian aid, organize the groups that pull people out of the rubble, and make sure that bakeries get flour. It is very inspiring but it's hard to write about, because no one [from the West] can go to these places and research them or report about it. But in some ways, I feel that they could be the glue to keep Syria together, when the day finally comes that Bashar al-Assad realizes he must sit down to negotiate.'
A view echoed by Hassan Hassan in his July 2012 article for the Guardian and confirmed with a tweet by Yalla Souriya on the role of a recently created tribal council in Badiya and Tadmor in supporting internally displaced people until they can return home.
Since ISIS (English acronyms ISIS/ISIL, which stands for Islamic State in Iraq and Syria/Levant or the Arabic Daesh, an acronym for: لدولة الإسلامية في العراق والشام' or 'al-dowla al-islaamiyya fii-il-i'raaq wa-ash-shaam') extended its presence from Iraq to Syria during April 2013 in an effort to establish an Islamic Caliphate the Free Syrian Army (FSA) has had to decide how it responds to an Islamist agenda. In May 2014 the FSA signed a 'Code of Honour' rejecting extremism with the following statements:“8. The Syrian revolution is a revolution based on morals and values whose objective is to obtain freedom, justice and security for all sectors of Syrian society, with its diverse multi-ethnic and multi-sect social fabric.
9. The Syrian revolution is committed to the respect of human rights, which is also encouraged by our authentic religion.”
[The Syrian Jihad, Charles Lister 2015] These statements effectively mean the FSA accepted the unenviable task of fighting the regime and the so-called Islamic State as well as the Al Qaeda affiliate formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra, now Jabhat al Fateh al Sham. Their name change signifies a distancing from Al Qaeda but it is questionable whether this group has given up its Islamist agenda to align itself with the FSA. Hassan Hassan, Associate Fellow at Chatham House writes this summary about ISIS in The Observer 16/08/14 and Charles Lister puts forward in an article for Foreign Policy his own theory about Jabhat al Nusra's name change, alleging this is part of a plan to establish a rival Emirate for Al Qaeda in Idleb. Whether his views are well founded or not, many are sceptical about the motives of this group for changing their name on 28/07/16 to Jabhat Fateh al Sham. This move coincided with a change in the group's stated thinking and strategy as well as a public distancing from Al Qaeda immediately prior to the Battle for Aleppo. This helped seal a unified front in the counter-offensive by the combined opposition forces (Army of Conquest) launched on the 31/07/16 against the Assad regime, as the primary adversary of the Syrian people alongside ISIS.
Aleppo is Syria's second largest city, situated in the North of the country and once the heart of a successful commercial sector. Opposition forces initially liberated the Eastern part of Aleppo city in December 2012 with support from Jabhat al Nusra. Since then the Assad regime has persisted in its efforts to surround the opposition-held parts of Aleppo in order to cut off its supplies and place what is left under siege. To achieve this goal they launched a Russian backed aerial offensive, taking control of the main supply route in the north – Castello Road.
Slide 9. Map of the situation on 05/09/16 after the Battle of Aleppo broke the siege then government forces
cut the supply route to opposition held Aleppo in the south west of the city.
The civilian population of around 300,000 were then preparing for mass starvation and a relentless campaign of aerial bombardment by the Assad regime and Russia similar to elsewhere in Damascus, Homs, Moademiyah, Madaya, Zabadani, Yarmouk, Ghouta & Daraya as well as a ground offensive from Iranian, Iraqi and Hezbollah militias. The combined rebel forces of the Army of Conquest (broadly grouped by @badly_xeroxed: Jaysh al Fateh, Fateh Halab Military Operation Room (includes FSA brigades), Jabhat Ansar al Islam, Sham Liberation Army and Harakat Fajr al Sham Islamyiah) then mounted an offensive in the Battle for Aleppo that established an alternative route into East Aleppo from the south by taking the Artillery Base and Ramoussah. The role played and bold sacrifices made by the rebranded Jabhat Fateh al Sham (JFS) in the battle to defend civilians and liberate Eastern Aleppo again is not lost on these people who felt abandoned to a cruel fate by the whole world and its putative humanitarian organisations. Insistence by the US for opposition forces it backs to distance themselves from JFS will create conflicts of loyalty in the opposition camp. Subsequent to this clear victory and while the FSA had regrouped to fight a different front with ISIS on the Turkey border, a relentless backlash by ground forces allied to the regime resulted in this strategic gain being lost and East Aleppo is once again under siege.
Kurdish Rojova entered the fray in Iraq in 2012 and established an administration centre in the Kurdish regions of the northern part of the Syrian Arab Republic in August 2014. This was ostensibly to combat ISIS and to liberate the Kurdish and Yezidis people held hostage by them but they also want to claim land they believe should be theirs, independent of Iraq, Syria and Turkey, which they have succeeded in doing. So the People's Protection Units (YPG) and the Peshmerga have also been rivalling the FSA in recent battles particularly in the north, which made the task of defending Aleppo even more challenging.
A map of the territories within Syria currently acquired by different armed groups is shown above (slide 8), courtesy of Thomas van Linge on Twitter. These boundaries are extremely fluid and change from day to day so this one is dated 01/09/16. The most recent significant offensive from rebel forces in collaboration with Turkish military is entitled 'Euphrates Shield,' which aims to close the 'green' gap on the northern border so that ISIS (grey - Islamic State) controls no part of the Syrian border with Turkey. It is also a step towards creating a Safe Zone on that border. An interactive map dated 02/09/16 and an updated report on the situation in Syria by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) detailing the recent activities of principal parties engaging in the conflict can be downloaded from the ISW website.