Around 1985, current al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri fled his homeland of Egypt, presumably never to return. From his early beginnings as a teenage leader of a small jihadi cell devoted to overthrowing Egyptian regimes
(first Nasser’s then Sadat’s) until he merged forces with Osama bin Laden, expanding his objectives to include targeting the United States of America, Zawahiri never forgot his original objective: transforming Egypt into an Islamist state that upholds and enforces the totality of Sharia law, and that works towards the resurrection of a global caliphate.
This vision is on its way to being fulfilled. With Islamist political victories, culminating with a Muslim Brotherhood president, Muhammad Morsi, Egypt is taking the first major steps to becoming the sort of state Zawahiri wished to see. He regularly congratulates Egypt’s Islamists—most recently the attacks on the U.S. embassy in Cairo—urging them to continue Islamizing the Middle East’s most strategic nation.
He sent a lengthy communiqué during the Egyptian revolution in February 2011, for example, titled “Messages of Hope and Glad Tidings to our People in Egypt.” In it, he reiterated themes widely popularized by al-Qaeda, including: secular regimes are the enemies of Islam; democracy is a sham; Sharia must be instituted; the U.S. and the “Zionist enemy” are the true source behind all of the Islamic world’s ills.
Zawahiri continues to push these themes. Last September he sent messages criticizing Morsi, especially for not helping “the jihad to liberate Palestine;” called for the kidnapping of Westerners, especially Americans—which the U.S. embassy in Cairo took seriously enough to issue a warning to Americans; and further incited Egypt’s Muslims to wage jihad against America because of the YouTube Muhammad movie.
In short, a symbiotic relationship exists between the country of Egypt and the Egyptian Zawahiri: the country helped shape the man, and the man is fixated on influencing the country, his homeland. Accordingly, an examination of Zawahiri’s early years and experiences in Egypt—a case study of sorts—provides context for understanding not only Zawahiri, the undisputed leader of the world’s most notorious Islamic terrorist organization, but also explain how Egypt got where it is today. The two phenomena go hand-in-hand.
In this report, we will explore several questions, including: What happened in Egypt to turn this once “shy” and “studious” schoolboy who abhorred physical sports as “inhumane” towards jihad? What happened to turn many Egyptians to jihad, or at least radical Islam? What is Zawahiri’s relationship to the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis—Egypt’s two dominant Islamist political players? Did the 9/11 strikes on America, orchestrated by Zawahiri and al-Qaeda, help or hinder the Islamists of Egypt?
Little about Zawahiri’s upbringing suggests that he would become the world’s most notorious jihadi, partially responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocents in the September 11 attacks and elsewhere. People who knew him stress that Zawahiri came from a “prestigious” and “aristocratic” background (in Egypt, “aristocrats” have traditionally been among the most liberal and secular). His father Muhammad was a professor of pharmacology; his mother, Umayma, came from a politically active family. Ayman had four siblings; he (and his twin sister) were the eldest. Born in the Egyptian capital, Cairo, on June 19, 1951, Zawahiri, as a BBC report puts it, “came from a respectable middle-class family of doctors and scholars. His grandfather, Rabia al-Zawahiri, was the grand imam of al-Azhar, the centre of Sunni Islamic learning in the Middle East, while one of his uncles was the first secretary-general of the Arab League.”
According to the Islamist Montasser al-Zayyat, author of the Arabic book, Al Zawahiri: As I Knew Him (translated in English as The Road to Al Qaeda: the Story of Bin Laden’s Right-Hand Man), Zawahiri was “an avid reader” who “loved literature and poetry.” He “believed that sports, especially boxing and wrestling, were inhumane…. people thought he was very tender and softhearted…. nothing in his youthful good nature suggested that he was to become the second most wanted man in the world…. He has always been humble, never interested in seizing the limelight of the leadership.”
Even so, he exhibited signs of a strong and determined character, as “there was nothing weak about the personality of the child Zawahiri. On the contrary, he did not like any opinion to be imposed on him. He was happy to discuss any issue that was difficult for him to understand until it was made clear, but he did not argue for the sake of argument. He always listened politely, without giving anyone the chance to control him.”
For all his love of literature and poetry, which Islamists often portray as running counter to Muslim faith, Zawahiri exhibited a notable form of piety from youth. “Ayman al-Zawahiri was born into a religious Muslim family,” al-Zayyat wrote. “Following the example of his family, he not only performed the prayers at the correct times, but he did so in the mosque…. He always made sure that he performed the morning prayers [at sunrise] with a group in the mosque, even during the coldest winters. He attended several classes of Koran interpretation, fiqh [Islamic jurisprudence] and Koran recitation at the mosque.”
Otherwise, he appeared to lead a normal, privileged lifestyle. Like his family, he followed a prestigious career path. Zawahiri joined the Faculty of Medicine at Cairo University, graduating in 1974 with the highest possible marks. He then earned a Master’s degree in surgery from the same university in 1978. He went on to receive a PhD in surgery from a Pakistani university, during his stay in Peshawar, when he was aiding the mujahidin against the Soviets. People who know Zawahiri say that the only relationship he had with a woman was with his wife, Azza, whom he married in 1979, and who held a degree in philosophy. She and three of Zawahiri’s six children were killed in an air strike on Afghanistan by U.S. forces in late 2001.
Death of a Martyr
The initial influence on Zawahiri’s radicalization appears to have come from his uncle Mahfouz, an opponent to the secular regime and Islamist in his own right, who was arrested in a militant round up in 1945, following the assassination of Prime Minister Ahmed Mahfouz. In reference to this event, Zawahiri’s uncle even boasted: “I myself was going to do what Ayman has done,” according to Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11.
Though Mahfouz was likely the first to introduce young Ayman to the political scene of radical Islam, no one appears to have had an impact on Zawahiri’s development as much as Uncle Mahfouz’s mentor and Arabic teacher, Sayyid Qutb—often referred to as the “godfather” of modern jihad. Qutb, then the Muslim Brotherhood’s premiere theoretician of jihad, has arguably played the greatest role in articulating the Islamist/jihadi worldview in the modern era, so much so that Zawahiri and others regularly quote his voluminous writings in their own work.
According to the 9/11 Commission Report, “Three basic themes emerge from Qutb’s writings. First, he claimed that the world was beset with barbarism, licentiousness, and unbelief (a condition he called jahiliyya, the religious term for the period of ignorance prior to the revelations given to the Prophet Mohammed). Qutb argued that humans can choose only between Islam and jahiliyya. Second, he warned that more people, including Muslims, were attracted to jahiliyya and its material comforts than to his view of Islam; jahiliyya could therefore triumph over Islam. Third, no middle ground exists in what Qutb conceived as a struggle between God and Satan. All Muslims—as he defined them—therefore must take up arms in this fight. Any Muslim who rejects his ideas is just one more nonbeliever worthy of destruction.”
Qutb’s primary target—and subsequently Zawahiri’s—was the Egyptian regime, which he accused of being enforcers of jahiliyya, obstructing the totality of Sharia. Because Qutb was so effective at fomenting Islamist animosity for the regime, President Gamal Abdel Nasser had him imprisoned and eventually executed in 1966. That act only succeeded in helping propagate Qutb’s importance to the jihadi movement, which came to see him as a “martyr” (a shahid, the highest honor for a Muslim), turning his already popular writings into “eternal classics” for Islamists everywhere.
As Zayyat observes, “In Zawahiri’s eyes, Sayyid Qutb’s words struck young Muslims more deeply than those of his contemporaries because his words eventually led to his execution. Thus, those words provided the blueprint for his long and glorious lifetime, and eventually led to its end…. His teaching gave rise to the formation of the nucleus of the contemporary jihadi movements in Egypt.”
It is no coincidence, then, that Zawahiri founded his first jihadi cell in 1966—the year of Qutb’s execution—when he was only 15-years-old. Embracing Qutb’s teachings—that jihad is the only answer, that talk, diplomacy, and negotiations only serve the infidel enemy’s purposes—his cell originally had a handful of members. Zawahiri eventually merged it with other small cells to form Egyptian Islamic Jihad, becoming one of its leaders. Zawahiri sought to recruit military officers and accumulate weapons, waiting for the right moment to launch a coup against the regime; or, in Zawahiri’s own words as later recorded by an interrogator, “to establish an Islamic government …. a government that rules according to the Sharia of Allah Almighty.”
Humiliation of Defeat
A year following the establishment of Zawahiri’s cell, another event took place that further paved the way to jihad: the ignominious defeat of Egypt by Israel in the 1967 war. Until then, Arab nationalism, spearheaded by Nasser, was the dominant ideology, not just in Egypt, but the entire Arab world. What began with much euphoria and conviction—that the Arab world, unified under Arab nationalism and headed by Nasser would crush Israel, only to lose disastrously in a week—morphed into disillusionment and disaffection, especially among Egyptians. It was then that the slogan “Islam is the solution” spread like wildfire, winning over many to the cause.
At the time of the 1967 war, the future al-Qaeda leader was 16 years old. Like many young people at the time, he was somewhat traumatized by Egypt’s defeat—a defeat which, 34 years later, he would gloat upon in his 2001 book Fursan Taht Rayat al-Nabbi, (“Knights Under the Banner of the Prophet”), writing:
“The unfolding events impacted the course of the jihadi movements in Egypt, namely, the 1967 defeat and the ensuing symbolic collapse of Gamal Abdel Nasser, who was portrayed to the public by his followers as the everlasting invincible symbol. The jihadi movements realized that wormwoods had eaten at this icon, and that it had become fragile. The 1967 defeat shook the earth under this idol until it fell on its face, causing a severe shock to its disciples, and frightening its subjects. The jihadi movements grew stronger and stronger as they realized that their avowed enemy was little more than a statue to be worshipped, constructed through propaganda, and through the oppression of unarmed innocents. The direct influence of the 1967 defeat was that a large number of people, especially youths, returned to their original identity: that of members of an Islamic civilization.”
This theme—that the “enemies of Islam,” first the secular dictators, followed by the USSR and then the U.S., were “paper tigers” whose bark was worse than their bite—would come to permeate the writings of al-Qaeda and other jihadis. For instance, in March 2012, in response to President Obama’s plans to cut Pentagon spending, Zawahiri said, “The biggest factor that forced America to reduce its defence budget is Allah’s help to the mujahideen [or jihadis] to harm the evil empire of our time [the U.S.],” adding that American overtures to the Afghan Taliban for possible reconciliation was further evidence of U.S. defeat.
The 1973 war between Egypt and Israel appears to have had a lesser impact on Zawahiri, who by then had already confirmed his worldview. Moreover, it was during the 1970s that he was especially busy with “normal” life—earning two advanced university degrees (one in 1974, another in 1978), getting married, and starting a family. Even so, the subsequent peace treaty that the Egyptian President Anwar Sadat signed with Israel incensed many Islamists in Egypt, including Zawahiri, who saw it as a great betrayal to the Islamic Nation, or Umma, prompting jihadis to act now instead of later.
Accordingly, Sadat was targeted for assassination; the time had come for a military coup, which was Islamic Jihad’s ultimate goal. But the plan was derailed when authorities learned of it in February, 1981. Sadat ordered the roundup of more than 1,500 Islamists, including many Islamic Jihad members (though he missed a cell in the military led by Lieutenant Khalid Islambouli, who succeeded in assassinating Sadat during a military parade later that same year).
Zawahiri was among the thousands of Islamists rounded up after Sadat’s assassination, leading to one of the most talked-of episodes of Zawahiri’s life: his prison experience. He was interrogated and found guilty of possessing firearms, serving three years in prison. During that time, he was among many who were tortured in Egyptian prisons.
Much has been made of Zawahiri’s prison-time torture. (It is curious to note that when Egyptian officials called to investigate the officers accused of torturing the Islamist inmates, Zawahiri did not file a case against the authorities, though many others did, and though he bothered to witness to the torture of other members.) Several writers, beginning with al-Zayyat, suggest that along with the dual-impact of the martyrdom of Qutb and the 1967 defeat, this event had an especially traumatic effect on Zawahiri’s subsequent development and radicalization.
Still, one should not give this experience more due than it deserves. Zawahiri was an ardent jihadi well over a decade before he was imprisoned and tortured; the overly paradigmatic explanation of humiliation-as-precursor-to-violence so popular in Western thinking is unnecessary here.
On the other hand, in the vein of “that which does not kill you makes you stronger,” it seems that Zawahiri’s prison experience hardened him and made his already notorious stubbornness and determination that much more unshakeable. In short, if his prison experience did not initiate his jihadi inclinations, it likely exacerbated it.
Moreover, being “found out” had an indirect impact on his radicalization. After he was released, and knowing that he was being watched by the authorities, he was compelled to quit his native Egypt, meeting other Arabic-speaking Islamists abroad. He met Osama bin Laden as early as 1986 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. That led him to relocate to the Afghan theater of jihad, where the final coalescing of his global jihad worldview culminated.
During his time in Egypt, Zawahiri was a staunch proponent of jihad—believing that no real change or progress can be achieved without armed struggle. This never changed. However, his strategic goal of toppling the Egyptian regime grew more ambitious over time, especially after the Afghan war experience and partnership with bin Laden.
In Egypt, Zawahiri’s goal was clear: overthrowing the regime and implementing an Islamic government. The enemy was internal, the secular Hosni Mubarak regime, that took over after Sadat’s death. In Zawahiri’s thinking, one could not consider fighting the far or external enemy until he had beaten the near one. (This is the famous “near/far enemy” dichotomy Islamists have written much on.)
Accordingly, until the late 1990s Zawahiri rarely mentioned what are today the mainstays of Islamist discontent, such as the Arab/Israel conflict, or other matters outside Egypt’s borders. In fact, in a 1995 article titled “The Way to Jerusalem Passes Through Cairo” published in Al-Mujahidin, Zawahiri even wrote that “Jerusalem will not be opened [conquered] until the battles in Egypt and Algeria have been won and until Cairo has been opened.” This is not to say that Zawahiri did not always see Israel as the enemy. Rather, he deemed it pointless to fight it directly when one could have the entire might of Egypt’s military by simply overthrowing the regime—precisely the situation today.
Then, in 1998, Zawahiri surprised many of Egypt’s Islamists by forming the International Islamic Front for Jihad on the Jews and Crusaders, under bin Laden’s leadership. It issued a fatwa calling on Muslims “to kill the Americans and their allies–civilians and military, an individual obligation incumbent upon every Muslim who can do it and in any country—this until the Aqsa Mosque [Jerusalem] and the Holy Mosque [Mecca] are liberated from their grip.” Until then all of Zawahiri’s associates believed that his primary focus was Egypt, overthrowing the regime—not the Arab-Israeli conflict and the United States.
It is for all these reasons that many of Egypt’s Islamists, beginning with the Muslim Brotherhood, saw al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks, partially masterminded by Zawahiri, as a severe setback to their movement. The attacks awoke the U.S. and the West, setting off the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, and also giving many Arab regimes—including Mubarak’s—free reign to suppress all Islamists. Those regimes happily took advantage. As al-Zayyat, Zawahiri’s biographer, wrote:
“The poorly conceived decision to launch the attacks of September 11created many victims of a war of which they did not choose to be a part…. Bin Laden and Zawahiri’s behavior [9/11] was met with a lot of criticism from many Islamists in Egypt and abroad…. In the post-September 11 world, no countries can afford to be accused of harboring the enemies of the United States. No one ever imagined that a Western European country would extradite Islamists who live on its lands. Before that, Islamists had always thought that arriving in a European city and applying for political asylum was enough to acquire permanent resident status. After September 11, 2001, everything changed…. Even the Muslim Brotherhood was affected by the American campaign, which targeted everything Islamic.”
In retrospect, the “mistake of 9/11″ may have indirectly helped empower Islamists: by bringing unwanted Western attention to the Middle East, it also made popular the argument that democracy would solve all the ills of the Middle East. Many Western observers who previously had little knowledge of the Islamic world, were surprised to discover post 9/11 that dictatorial regimes ran the Muslim world. This led to the simplistic argument that Islamists were simply lashing out because they were suppressed. Failing to understand that these dictatorships were the only thing between full-blown Islamist regimes like Iran, many deemed democracy a panacea, beginning with U.S. President George W. Bush, who invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, partially to “spread” and in the name of democracy.
With the so-called “Arab spring” that began in 2011, the Obama administration has followed this logic more aggressively by throwing the U.S.’s longtime allies like Egypt’s Mubarak, under the bus in the name of democracy—a democracy that has been dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, which, as has been mentioned, shares the same ultimate goals of Zawahiri and other jihadis. Recent events—including unprecedented attacks on U.S. embassies in Egypt and Libya, ironically, the two nations the U.S. especially intervened in to pave the way for Islamist domination—only confirm this.
Zawahiri and the Muslim Brotherhood
While Zawahiri’s early decades in Egypt are mostly remembered in the context of the above—prestigious and academic background, clandestine radicalization, jihad, prison, followed by fleeing the country—the al-Qaeda leader has a long history with other Islamist groups in Egypt, such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Since the “Arab Spring” and ousting of longtime President Hosni Mubarak, it has been the Brotherhood who have, not only dominated Egyptian politics, but have a member, Muhammad Morsi, as Egypt’s first elected president.
Zawahiri joined the Brotherhood when he was only 14, then abandoned it to form his own cell less than two years later after Qutb’s execution. A proponent of the slogan “jihad alone,” Zawahiri soon became critical of the Brotherhood’s pragmatic strategies, and wrote an entire book in 1991 arguing against their nonviolent approach.
Titled Al Hissad Al Murr, or “The Bitter Harvest,” Zawahiri argued that the Brotherhood “takes advantage of the Muslim youths’ fervor by bringing them into the fold only to store them in a refrigerator. Then, they steer their onetime passionate, Islamic zeal for jihad to conferences and elections…. And not only have the Brothers been idle from fulfilling their duty of fighting to the death, but they have gone as far as to describe the infidel governments as legitimate, and have joined ranks with them in the ignorant style of governing, that is, democracies, elections, and parliaments.”
It is perhaps ironic that, for all his scathing remarks against them, time has revealed that the Muslim Brotherhood’s strategy of slowly infiltrating society from a grassroots approach has been more effective than Zawahiri’s and al-Qaeda’s jihadi terror. The Brotherhood’s patience and perseverance, by playing the political game, formally disavowing violence and jihad—all of which earned the ire of Zawahiri and others—have turned it into a legitimate player. Yet this does not make the Brotherhood’s goals any less troubling. For instance, according to a January 2012 Al Masry Al Youm report, Brotherhood leader Muhammad Badie stated that the group’s grand goal is the return of a “rightly guided caliphate and finally mastership of the world“—precisely what Zawahiri and al-Qaeda seek to achieve. Half a year later, in July 2012, Safwat Hegazy, a popular preacher and Brotherhood member, boasted that the Brotherhood will be “masters of the world, one of these days.” Most recently, President Morsi gave himself unprecedented powers in order to empower Sharia law in Egypt.
Zawahiri and Egypt Today
In light of the Egyptian revolution that accomplished what Zawahiri had tried to accomplish for decades—overthrow the regime—what relevance does the al-Qaeda leader have for the Egyptian populace today? The best way to answer this question is in the context of Salafism—the popular Islamist movement in Egypt and elsewhere that is grounded in the teachings and patterns of early Islam, beginning with the days of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad and under the first four “righteously guided” caliphs.
As a Salafist organization, al-Qaeda is very popular with Salafis. Its current leader, the Egyptian Zawahiri, is especially popular—a “hero” in every sense of the word—with Egyptian Salafis. Considering that the Salafis won some 25 percent of votes in recent elections, one may infer that at least a quarter or of Egypt’s population looks favorably on Zawahiri. In fact, some important Salafis are on record saying they would like to see Zawahiri return to his native Egypt. Aboud al-Zomor, for instance, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad leader who was implicated for the assassination of Sadat, but who has now been released and is even a leading member of the new Egyptian parliament, has called for the return of Zawahiri to Egypt, “with his head held high and in safety.”
Zawahiri’s brother, Muhammad, is also an influential Islamist in Egypt, affiliated with the Salafis and Al Gamaa Al Islamiyya. He led a mass Islamist demonstration last spring with typical jihadi slogans. He also was among those threatening the U.S. embassy in Cairo to release the Blind Sheikh—the true reason behind the September attack, not a movie—or else be “burned down to the ground.” When asked in a recent interview with CNN if he is in touch with his al-Qaeda leader brother, Muhammad only smiled and said “of course not.”
Under Zawahiri’s leadership, al-Qaeda has made inroads on Egyptian territory. For example, several recent attacks in Sinai—such as the attacks on the Egypt-Israel natural-gas pipeline—were in fact conducted by a new group pledging allegiance to al-Qaeda. Zawahiri publicly congratulated them for destroying the pipelines, and the organization itself has pledged its loyalty to Zawahiri. More recently, al-Qaeda in the Sinai has been blamed for attacking and evicting Christian minorities living there.
This highlights the fact that groups like the Brotherhood and the Salafis have the same goals—establishment of a government that upholds Sharia law—though they differ as to how to achieve this. Salafis like al-Qaeda tend to agree that jihad is the solution. Yet, given the Brotherhood’s success using peaceful means—co-opting the language of democracy and running in elections—many Salafis are now “playing politics” even though many of them are also on record saying that, once in power, they will enforce Islamic law and abolish democracy, which is precisely what President Morsi and his cohorts have begun to do, in the face of widespread condemnation and protests in the Egyptian street.
It is not clear where Zawahiri stands regarding Egypt. Because of his deep roots there, Egypt undoubtedly holds a special place for him. But as the leader of a global jihadi network, he cannot afford to appear biased to Egypt—hence why he addresses the politics of other nations, Pakistan for example, and themes like the Arab-Israeli conflict, with equal or more attention.
Likewise, there are different accounts regarding his personality traits and how they would comport with Egypt’s current state. For example, whereas his biographer described young Zawahiri as averse to the limelight and open to others’ opinions, most contemporary characterizations of Zawahiri suggest he is intractable and domineering—a product, perhaps, of some four decades of jihadi activities, as well as the aforementioned experiences. While the personality traits attributed to him in youth would certainly aid him in influencing Egyptian Islamist politics, those attributed to him now would not.
He has been away too long, and others have stepped in. Either way, to many Islamists around the world, Egypt in particular, Zawahiri is a hero—one of the few men to successfully strike the “great enemy,” America. Such near legendary status will always see to it that Ayman Zawahiri—and the Salafi ideology al-Qaeda helped popularize—remain popular among Egypt’s Islamists.
Raymond Ibrahim is a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center and an Associate Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
Assad’s Army and Intelligence Services: Feudalization or Structurization?
Authors: Anton Mardasov* & Kirill Semenov
2017 marked a turning point in the Syrian conflict. With the full support of Russia and Iran, the Bashar al-Assad regime was able to neutralize the “domestic threat” completely. Throughout 2017, Damascus used the situation to carry out “outlying” operations, manipulating the ceasefire agreements and other accords reached as part of the Astana Peace Process. As soon as a relative calm would settle in a given “de-escalation zone” [in the opinion of the present authors, quotation marks are necessary in this case, as they indicate the real nature of these four zones], the regime would start transferring the available forces to other areas. First to eastern Syria in order to break the blockade of Deir ez-Zor and establish control over adjacent areas, which undoubtedly accelerated the downfall of the “Caliphate,” then to Idlib Governorate. And then, taking advantage of the agreements reached between Russia and Turkey on the division of spheres of influence in this “de-escalation zone,” to East Ghouta. Now Damascus has the initiative in terms of launching an offensive and a significant advantage over opposition groups.
The State of Affairs
As early as the beginning of 2017, the Syrian opposition demonstrated its ability to consolidate efforts and respond to the regime’s offensive manoeuvres. One such example is the way it managed to reduce “tension” in East Ghouta by carrying out distracting operations of its own in Daraa and Hama. However, the Syrian opposition became irreversibly fragmented after the process to form the de-escalation zones began, accompanied by the establishment of an external protectorate over these zones. As a result, most of the opposition factions in Greater Idlib now operate exclusively in the interests of Turkey, and the Amman Agreement between Jordan, Russia and the United States regarding the southwest de-escalation zone has succeeded in taking the Free Syrian Army’s Southern Front out of the game. External actors have played a decisive role in the outcome of the confrontation between Damascus and the internal opposition, cutting off aid to opposition factions and effectively splitting them into isolated fragments.
That being said, until February 2018 (when the Russia–Turkey agreement made it possible to wrap up the active operation in Idlib and focus forces on East Ghouta), all the efforts of the elite units of the 4th Armoured Division, as well as the Syrian Republican Guard and other regular units of the Syrian Arab Army, to repel opposition forces in East Ghouta’s Jobar and Ayn Tarma ended with the withdrawal of government-sponsored troops after significant losses. The operation in Harasta ended with the encirclement of a Republican Guard battalion and the deaths of five colonels and brigadier generals. The same thing happened during an operation in Daraa in the south of the country.
Despite the active support of the Russian Aerospace Forces, the Syrian Special Forces and the Shiite “Expeditionary Corps” led by Lebanon’s Hezbollah and various Iraqi factions, the government forces still suffered significant strikes from the heavily outnumbered Islamic State. One such event took place in Homs and Deir ez-Zor in September–October 2017, when Islamic State units managed to cut off almost all the supply routes to pro-Assad troops operating along the Euphrates. The only thing that prevented the terrorists from building on their successes was the lack of numbers on the part of Islamic State (very few detachments are left) and the haphazard band-aid approach adopted by Russian specialists on the issue.
Thus, Damascus’ victories over its opponents can, for the most part, be put down to favourable circumstances and external support, rather than to the regime’s strengthening of its forces or increasing its combat effectiveness, despite the great efforts Russia has expended to train Syria’s military personnel and provide its regular units with up-to-date military technology.
Counting on the fact that these manipulations have successfully paralyzed the opposition to the point that pro-government forces will now be able to deal with current challenges does not eliminate the need to have a national military structure – without the growing Shiite International.
At present, the armed forces that Bashar al-Assad relies on continue to be an assortment of groupings, all of which depend on Damascus to varying degrees. There is no unity within the army in terms of readiness to unquestioningly carry out the directives of its leadership. There is a complicated system of approvals for the use of “elite” sections of the Syrian Arab Army in specific operations. This even applies to its most elite components: the 4th Armoured Division, the Syrian Republican Guard, Suheil al-Hassan’s “Tiger Forces” and individual units of other sections – for example, the “Deir Al-Qalamoun” unit of the 3rd Armoured Division and the “Saif Al-Mahdi” unit of the 4th Armoured Division, among others. At the same time, the combat effectiveness of the Syrian Arab Army’s combat manoeuvre units leaves much to be desired, and attempts are made to avoid moving them to regions far away from their areas of permanent deployment.
Various paramilitary groupings that do not answer directly to the Syrian Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of Internal Affairs or the state security organs continue to play an important role, including the so-called National Defence Forces, the Local Defence Forces, foreign (primarily Shiite) groups, and other units created by them in Syrian territory, made up of Syrian nationals. There are at least twice as many fighters in the irregular army formations as in the Syrian Arab Army itself.
The Syrian crisis has made it possible for political institutions to acquire their own military formations. The Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party still has active squadrons, some of which are part of the 5th Corps. Eagles of the Whirlwind is the military wing of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party. And the Syrian Resistance is a left-wing paramilitary group led by Mihrac Ural, who is considered a terrorist in Turkey.
The formation of various paramilitary structures – military wings of mafia-like clans, private military companies, regional and tribal militias and militarized political organizations – has undermined the stability of the regime. These forces do not simply support Damascus. From the very beginning, they have attempted take root in government institutions and/or take control of various sources of income. It is no secret that various Shabiha detachments currently operating under the aegis of the National Defence Forces control the checkpoints, which in practice means that they have access to corrupt schemes, including the opportunity to send radical opposition fighters into the Turkish zones of influence. A number of figures associated with the pro-Iranian Syrian group Liwa al-Baqir (the Baqir Brigade, part of the Local Defence Forces) have their own fleet of minibuses and continue to operate transport businesses.
Given that Damascus is in dire need of local groupings in order to maintain stability and security, these militias will probably continue to exist after victory is declared. All the more given that all armed militia groups were legalized in 2013 and given permission to carry out their “activities” by the Ministry of Interior.
The incorporation of the National and Local Defence Forces into state structures was predetermined by the fact that both the Syrian special services and the army were unprepared for an uprising, and the vacuum thus created was filled by paramilitary groups. Iran also took advantage of this by helping set up various paramilitary structures and thus establishing a multi-echeloned presence in Syria.
Worthy of separate note is the Fifth Corps of Volunteers, an autonomous military structure that was created with the direct participation of Russian military advisers. According to some reports, the corps itself is also led by Russian generals. The corps can hardly be regarded as a regular military formation. It consists of various subdivisions made up of volunteers and is financed by a number of non-government sources. It also contains certain pro-government Syrian forces that existed before the corps was set up, including those financed by private individuals (the “Sea Commandos”) or set up with the participation of Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah (Liwa Dir’ al-Watan). At the same time, the inclusion of defectors and objectors from among the Sunni population in the Fifth Corps was apparently supposed to break the stereotype about the sectarian foundation of the pro-government forces and the auxiliary nature of the Sunnis’ participation in the war. However, the experiment has yet to bear fruit. The most combat-ready units of the Fifth Corps – the so-called ISIS Hunters – are again “sectarian militias” (as far as Syria’s Sunni majority is concerned). Such groups are made up primarily of Syrian Christians and Alawites (for example, the aforementioned “Sea Commandos”) or Shiites (Liwa Dir’ al-Watan, with the participation of Lebanese fighters). Work of this kind is likely to continue: according to some reports, work on the establishment of a 6th Corps is already under way.
Sooner or later the Syrian armed forces will surely face the challenge of transition to a peaceful life. In this context, it is important to understand what will happen to the large number of paramilitary formations and militias. The Iraqi leadership is attempting to solve this very same problem at home, having initiated a procedure to integrate soldiers of the militia group “Khashd ash-Shaabi” into the country’s armed forces. The experience gained during the creation of the 5th Corps, as well as its predecessor (the 4th Corps) can be used to help integrate certain paramilitary structures into the Syrian Arab Army and the Ministry of Interior.
It is also possible at the initial stage to revive the three corps of the Syrian Arab Army that formally existed before, turning them into territorial commands. All the regular and paramilitary units could be placed under their control on a territorial basis, thus becoming parts of the regular forces, identified by numbers instead of names. This is a necessary step, because many of these structures simply refuse to dissolve themselves, as in the case in Iraq. However, their existence should be legalized and their activities brought into line with military regulations.
Another problem is how to overcome the increasingly “sectarian” nature of military forces in Syria. All or most of the combat-ready units are made up primarily of national and religious minorities. Sunnis play a secondary role, mainly serving in auxiliary, “second echelon” groupings. Attracting Sunnis who have fought or lived in opposition territories, earning their trust and ensuring that they carry out their duties in a diligent manner will also be a key issue.
A Necessary but Unrealistic Scenario
If we distance ourselves from the propaganda and frankly dilettantish stereotypes about the Syrian opposition, then the best option for establishing an ethnic and confessional balance would be to unite the opposition groups and pro-government forces into a single structure. This is the kind of renewal of the armed forces that the UN documents envision. It is hardly possible, for example, to incorporate the insurgent factions that have, with Turkey’s support, united to form the Syrian National Army (SNA, which operates exclusively in Northern Aleppo) into existing Syrian Arab Army units and divisions. The leadership of the opposition factions will not agree to this, bearing in mind what happened in Tajikistan (where the opposition was liquidated after its divisions were incorporated into government units). One possibility is to form about five to seven separate corps and divisional units from opposition forces and establish a single military council involving the Syrian National Army and the Syrian Arab Army.
However, neither Damascus nor Tehran, nor indeed Moscow, is interested in such a scenario. Although it is far easier for the Russian side to play along with the Syrian regime, which seeks to eliminate the Syrian opposition once and for all by military means, that goal would serve only to strengthen the positions of Iran and Syria. Moscow has had a significantly more difficult time than expected positioning itself as a moderator in the conflict and maintaining effective working relations with the opposition groups that participated in the Astana Peace Process and signed agreements with the Russian military in Cairo and Geneva. Integrating the opposition into military and political structures that are aligned with the current regime could serve as a natural counterweight to the influence of Iran and preserve a certain balance of power that is beneficial to Moscow. The big question now is: to what extent will Moscow be able to maintain control over its “client,” given that Tehran is clearly benefitting from the situation?
Reform of the Military Intelligence Services
Against the backdrop of the Islamic State’s transition to clandestine activities in Iraq and Syria (which is common for the group) and various other challenges, the role of the Syrian intelligence services is acquiring greater significance. Their activities today little resemble the standards adopted in the sphere. Opportunities to carry out covert intelligence work have been greatly reduced, and the grassroots tools of state governance have been destroyed. The Syrian intelligence services were not even able to prevent terrorist attacks on the National Security Council building.
At present, the Syrian intelligence services do not seem to have an analogue anywhere in the Middle East. Four independent security structures operate within the Syrian Arab Army. These structures are divided into “military,” which includes military intelligence and aerial reconnaissance (Air Force reconnaissance) and “political” (civilian units formally subordinate to the Interior Ministry), which includes the main security department and the department for managing political security. All of these structures answer directly to the president. However, the system of intelligence services in Syria reflects the complexity of relations and confrontations among various groups of influence in the country’s ruling elite. The system is constructed in such a way that the individual intelligence services effectively work against each other, which makes it impossible for any single “branch” to become significantly stronger than the others.
Air Force reconnaissance was conceived as the intelligence structure “closest” to the heart of former president Hafez al-Assad, who was a fighter pilot himself. As a result, it effectively turned into an independent state security agency, with its own external intelligence and counterintelligence divisions, and even a department for combatting anti-government activities. During the Civil War, the Air Force reconnaissance formed an entire “pleiad” of special forces units to carry out operations using heavy machinery. The other three “branches” took similar steps in order to prevent any one of the intelligence agencies from becoming significantly stronger than the rest.
It would appear that the simplest solution for transforming the Syrian intelligence services with the goal of optimizing their activities would, first of all, be to merge Air Force reconnaissance and military intelligence into a single organ of the General Staff of the Syrian Arab Army, and strip these structures of the ability to carry out political investigations. As for the political security structures, it would be practical for one of them to focus exclusively on external intelligence activities, while the second could be engaged in counterintelligence and anti-terror activities. In other words, Syrian intelligence services would be brought up to global standards.
It is also imperative to create border security forces to control Syria’s eastern frontiers first and foremost, but also the entire border, as a kind of unified system with its own social and infrastructural characteristics. While Hafez al-Assad paid special attention to the country’s tribes, granting their leaders various privileges and taking their views into consideration in political life, his son Bashar all but forgot about them, which combined with drought in the regions and the misallocation of resources created the conditions for social upheaval. The years spent under the control of radical groups transformed the tribal social fabric even more. At present, the regime relies primarily on the Suqur al-Furat militia, which contains members of the Al-Shaitat tribe, to carry out its activities in the eastern part of the country. The tribe attempted a revolt against the Islamic State rule in 2014 but was defeated in a gruesome fashion. Damascus used this as a pretext to organize a military training programme for the tribe’s members and announced an amnesty for them.
If Damascus is unable to hold a constructive dialogue with the Sunni tribes, then there is a risk that the Islamic State will emerge once again in one form or another as a result of the joint efforts of independent Sunni groups and radicals (operatives, preachers, etc.), who will be able to remain in the country. It is all the more important to deal with the cadres who are familiar with the local terrain in the east of the country could help prevent smuggling, with which both Damascus and Baghdad have well-documented issues.
*Anton Mardasov, Military Observer Head of the Department of Middle Eastern Conflicts at the Institute of Innovative Development
First published in our partner RIAC
Russia Says U.S. Trains Jihadists to Do Chemical Attacks Blamed Against Assad
On March 17th, Russia’s Minister of Defense (equivalent to America’s Secretary of Defense) announced, through Russian General Staff spokesman General Sergey Rudskoy: “We have reliable information at our disposal that US instructors have trained a number of militant groups in the vicinity of the town of At-Tanf, to stage provocations involving chemical warfare agents in southern Syria. Early in March, the saboteur groups were deployed to the southern de-escalation zone to the city of Deraa, where the units of the so-called Free Syrian Army are stationed. They are preparing a series of chemical munitions explosions. This fact will be used to blame the government forces. The components to produce chemical munitions have been already delivered to the southern de-escalation zone under the guise of humanitarian convoys of a number of NGOs.”
He also said:
“The provocations will be used as a pretext by the United States and its allies to launch strikes on military and government infrastructure in Syria. We’re registering the signs of the preparations for the possible strikes. Strike groups of the cruise missile carriers have been formed in the east of the Mediterranean Sea, Persian Gulf and Red Sea.”
He went on to add that in the most jihadist-friendly province, Idlib, another such “false flag” attack is being prepared by Al Qaeda in Syria, called there, “Al-Nusra Front terrorist group, in coordination with the White Helmets,” which is a group financed by the U.S. and UK Governments to rescue victims of bombings by Syria’s Government and its ally Russia.
This would hardly be the first example of such attacks. For example, on 14 January 2014, MIT’s Theodore Postol and the former U.N. Weapons Inspector Richard Lloyd co-authored a detailed technical study and analysis, regarding “the Damascus Nerve Agent Attack of August 21, 2013” (which was the most-famous sarin-attack, in East Ghouta), saying that “the US Government’s Interpretation of the Technical Intelligence It Gathered Prior to and After the August 21 Attack CANNOT POSSIBLY BE CORRECT,” and documenting that the rocket had actually — and clearly — been fired from an area that even the U.S. Government’s own maps showed to be under the control of the ‘rebels’, whom the U.S. Government supported, and definitely not of the Syrian Government, whom those ‘rebels’ were trying to overthrow. (That was the incident in which U.S. President Barack Obama announced to the world his “red line” and then said that the Government headed by Bashar al-Assad had crossed it and that this justified a U.S. invasion, but Seymour Hersh said that it had become blocked by the UK/s intelligence lab at Porton Down, by their finding that the sarin which had been used in this attack wasn’t of a type that the Syrian Government had in its arsenals.) There have been several such “false-flag” attacks, in order to get the public to support invading Syria. However, the main way that the U.S. and its allies try to overthrow Assad and his Government is to arm and protect Al Qaeda in Syria, which leads the various jihadist groups there (other than ISIS).
From Radical Ecology to Ecoterrorism
The schools of thought of contemporary eco-terrorism are many, but those that use an antagonist theoretical-practical approach can be identified in deep ecology, feminist ecology, Marxist ecology, primitivism, degrowth ecology, the Slow Food movement, ecology, animalism (which together with vegetarianism is a logical consequence of radical ecology) and, finally, eco-terrorism. In this sense – beyond the often demagogic rhetoric – eco-terrorism does not differ from the above-mentioned schools of thought because of its ethical-philosophical assumptions but rather by the operative procedures through which its antagonism is carried out. Therefore, an ideological community exists, whether implicit or explicit, in the main schools of thoughts of ecology and eco-terrorism. These schools of thought, however, can be associated with the idea of radical ecology.
Definition of radical ecology
While continuing to take the complexity of current ecology into account, the expression “radical” is used to indicate extremely antagonist ecology, from Pinochot’s utilitarian conservationism, which was deeply anthropocentric and aimed to rationalize the use of nature toward a lasting economic exploitation, to Haeckel’s neo-Darwinian approach, Tanskey’s view, Lotka’s trophic-network ecology, and finally, Odum’s thermodynamic approach. Firstly, radical ecology comprises the holistic preservationism of Thoreau, Emerson, and Leopold, ecofeminism, political ecology, deep ecology, primitivism, social ecology, the degrowth movement, the Slow Food movement, eco-regionalism, animalism, and eco-terrorism. Secondly, although the list of the organizations is not complete, it is important to underline that the several “-isms” do not exclude the possibility of profitable contaminations among the different schools of thought. Thirdly, the epistemological, political and philosophical features shared by the above-mentioned schools of thought can be identified as follows:
- they all support a structural modification of the current economic system and are against the supranational institutions that control global capitalism, in particular, the IMF, the WTO, and the World Bank;
- they are in favor of the anti-globalization movement, and know its limits and potentials;
- they share an eco-centric, bio-centric, anti-anthropocentric, holistic and sometimes organicistic perception of natural reality;
- they are against a mechanistic vision of reality such as Bacon’s and Descartes’, and are in favor of legal extensionism;
- they support a relevant extension of representative democracy or a radical exceeding of it in favor of an anarchic, neo-tribal society, or a participatory democracy;
- they share and develop apocalyptical and radical scenes of current society’s environmental and economic condition;
- they advocate a change in the ethic of western civilization through an eco-pacifist reorientation carried out by counter-information;
- they are against military institutions and share a typical interpretation of irenic pacifism;
- they are against the use of biotechnologies in agriculture and the civil and military use of nuclear energy;
- several members of radical ecology share a new interpretation of nature according to neo-romantic or oriental philosophies (such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism and Zen philosophy);
- many scholars and activists belonging to radical ecology embrace animalistic and vegetarian views which they deem deeply coherent with an ecocentric vision of nature.
- Finally, several exponents of radical ecology refer to 1968 culture, and to underground American and tribal cultures.
In short, regarding the operative procedures carried out by the several schools of thought or radical ecology, we should point out the difference between non-violent and terroristic ones. There are three levels of antagonist procedure: a) non-violent practice strictly antagonist toward political and legal institutions; b) non-violent practice with an entryist political logic toward national and supranational political institutions; c) publically terroristic practice. We should, nevertheless, underline the differences between positions a) and b) both of which are well-organized and opposing: the first clearly condemns the use of terroristic procedures, the second supports terrorist procedures – but without putting them into practice – and is therefore ambiguous.
The historical predecessors of radical ecology
According to Livorsi, the genesis of radical ecology can be easily traced from a historical point of view to the philosophical and religious interpretation of Bachofen and the Marxist psychoanalysis of Reich as well. The author of the “Canticle of the Sun” (“Cantico del Frate Sole”) not only asserts the sanctification of the world by God – in other words, the sun, the moon, and the animal world – but also refers to Mother Earth, anticipating the modern concept of “Gaia” . Moreover the heterodox pantheism of Saint Francis implies a brotherhood between human beings and creatures according to an ecocentric and egalitarian view. The French philosopher Rousseau, in his “Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men” (“Discours sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inégalité parmi les homes”), emphasized the goodness of the state of nature and the existential authenticity of the human being in this pre-civilized context, while condemning in the meantime private property and therefore civilization determined by technique. Moreover, unlike civilized society, tribal society conducted an ecocentric, egalitarian and communal style of life. Bachofen, in his reinterpretation of the history of civilization, emphasized the existence of a gynocratic, anti-patriarchal view in pre-Achaean society in which there was no private life, there was sexual freedom, nature was accepted as a living organism, and above all, the modus vivendi was built on egalitarian pacifism.
In short, regarding Reich, the rise of patriarchy brought about the triumph of capitalism, the closed family, and sexual repression. The natural and erotic man who struggles for a libertarian socialism has reemerged only rarely in history, such as in the Paris Commune in 1871, for example.
Definition of Terrorism and Eco-Terrorism
According to Pisano, terrorism can be defined as a non-conventional form of conflict because it lies outside both democratic, organized and civil dispute and the traditional battlefield of war regulated by international law. Terrorism is characterized by three elements: a) physical and psychic criminal violence, b) political, religious political or social political movement, and c) the use of illegal structure. Traditional terrorism, as Pisano explains, together with neo-terrorism, coexist both as a threat and as a concrete aggression. Neo-terrorism is performed by dynamic and polymorphous schemes that can intertwine while preserving their methodological and operational autonomy at the same time. Pisano indicates ecologic terrorism, narco-terrorism, the NRBC, and cyber-terrorism as the most important.
Ecologic terrorism (the topic of our research) is based on lay and/or religious ideological ideas and from an organizational point of view is carried out alternatively by cellular organizations with no hierarchies and by binary structures that are cellular and propagandistic at the same time. Ecologic terrorism furthers its antagonism through several operative procedures: 1) obstructive human barriers (lock box), 2) machinery sabotage, 3) arson and explosive detonation, 4) legal instruments focused on reporting abuse by police, 5) assemblage and road blocks, 6) intrusion within military installations or scientific and university institutions, 7) wide use of misinformation through media, internet and magazines, and 8) instigation to tax evasion. The enemies or targets to strike are several in number as well: 1) national and supranational capitalism, 2) the state, which defends its interests and consolidates its power, 3) national and supranational military institutions, and 4) scientific and university laboratories.
In a nutshell, eco-terrorism presents two fundamental trends: animal (such as ALF, ARM or JD) and environmental (e.g. Earth First!). In conclusion, Pisano suggests that the dangers of eco-terrorism are linked to the potential strengthening of its organizational power, creation of operative or ideological ties with traditional terrorism, and the consolidation of its relations with the anti-globalization movement.
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