Authors: Ahmet S. Yayla & Anne Speckhard
[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] I [/yt_dropcap]SIS has been the most successful terrorist organization in history using social media and the Internet for distributing its propaganda, dissemination of its news and more importantly to communicate. There is no doubt that the frequency and quality of ISIS posts on the Internet, including their videos, memes and online journals are of a quality to make many professional editors and producers envious and they also receive much attention.
ISIS usually does not host its posts on dedicated servers but uses several free and open mediums including Google drive, Cloud.mail.ru, Yandesk, YouTube, Sendvid.com, Dailymotion.com, Drive.ms, Archive.org, Justpaste.it, Bitly.com and some other recent platforms. Of course, hosting is not enough; hosted posts need to be distributed to followers, the target audience and the public. At this point, several social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter, Telegram, WhatsApp, Google+, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, Viber, and WeChat are utilized by ISIS to circulate their posts so that the target audience and public are made aware and can watch or read them by clicking on the web addresses posted to those mediums.
Among these social media platforms Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Tumblr and Instagram were previously heavily utilized by ISIS, but since takedowns on these sites, ISIS currently favors Telegram where ISIS users maintain a presence in several different languages. ISIS has assigned administrators in several languages who are in charge of ISIS social media accounts including Telegram. When interviewing ISIS defectors, we also learned that female foreign fighters are specifically tasked for the administration of social media accounts, and they have special offices in Raqqa to carry out their tasks under the control of their emirs. A Belgian female defector recently recounted being recruited upon her arrival to ISIS to serve as an Internet seductress, a role she declined. Indian police also told us that most of their ISIS recruitment occurs via the Internet and consists of female seducing males into the group. Indeed, American Mohamad Khweis appears to have been seduced in this way, marrying his ISIS bride when he arrived to Istanbul and then traveling into ISIS territory with her.
At ICSVE, our researchers closely follow ISIS’s Telegram posts on a daily basis and download any relevant videos, journals, memes, pictures or anything else useful for our research. While the terrorist organization utilizes several different platforms to distribute their posts, the most reliable medium of late for their purposes has been the Telegram social media application. This is because other platforms usually quickly take down posts or shut down the accounts posting the links to these hosts. Hosting mediums also delete posts as soon as they realize they are ISIS content. As a result, Telegram has become the main social media platform for ISIS members and followers primarily because, so far, Telegram administrators do not usually shut down ISIS accounts, and when they do, the frequency is far less when compared to other social media accounts. For example, Twitter or Facebook take down ISIS accounts in a day or most two in many cases, and when the same account owners open new accounts, they block them even sooner. However, there are Telegram accounts opened or used by ISIS members that stay active for months or basically never get closed.
Telegram was launched in 2013 by two brothers, Nikolai and Pavel Durov, who also founded Russia’s largest social network Russian VK. The Telegram Messenger LLP is registered as an independent nonprofit company in Berlin, Germany. The founders claim that Telegram is “faster and safer” than other apps and more importantly the “messages sent through Telegram cannot be bugged by third parties.”  Indeed, Telegram is an encrypted social media application that is very difficult for law enforcement to penetrate or eavesdrop.
Apart from accounts not being closed as often as other ISIS social media accounts, there are two other advantages to ISIS for using Telegram. The first is that while in most cases the links to hosts are distributed in Telegram groups where there are several members or directly sent to individual accounts, they become useless as soon as the hosting companies realize they are ISIS posts and take them down, making them dead links. However, Telegram’s large file-hosting feature becomes very handy in this case because almost all files pushed through Telegram with links are also uploaded to the Telegram channels, and those files remain as long as the channels are open or the user who posts does not delete them. Therefore, even if a file is not available as a link, if it is uploaded to Telegram, it will exist there unless it is deleted or the channel is closed. Furthermore, Telegram allows uploading large files simultaneously consequently allowing the ISIS social media accounts to simultaneously upload videos with four or five different resolutions and sizes beginning from the largest to the smallest, such as a video in full HD from which would be 1.5 gigabytes to smaller resolution versions such as 800 megabytes, 500 megabytes, 200 megabytes and 50 megabytes. The smallest size versions would be for mobile devices.
The other advantage of Telegram is providing users a forum to be able to communicate in a secure way through a secure algorithm. While Telegram chat rooms are usually open to all members, one-to-one communications are secret and cannot be seen by others. There have been several attacks where it was later established that ISIS members communicated internationally about the attacks before they took place. For example, the Istanbul Reina club attacker got his orders from his Emir in Raqqa, Syria through Telegram and communicated over Telegram with his Emir both before and after the attack. The same was true of the Paris attacks. Telegram has thus become one of the main communication apparatus of ISIS, particularly with foreign fighters deployed outside of ISIS territories.
In addition to all these advantages, like all other applications, Telegram is convenient and mobile as it can be installed on cell phones, Windows PCs, and IOS computers, therefore, making it available on many different devices.
Joining Telegram is easy. The only requirement on the side of Telegram, to sign up, is having a cell phone number and verifying that number after the registration through a text message verification step. In some cases, some Internet proxy phones (phone accounts created over the Internet) work as well, omitting the requirement of a cell phone number as long as the Telegram system does not recognize the number provided as a proxy Internet number. Telegram, therefore, only requires a cell phone number to verify the user and once a user is verified, the user does not need to maintain the phone number, enabling users to use a number once to verify an account without the necessity to keep that number. In fact, the one of the cell phones ICSVE staff use to track ISIS telegram accounts was registered through a cell phone number and that number has been inactive since 2015, but the account has still been in use without any problems. This feature becomes a great tool for ISIS terrorists as they do not need to reveal their real identities or provide anything to be traced other than a phone number which they don’t need to maintain.
On the side of ISIS, in most cases, there is no vetting to join their public channels or groups, but private ones do vet potential members with a range of questions, sometimes having to do with the basics of Islam such as cleansing before prayer (wudu) etc. If ISIS members need to connect over the Telegram without physically being in touch, they either use other known members to reach and connect to the desired members or for their foreign fighters, they pre-arrange known passwords and indicators to vet the people they are communicating with to ensure the authenticity of the parties.
As a user interface, Telegram is no different than many other similar mediums such as WhatsApp and Twitter. When it comes to peer-to-peer communication, it is more like WhatsApp where users can message each other, share documents, links, videos and voice messages similar to the chat features of many social media platforms. There are even time stamps indicating when the messages were sent and if they were read or not. Telegram channels are a different from common social media groups as followers are not allowed to interact with the others in the channel openly unless authorized by the administrator. Members are only able to read and download posts shared in the channel unless they have permission for greater access. Posts flow on the timeline chronologically and with time stamps and an indicator “eye” acting as a counter showing how many times a post was downloaded by the channel members. Telegram groups, as opposed to channels, are just like other social media groups where members can interact with each other and their individual posts, therefore, making it possible to communicate with sometimes thousands of people at once. Based on our experience at ICSVE, several channels and individual accounts in the same languages are usually run by the same administrators, or there are a handful of administrators who appear to share the same posts simultaneously.
Reaching out on to ISIS members via Telegram channels is a significant challenge for beginners. First of all, as the Telegram application is installed, the application copies all the contact numbers on one’s cell phone and connects the users with any of his contacts who are already registered with Telegram. However, to connect with ISIS members, channels, or groups, the key is knowing what channels are ISIS channels and what their names or addresses are. ISIS usually does not require verification for its public channels, therefore if one knows the name or address of an ISIS channel, joining those channels is simple—locate the channel and click the join button. As soon as one joins a channel all that channel’s posts are available to the new user. For peer-to-peer communication, however, the users must know each other’s registered phone numbers or user names. If a user is not originally recorded in one’s downloaded phone connections, in order to connect with that user over Telegram, one of the users has to provide the other his registered cell phone number. This process is useful for ISIS foreign fighters operating abroad as they often switch phones and need to reconnect with their emirs or middlemen and can easily do so even with a new burner phone, using their original login credentials. ISIS members may also open accounts before traveling and exchange those accounts beforehand so when they need to use them they can easily install Telegram on whatever device they are currently using and log into Telegram with their credentials to communicate with their ISIS peers.
ISIS frequently posts on new and backup channels with different names for different purposes including: media and video sharing, book and journal sharing, news and daily updates, hisbah (morality police) office, accounts of personal well-known ISIS members, pamphlets and meme accounts, ISIS Amaq News Agency and several other channels or groups with different names. These lists are frequently shared on different social media platforms alerting users to subscribe to new or backup accounts in the case an account is closed or expected to be closed. While being banned and dropped in other social media mediums occurs to ISIS endorsers, supporters and distributors quite often, Telegram, as mentioned previously, does not frequently close ISIS accounts. However, the backup or spare ISIS channels usually function as a mirror of the original channel or simply are ready to be facilitated if an original channel is closed. ISIS cross shares the lists of their Telegram channels as they appear and reappear via different social media accounts. For example, they post their new or existing Telegram channel addresses on Twitter or Facebook, and then in their Telegram channels, they provide their Twitter, Facebook or Instagram account names and encourage their members to follow those accounts as well to be updated of any changes when channels are taken down. In that manner, they efficiently migrate their followers from Telegram channel to channel. ISIS social media administrators also often share bulk ISIS Telegram account lists both in regular social media and also in their Telegram channels, by which users are alerted to join channels or follow individuals simply clicking the links of those accounts. If someone starts to follow an ISIS Telegram account, it is thus very easy to update and enrich their ISIS network of account collections and lists by simply subscribing to the post lists or by following the users who post to the groups and simply by looking at the forwarded posts and reaching to the original post owners with a few clicks. Therefore, following or communicating with ISIS Telegram accounts is an easy task as long as one understands how they work and basically keeps following the posts to update their related contact lists. Even if one completely loses ISIS Telegram channels on Telegram, it is still easy to reach out to those channels again by simply following ISIS related Twitter and Facebook accounts.
ISIS users or administrators are not shy about their posts, and they are usually aware of the fact that many of their followers in the channels are not ISIS members, but are intelligence members or researchers. In fact, it happened several times with our ICSVE Twitter posts sharing some important incidents or updates from the ISIS Telegram channels we follow, that they would then openly post into the same channels saying “We know you are here and you are sharing our posts on your Twitter account. You are an infidel, and we don’t care if you are following us.” Strangely enough, ISIS administrators have never banned or blocked us from their channels thus far, perhaps enjoying the attention and being a threatening presence. Of course, there are strategies behind that as well. Simply put, the terrorist organization is using its Telegram channels to disseminate its propaganda and the narratives they would like to share, and they are aware of the fact that outsiders may be the ones who also become conduits for their shares to the outer world.
There are countless channels and groups on Telegram, not only related to ISIS but also to other Salafist-jihadi terrorist organizations as well. If one does not know the specifics of different terrorist organizations, one would very easily confuse other Salafist terrorist organization’s channels with ISIS channels as they promote very similar thinking. While ISIS dominates the Telegram terrorism cyber-space, other groups use the same medium as well and just like ISIS, maintain groups and channels in different languages, probably more than twenty.
One may witness a variety of things in ISIS channels. First of all, regular known ISIS channels or groups maintained by well-known recognized ISIS members such as Khilafah News, the Strangers, Mr. State, al-Firdaws English or Mr. Killer, share ISIS related breaking news, videos, memes, propaganda campaigns, brochures, new ISIS journals including Rumiyah and others, nasheeds, pictures or stories, or anything they would like to push. However, theme specific channels or groups only share related posts. For example, ISIS video channels would periodically post new or old ISIS videos in different resolutions or sizes, book channels would only post books or booklets mostly in pdf forms, news channels would only post news or news articles and so on. Therefore, based on the type of the channel or group, it is possible to reach and follow groups in different categories.
Another important feature of Telegram is being able to search the channels posts, group messages, individual messages or any kind of communications or posts in one’s account. This feature is available for both cell phone applications and the Web-based Telegram interface making it possible to reach any content by simply searching. This basically makes Telegram one of the largest free ISIS databases available to the public especially considering the fact that many other mediums including Google, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook are continuously taking down ISIS posts.
Telegram has enabled ISIS to create, without much effort, its grand propaganda machine to further its reach beyond it’s so-called “Caliphate” to the whole world with only the click of a button, pushing its new media content constantly and reaching to its targets momentarily, and most importantly communicating with its fighters abroad to direct them for new attacks or facilitate their operations in different countries. The nature of the Telegram application with a secure algorithm providing protection from the outside world and making it almost impossible, or very difficult, for law enforcement to trace back to the original users, also has become a magnificent advantage for the terrorist organization in terms of the anonymity of its users and for carrying out terrorist operations via secure communications. These two qualities are the most valuable qualifications, or gifts, for a terrorist organization like ISIS. Thanks to Telegram, ISIS has now been using their application very heavily almost without any interruptions with great success when compared to other social media applications.
While other social media platforms have since 2014 taken strong stances to institute takedown policies when it comes to ISIS, the stand of the Telegram application when it comes to allowing ISIS to use its platform without interference is quite different and difficult to understand. Recently, Rob Wainwright, the director of Europol, European Union’s policing body, condemned Telegram owners for failing to join the fight against terrorism. Wainwright said that Telegram’s reluctance to work with anti-terrorist authorities was causing major problems considering the fact that the application is in widespread use among the target population of ISIS.
Telegram has become the choice of the ISIS due to its specifications—providing secure encrypted communications and allowing users to share large files and act with their accounts operating with impunity. While Telegram administrators claim, they favor speech free of interference; it is time for the owners of Telegram to thoroughly consider the existence of ISIS presence and activities on their digital platform. Telegram has become the ultimate tool for the bloodiest terrorist organization in history, carrying and spreading its terrorist ideology around the world, recruiting and even directing cadres to carry out attacks globally. Recently, the families of the San Bernardino shooting sued Facebook, Google, and Twitter, claiming that these social media companies permitted ISIS to flourish on these social media platforms. It may soon happen that Telegram will also have to deal with several legal actions as ISIS cadres continue to utilize their application for their terror operations and communications.
Reference for this Article: Yayla, Ahmet S. & Speckhard, Anne (May 5, 2017) Telegram: the Mighty Application that ISIS Loves, ICSVE Research Reports, http://www.icsve.org/brief-reports/telegram-the-mighty-application-that-isis-loves/
 Speckhard, Ph.D., Anne; Shajkovci, Ph.D., Ardian; and Yayla, Ph.D., Ahmet S.. “Defeating ISIS on the Battle Ground as well as in the Online Battle Space: Considerations of the “New Normal” and Available Online Weapons in the Struggle Ahead.” Journal of Strategic Security 9, no. 4 (2016): 1-10.
 Speckhard, A., & Yayla, A. S. (2016). ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate: Advances Press, LLC.
 Speckhard, Anne research interview Brussels, Belgium January 2017
 Speckhard, Anne research interview New Delhi, India March 8th, 2017
 Speckhard, Anne & Yayla, Ahmet S. (March 20, 2016) American ISIS Defector – Mohamad Jamal Khweis & the Threat Posed by “Clean-Skin” Terrorists: Unanswered Questions and Confirmations. ICSVE Brief Report http://www.icsve.org/american-isis-defector—mohamad-jamal-khweis-and-the-threat-of-clean-skin-terrorists-.html
 Editorial, “Russia’s Zuckerberg launches Telegram, a new instant messenger service,” Reuters, August 30, 2013, http://www.reuters.com/article/idUS74722569420130830
 Yayla, A.S., “The Reina Nightclub Attack and the Islamic State Threat to Turkey” CTC Sentinel, Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, Vol 10, Issue 3, pp. 9-16, March 2017.
 Evan Perez & Shimon Prokupecz, “First on CNN: Paris attackers likely used encrypted apps, officials say,” December 17, 2015, http://www.cnn.com/2015/12/17/politics/paris-attacks-terrorists-encryption/
 Speckhard, A., & Yayla, A. S. (2017). The ISIS Emni: The Origins and Inner Workings of ISIS’s Intelligence Apparatus. Perspectives on Terrorism, 11(1). Retrieved from http://www.terrorismanalysts.com/pt/index.php/pot/article/view/573
 Dominic Kennedy, “Message app used by Isis refuses to fight jihadists,” May 4, 2017, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/message-app-used-by-isis-refuses-to-fight-jihadists-jrddv7c93?utm_content=buffer2b755&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer
 Dan Whitcomb, “Families of San Bernardino shooting sue Facebook, Google, Twitter,” May 4, 2017, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-sanbernardino-attack-lawsuit-idUSKBN1802SL
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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