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Assad’s Army and Intelligence Services: Feudalization or Structurization?

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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.

Fragmentation

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.

Integration

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

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Know the psychology of ISIL

Sajad Abedi

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In my opinion, the “ISIS phenomenon” is not new; it distinguishes the factors of this group; for example, the audience of the world’s television networks is watching films that ISIS itself publishes. They have internet sites that send their films and photos to the world. On the other hand, the region is full of journalists because both the Syria war is underway and the Middle East regional issues are so important, so journalists can cover the moment.

In addition, the strategic importance of the Iraqi state and its oil resources was due to the fact that ISIS had its first attacks on oil and refineries, but it was effective in triggering their actions, but the thing that shook the world more than anything else, A pattern of behavior that the group represented during the capture of places; films from ISILs that were showing them on the road and checking cars, while carrying laptops with names of those who worked with the government, or any kind of their thoughts It was different from the ideology of ISIL.

The members of the group matched the driver identification card with the list of these names, and if their names were on this list, they would have been executed without trial!

These films spread throughout the world, and the wonder of the whole world prompted which ideology and religion could be, according to which, people were allowed to kill someone by merely naming and without trial, killing someone along the road and rejoicing.

The problem is that the members of this group, other than themselves, do not know the rest of the people as religious and religious, so they assume any violence and murder as loyal to their religious ideology, while many Muslims around the world, especially their classroom, are astonished at these actions and never do such acts godly and on the basis of religion and hate them.

Is Isis a Terrorist?

“Terror” means the creation of horror and fear. In fact, terror means the use of unexpected, shocking and unlawful violence against civilians to force a state or a society to accept demands based on an ideology.

But what does a terrorist want from a psychological point of view, what happens in society and what is his goal? They create psychological phenomena in society, through which they pressure the people and civilians to push them on to governments, and ultimately, to reach the demands of that group. The psychological phenomena that are caused by terrorist movements and their news in people are horror, discomfort and turmoil, unrest and restlessness, pessimism, anxiety and anxiety, anger, grief and tragedy.

Most importantly, the combination of all these unpleasant feelings is causing a lot of confusion, discomfort and insecurity inside people. But what makes the assassination possible? It is clear that those who do such behaviors do not consider themselves brutal or inhumane, and they have the absolute right to do such acts.

In recent years, investigations have been carried out on those who have had extreme behaviors. One of the most important and best investigated was Dr. Wagdey Luzza at the University of Cantabria on the terrorism of religious groups such as al-Qaeda, with the Middle East approach, and the results could be extended to ISIS. According to the study, it turned out that in the West, most of those joining these groups are men aged 17 to 23, usually from middle-class families with relatively high academic and academic achievements in modern science with academic degrees.

But the results of the 1999 study also revealed that those who carry out terrorist acts in their own countries are people with low and unemployed education who have been roughly dropped out of the text of the community, and themselves have separated themselves from the context of society.

The leaders of these radical and radical religious groups, on average 15 years older than the followers and other members of the group, are about 40 years old, have a great deal of affection and influence, are able to inspire the respect of their followers and their own self, Their ideology, in such a way that they can influence others, have intrinsically an influential personality, inspire others, encourage in the best possible way, usually do not fear death and are professors of death. Of course, in the leaders of these groups, there are people who, incidentally, completely escape death while encouraging others to die in the ideology.

Those who are attracted to groups like ISIS are abnormal?

There is no consensus on this. Some studies show that many of these people have personality disorders. Some even suffer from major psychiatric disorders. But the most important point of the personality that can be mentioned is that they have grown up in a family or a community that has created a feeling of self-sufficiency and humiliation.

These people have never been taken seriously and they feel that they are not first class citizens and their rights are different from the rights of other citizens. They feel like they are not treated to others. One of the most prominent examples of this situation may be seen in the behavior of Arab people living in the suburbs of Paris over the past 2-3 years. They were born in Paris and had a French passport, but their sense of belonging and attachment to the French community was not formed, which caused disturbances in Paris, which caused a lot of damage.

After that, the French government has just realized that it cannot continue to discriminate, and must provide grounds for joining these people to French culture while respecting Arab and Islamic culture in order not to face such rebellion and chaos.

Another aspect of the personality of the members of such groups is that they do not have personality independence and they need to follow someone else with a higher appeal. They have no self-confidence and can only feel confident within an ideology, that is, ideology with rough behaviors so that nobody dares to stand in front of them.

People who lack the sense of empathy and sympathy with others, and they are not basically born of a child of conscience, suffered a severe damage to their self-image from a childhood, which is said to be bad in their family and society, they are a bad people, their religion is not worthless. , Have a brutal nationality, and they are constantly seeking to abandon their anger, and one of the best ways to do this is to join groups that can be abused by membership and violent behavior.

Members of these groups are pessimistic about the world around them and the world, and sometimes have a lot of mental employment, for example, under the control of a very violent parent or violent and punitive rule. Groups like ISIS will be able to empower them. People with such characteristics are so influenced and influenced by a kind of hypnosis that their contacts with the facts are discontinued and their perceptions of facts are confused.

One of the things that the leaders of these groups do well is brainwashing, that is, brainwashing ideological issues in the name of reality in the whole universe, and assuring them that the truth is what their leaders say.

Another group of researchers, according to their studies, has concluded that members of the terrorist groups do not have an abnormal character at all; many of them naturally, educated and highly adhered to their ideology, and are even willing to sacrifice their lives for their ideology. In fact, these people, through sacrificing their lives, feel useful, sacrificed and sacrificed and are proud to be in this way, which ultimately leads to a great name in this world and a fortune-telling to come place for them.

In my opinion, naturally, both groups of these people are seen in groups like ISIL, and perhaps we should look at their behavior in order to find out the reality. I believe that what distinguishes natural people from abnormal is the degree of conscientiousness.

Those who believe in devotion and sacrifice and honesty are surely not willing to surrender their captive family members without trial, roadside, and in front of their eyes.

Unfortunately, due to the actions and actions of the ISIS group, it seems that most of its members have an abnormal character and their thoughts are immortal and primitive. They are usually accustomed to learning to look very straightforward. The example of this is the declaration of the caliphate for the whole world from an area in Iraq and the burning of European citizens’ passports to show that they are universal and do not think nationally! These people believe that they have established a government and a caliphate for the whole world, all of which shows their simplicity.

They see phenomena as absolute black or white, or good or bad. They see the world divided into two categories: the helpless rich, the exploited, and the poor, are miserable, and this means thinking all or nothing. Their beliefs are based on the rejection of the thoughts of others, rather than certain beliefs, and they consider all the rights to themselves. Moreover, they believe that their thinking for all ages and for all people and all the conditions is right, so they want to persuade everyone to force their ideology and if anyone opposes it, they seek to hurt him. Clearly, the analytical system of these groups is weak because the training that they have seen in their schools is more based on memory rather than analysis.

Finally, I emphasize that the formation of ISIS and its groups is the result of being repelled and humiliated by the family and society. Therefore, if any country wants a phenomenon like ISIS not to emerge, one must understand that it is necessary to respect the rights of citizenship and religion of the people

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Radicalisation of Youth in Indonesia and Counteractions

Abhishek Mohanty

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There is a generic proverb that youth are the upcoming leaders of future. But in reality, they are the leaders of contemporary times. Indonesia, with approximately 266 million population, in which almost 25% of the population is occupied by youth falling below the age of 25. Shaping this group for influencing present and future discourses of Indonesia is very important. But this young generation is ghastly being motivated towards radicalism on several pretexts, primarily politically and religiously. One of the several factors is due to identity crisis which is invoked internally by society and externally by subtle indoctrination through mainstream and social media.

There is an increasing consciousness in Indonesia that terror organisations are encouraging youths to join their ranks. This endangerment was clear since 2009 when Indonesian media telecasted a video of an 18-year old preparing himself for suicide bombing at the Hotel Marriott. The video disclosed the serene account about sacrificing one’s life for the sake of religion. The Indonesian media had unconcealed in front of the whole nation that for some of Indonesian youth, it was their responsibility to wage Jihad against infidels in the form of terrorist acts. Indonesian public found it embarrassing to digest this at that time.

But now, a worrying number of Indonesian youth have been exposed to radical political and religious orientation. Approximately 39% of university students have confessed their support to radical organisations. Fifteen provinces of Indonesia now have a “high risk” categorisation. Their students are an easy prey for radical organisations.A related narrative is also going on in Indonesian high schools. Nearly60% of extracurricular Islamic studies students are ready to engage in fierce jihad. This has caused an alarming situation in Indonesia as it is clearly visible that radical radical elements of the society have infiltrated the minds of Indonesian youth.

One of the earliest radical preachers in Indonesia is the Rohani Islam movement, which upsurged after the fall of Suharto’s autocratic regime. It has promoted radical interpretations of Islams to Indonesian youths through evening classes. Rohani apologists are now the most radical section of people in Indonesian society. Around 40% of the supporters backed to transform Indonesia into an Islamic State under a caliphate. The Rohani Islam movement comes under the purview of the Ministry for Education. But there have been negligible attempts to probe or reorient the Rohani Islam movement.

Another renowned radical organisation Jemaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) has also been radicalising Indonesian youth since the last three years. It was established in 2015, as a result of amalgamation of more than a dozen Indonesian terrorist outfits to strengthen the influence of ISIS in Indonesia, with Aman Abdurrahman, who recently was sentenced to death for his involvement in terrorist attacks, as it’s de facto supremo. According to Indonesian authorities, the family of suicide bombers which recently perpetrated the terrorist attacks in Surabaya had strong connections with JAD. The radical organisation also runs unauthorised boarding schools study groups for Indonesian youth. It has been also alleged by Indonesian authorities that students and teachers from these schools have travelled to Iraq and Syria for training purposes.

With the issue of radicalism gaining momentum in Indonesia, several NGOs have stepped up to counter the influence of radicalism in the Indonesian society. They have carried out majority of the initiatives on deradicalisation of youths. The Wahid Foundation, like for example, visits high schools which are soft targets of radicalisation. Their activists teach lessons on subjects like peace, religious tolerance, multiculturalism and pluralism. The Jakarta-settled NGO Maarif Institute organises an annual camp youth camp to assist youth in countering the influence of radicalism. Its also organises visits to Catholic churches and Buddhist temple to promote inter-faith cooperation and has partnered with Google to host workshops on ways to combat baneful online propaganda.

The radicalization of Indonesian youth is now a major concern for the government, as inflammatory thoughts now easily move through cultures and borders with one touch, more precisely with just tapping tweet or post. There is an urgent need for maximising government initiatives towards youth related policies. Such as, there are very less public investments in youth related national programmes to tap their prolific assets. Recently, President Widodo has announced new policies to forbid youth from coming under the influence of radical views. For developing a robust framework of youth deradicalisation involves modifications in policies, societies and families.

Indonesia’s youth deradicalisation initiatives will be more complex and intriguing in the coming times. Albeit Indonesia is the best model of a multicultural, religious tolerant Muslim-majority secular democracy, still a lot has to be done in developing an environment among the youth that is free from any kind of radical orientations. One aspect can be encouraging ambitious youth leadership. Interactive sessions by senior educators won’t appeal the youth as much when compared with passionate youth leaders.

Radicalism is often a harbinger to terrorism and concentrating on radicalism signals to get rid of terrorism at the nascent stage, before it is too late for non-coercive tactics. Triumphing over radicalism will in the end not be reckoned by military actions but by encouraging non-military policies that tones up the institutional support of human development in the country.

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Iran’s military activity strengthens al Qaeda in Syria

Uran Botobekov

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Iranian proxy Shi’a militias in Syria

Iran’s dangerous play in the Levant

The analysis of the activities of Hayat Taḥrir al-Sham and his Central Asian allies Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad, Katibat al-Imam Bukhari and the Turkestan Islamic Party, affiliated with Al Qaeda, testifies that the recent military successes of the Assad regime forces and Iranian-backed foreign Shi’a militias helped al-Qaeda strengthen its ideology among the Sunni part of the population in the south-west of the country.Inter-confessional contradictions between Sunnis and Shi’asand peculiar ethno religious diversities of Syria, where the civil war has not ceased for more than seven years, created unique conditions for al-Qaeda to establish here, its the newest and most important safe haven.And it is the government of Syria and the Iranian regime, who actively use the Iranian proxy Shi’a militias, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, Lebanese Hezbollah, Zainebiyoun Brigades and Fatemiyoun Brigades in order to preserve Bashar al-Assad’s bloody regime and to exterminate the Sunni majority, are directly responsible for creating socio-political favorable conditions for strengthening the ideology of Al Qaeda in Syria.

Iran, Russia and Syria are spearheading operations to gain territory in Syria and wrestle with al-Qaeda backed Salafi-jihadi groups. Backed by Russian air-power, Iranian-led Shi’a jihadists including Lebanese Hezbollah, Afghan Fatemiyoun Brigades and Iraqi militias and allies are the main boots on the ground.

Liwa Fatemiyoun is the biggest military unit deployed by Iran in Iraq and Syria. It draws recruits from Afghan refugees in Iran and Syria, and from the Hazara Shi’a minority in Afghanistan. Iran offers citizenship to the families of foreign fighters “martyred” in Syria and Iraq, and offers a year’s residency for a three-month deployment to Syria.The Fatemiyoun Brigade has about 20,000 active fighters according to accounts provided by Iranian officials. The Iranian authorities maintain the fighters are volunteers. According to the top Fatemiyoun Brigade’s official, at least 2,000 Afghan Shi’as have been killed and 8,000 more injured in the Syrian conflict.

The Islamic Revolution Guards Corps recruits destitute and undocumented Afghan Shi’a refugees who ran from the war in Afghanistan, by offering them permanent residency, financial aid, and other incentives for their families. Other Shi’a refugees were forced to join Iran’s war in Syria to escape prison sentences. Of some 2.5 million Afghans living in Iran, a third are registered as refugees while the remainder are mostly illegal economic migrants.The salaries of Iranian recruits range from $500 to $1,000 a month. Many captured by Hayat Taḥrir al-Sham Afghan Shi’as say that they are attracted to Syria by the promise of a financial reward. The Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, using the hopeless situation of Afghan Shi’a refugees, cynically and mercilessly sends them as cannon fodder to the conflict points in Middle East to fight Sunni Muslims, whose goal is to create a large Shi’a arc from the Central Asia to the Western Maghreb.

Iran actively carries out extensive ideological indoctrination among the Shi’a militia from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. Recruits are told that the war in Syria is a defense of the holiest shrines of the Shi’a faith from attack by Sunni terrorist groups such as ISIS and Al Qaeda, which their recruiters then describe they as a creation of the United States to destabilize the Middle East.

The Iranian authorities keep strictly in secret how much money Tehran spent on financing the pro-Iranian Shi’a fighting groups throughout the Middle East, which have become key players in political and military scenes in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon. But the amount of financing is estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars, which are spent not only to satisfy Iran’s geopolitical ambitions, but this money contributes to increasing Sunni-Shi’a hatred and strengthens Al Qaeda in the Levant, situated in the heart of the most important geography in the Muslim world.

Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps commander Qassem Soleimani in Syria

Al Qaeda backed Central Asian jihadists in the Shia-Sunni conflict

In the ideological doctrine of the al-Qaeda backed Central Asian Salafi-jihadi groups, who have taken the safe haven in Syria, have recently undergone radical changes in anti-Shia and anti-Iranian trends. While earlier in the propaganda materials Sunni fundamentalists from the Fergana Valley emphasized the struggle with the “unbelieving regimes” of Central Asia and the protection of Islam from the Western crusaders, after the bloody clashes with the Iranian proxy Shia militias in Syria, they equated Iran as the main enemies of Sunni Islam.Since 2015, the Central Asian jihadists’ propaganda has begun to focus on the mass terror of Shias that they commit in the Sunni provinces of Syria after the carpet bombing of Russian Air Force.The information agency Ebaa in Arabic, which is the propaganda mouthpiece of Hayat Taḥrir al-Sham, and the Central Asian jihadists Media Center “Voice of Sham” in Uzbek and Russian languages regularly show on the Internet photos of captured and destroyed Afghan Shia military formations Fatemiyoun Brigade, Iraqi Shia militias LiwaZulfiqar and Harakat al Nujaba, the Lebanese Shia militias Hezbollah, which are controlled by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

In their religious sermons during the Juma namaz, the leaders of the Uzbek, Kyrgyz and Uygur Salafi-jihadi groups in Syria began to agitate to lead the jihad with “Shia invaders that vilify the sacred name of Islam.”The most wanted Islamic terrorist from Kyrgyzstan, the leader of the Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad, Abu Saloh, who is a loyal supporter of Al Qaeda, in his audio message, distributed via the Telegram on March 18, 2018, says that: “despite the fact that Iran calls itself Islamic Republic, it was and remains the enemy of Islam.”He then quotes the words of the medieval Sunni Muslim theologian Taqi ad-Din ibn Taymiyyah that “Shias are asses of the Jews, whom they will ride in any trouble”. “And today, when in Sham the Mujahideen defend Islam from the bloody Nusayri regime, the Shias of Iran, Afghanistan and Iraq came to help Bashar al Assad and declared jihad to us, to the Sunnis.Therefore, the expulsion of Shia devils from the Levant is a sacred duty of every Sunni Muslim,”says Abu Saloh.

The analytical department of the Voice of Sham in Idlib, which highlights the activities of the Central Asian Sunni Jihadists affiliated with al-Qaeda, wrote on April 15, 2018: “The Shi’a’s Jihad begins when the Sunnis go to Jihad. That is, against the Sunnis. So this time. Iran is an animal, brainless, ugly. He is kept in a cage for a suitable occasion. And he was let off the leash when Jihad began in Sham. But now the animal must be driven back to its lair, otherwise it can bite its owners. That’s why the so-called “Israel” attacks the bases of the Iranians. It’s time to put the beast back on the chain.”

The leader of another Uzbek group, Katibat al-Imam Bukhari Abu Yusuf Muhojir, who was designated by the US State Department to the list of global terrorist organizations on March 22, 2018, firmly supported Al-Qaeda’s position in trying to spread the jihadist ideology among the Sunni part of the Levant.As is well known, Al Qaeda’s Sunni ideology regards Shi’as as heretics and describes them as dogs and a thorn in the throat of Islam from the beginning of time. In his religious speeches before the Sunni Mujahideen from Central Asia, he regularly narrates the typical ideology of al Qaeda. According to Abu Yusuf Muhojir the Shias are conspiring to destroy Islam and to resuscitate Persian imperial rule over the Middle East and ultimately the world.In his video message entitled “The Dignity of Ribat” on May 27, 2018, he says that “Shias are traitors to Islam and accomplices of Russian infidels in Syria.They together help Nusayri’s lieder Bashar al-Assad, whose policies harm the country’s Sunni majority».He on Telegram described Shia as a gathering of devils, whom Allah will punish for their betrayal to the American Zionist-Crusaders in Iraq yesterday and to the Russian Christians in Levant today.

Uighur jihadists of the Turkestan Islamic Party, which are the military unit of Al Qaeda from Western China, regularly issue statements in which they position themselves as a true defender of Sunni Islam.On June 27, 2018, TIP announced its “full readiness to support the appeal of Hayat Taḥrir al-Sham to protect the province of Dara from the attacks of the Nusayriregime and its Iraqi Shia henchmen.”Recall that at the end of June, the army of Bashar al Assad and the Russian aviation launched an offensive on the southern province of Daraa, a zone that was under a Russian-American ceasefire.American analysts confirmed that they received the first evidence of the participation of the Iraqi Shia militia Liwa Zulfiqar, which is controlled by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Who will force Iran to leave Syria?

As this analysis has shown, Iran’s escalation in Syria, and its mobilization and widespread deployment of ideologically extremist sectarian Shi’a militias from Afghanistan and from throughout the greater Middle East to assist the Assad government is helping Al-Qaeda backed Hayat Taḥrir al-Sham to acquire the title of a true defender of Sunni Islam.The Media Center of Central Asian jihadists “Voice of Sham” described the leader of HTS Abu Muhammad al Julani as “an indestructible mountain that defending the Sunnis from the powerful attacks of Iran’s Shi’a devils and the Nusayri’s army.”

The destruction of predominately Sunni communities by Assad’s army, with the assistance of Iranian-imported, sectarian Shi’a militias, gave al-Qaeda an opportunity to expand its roots in the local Sunni communities.This was facilitated by two factors. First, the fall of the Islamic state who was Al-Qaeda’s ideological competitor in the struggle for leadership in the jihadist world.Secondly, when the international coalition was engaged in the fight against the ISIS, Al Qaeda’s structural units in the Levant restored strength and continued to introduce their ideology among the population.

Today, al-Qaeda’s ideologists have put forward a new thesis that the Assad’s armed forces are helping the Khawarij of ISIS to commit the attacks against Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the Free Syrian Army and Ahrar al-Sham. One of HTS’s ideologues Abdulfattah Farghaly wrote on Telegram that: “Khawarij again launched an offensive from the Nusayrite territories to the sacred lands of the Sunnis to overthrow these territories in favor of the Assad’s regime, which is evidence that they work for Nusayrites, Shi’as and Russians. Khawarijs are foot soldiers for Shi’a.”In this connection, one of the ideologists of modern Salafism Shaikh Abdul Aziz Al-Tarifi issued the Fatwa that “the Sunni Mujahideen killed by the Khawarijs and Shi’as in paradise will have more reward from Allah than those who were killed by Nusayrites.”

Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri subtly feels the changing sentiment of the Sunni majority of Syria and their discontent with the military expansion of the pro-Iranian Shi’a military formations.Al-Qaeda backed Sunni jihadist groups Hayat Taḥrir al-Sham, Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad, Katibat al-Imam Bukhari and the Turkestan Islamic Party put forward the idea of fighting the Shi’a invaders and protecting the Sunni territories as the main slogan in their propaganda.

The escalation of Iranian-imported, sectarian Shi’a militias, in the Levant, helps drive recruitment of new Salafi-jihadi fighters for al Qaeda’s military structures.Leaders of jihadist groups from Turkey, Central Asia and China’s Xinjiang have stepped up video, audio and text appeals to recruits to come to join the jihad to protect Islamic lands from Shi’as.My sources in the Fergana Valley reported that the ideology of Al Qaeda is actively spreading among the youth in the region.

After the brutal activity of Iran and its proxy Shi’a militias in Syria and Iraq, the profound transformation took place in the ideological views of Ayman al-Zawahiri about the Shi’as. At the beginning of the Syrian war, he was very tolerant of Iran.On September 6, 2013, in his message “General Guidelines for Jihad” he asked Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to refrain from attacking the Shi’a sanctuaries and their mosques, bazaars, and killing Shi’a women and children, and concentrate their attacks on the military, intelligence agencies and police.ISIS accused al-Zawahiri of being venal to Shi’as and Christians for his calling “Avoid fighting the deviant sects such as Rawafidh, Ismailis, Qadianis, and deviant Sufis” in this guidelines. After Iran’s activity in the Middle East, the leader of Al Qaeda in August 2016 called Sunnis to jihad against the Shi’a and Crusaders, and to prepare for guerrilla war in Iraq and Syria.

Zawahiri has ambitions to make al-Qaeda’s Salafi-jihadi ideology the guiding principle and normative experience of Sunni Muslims in the Levant.While there is a threat of armed expansion of pro-Iranian Shi’a formations, the growth and influence of Al Qaeda’s extremist ideology in the Levant will be difficult to stop.Therefore, Russia and Iran, which allowed Bashar Assad to play a Shi’a adventure, are fully responsible for the reincarnation of Al Qaeda in the region.

The problem is that by military methods alone it is impossible to defeat Al Qaeda in Syria.Unlike the ISIS, al Qaeda does not hold the defense of a particular territory: it does not have its own state with its own management system.Al-Qaeda is a network project that leads a subtle ideological struggle for the minds and hearts of Sunnis in the world.The strength of Al Qaeda is in the skillful adaptation to local conditions, which avoids the advertisement of scenes of cruel executions, as ISIS did.Thanks to skillful propaganda work, the group today acquired the image of a defender of the oppressed part of the Sunni majority in Syria.Iran’s Shi’a expansion and the bloody cruelty of the Assad’s regime, which violated the religious and ethnic balance of Syria, is grist to Zawahiri’s mill.

In this situation, only the withdrawal of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its proxy Shi’a militias from Syria can knock out the support of al Qaeda.But, despite the efforts of the United States and Israel, Iran as a magnet will be staying in the Levant. Only international economic sanctions, strong political isolation and the growing internal protest of the Iranian people can force Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to leave Syria. Then the counter-terrorist force against al Qaeda would be led by moderate Sunni Arab fighters as Syria is a majority Sunni Arab country.

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