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
The old and new techniques of Dezinformatsjia
Disinformation – i.e. what the Soviet intelligence services called Dezinformatsjia – is at the origin of the phenomenon that we currently define – with oversimplification -fake news, spread to support or not voters’ or consumers’ specific choices, obviously both nationally and internationally. Nowadays the “political market” is globalized exactly like the market of goods and services and hence all the tools available to a country and to its political elite need to be used.
Certainly the intelligence agencies’ room for manoeuvre is currently much wider than it was at the time of the Cold War. Hence many mass manipulation techniques, which in the past were specifically political, are now also commercial, behavioral, cultural, scientific or pseudo-scientific. They are closely interwoven and currently the electoral or political manipulation operations often stem from commercial marketing techniques.
Dezinformatsjia, however, is always a “weak to strong” operation, i.e. a series of strategic and information actions that try to prevent the use of force by those who are tactically superior.
Those who have not enough missiles targeted against the enemy, or have not the maximum military efficiency, faces the opponent with psychological and propaganda techniques, which cost less and – by their very nature -do not trigger a conventional military countermove by the enemy against whom they are targeted. However they can trigger an equal and opposite disinformation by the target country.
These are all “ironic” operations, in the etymological sense of the word. Irony comes from the Greek word eironèia, i.e. “fiction, dissimulation, or to say the opposite of what you think”.
Just think of the great demonstrations against “Euromissiles” in the early 1980s -not foreseen by the Soviets, which put a strain on the huge intelligence network of the Warsaw Pact in Europe – or of the myth of the opening to dissent in the era of Khrushchev’s “thaw”. Or just think – as maintained by Anatoly Golytsin, the former KGB officer who defected to the USA – of the schisms between the USSR and Mao’s China, or of the transformation of the Komintern into Kominform, in which also Yugoslavia secretly participated, even after the famous schism between Tito and Stalin.
According to Golytsin, a senior KGB officer, all the divisions within the Communist world were a huge and very long sequence of fake news. Westerners never believed him, but the predictive power of his book, New Lies for Old, published in the USA in 1984, is still extraordinary.
He foresaw the “liberalization” of the Soviet system and even its collapse, so as to be later reborn in a new guise. All true, until today.
But what is really Dezinformatsjia, i.e. the technique that is at the origin of fake news and of all current psychopolitical operations?
For the KGB experts, disinformation is linked to the criterion of “active operations” (aktivinyyemeropriatia), i.e. the manipulation and control of mass media; the actual disinformation, both at written and oral levels; the use of Communist parties or covert organizations. In this case, just think of all the organizations “for peace” or for friendship “among peoples”, as well as of radio and TV broadcasts.
“Active measures” even include kompromat, i.e. the “compromising material”, as well as damaging and disparaging information about Western agents or politicians’ involvement in sex, illegal and drugs affairs. This information is collected and used strategically across all domains, with a view to creating negative publicity.
An active kind of measure that we have recently seen at work against President Trump. Nevertheless it has been implemented by his fellow countrymen, who, however, do not seem to be very skillful in the art of desinformatsjia.
It should be recalled, however, that currently a fundamental technique is to manipulate the opponents’ economies or to support guerrilla groups or terrorist organizations.
Manipulation of economies through statistical data or governments’ “covert” operations on stock markets, while support for terrorist groups, even those far from the State ideology, is provided through an intermediary that may be another State or a large company, or through bilateral financial transactions outside markets.
The Red Brigades, for example, initially trained in Czechoslovakia by passing through the Austrian woods at the border, owned by the Feltrinelli family.
When the publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli was found dead near an Enel trellis in Segrate, but long before the Italian police knew who had died on that trellis, the Head of the KGB center in Milan hastily went to report to the Soviet embassy in Rome.
Many friendly and enemy States, however, used right-wing and left-wing terrorism against the Italian Republic.
The goal was clear: to destroy or annihilate a dangerous economic competitor, especially in Africa and in the East.
Dezinformatsjia, however, was institutionally targeted against what the Soviets called “the primary enemy”, namely the United States.
Under Stalin’s power – who was dialectically “superseded” by Khrushchev, always in contrast with true innovators – “active measures” also included assassination.
I do not rule out at all that, in particular cases, this tradition has been recovered even after the death of the so-called “little father”.
As we can see, “active measures” -namely Dezinformatsjia – still has much to do with contemporary world.
If we only talk about fake news, we cannot understand why it is spread, while if it is interpreted in the framework of the old – but still topical – disinformation strategy, everything gets clearer.
In the Soviet regulations of the 1960s, every KGB foreign branch had to devote at least 25% of its forces to “active measures”, while each residence had an officer specifically trained at Dezinformatsjia.
It should be noted that, in 1980, CIA estimated the total cost of “active measures” at 3 billion US dollars, at least.
It was the real struggle for hegemony that the USSR was fighting, considering that the missile, nuclear and conventional balance of the two forces on the field did not permit a real military clash.
However, the result of the final clash would have been very uncertain.
Nowadays every State produces fake news, as well as ad hoc opinion movements, and spreads agents of influence in the media, in universities, businesses and governments.
Hence the globalization of disinformation, not simply fake news, is the phenomenon with which we really have to deal.
During the Cold War, the Soviet apparata spread the fake news of the CIA and FBI involvement in the assassination of John F. Kennedy, while the East German apparata often spread news about Western politicians being members of Nazi hierarchies or about the pro-Nazi sympathies of Pope Pius XI.
It should also be noted that Andropov, who was elected General Secretary of the CPSU in 1982, had been the Head of the KGB First Chief Directorate, precisely the one that coordinated and invented all “active measures”.
At the time, Western newspapers were filled with news about Andropov as a “modernizer”, a reader of the American literature classics and a jazz lover.
Was it Dezinformatsjia? Obviously so, but no one answered that question, thus raising expectations – among the NATO European Member States’ peoples – about a sure “democratization” of the Soviet Union in the future.
Andropov, however, secretly believed that the United States would unleash a nuclear war in the short term against the USSR. Hence this was the beginning of a long series of Dezinformatsjia hard operations right inside the United States.
Nevertheless, following the rules of “active measures”, they were not specifically targeted against the US military and political system, but against other targets apparently unrelated to the primary aim: the US responsibility for the (impossible) creation of the AIDS virus or – as the Soviet Dezinformatsjia always claimed – the “unclear” role played by CIA and FBI in the assassinations of J.F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King or even the death of Elvis Presley.
A specific product for each public.
Hence a fake storytelling is created – not a series of objective data – around a theme that is instead real, so as to reach the goal of a generic defamation of the primary enemy, where there is always a “bad guy” (obviously the US government and its Agencies) and a “good guy”, that is the American people that must be freed from the bad guy holding them prisoner.
According to the theories of the great Russian scholar of myths, tribal rituals, folktales and fairy storytelling, V.I. Propp, whose text “Morphology of the Folktale” was published in Leningrad in 1928, this is exactly one of the primary narrative elements of the folktale.
As in the case of KGB “active operations”, Propp’s scheme envisages some phases of construction of the myth or of the folktale: 1) the initial balance, i.e. the phase in which everything is devoid of dangers; 2) the breaking of the initial balance and hence the creation of the motive for the subsequent action; 3) the vicissitudes of the hero, who is the one who “restores order” after the natural twists and turns; 4) the restoration of balance, namely the conclusion.
Hence the mythical and fairy mechanism concerns the archetypes of the human psyche, as described by Carl Gustav Jung.
This is the reason why, despite their evident counter factuality, propaganda constructions work well and last well beyond the time for which they were thought and designed.
Active operations are modeled on the natural parameters with which the human mind works. When well done, said operations do not use abstract theories, cultural or sectoral models. They speak to everyone, because they act on the unconscious.
It is no coincidence that currently the archetypal branding – i.e. the marketing system based on the 12 Jungian archetypes – is increasingly widespread.
It was created in 2001, several years after the fall of the USSR and in the phase in which the New World Order was strengthening.
Propp’s four elements work just as an “active measure”, based on four categories: 1) mastery and stability; 2) belonging; 3) change; 4) independence.
It is easy to verify how these four categories of modern marketing (and of the archetypal tale) fully apply both to disinformation operations, which can often favor one of the four elements compared to the others, and to the actual political marketing.
Hence politics, intelligence services’ propaganda and marketing currently work on the basis of the same deep psychic mechanisms.
In the Soviet tradition, there is also a certain tendency to use Ivan Pavlov’s psychology in the field of intelligence.
Pavlov developed the theory of “conditioned reflexes”, i.e. the psychic mechanism that is produced by a conditioning stimulus.
The experiment of the dog and the bell is, in fact, well-known and needs no elaboration.
It should be noted, however, that the conditioned reflex is triggered precisely when the food announced by the sound of the bell is no longer there, while the dog shows all the typical reactions of the animal in the presence of food.
Here, the “active measures” of disinformation create a conditioned reflex by connecting a country, a leader or a political choice to something universally negative which, however, has nothing to do with the primary object.
This connection becomes instinctive, automatic, obvious and almost unconscious.
Just think of the automatism – once again artfully created – between the Italian intelligence services and the so-called “strategy of tension”.
The goal of perfect Dezinformatsjiais to create a Pavlovian conditioned reflex that works immediately and naturally as a Freudian “complex”.
Nevertheless, with a view to being successful, every fake news or message that is part of an “active measure” must have at least a grain of truth – otherwise it immediately appears as an opinion or ideology, which is soon rejected by the subject.
This means they can be discussed and maybe accepted rationally, but the “active measure” must mimic an immediate, natural and pre-rational reaction. Otherwise it becomes traditional propaganda or part of an open debate, exactly the opposite of what it has to do.
Hence the message must be processed with extreme care to reach the goal of any disinformation operation: to convey in the public “enemy” and / or in its ruling classes a message that – when well done – fits perfectly and unknowingly into the communication mechanisms of the “enemy”.
Western experts call this procedure “weaponization of information” or “fabrication of information”.
Nowadays, however, all information is distorted by the manipulation about the aims it must achieve – just think of the Italian and European debate on immigration from Africa.
Hence also the West uses the weaponization of information- but, probably, it still uses it badly.
Hence we will never witness the end of fake news – which have always existed – but simply its refinement as real natural “states of mind” or, more often, as immediate reactions, such as those connected to a conditioned reflex artfully created.
In this case, there is no longer difference between reality and imagination.
Fake news as fiction – we could say.
If this is the new battlefield of psywar, it will be good for Italy – even autonomously from the NATO center that deals with “strategic information” – to equip itself with a structure, within the intelligence agencies, developing and carrying out specific disinformation operations.
For example, with reference to the Italian companies operating abroad, to Italy’s general image in the rest of Europe and to its action in Africa or in the rest of the world.
The third way between war and diplomacy
The American presidents all asked the CIA when they arrived at the White House, “What should they do with it?” Often they underestimated the CIA’s analysis. These analyzes described a complex world and they said the process of events was ambiguous.
Evaluation, hypothesis, probability. The White House never praised such literature. The White House often preferred analyzes that were within the framework of its political intentions and intentions. On the other hand, the White House has been increasingly inclined to publicly disclose some of the information collected by the services, due to the persistent desire to attract people from their big decisions.
Instead, the presidents were heavily pushed by the secret power that the CIA possessed. The covert activities, as a “third way” between war and diplomacy, heavily attracted them. All of them have implemented programs in secret to stealthily influence the process. All of them were trying to keep their apps in use. Despite the scandals, the political and diplomatic problems caused by secret activities, none of them questioned the necessity and effectiveness of this instrument in foreign policy.
These covert measures began to expand slightly in the 1950s, at a time when the CIA’s invincible myth was formed. CIA officers, who found such actions as a source of prominence and privilege, did everything to cultivate them. This myth derives from a special cultural sign: Americans as a nation have a very positive image. America considers itself to be a nation that succeeds; it is a winner who challenges ahead of them through his will and technology. The CIA is responsible for this sweeping spirit in Washington.
The slogan of the CIA has long been: “The agency can do it.” Therefore, the opponents of power would not be taken into consideration because the United States needed shadow warriors to protect the country from the Soviet threat, without anyone having much to know about it. This era of trust ended in the process of deconstruction and after disclosure of the “internal” spy activities of the CIA. So the great age of complexity began, which brought fantasies and other conspiracy theories. The CIA takes ugly signs into a dangerous, rogue and out-of-control organization. But Robert Gates states: “The CIA is nothing more than a presidential organization. Every time this organization has faced trouble, it was due to the mission that the president ordered. »
In any case, this is the image of America in a world that has suffered the most pain and suffering from this country. The fact that the United States has an agency like the CIA is necessarily a two-tail razor.
The press and the Congress, in spite of the fundamental belief in the effectiveness of the CIA, served as two powerful guardian dogs to oversee the agency in the service of the president. The dynamics of American democracy, as well as the strong attachment to the constitution and individual freedoms, have made the CIA the “most transparent” intelligence service in the world. The contradiction is that the Americans know more about the secret activities (activities that are definitely the most secret and sensitive activities) to the total CIA performance. Perhaps even more are than the overall performance of other institutions, including the State Department or the Ministry of Health.
Sept. 11 attacks occur and shake the sense of security and invincibility that the United States has plunged into. Since then, US soil is no longer a haven, and the attack has the same effect as Pearl Harbor’s attack. The outcomes of the Iraq war are being added to the most fundamental reorganization in the US intelligence community since about sixty years ago. Information services acquire new authority, many other services are formed, and some of the old networks are weakened or even destroyed, the need to focus more on the powers of information services is felt.
These changes are so far as the United States is creating a CIA over the previous organization. The new goal is to give Americans a unique look at the services. The new organization will focus it’s analyze on the analysis. That’s why we can bet that in the future less than the CIA’s inability to anticipate important events. On the other hand, because of the new reformation of the new head of the American intelligence apparatus, and the CIA has become the agency responsible for all the secret activities, it can be assumed that the CIA will (slightly) head over the next few years will be kept.
The tension between interventionism and the previous doctrine of isolationism has led Americans to redefine the intelligence system as the “last line of defense”. In some respects, this device is the beginning and end of its power; and since the CIA has seen its strength in its mission of being as close as possible to the American enemies, that’s why today it still maintains this precious position.
The CIA actually has an almost inescapable position in the imagination as well as the American political system. The organization gives all its actors the confidence that someone, something, America is intertwined with international affairs, and its influence on the four corners of the world shines.
What is the Future of Malhama Tactical?
Perhaps no single Salafi-Jihadi groups from Central Asia deserved such close attention of Western media like an Islamist private military contractor (PMC) Malhama Tactical (MT), that founded by a jihadist from southern Kyrgyzstan and training militants in Syria.This was possible thanks to the creativity and active self-promotion of the head of this small consulting firm on the Internet, which has managed to attract the attention of many Western journalists and researchers on Islamic radicalism.
The authoritative Foreign Policy called MTthe world’s first jihadi consortium of elite, well-paid fighters from across the former Soviet Union and compared its activities with the infamous Blackwater USA (now named Academi).BBC Monitoring published a series of analytical articles entitled How Malhama Tactical became the ‘Blackwater of the Syrian jihad’ in December 2018.The Independent, CSAF,the American Partisan, The Daily Caller, MEMRI and others also described MTas a successful jihadist training organization that supposedly changed the course of the Syrian war.My colleagues in the study of Salafi Jihadism Pieter Van Ostaeyen and Neil Hauer even interviewed the MT’s commander in November 2018.
The main disadvantage of all these articles is the lack of critical thinking regarding MT.Western analysts relied on videos, interviews and statements of MT’s leaders published on the Internet as advertising.As a result, the MT’s tactical role in the Syrian war is undeservedly overestimated since the boast of its leaders is taken at face value.
About MT more detailed facts cited the Russian Telegram channel Directorate 4, which is associated with the Russian special services.But the main problem of Russian researchers is that it is difficult to determine the edges of analysis and propaganda, which in some places is accompanied by rude insults to the MT’s leader.
The mysterious name of Al-Malhamah Al-Kubra
One should recognize the creative thinking of the Uzbek young man Abu Rofiq, who gave his organization the mysterious name “Malhama Tactical”, which was immediately noticed by the sponsors of the Salafi movement in the Islamic world. According to the Hadith, the al-Malhamah Al-Kubra means the great battle, bloody fights, massacres and the conquest of Constantinople by Muslims from the Romans.
Abu Rofiq likes to create a halo of mystery around his person and his organization. Western media have created his image like the fearless Rambo and a former officer of the elite of the Russian Airborne Forces, who from the inside knows the secrets of the Russian military-training science. On Facebook Abu Rofiq at one time positioned himself as a former sniper of the Russian elite Special Forces GRU whose staff was involved in the poisoning of former Russian intelligence officer Skripal in British Salisbury and in the interference of the 2016 US elections.
But our analysis showed that some of the statements of Abu Rofiq were not true.All his biographical data, family ties and information about the military career are known to the authorities of Russia, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. The real name of Abu Rofiq is Sukhrob Baltabaev who was born in the Osh region of Kyrgyzstan on August 10, 1993.By the way, the leader of al Qaeda-linked Katibat al-Tawhid wal Jihad Abu Saloh is also from this region.
After completing school in 2010, he left as a labor migrant to Russia. The Russian authorities have documented that Sukhrob Baltabaev was called up for military service on May 14, 2012, by the Military Commissariat of Russia’s Tatarstan.He began serving in the 45th Guards Separate Special Purpose Intelligence Regiment of the Airborne Forces in the Moscow Region.However, due to the disease of an intervertebral hernia, he was discharged from the Russian army.
Hijrah to Sham not for the purpose of Jihad but for making money
According to Russian sources, after an unsuccessful military career, Sukhrob Baltabaev returned from Moscow to Kazan and worked as a computer programmer at the firm Potok.In those years that ISIS and al Qaeda began actively recruiting Central Asian migrants working in Russia to Syria and Iraq.Having fallen under the influence of the ideologists of Wahhabism, in February 2014, he left for Syria and joined the Jamaat of Chechen militants Shishani.A young wife from Osh and a son Muhammadrofiq remained at home.
At the end of 2015, he created MT with several friends from Central Asia, who began to train on a commercial basis both local and foreign militants in Syria fighting against the regime of Bashar al-Assad.The exact number of the group’s members is unknown but it is thought to consist of 10-15 fighters, all originating from former USSR states.Knowledge of computer technology, creative advertising campaign and ability to find a common language with the leaders of jihadist jamaats helped him in developing this business.MT has become popular due to the wide use of social networks such as YouTube, Facebook, VK, Twitter and Telegram, where he began to publish examples of military training under the pseudonym Abu Rofiq and offer his services for money.
In Central Asia, there is a saying that “Uzbeks know how to make money out of thin air.” There is even a joke about when the American astronaut Neil Armstrong first landed on the moon, he met there Uzbek who trading in the Lunar Bazaar. In the genes of the peoples of Central Asia, where the Great Silk Road lay, historically there is the ability to trade. The natural flair did not fail Abu Rofiq: he found a unique opportunity to make money from the Syrian war.
The company has been working with the al Qaeda-affiliated Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, Ajnad al Kavkaz, Jaysh Muhajirin wal-Ansar,and other groups, even Ahrar as-Sham .I am not a military specialist and cannot assess the quality of MT’s tactical trainees on the use of various types of weapons and fighting in urban combat. But MT’s instructors use popular Russian-made 7.62 mm machine gun, US-made modern sniper rifles, helmets with night vision goggles and the expensive military equipment that the armies of Central Asia cannot afford. The other equipment shown in the videos, like the first-aid kit, is also of high quality, used often in US army and its allies.
Malhama produces equipment for other jihadi groups, manufactures accessories for the PKM, vests and grips, widely used in Syria. This means that MT’s business is doing well and its leader has enough connections somewhere to guarantee himself a supply line of such type. The MT leader actively used the online crowdfunding urging sympathizers to donate money to continue Jihad and training the Mujahedeen. At the same time, currencies of all countries were accepted, even bitcoin, QIWI and Yandex. Money electronic transfers.
Russian hunt for the leader Malhama
With the acquisition of fame and the growth in the number of clients, the real hunt started for the MT leader from the Russian special services, the Assad regime and ISIS.The MT leader considers Moscow and Damascus enemies of Islam who destroy peaceful Muslims in Syria. Moscow has special claims to the MT leader. As shown the attempt to kill former KGB agent Skripal in the UK, Putin will pursue his military, who have betrayed the oath. Despite Moscow’s refusal, Sukhrob Baltabaev is a former military of the Russian Army.
In addition, he inflicts sensitive blows to Russia. In a recent interview, the MT’s head stated that the Mujahideen Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, who had been trained by Malhama, had made an attack in Tarabiya, Northern Hama, and killed four high-ranking Syrian officers and seven Russians on November 10, 2018.ANNA-News Agency confirmed this information.
MT has also been vocal about its opposition to ISIS. On 20 June, Abu Salman posted on his Twitter account an anti-IS message saying: “We must kill them all, ISIS is evil and we have to do something to wipe them out”.
For security reasons, the MT leader appears in the media in masks, or with a scarf tied on his face. According to BBC, the first MT leader Abu Rofiq was killed in February 2017 in a Russian air strike in Idlib. After that Abu Salman Al-Belarusi on Twitter called himself a new MT commander who is Uzbek from Belarus and served as senior sergeant of the 103 Airborne Brigade of the Belarusian Army in Vitebsk. But the Belarusian side did not confirm this information.
But according to the Russian media Abu Rofiq did not die.In order to mislead the Russian special services he spread false information about his death, and now he took the pseudonym Abu Salman Al-Belarusi. That is, Abu Rofiq and Abu Salman Al-Belarusiare one and the same person, that is, Sukhrob Baltabaev from Kyrgyzstan. After comparing the audio and video performances of Abu Rofiq and Abu Salman Al-Belarusi, we concluded that the voice belongs to the same person. The authorities of Russia and Central Asia have identified Sukhrob Baltabaev and continue to closely monitor his relatives.
Ideological views of Malhama Tactical
The ideological views of the MT leader contain the outfit’s mixture of Salafi ideology with the privatization of war because money plays an important role for him in his project. But he cannot be counted among the radical Wahhabis, who are ready to die as Shahid in the name of Allah. His various speeches showed that his level of knowledge of the Quran, Hadith, and Surah, the basics of Tawhid and Fiqh, is not very deep. Perhaps because of this, he avoids the Central Asian Salaf-Jihadi groups Katibat al-Tawhid wal Jihad, Katibat Imam al-Bukhari and Turkestan Islamic Party, who fight in Idlib. In ideological terms, he does not represent a big threat to Central Asia’s countries, because he is not able to conduct propaganda and recruiting campaigns. But he can be described as a jihadist who has close views with al Qaeda and performs his tactical tasks on technical training for jihadists.
Thus, MT was a new phenomenon in the Islamic world which has laid the foundation for the professionalization of Jihad. But without ideological doctrine, it is difficult to predict the continued “successful functioning” of the world’s first jihadi contractor. Therefore, it can be expected that the turbulent development of Jihadism and the fierce competition of terrorist groups will force MT to adopt the radical Salafi ideology and join a certain terrorist group. The history of radical Islamism has shown that the Wahhabi world will not accept those who do not have a deep ideological doctrine of Jihad.In the future, we can expect that the radical principles of Jihadism will force MT to go beyond earning money. MT is already gradually abandoning the concept of money…
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