Monday, March 25, 2013

The Umma Brigade's Political Manifesto

The Syrian rebel leadership may hold more sway over the revolution's political future than the Syrian opposition's external political leadership which is falling back into disarray after showing encouraging signs of cohesion. It is therefor important to understand the rebels' political goals. Most groups have not detailed any vision for post-Assad Syria while others have given broad descriptions of the state they seek to build. The Umma Brigade, an Islamist rebel formation operating in northern Syria, is fairly unique in that they published a detailed political manifesto in December 2012.

The Umma Brigade has been widely covered in western press. It’s founder, Mehdi al-Harati, is an Irish-Libyan who participated in the Gaza Flotilla in 2010, before leading the Thuwar Libya Brigade into Tripoli in 2011. He then served as Deputy Head of the Tripoli Military Council before relocating to Syria in the spring of 2012 to found the Umma Brigade in Kafr Nabl. With funding from sheikhs in Kuwait, the Umma Brigade rapidly expanded and gained a reputation for being well supplied and trained relative to many FSA groups. The Umma Brigade is an Islamist group and has even been referred to as "Salafist" in a report published by the Idlib Revolutionary Council.

In the fall of 2012, the core of the Umma Brigade got bogged down in the fight for Wadi Deif along with many Idlib rebel groups. Around that time, the brigade’s Libyan leadership was reportedly barred from reentering Syria by the Turkish government. The brigade has since been under Syrian leadership. 

In late December, the Umma Brigade published a document entitled “a political vision for establishing a system of government.” This political manifesto laid out 25 guiding principles for a future Syrian state. Some of the significant clauses are translated below.

While this document has some relatively liberal clauses regarding religious and ethnic pluralism, it also includes deeply troubling phrases for those in favor of a secular state. For example, the first clause cites Sharia as "the reference for all state affairs," and clause 14, gives the state a role in the “prevention of vice and promotion of virtue,” a phrase often used to justify the establishment of religious police. 

While there is little risk of this document being implemented in the near term, it does provide a window into the type of constitution that Islamist rebel groups are likely to promote in the future. 

Significant Clauses:

1) “Islam and Sharia (Book and Sunna) is the reference for all state affairs including the constitutional, political, legislative, judicial, economic and media.”

2) “The People are the source of power through direct and free elections”

5) “The separation of powers between the executive, legislative, judicial and financial institutions as did the caliphs”

8) “Respect for human rights and dignity”

9) “Respect for religious and ethnic pluralism and cultural components of the Syrian people. There is no compulsion in religion, nor the persecution of minorities on the basis of religion or nationality.”

10) “The protection of individual freedoms and privacy in their homes, meetings and contacts, and no spying on them.”

12) “Justice, equality and equal opportunities for all, in public, in front of the judiciary, and in all that is shared by society, without any discrimination.”

13) “Promote the positive role of women in society, and approve all their legitimate political, social, economic, scientific and professional rights, as stated in the Hadith (women are the sisters of men).”

14) “Carry the message of Islam to the world, and the Dawa to it in everyway, in word and deed. strengthen the position of the jurists, scholars, and preachers, and provide whatever help to them in carrying out their responsibilities… and the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice…The promotion of ethical values…and protection of the family and the people, and promote science, culture, and knowledge. Care for the Arabic language and literature, connecting the nation to its religion and its faith as well as its identity, history, and civilization”

16) “Open the way for civil society to do all activity it needs, whether political, professional, cultural, or legal, by allowing the establishment of advocacy groups, charities, trade unions, and political organizations.”

18) “Protection of private property, and maintenance of public funds”

19) “Protection of agricultural, residential and pastoral land…and the distribution of land to everyone equally.”

24) “Rejection of any foreign aggression on any Islamic country. The right of the nation to resist aggression, and liberate their land…and for the district of the Zionist entity, a refusal to deal with it, and work for the liberation of the land of Palestine, and retrieval of Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa Mosque, and the right of the Palestinian people abroad return to their land, and establish their own. Reject any agreements or treaties which waive any rights of the nation to an inch of its land or interests. There is no recognition of those treaties.”

The Manifesto:

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade and The Capture of the UN Troops

Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade Logo
The Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade, formed in the late summer of 2012, is based around the village of Sahem in southwestern Deraa Province near the intersection of Jordan, Syria, and the Golan Heights. Although the brigade's area of operations is confined to the southwestern region, the brigade claimed to carry out a suicide attack in Busra al-Sham, far to the east, on November 18, 2012. This attack is unconfirmed.

The capture of the UN troops was not the brigade's first abduction. In late December 2012, the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade posted a video of four pro-regime fighters captured by the Golan Martyrs Battalion, a component of the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade. In early February, the brigade posted another video of a pro-regime fighter captured by the Golan Martyrs Battalion. There are also reports that Human Rights Watch is investigating the brigade for executing some captives.

The UN water truck is visible in the background
of this image from a Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade
YouTube video
As of early March, the brigade is attacking regime convoys in the area of Jamla, a village only 1.5 km east of the UN patrolled border with the Golan Heights. This is occurring in the context of a larger battle against Regiment 61, located in the vicinity of the village of Maaria to the south. This battle may partly explain the capture of the UN convoy in the vicinity of Jamla. In the original statement announcing the capture of the UN troops posted on the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade Facebook page, the brigade accused the UN of bringing water and other assistance of the besieged pro-regime forces. This statement was later taken down and replaced with a new statement in which the brigade claimed to be holding the UN forces for their own protection and called on the UN to safely extract them from Syria.

Broadly speaking, the UN is not particularly popular with the rebels. In late January, the Idlib Revolutionary Council posted a statement declaring the UN unwelcome in Idlib province as a result of the UN's willingness to work with the Assad regime to get aid into Syria. 

The fact that the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade replaced the original, more hostile statement, with a far more conciliatory statement bodes well for the captured UN troops. It is a clear indication that the brigade is responding positively to the pressure it is likely receiving from actors outside Syria as well as fellow rebels in Deraa Province.

1) Sahem
2) Maaria
3) Jamla

The Second Statement

The original statement which was taken down shortly
after it was posted

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Struggle to Feed Northern Syria

Local councils in northern Syria are continuously scrambling to feed the residents of their towns. This has provided an opening for Jihadi groups to play the role of provider. David Kirkpatrick of the New York Times published an article this past week detailing Jabhat al-Nusrah’s role in providing flour at a reduced rate to the Tilalyan local council in northern Aleppo Province. Jabhat al-Nusrah is not the only Jihadi group providing supplies to local councils.

In mid-February, the Sarmada Local Council announced that Ahrar al-Sham, a loose network of Jihadi groups that often conduct joint operations with Jabhat al-Nusrah, provided five days worth of flour to the council. The council is fortunate that is does not rely solely on Ahrar al-Sham for its flour. It also receives assistance from local merchants and reported receiving over ten days worth of flour from the National Coalition which was supplied by the UAE's Red Crescent. As with many towns, the Sarmada Local Council is endlessly searching for benefactors to get them through another week.

The UN is the international body best equipped to address the problem, but it is hampered by legal requirements. It can only enter Syria when permitted by the Assad regime and the Assad regime will only allow the UN to bring in aid through the border crossings that it controls, none of which are in Idlib or Aleppo. The UN has alternate routes into the northwest, but has only been able to make two large aid deliveries, and is facing some resentment by local opposition groups. In any case, the UN is facing a budget shortfall making it difficult to feed refugees living in UN administered camps, never mind those still in Syria.

Although the involvement of Jihadi groups in relief efforts is worrying, they are unlikely to gain the undivided loyalty of the northern Syrians by being just one of many aid providers. It will, however, complicate western efforts to isolate these groups. They not only fight well, but they are helping families eat.