Sina’at al-Fikr: “The mujahideen at this stage shouldn’t defend according to the principle, ‘Until the last man, and the last bullet.'”

Below is how I think Hayat Tahrir al-Sham may now be fighting the Syrian regime’s forces, as the latter push deeper into rebel-held Idlib. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham seems not to be mounting a valiant, heels-dug-in last stand, but rather a fighting, attritive retreat paired with asymmetric insurgent tactics.

The text I’ve translated is a set of posts from a Telegram account called “Sina’at al-Fikr” (Producing Thought), which, per one description, is a channel for “programmatic guidance in order to produce right-minded consciousness.” In practice, it seems to function as a Hayat Tahrir al-Sham-aligned outlet that offers short pieces of ideological and strategic advice and instruction, like a sort of jihadist think tank publishing in bite-sized installments. (There are several Sina’at al-Fikr accounts currently on Telegram. The one that is currently active and being referred to by other accounts describes itself as a reserve account.)

These posts were originally from May 2017, but they’ve recently been published again, both by the current Sina’at al-Fikr account on 17 January 2018 and by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham media official Muhammad Nazzal (Abu Khattab al-Maqdisi) on 17 and 23 January 2018. They come in the wake of Tahrir al-Sham’s loss of the eastern Idlib countryside – including the Abu al-Dhuhour airbase – and amid complaints from other opposition constituencies about Tahrir al-Sham’s successive retreats ahead of the regime’s ongoing offensive.

If the thinking outlined below is what’s behind Tahrir al-Sham’s repeated withdrawals and its judicious use of manpower and resources in defense of insurgent-held territory, I think it’s probably the smart move for the group. As Tahrir al-Sham itself apparently recognizes, it can’t prevail in open battle with the regime and its allies, particularly against Russian airpower.

But the smart strategic move for Tahrir al-Sham – which is probably better equipped than other factions to resort to a rural insurgency – is not good for Idlib’s other, locally grounded rebel factions, or for civilians.

When Sina’at al-Fikr tells “the mujahideen” they shouldn’t aim “to prevent the enemy from reaching the areas he wants” – those “areas he wants” are cities like Saraqib and the provincial capital Idlib, where civilian Idlibis live. Realistically, there’s probably no way to defend these areas. But Tahrir al-Sham’s strategic shift means these cities and towns’ civilian residents will need to run, or otherwise fend for themselves.

Translation follows. (Note: The repeated ellipses are in the original Arabic.)

Continue reading

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War on the Rocks: “America in Search of an Un-Geneva for Syria”

For War on the Rocks, I’ve written a companion piece to my recent Century Foundation commentary on America’s re-investment in Syria’s Geneva talks. In this latest, I try to answer: If Geneva won’t secure U.S. interests in Syria, what will?

“America in Search of an Un-Geneva for Syria”

I argue America shouldn’t count on Geneva, or on any national-level processes – negotiations over the whole of Syria or control of Syria’s center in Damascus – that have been thoroughly colonized by Russia.

Instead, the United States should invest in subnational processes focusing on Syria’s southwest and northeast. It’s at this level where America has more useful influence relative to Russia, and where there might be a genuine intersection of U.S. and Russian interests.

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Perspectives on Terrorism: “The Strategic Logic of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham”

New paper from me, for a special al-Qaeda-focused issue of Perspectives on Terrorism:

“The Strategic Logic of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham”

For this issue, I wrote on the strategic thinking behind the 2017 establishment of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the latest iteration of former Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusrah. To frame that logic, I relied on the work of political scientist Peter Krause and his “Movement Structure Theory.” Krause’s theory is useful in describing the dynamics of northwest Syria’s insurgency and the rationale for Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s project of intra-insurgent hegemony, as the group itself articulated it. The paper hopefully sheds light on Tahrir al-Sham’s priorities and prospects, as well as avenues for building on Krause’s work.

This paper was originally prepared for a September conference in Oslo organized by the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment (FFI), in cooperation with the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. For the full issue of Perspectives on Terrorism, including other papers by a fairly heavy-duty assortment of researchers, see:

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The Century Foundation: “Syrian Humanitarian ‘Lifeline’ Goes to Vote”

Today at The Century Foundation, I have a new report on the stakes of Tuesday’s expected vote to renew UN Security Council Resolution 2165 – the international legal mandate for Syria’s cross-border humanitarian response.

“Syrian Humanitarian ‘Lifeline’ Goes to Vote”

For months, humanitarians and donors have been anxious over the renewal of UNSCR 2165. On Tuesday, December 19, the Security Council is expected to finally vote on what a top UN relief official has called a “lifeline” for Syrians in need.

Most of the Security Council backs renewal of UNSCR 2165, which they argue is purely humanitarian. But the resolution also has clear political implications, insofar as cross-border aid without the permission of Syria’s Assad regime has been a potent symbol of Syria’s broken sovereignty.

And only one vote really matters: Russia’s. Russia has said UNSCR 2165 was an emergency response to conditions that no longer exist and that the resolution should be phased out. No one really knows whether Russia will ultimately opt for renewal, or what concessions it wants in exchange.

Of the more than a dozen humanitarians and donor-country diplomats who spoke to me ahead of the vote, most thought the resolution would be renewed – this time.

But even though a renewal will save lives, it’s also only a temporary reprieve. As the Assad regime returns from the brink, an international system premised on state sovereignty is likewise reasserting itself. In that normal international order, it’s tough to imagine a place for something exceptional like UNSCR 2165 – and without that exception, there’s no good alternative means to help millions of Syrians.

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The Century Foundation: “Geneva Talks Will Not Salvage U.S. Syria Policy”

At The Century Foundation, I’ve written about America’s reinvestment in Geneva peace talks and how – as I understand it – Russia is simultaneously managing Geneva and its own set of parallel processes.

“Geneva Talks Will Not Salvage U.S. Syria Policy”

Washington is now counting on Geneva to tie together the disparate strings of U.S. policy in Syria. It’s not going to work. Geneva is structurally broken, and no amount of American enthusiasm will fix that.

Geneva won’t make U.S. Syria policy make sense, and it won’t lead to a political settlement Washington actually likes. If these talks produce anything at all, that thing will be made to Russian specifications. So America needs to ask itself – is that what it wants?

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The Century Foundation: “Turkey Through the Syrian Looking Glass”

For The Century Foundation (originally published November 28):

“Turkey Through the Syrian Looking Glass”

More than a month after Turkey’s intervention to enforce a “de-escalation” in Syria’s Idlib province, there’s still little clarity on exactly what Turkey is doing in Syria.

That might be deliberate, because Turkey’s deployment is – as best as I can tell – based on an unpalatable deal with the jihadists who control Idlib. To secure Turkish interests and safeguard at least some of Idlib’s residents, Turkey seems to be working with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the successor to Syria’s former al-Qaeda affiliate.

By engaging Tahrir al-Sham mostly Syrian leadership, Turkey may be working to flush the northwest of transnational, al-Qaeda-loyal jihadists . Or, less charitably, it may just be looking after Turkish concerns and collaborating with the local partner closest at hand.

Either way, the Turkish move into Idlib is risky, both in terms of its slim chances and Turkey’s reputation. But it may also be the only way to avert a battle for Idlib that would be disastrous for millions of civilians.

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War on the Rocks: “What an Unfolding Humanitarian Disaster in a U.S.-Protected Enclave Tells Us About American Strategy in Syria”

New from me today on War on the Rocks:

“What an Unfolding Humanitarian Disaster in a U.S.-Protected Enclave Tells Us About American Strategy in Syria”

The American base in Tanaf, in Syria’s southeastern desert, has taken on outsized political import. It was originally meant to be a staging ground for a southern prong of the counter-ISIS military campaign. Then, for a brief, overheated moment, it was supposedly where America would block an Iranian “land bridge.” Now it is a symbol of Washington’s refusal to yield to Syrian, Iranian, and Russia pressure and, in theory, key leverage on Damascus and its allies.

But on the ground – below the cloud of geopolitical intrigue and the U.S. military’s defense of Tanaf – the base is tangled up with the Rukban camp. Rukban is an improvised, squalid settlement between the earth berms marking the Syrian and Jordanian border that is home to 50,000 displaced people, among them the families of America’s local Syrian partners. The “deconfliction” zone around Tanaf is all that protects Rukban from a Syrian regime advance.

The United States has taken ownership of the Tanaf zone, including Rukban. And Rukban’s residents are miserable and hungry. The United States and its allies have been unable to convince the Jordanians to allow a new delivery of assistance to Rukban’s residents, just over the border berm from Jordan. Now America has to appeal for a cross-line aid delivery via Damascus, pending the approval of a regime that has weaponized humanitarian access.

The whole thing is a farce.

Rukban is an embarrassment, as well as a lesson in America’s ability to bend Syria and the region to its strategic ambitions. Before Washington wants to start marshaling its allies towards big geopolitical ends, it should start by convincing Jordan to allow a crane drop of tarps, blankets, and food into Rukban.

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