Monday, March 31, 2014

Maaloula nuns waiting to return to convent: Mother Superior
by Asharq Al-Awsat
Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat—The Maaloula nuns released earlier this month by the Al-Nusra Front are being hosted by the Greek Orthodox Patriarch in Damascus and are not under house arrest, as recent reports suggested, according to the nuns’ Mother Superior, Pelagia Sayyaf. The nuns were released as part of a prisoner exchange with the government of Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad reportedly mediated by Qatar and Lebanese security authorities.
There had been reports that the thirteen Lebanese and Syrian nuns based out of the convent of St. Thecla in Maaloula and held captive by the Al-Nusra Front for more than three months had been placed under house arrest by the Assad government for comments made following their release. The nuns had expressed thanks to the Emir of Qatar for his efforts to mediate talks between the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front and the Damascus government while also confirming they had been treated well by the Islamist militia. The Syrian authorities have denied that Qatar has played any direct or indirect role in securing the nuns’ release.
Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, Mother Superior Pelagia Sayyaf said: “The nuns are living their lives normally, waiting for the security conditions to be conductive to a return to our convent in Maaloula.”
Regarding the controversy that surrounded the nuns’ statements immediately following their release, she said: “Before we reached the border area where the reception ceremony took place, a grigadier-general in the [Lebanese] State Security apparatus told me, ‘You must express thanks to President Bashar Al-Assad, Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim Bin Khalifa Al Thani, and Director-General of [Lebanese] Public Security General Abbas Ibrahim, and that is what I did in the belief that this came in coordination with the Syrian government.”
“After this, they gave me a bag containing icons of the Virgin Mary and Christian crosses in them, and they told me that it was from General Abbas Ibrahim. And then they asked us to wear them over our chests,” she added.
As for her statements about the Al-Nusra Front’s good treatment of the nuns, she said: “The anger of some people towards these statements is justified ,because the Al-Nusra Front is against the Syrian state. However, I must bear witness to God and speak the truth, and that is that the members of the Al-Nusra Front treated us very well. This is not because they are good, and with others they committed very bad practices . . . but they were different with us, perhaps because we were part of a negotiation process.”
Recounting an example of an incident that took place during their detention, she said: “One of the young members of the group raised his voice to us, and when Abu Azzam—who was responsible for us—heard this, he shaved the beard [of the youth] as a punishment for this.”
She also denied that any of the Al-Nusra Front members had confiscated the nuns’ crosses, saying: “Nuns do not always wear crosses, with the exception of the mother superior, and I had removed my cross weeks before the kidnapping.”
Mother Superior, Pelagia Sayyaf described the conditions which accompanied the exchange as very difficult. She confirmed that the prisoner exchange was disrupted at the last minute when “the leader of the opposition group which held us demanded the release of the family of one of the Al-Qaeda commanders from Syrian detention. When one of the Lebanese officers protested against this demand, the commander said: Go then and kill the family and I will blow up the nuns; only for the Qatari mediator to intervene and find a way to resolve the issue.”

Update: #SafeKessab got some steam on social and support from the most glamorous Armenian, who btw is not a moral authority in Middle Eastern Politics as she has demonstrated in Bahrain .

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Kasab & the rebel offensive in northern Latakia province

Over the last weekend Islamist forces led by Jabhat an-Nusra and the Islamic Front attacked and finally conquered the town of Kasab, which lays in the north of Syria's Latakia province on the Turkish border. It is a strategically important town, not only because it had been the only border crossing to Turkey left controlled by the regime - but also because it's capture enables a further penetration of the Alawite heartland from the North.

Tempered hope in renewed Latakia offensive
by Maya Gebeily, Now.

Assassination of Hilal al-Assad

During the capture of the town Hilal al-Assad, a second cousin of Bashar al-Assad, was killed. Hilal al-Assad himself was the leader of the National Defence Forces in Latakia province. He was the grandchild of Ahmad al-Assad, the older half-brother of Hafiz al-Assad. This branch of the family has a long established reputation for it's criminal activities and Hilal al-Assad was like the prototyp of a shabiha-leader (don't forget to read "The Originial Shabiha" at Syria Comment). His legacy will be carried on by his son Sulaiman, who is also widely known for his thuggish lifestyle. Hilal's brother Haʾl, so far head of the military police in the army's 4th division commanded by Mahar al-Assad, is his successor as head of the National Defence Forces in Latakia, a semi-autonomous militia composed of local civilians.

Rape and ransoms: Hilal al-Assad’s ‘thug’ legacy
by Mohanad Hage Ali, Al Arabiya News

NDF-video eulogizing the fallen Hilal al-Assad

Despite rumours circulating on social media, pro-regime militia leader Mihrac Ural aka ʿAli Kayyali was not killed along with Hilal al-Assad. He is alive and his Muqawama as-Suriya is involved in the fighting. For a recent Interview with him by Lebanese pro-regime daily al-Akhbar about the fall of Kasab see here.

Mihrac Ural in Kasab countryside

The Armenian aspect

Kasab is not only a Syrian border town, it is a mainly Christian-Armenian town. Many of the inhabitants are descendants of survivors of the Armenian genocide, a fact which adds a flavour of Turkish-Armenian tensions to the issue of Kasab. Turkey is accused  of letting flow Islamist fighters into Kasab via the border crossing.

Latakia Offensive Stirs Dark Memories for Armenian-Syrians 
by Maria Abi Habib, The Wall Street Journal
....But for Armenian-Syrians from the town of Kassab in Latakia, which rebels overran this weekend, the Turkish involvement reminded them of a dark chapter in their history: the Armenian genocide perpetrated by the Ottoman empire in 1915. The Turks bristle at the term genocide, although 1.5 million Armenians died at the hands of Ottoman forces.
For many of Kassab’s Armenian-Syrians, the Nusra Front occupies one side of the same coin the Turks do as well – an existential threat in a war where initial concepts like freedom and democracy have been sidelined by minorities’ concerns, steeped in thousand-year-old memories of past injustices perpetrated across the region. Better the devil you know, than the one you don’t, is the common Christian refrain.
Armenian-Syrians expressed outrage Sunday over radical Islamist rebels taking over Kassab, which they said would threaten the town’s Christian inhabitants, many supporters of President Bashar al Assad’s forces. Kassab residents cheered on Damascus in the fight against rebels this weekend, believing the alliance with Mr. Assad — an Alawite, another religious minority — a safer bet to protect their interests.
Armenian-Syrians blamed Turkey for rebel advances in Kassab — as Ankara has long turned a blind eye to rebels crossing their borders and weapons flows — and equated a win by Nusra with the Armenian genocide.
When Ankara shot down the Syrian war plane, it was too much for Kassab’s residents. They claimed an old foe – Turkey – was conspiring against them by allying with a new enemy – Sunni Muslim extremist groups like Nusra.
“The Turks are [working against] us again. This is unacceptable considering history. Genocide repeat [in] Kassab,” said one Twitter user from the town, in sentiments shared by many other Syrian-Armenians on the social networking site. “What a bad day this has been. God bless everyone who is defending the beautiful village of Kassab.”
Turkey has denied it supports extremist rebels and said it shot down the Syrian war plane to protect its territory.

While the extend of Turkish aid for the rebel takeover of Kasab demands further research, it it clear that it has not happened primarily because of its Armenian population. The Armenians therefore tend to see that different and of course pro-regime media is quick to draw the Armenian card. In the meanwhile, the ANCA (Armenian National Committee of America), the most powerful Armenian lobby group in the US, got involved and urged President Obama to stop the attacks on the town. According to The Armenian Weekly the overwhelming majority of the Armenians has decided to flee the town - and only 10 to 15 out of nearly 700 families have stayed.

Islamist fighters in an Armenian church, Kasab

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Mayoral race of Nazareth finally decided in recall election

In Nazareth long time mayor Ramiz Jaraisi (Hadash, Christian) finally (for the first election in autumn see here) lost his position to his former deputy 'Ali Salam (formerly with Hadash, Muslim) after a recall election had been ordered by the Israeli Supreme Court. While some might simply argue, that after 20 years in office voters are just tired of Jaraisi, others believe the loss of the mayoralty in the so called "red city" indicates a downfall of the Communist dominated Hadash, once Israel's most important Arab party:

Nazareth election beginning of end for Israel's Communist Party
by Daoud Kuttab, Al-Monitor
The loss of the Nazareth mayoralty in the March 11 recall elections marked the beginning of the end of the Israeli Communist Party in Israel. Ramez Jaraisi, the mayor for nearly four decades, lost to Ali Salam, who won more than 61% of the city’s votes. 
Israeli Communist leaders in Nazareth accepted defeat and issued a statement six days later to congratulate the new winners, stating that they accepted the will of the people of Nazareth. They also promised to search hard for the reasons for their political setback. Jaraisi gained almost the same number of votes, 16,000, while his opponent (who was his deputy for years) won over the votes that went to other groups that competed in the first round against Jaraisi. 
While the election campaign turned sectarian in the early stages of the election campaign, that Salam's "Our Nazareth" list was endorsed by well-known Christian leaders and clergy reduced much of the tensions. Many feel that the religious-sectarian issue was manufactured, rather than a real reflection of any Christian-Muslim tensions on the ground.
The Democratic Front for Peace and Equality, a coalition led by the Israeli Communist Party, has been the major political force for Palestinian citizens of Israel since it was created in this form in 1977. The Jabha as it is called in Arabic, or Hadash in Hebrew, has maintained an Arab-Jewish partnership despite the vast majority of its members and voters being Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel. Israeli Communists, through different coalitions, have maintained three or four members of the 120-member Israeli Knesset since the establishment of Israel.
Losing a powerful and important base such as the largest Palestinian city in Israel is a major political loss for the movement which has to figure out how it will deal with the new Israeli law that has raised the threshold of entering the Knesset to 3.25% — translated to roughly four seats. Hadash has currently four members in the Knesset, three Arabs and one Jew, but it is unclear whether the Democratic Front can enter the Knesset in the next elections without finding a coalition partner. Existing Arab parties in Israel are unlikely to make a coalition with an Arab-Jewish party, thus putting the Israeli Communist Party in a most intricate position. They can risk going alone and not entering the Knesset for the first time since 1948, or they will have to further alienate their smaller Jewish partners who have not been able to muster many votes in previous elections
While Israeli Communists have largely toned down their Marxist ideology, they have been successful in representing a moderate voice for peace despite the polarization that has turned Israel’s Arab citizens to become much more supportive of Palestinian nationalism as a result of the continuation of Israel’s occupation. Since their establishment, Israeli Communists have maintained a two-tier political approach as the name of their coalition represents. They have been in favor of the two-state solution and fierce fighters for equality for the Arab minority in Israel and workers’ rights.
For Palestinian citizens of Israel, Hadash was for a long time the sole political party allowed to work in the public sphere. Political figures that rose to prominence through the Israeli Communist Party include ideologue Tawfiq Toubi, poet and former Nazareth mayor Tawfiq Ziad and novelist Emile Habibi.
In recent years, however, the Democratic Front has propelled new figures like Mohammad Baraka and Jamal Zahalka. Many Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza know these new members of Knesset and appeal to them to intervene in solving day-to-day problems with the occupation. But while they are often effective in solving individual problems, they have not succeeded much in changing the trajectory of the Israeli occupation and settlement policy that has received legitimization in Israel’s top representative body. This failure has led many, especially among Islamists in Israel, to question the wisdom of being part of the Israeli electoral system and fighting for the few seats that are available to the Arab minority.
The loss of elections in Nazareth put an end to decades of control by Communists and their supporters. After the Nazareth elections, Israeli member of Knesset from the Islamic Movement Ibrahim Sarsour issued a statement calling on the losing party to learn the lessons for the national good of Palestinian citizens in Israel.
It can be argued that change is necessary and that being in power for so long tends to reduce effectiveness. But what happened in Nazareth last week will not stay in Galilee. It will have a profound effect on the Israeli Communist Party and on the Hadash coalition throughout post-1948 Israel. The big question will be whether they will learn the lessons of this reduced public support and act accordingly, or keep their heads in the sand and blame all except themselves for the status that they find themselves in.
Even more than during the first campaign in autumn, the campaign for the recall election had sectarian undertones. One might remember, that the city witnessed Muslim-Christian tensions in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Battle for Nazareth mayor a loser for Christian-Muslim relations
by Daniel Ben Simon, Al-Monitor
Until recently, Jaraisi and Salam had been good friends. They tied their fate together and symbolized Muslim-Christian fraternity in the Arab sector’s largest city. Of the city’s 80,000 residents, 65% are Muslim and 35% Christian. Similar percentages were registered in 1948, but in reverse; then, the Christians held the large majority. The political alliance between the two friends greatly shaped the sociopolitical texture of the two populations and engendered stability that served the city well. Today, on the heels of the electoral controversy, the two friends do not talk to one another. Suddenly, swords have been unsheathed and battle cries sounded that threaten to shatter the city’s tranquility.
“The situation in the city is very tense,” Fadoul Mazawi, owner of a large advertising agency in Nazareth, told Al-Monitor. “The city is paralyzed, and I am afraid of the radical statements we hear from both sides. This situation is very inflammable and likely to blow up after the final results are made public.” National Arab politics also waits tensely on the sidelines. If Jaraisi loses, his defeat will be viewed as symbol of the Arab Israeli Hadash Party’s weakening on the national level. Hadash has ruled in Nazareth for 30 years without exception. “Defeat in the city will be perceived as a great blow in the Arab sector,” added Mazawi. “As far as they are concerned, this is a battle of a survival.”
Like others in the city, Mazawi, a Christian, is concerned that the political struggle could ignite ethnic fires. “If the court renders its final decision in favor of Jaraisi, it will be problematic because it will light a fire between Muslims and Christians. The Muslims will argue that the elections were stolen from them.”
It is an open secret that the mysterious envelope in which Jaraisi received his additional votes contained the ballots cast by the city’s soldiers. Over many years, Jaraisi preached high and low against enlistment of Arabs into the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Thus, Jaraisi’s antagonists feel it hypocritical that the man who preached against Arab enlistment, should earn his fifth term by virtue of Christian soldiers' ballots. “There are 30 ballots cast by soldiers from Nazareth, ballots that have not been counted and can tip the scales,” argued Jaraisi in his appeal to the court.
“Let’s recall a few long-forgotten events,” writes Shai Friedman in his blog on Nazareth. “There is a war in Nazareth against youths who enlist in the IDF [Israel Defense Forces]. Nazareth’s mayor was a key player in this war. He participated, together with fellow party members from the Knesset, against ‘enlistment in the Zionist army.’ A Druze youth who received a call-up order tore it up to the sound of the cheering crowd. Jaraisi and the members of his party clapped their hands.”
Within this uncompromising battle between two people who had once been good friends stands the city of Nazareth, hostage to ignoble political storm winds that refuse to die down.
Since one could argue that the Israeli government has tried to weaken Hadash before (e.g. in Nazareth during the Crisis around the year 2000), the question about the involvement of the government and state institutions in the recall election arises.

The Shin Bet in our beds 
by Oudeh Basharat, Haaretz
With no connection to the election results in Nazareth, which Ali Salam won by a decisive majority in the second round, the disturbing question is: Did Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, through the head of the Shin Bet security service and the attorney general, try to influence the outcome of that election? That is what Yael Gvirtz’s article in Yedioth Ahronoth on March 10 would indicate.
Gvirtz writes that Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and their partners had an interest in Salam winning the election and that “to prepare the election, the head of the Shin Bet and the attorney general were mobilized as well ... [The latter] sent, at the request of those who employed him, an urgent letter to the Supreme Court demanding a repeat hearing ‘due to allegations of forgeries’ − even though claims of forgery never came up in court during the appeal of the election results, nor was a complaint lodged with the police.”
If this had happened in Tel Aviv there would have been an uproar of inestimable force, and it is possible that everyone involved, including the prime minister, would have been thrown out of office. But the Arabs are a different story. Nobody gets excited over the long romance that has been going on between them and the Shin Bet.
by Leena Dallasheh, MERIP

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

At the Syria in Crisis Blog by the Carnegie Endowment Nikita Malik takes a look at the implications of the civil war in Syria for Jordan and also touches the perspectives of Jordan's Christian population.

Monday, March 17, 2014

As it was notedd in a report by Human Rights Watch, Alawite women and children had been kidnapped during the rebel-offensive in Latakia province last August. Last week some of the abductees appeared in a video aired by Al Jazeera, in which unnamed Islamist forces declared their readiness for a prisoner exchange:

Joshua Hersh wrote an impressing article for the Huffington Post reviewing the massacre of the Alawite population in Latakia province:

At The Syrian Observer Journalist Yahya Alous shines some light on the growing secterianism in Jaramana, a suburb of Damascus with a large Druze and Christian population. The town is currently witnessing an influx of pro-government Shiite fighters:

Jaramana or Beirut's southern suburb?  
by Yahya Alous, The Syrian Observer
In Jaramana, various types of Shiite songs have recently arrived from Iraq, in addition to the sounds of mournful prayers and calls, either calling for the intervention of Hussein, or for his help in seeking revenge. Decked with yellow flags, SUVs freely roam the streets of the city, bearing posters calling for the attention of Hussein and Zeinab. And in other corners of the city, people from different parts of the country wander the streets, proudly wearing sectarian symbols and slogans on their shoulders. This is the new look of the city, which has become a hotbed for these certain kinds of militant groups.

This city, which is also inhabited by Druze and Christians, and which is not far from Damascus, has never before displayed the sectarian affiliations of its citizens. And this despite the fact that many have hinted that it is part of the sectarian conflict so increasingly engulfing Syria. Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s secretary general, has also referred to Jaramana more than once in his speeches over the last couple of years, as did the Russian foreign minister, who said he was “heart broken” by what had happened here, after a car bomb was detonated last year.

The Druze are satisfied to follow their simple religious practices, which perhaps even go unnoticed by other residents. Their places of worship are very modest, in accordance with their principles of asceticism and mysticism, similar to the guiding Christian rituals. In spite of the increasing number of churches over the last 20 years, the latter’s presence can be summarized by the sounds of the church bells, and even those are barely heard in some areas of the city. For decades this coexistence between the Druze and the Christians has been the norm, and the city has never witnessed any sectarian conflicts or clashes. Not even with any of the surrounding Sunni villages either.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Al Monitor has a nice piece up shining light on the uncommon picture of Christians taking up arms in the Middle East, which is happening now in Syria. The author, Jihad El-Zein, has some interesting points:
One of the ironies in this recent Syrian phenomenon is that the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), the party that has traditionally been hostile to the Lebanese Kataeb Party, finds itself in the same position as the Kataeb. The Kataeb previously played the key role in the “fighting Christians” phenomenon in Lebanon from 1958 to 1990. And today, the SSNP is appearing as the “fighting Christians” party on the side of the Syrian regime.
Of course, this phenomenon didn’t come from a vacuum. The SSNP in Syria has members of all sects, including some Sunnis. But traditionally, the party has spread among the Christian, Alawite and Druze elites (as have the Communist and Baath parties).
The growing importance of the SSNP as a militia is definitely significant (and has to be a future subject on this Blog). Apart from that, the author sums up various other aspects concerning the current dilemma of Middle Eastern Christians - worth reading.

"Christians taking up fight in Syria" by Jihad El-Zein


Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Walid Junblat publicly opposes fellowship on Druze and Arab minority studies

Lebanon's Druze leader Walid Junblat surprised many some weeks ago when he publicly declared his objection against a new post-doc fellowship at Georgetown University (Washington DC) in Druze and Arab Minority Studies. This comes at a surprise, not only because the fellowship is granted by the American Druze Foundation, but also because Junblat is known to have in general a positive attitude towards researchers, an attitude which is not that common among Lebanese politicians. Junblat's medial opposition to an academic fellowship for one person a year working mostly on the publication of his/her PhD thesis may sound ridiculous (it certainly is) but it reflects the wider fear of Junblat and parts of the Druze society in the face of rising militant Sunni extremism in Syria and also Lebanon. The recent bombing on February 3, which targeted the Lebanese Shia population, went off in the predominantly Druze town of Chouaifat. This act clearly indicates, that mixed areas in Lebanon are seen as valid targets by groups like Jabhat an-Nusra, which endangers also the Druze. This, along with the precarious situation of the Druze in Syria, who are fighting against Islamist forces and have already experienced the regime of ISIS in Idllib province, may have contributed to an extreme sensitivity of Junblat regarding Druze identity. Everything which could question the belonging of the Druze to Islam or underlines a particularistic minority status, is therefore seen as a possible threat.
According to YaLibnan:
The PSP leader criticized the program’s classification of Druze as a minority, saying that his co-religionists played out their “national and Islamic role” and struggled to achieve “integration into their wider environment.”
Junblat's statement is of course both, uncommon (when was the last time you have heard a politician objecting a post-doc fellowship?) and out of proportion, but it clearly illustrates how sensitive the question of Druze identity is at the moment for the most important Druze leader.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Current situation of Syriac Christians in Qamishli

Swedish journalist Carl Drott, whose work for Syria in Crisis has been mentioned here already, wrote two pieces fresh from the field about the current situation of the Syriac Christians in Qamishli and provides some background on the split of the Sutoro/Sootoro militia in a pro-Kurdish (Sutoro) and a pro-regime (Sootoro) wing. According to Drott the Sutoro is currently growing and setting up branches in other towns of Hasaka province as well.

Monday, March 3, 2014

ISIS imposes jizya tax on Christians in Raqqa

 According to a report by Reuters:
The Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) has demanded that Christians in the city of Raqqa pay a levy in gold and curb displays of their faith in return for protection, according to a statement posted online Wednesday.
The Al-Qaeda splinter group’s directive in the eastern city is the latest evidence of the group’s ambition to establish a state in Syria founded on radical Islamist principles, a prospect that concerns Western and Arab backers of other rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad.
ISIS said it would ensure Christians’ safety in exchange for the levy and their adherence to restrictions on their faith, citing the Islamic legal precept of “dhimma.”
It said Christians must not make renovations to churches or other religious buildings, display religious insignia outside of churches, ring church bells or pray in public.
It demanded every Christian male pay a tax of up to 17 grams of gold, a levy that was common in Muslim states centuries ago.
The directive also bans Christians from owning weapons and from selling pork or wine to Muslims or drinking wine in public.
The concept of dhimma, governing non-Muslims living under Islamic rule, dates back to the seventh century but was largely abolished during the Ottoman reforms of the mid-19th century.
Raqqa was the first and only city to fall completely under rebel control last year. After repelling an offensive last month by rival Islamists and more moderate rebels, ISIS has turned its attention to setting up a state based on a radical interpretation of Shariah law.
It issued a more general set of restrictions for all residents of Raqqa last month, but this week’s notice included the most extensive restrictions yet on Christians.
The statement, dated Saturday, was posted on Twitter by a purported ISIS supporter. The text matched a statement distributed by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which condemned it.
See here for the original statement by ISIS.