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Rigged Cars and Barrel Bombs: Aleppo and the State of the Syrian War
Rigged Cars and Barrel Bombs: Aleppo and the State of the Syrian War
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
‘Jihadi bride’ doesn’t fit: we need a new language for female militants
‘Jihadi bride’ doesn’t fit: we need a new language for female militants
Report 155 / Middle East & North Africa

Rigged Cars and Barrel Bombs: Aleppo and the State of the Syrian War

Syria is sliding toward unending war between an autocratic, sectarian regime and the even more autocratic, more sectarian jihadi group that has made dramatic gains in both Syria and Iraq. Without either a ceasefire in Aleppo or greater support from its state backers, the mainstream opposition is likely to suffer a defeat that will dash chances of a political resolution for the foreseeable future.

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Executive Summary

As Aleppo goes, so goes Syria’s rebellion. The city is crucial to the mainstream opposition’s military viability as well as its morale, thus to halting the advance of the Islamic State (IS). After an alliance of armed rebel factions seized its eastern half in July 2012, Aleppo for a time symbolised the opposition’s optimism and momentum; in the following months, it exposed the rebels’ limits, as their progress slowed, and they struggled to win over the local population. Today, locked in a two-front war against the regime and IS, their position is more precarious than at any time since the fighting began. Urgent action is required to prevent the mainstream opposition’s defeat: either for Iran and Russia to press the regime for de-escalation, to showcase their willingness to confront IS instead of exploiting its presence to further strengthen Damascus; or, more realistically, for the U.S., Europe and regional allies to qualitatively and quantitatively improve support to local, non-jihadi rebel factions in Aleppo. Any eventual possibility of a negotiated resolution of the war depends on one course or the other being followed.

Rebel-held areas in and around Aleppo remain the most valuable of the mainstream opposition’s dwindling assets. Sensing weakness, the regime and its allies have invested significant resources in trying to retake the city; they now appear to be on the verge of severing the last rebel supply line linking it to Turkey. Still, the rebels maintain certain advantages. The armed factions in and around the city include some of the rebellion’s most powerful and popular. The location near the Turkish border facilitates the flow of supplies and communication. The regime’s task is thus more difficult than at Homs and Damascus, where brutal siege tactics compelled acceptance of truces on its terms. Yet, even a partial siege of the rebel-held parts of Aleppo could deal an enormous blow.

To its east, the mainstream opposition faces a second deadly foe: IS, formerly ISIL, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, riding high after victories in western Iraq and eastern Syria. In January 2014, Aleppo was ground-zero for IS’s most humiliating setback, when rebels drove it from the city and its western and northern hinterlands, forcing it further east. But today, with much of the rebel force tied down on one front against the regime, IS is making headway north of the city, toward the heartland of northern Syria’s most prominent mainstream rebel factions.

A combination of regime and IS victories in and around Aleppo would be devastating not only to local rebels, but to the Syrian opposition as a whole. The loss of territory and morale would reverberate throughout the country, pushing many to give up the fight or join a more powerful militant force: IS.

The regime and IS are not bedfellows, though mutual restraint in the first five months of 2014 gave some that impression. Rather, and despite recent clashes, they share some short- and medium-term interests: chiefly the defeat of mainstream rebel groups backed by the opposition’s state sponsors, in particular those credible with local populations. For the regime, their defeat would eliminate what remains of the only existential threat it has feared: the prospect of robust Western military support to armed opponents. For IS, it would remove most of its meaningful competition, so it could eventually establish a monopoly on armed resistance to an unpopular Iranian-backed dictator, much as in Iraq.

At stake in Aleppo is not regime victory but opposition defeat. The war would continue should that occur, pitting regime and allied forces that lack the capacity to reconquer chunks of northern and eastern Syria or to subdue them through compromise against an emboldened IS that would gain strength by attracting rebel remnants. Between such antagonists, there would be no prospect of a political resolution and little hope of restoring the integrity of Syrian and Iraqi borders.

The situation is grim, but all is not yet lost. The bulk of the armed opposition is dominated by groups that, unlike IS, have demonstrated responsiveness to local populations and state sponsors. Their shortcomings are manifold and performance uneven, but the most successful of them have begun to show political pragmatism needed not only for continued viability but also to resolve the war.

It is past time for state supporters on both sides to acknowledge that the status quo leads to disaster. For Iran and Russia, this means recognising that – lip service to a negotiated solution and counter-terrorism notwithstanding – the regime strategy they facilitate renders resolution impossible and strengthens the jihadis it claims to combat. For the mainstream opposition’s principal backers – the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey – it means acknowledging that their tough words, meagre support and strategic incoherence have helped produce the current desperation. Recent modest increases in support for armed groups will not prevent their defeat, though they may shift the political and ideological balance among them. Syria is sliding toward unending war between an autocratic, sectarian regime and an even more autocratic, more sectarian jihadi group that, on present trends, will potentially destabilise the Middle East well beyond Syria and Iraq.

The fall of greater Aleppo to regime and IS forces would do much to bring this about. There are two means of avoiding it:

  • Best would be through immediate negotiation and implementation of a local ceasefire between the regime and anti-IS rebel forces in Aleppo. This would allow the latter to dedicate their resources to halting and eventually reversing IS gains. It would require a dramatic shift in regime strategy: from prioritising defeat of the mainstream opposition to prioritising the fight against IS, and recognising that IS cannot be defeated without conceding a role to the mainstream opposition. If the regime and its allies are serious about weakening jihadis, they should immediately show willingness to halt their offensives in Aleppo and withdraw to positions from which their forces no longer threaten the main rebel supply line to the city. If such a ceasefire is offered, mainstream rebels in Aleppo should accept it and ensure that their anti-IS jihadi allies do the same. The mainstream opposition’s state backers should pressure them to do so.
     
  • Such a regime shift appears unlikely. In its absence, the only realistic alternative is for the opposition’s state backers to improve support, qualitatively and quantitatively, to credible non-jihadi rebel groups with roots in Aleppo. That could become more costly to the regime and its allies than a local deal, as some of the support would inevitably be deployed against regime forces. The option would also carry costs for the opposition’s backers. To be effective, it would entail, at minimum, an increase in cash, ammunition and anti-tank weapons delivered to mainstream rebel factions – some of which could end up in jihadi hands; it would also require a higher level of investment by the U.S. and of cooperation among Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. Even if successful, this effort would not tilt the military balance in favour of the mainstream opposition – but it could prevent its defeat, halt IS gains on a key front and thus preserve the chance for an eventual political resolution.

Other prominent options at the centre of the Western policy debate would likely be counterproductive. Calls for partnership with the Assad regime against jihadis are ill-conceived. Until regime forces fundamentally revise their posture and abandon the habit of exploiting jihadi gains for their own benefit, they have little to offer in the fight against IS. Their current dependence on indiscriminate tactics and Iran-backed militias is fuel for jihadi flames. Proposals to expand U.S. airstrikes against IS into Syria are incomplete tactical prescriptions in search of a strategy. IS gains can only be halted and eventually reversed through the empowerment of credible Sunni alternatives, both locally and within the context of national governance. In the absence of a broader strategy to accomplish that, airstrikes against IS would accomplish little; indeed, the propaganda benefits that would accrue to the group could be more important than the tactical setbacks it would suffer.

There are, of course, risks in the two more promising policies outlined above. But the failure of any and all parties to take some risk will lead only to disaster.

Beirut/Brussels 9 September 2014

‘Jihadi bride’ doesn’t fit: we need a new language for female militants

Originally published in The Guardian

Tabloid sensationalism about Shamima Begum flattens important debates about how much agency these women have.

There are around 150 British women in the world who can be called “jihadi brides” – those who left places such as Luton, Birmingham and Burton upon Trent to migrate to the Islamic State and eventually marry its fighters – and Shamima Begum is one of the youngest. She assumed this status as a minor, and the use of the term “jihadi bride” by journalists and commentators to describe her is appalling, a heaping of further trauma on a groomed child.

Tabloid sensationalism flattens a complicated and necessary debate about agency: whether these women had any; and how much and the extent to which they should be held accountable for the spectacular violence Isis has inflicted, even if they were not directly involved and some of them were crushed by it, too. In trying to get to the bottom of these questions for a forthcoming book, I interviewed more than 20 Isis women.

There is a gentle infantilisation to almost any description of militancy that includes the word ‘bride’, so resonant and feminine.

At the heart of this problem is female militancy itself: the historical and near-universal aversion across so many societies to viewing young women as capable of dreadful violence, and the incentives for powerful governments and militaries to downplay or amplify the nature of female militancy and its implications. One premise underlying the term “jihadi bride” is that the debutante in question holds no valid political grievances, is indoctrinated into accepting grotesque violence as legitimate, and as “just” a wife plays a dangerous but marginal role in the working of the armed group to which she is wed rather than operationally affiliated. “In-house whores for Isis,” as one columnist memorably called them in 2015. The term also tilts toward characterising such women as civilian spouses of jihadist militants, akin to the German wives who held dinner parties for Nazi SS officers, rather than aspirant members who joined first and wed second, or at least concurrently.

There is a gentle infantilisation to almost any description of militancy that includes the word “bride”, so resonant and feminine. Its inclusion is almost antique, from a time when women had hysterics and doctors acting on behalf of the patriarchy had to pacify them with dubious sex therapies or lobotomies. But perhaps in the past this patronising view also served a social function: if militants’ wives were just wives, society could forgive them more easily and, once the fighting was over, they could serve as bridges back to some normalcy. Women could then try to explain what had overtaken their sons and husbands (as Osama bin Laden’s mother has done). As I wrote earlier this year, in Nigeria viewing women who voluntarily joined the Boko Haram insurgency as wives who didn’t commit violence has helped communities grudgingly tolerate their reintegration. Returnee men are often simply slaughtered.

But this inherited thinking has outlived its use, especially in light of the way militant groups themselves play on gender to recruit and swell their ranks. Ignoring women’s agency in this process obscures our understanding of all the ways, meaningful, oblique and direct, that women lent their power and numbers to Isis. Women in the caliphate served as doctors and midwives, language instructors, recruiters and intelligence agents, and morality policewomen who tormented locals.

With the flow of Isis men and women out of the group’s last patch of territory and the prospect of them returning to their countries of origin, there are loud voices now calling for the suspension of “jihadi bride”. But sometimes these reflect social and political forces with their own agendas, such as Sajid Javid’s early bid for the Tory leadership, which was signalled through the stripping of Begum’s status as a British citizen. In the rush to bestow militant women agency, there is a tendency to blaze past any legal and investigative process and hold girls such as Begum just as accountable as those who beheaded civilians. The haste to make her indoctrinated, feeble responses to journalists’ questions appear lucid and defining of her fate is reminiscent of the excesses of the post-9/11 period, when jihadists disappeared into the facility at Guantánamo Bay in a netherworld of lawless, indefinite detainment. Among those who directly suffered under Isis there is an understandable impatience with the attention such women receive, but among some voices from Syria and Iraq, the language about Begum is sometimes dehumanising, making her the focus for both justified rage at what transpired and a target for sectarian or ethnic hate.

Our need for new, measured and more forensic language to characterise female militancy and the agency that underpins it is now clear. Yet we must remain sensitive to the coercion and violence many female Isis members experienced themselves.

It is worth remembering that, after a certain point, it became virtually impossible to leave the caliphate. During the years I spent following the stories of female Isis members, I was in touch with women, or families of women, who were repulsed by what they saw unfolding and tried to escape. Kadiza Sultana, one of the three original Bethnal Green girls, saw she had made a terrible mistake and worked with her family in London to plan her evacuation. She died in an airstrike on the building where she lived, before the collapse of the territorial caliphate gave her a chance to flee.

It is no disrespect to the victims of Isis to hear women such as Begum attempt to explain their motivations. Perhaps not immediately after having a baby, in a fetid IDP camp, but later, in a courtroom – or, better, in a transitional justice hearing, where she could be confronted with the stories of Yazidi women such as Nobel peace prize winner Nadia Murad, the victims of Isis who were faceless at the time, about whose suffering Begum was, and remains, chillingly incurious.

There are legal bases on which to assess criminal accountability, which require investigations and collection of evidence. But we are also struggling to understand, as a society encumbered by loaded terms such as “jihadi bride”, how much blame to accord such women. This requires learning precisely what they did – and what might have been done to them.

The role of women in Isis is one of the most significant questions of the post-Arab spring period, the aftermath of a historic sweeping revolt that women often led and animated. The Syrian Isis woman who met Begum at the Syrian border that dark night in February 2015 and escorted her into Raqqa told me later how surprised she was by the Bethnal Green girls’ submissiveness. The driver snapped at them to cover their hair properly, and they smilingly complied.

This woman, a bookish university student, a Hemingway reader who had gone from demonstrating against Bashar al-Assad to working for Isis at the behest of her family, couldn’t understand what had brought these London girls to the hell that had become her country. They seemed bewitched. She herself was dissimulating each day, biding her time until she could just get out.