By Afro-Middle East Centre
Reports in January 2017 that the leader of the Islamic State group (IS), Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, had been killed, reports that he had been captured by Russian troops in Syria, and the insistence by IS sources that he is still alive and fighting in the Iraqi city of Mosul, raise a number of questions about the IS chief’s location, and whether he is still alive. The IS response to this, by nominating a potential successor to Baghdadi, and the fact that the group is in the process of moving its Syria capital from the city of Raqqa to Deir al-Zour, suggest important reorganising in the IS structure and leadership to cope with a new military and political situation.
The IS leadership has certainly taken seriously the possibility that Baghdadi could get killed (if he is not already dead) or captured in the near future in fighting with the Iraqi or Syrian armies, any of a number of militia groups in the two countries, or airstrikes by the USA, Russia or the Syrian regime. The group’s Shura Council, its supreme decision-making body, has taken the matter seriously enough that it nominated, earlier this month, a successor to the self-styled ‘caliph’, one Abu Hafsa al-Mawsely, in the event that Baghdadi might become incapcitated.
But that decision, which was not unanimously agreed-upon in the Shura, has led to conflicts among IS commanders and fighters, some of whom refuse to accept Mawsely as a possible new leader. Consequently, the Shura Council has decided to reconvene – on an as-yet-unspecified date, and most likely in the Iraqi city of Mosul, to again discuss the matter of Baghdadi’s successor. The new meeting could nominate another candidate.
Not much is known about Mawsely, except that he is the deputy commander of IS’s ‘Nineveh province’, has a reputation for being one of the more brutal commanders in the group, is a senior legislator in the group’s governance structure, and has occupied several important military and administrative positions. He is based in the ancient city of Nineveh, on the outskirts of Mosul, the city which IS has occupied since 2014, and is now being forced out of by the Iraqi army and a number of militias, with support from the US-led coalition.
The IS Shura Council consists of a selected group of military leaders and legislators from its various ‘provinces’. It is expected that once the Shura Council finalises its decision, IS fighters will accept it and will be willing to pledge their allegiance to the new ‘caliph’ in the event of Baghdadi’s death or capture.
Baghdadi became the leader of IS’s precursor, al-Qa'ida in Iraq (AQI), in 2010. He was born near the Iraqi city of Samarra in 1971 , and obtained a PhD in Islamic studies from the Islamic University of Baghdad in 2013. Following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Baghdadi helped found the militant Jamaat Jaysh Ahl al-Sunnah wa al-Jamaah (JJASJ), which later joined the Mujahedin Shura Council (MSC) in 2006. The MSC became Islamic State of Iraq (ISI, also known as al-Qa'ida in Iraq) in 2006, with Baghdadi as head of its shari'ah committee and member of its senior consultative council. After a ten-month detention in the US prison Abu Ghaib and Camp Buca detention centres. Baghdadi was announced as ISI leader in May 2010, following the death of his predecessor Abu Omar Al-Baghdadi. He was the mastermind behind the formation of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and the establishment of the ‘Islamic State’ thereafter.
Reports indicate that Baghdadi had escaped from Mosul in February when the road to the west of the city was opened in the wake of a fierce attack launched by IS fighters. The group claims its fighters used seventeen suicide car bombs from Mosul and some units from Syria to temporarily clear the road out of the city it has held, uncontested, for about two years. Before he left the city, however, Baghdadi addressed supporters and fighters in what has been referred to as his ‘farewell speech’. According to a report from its members, the IS ‘caliph’ admitted that the group had been defeated in Mosul by US-backed Iraqi forces and militias, and urged his fighters to flee the urban areas and take refuge in the mountains.
While he was on his way out of the city, a US swat team ambushed a vehicle carrying a top IS commander who, it seems, the US military believed was Baghdadi or another senior IS leader. US troops in a helicopter exchanged gunfire with IS fighters who were protecting the vehicle. IS sources reported that only one person was injured and nobody was killed in the exchange, but some news agencies reported that Baghdadi was in the convoy and that he had been seriously wounded. The US Pentagon, however, admits that it is unsure where the IS leader might be.
Baghdadi allegedly broke a months-long silence in May 2016 by releasing an audio message in which he once again urged Muslims from around the world to emigrate to the ‘caliphate’ that the group has proclaimed in areas of Syria and Iraq. The group’s dire military situation and its battle for survival has, however, meant that the flow of fighters and other ‘immigrants’ to its ‘state’ has slowed down considerably.
With IS’s Syrian capital, Raqqa, under attack by a range of forces in the past few months, the group began moving its governance structures from Raqqa to the eastern province of Deir al-Zour earlier this month. Its military commanders, bureaucracy and some fighters are now headquartered 140 kilometres southeast of Raqqa.
This follows a difficult month of March for IS in Raqqa, with US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces and other groups moving on the city, having captured the Tabqa airbase, and cutting off the road between al-Thawrah (where IS fighters had retreated to) and Raqqa. It is almost certain that Raqqa will fall to opposition groups in the next few months, necessitating the emergency measures undertaken by the IS leadership.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
Talks between the Syrian regime and opposition forces, held in Kazakhstan’s capital from 23 to 24 January, concluded with Russia, Turkey and Iran announcing their intention for a trilateral mechanism to monitor and enforce the ceasefire between regime forces and rebels. The talks aimed to build on the 30 December truce, which was brokered by Ankara and Moscow, and endorsed by the United Nations Security Council. Delegations from armed opposition groups and the Syrian regime were meant to speak directly; however, this failed to materialise. The talks suggest the possibility of a diplomatic resolution for Syria in the future, but one which will favour the regime, and will not totally end the fighting.
The Astana talks highlighted the role of these three regional powers in Syria’s civil war, and the sidelining of the USA and Saudi Arabia; the former was invited as an observer, and the latter not at all. Astana did little to change the situation on the ground as regime forces continue attacking rebel fighters in Wadi Barada, near Damascus, while fighting between rebel groups broke out in Idlib, further weakening the opposition in the face of an assertive regime.
The nature of the Syrian civil war, with the involvement of a number of states supporting a range of actors, and the role of the Islamic State group (IS), has led to the failure of several UN-mandated peace talks. The organisers positioned the Astana talks as a basis for upcoming UN talks in Geneva, intended to cement the ceasefire while establishing a trajectory for future negotiations. The fall of Aleppo in December was a turning point in the conflict, and allowed the Syrian president, Bashar al-Asad, to claim victory and rubbish any attempts to exclude him from any transition process. Since Turkish and Russian support led to Asad’s success in Aleppo, they also took the diplomatic initiative. Their ceasefire deal was signed by Syria and seven major opposition groups. It was active in all areas not under IS control, and excluded UN-designated ‘terrorist’ groups, particularly IS and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly al-Qa'ida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra). When the parties decided early January that the ceasefire was substantially holding, Russia and Turkey began preparations to host talks between the regime and opposition forces.
Differing expectations of the Astana talks threatened to collapse the dialogue before it has started. Asad expressed hope that the armed rebel groups will disarm in exchange for an amnesty deal. Opposition groups expected to the talks only to strengthen the ceasefire, leaving any discussion of Syria’s political future to Geneva. The ceasefire agreement between Russia and Turkey has been more successful than previous agreements between Russia and the USA, and the organisers hoped that excluding the USA from a pivotal role may invoke greater trust between participants. Washington’s involvement in the Syrian peace process has decreased not only due to Asad’s ascendency with Russian support or Iran wishing to exclude them from the process, but also as Obama’s presidency ended. Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem also spoke highly of the chance of success due to ‘strong guarantees’ from Moscow, calling the ceasefire a potential starting point for a political process.
Although all opposition groups that had signed the 30 December ceasefire had received invitations to Astana, the Islamist Ahrar al-Sham, one of the larger rebel groups, did not attend, citing the fighting in Wadi Barada. The USA had insisted that the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD, the largest group in the US-sponsored Syrian Democratic Forces) be involved; Moscow remained silent while Ankara refused to consider the inclusion of either the PYD or its armed wing, the YPG, due to their links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The SDF responded by announcing its rejection any decisions that would be made in Astana. Opposition groups are divided, and the loss of eastern Aleppo highlighted their weakened position. Turkey is the opposition’s major state ally; however, Ankara’s rapprochement with Moscow forces opposition groups to question the usefulness of a diplomatic route that constrains their offensive options and increases tensions with Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. The current fighting between Fateh al-Sham and allies against Ahrar al-Sham and allies in Idlib highlights this tension among rebel factions.
The Astana talks were largely unproductive, and their primary impact emerged from discussions on the sidelinesbetween Russia, Turkey and Iran on strengthening the ceasefire. In their agreement to set up a trilateral mechanism to monitor the ceasefire, the parties agreed there could be no military solution in Syria, and that the conflict could only be resolved through compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254. Neither the Syrian regime nor the rebel delegation appeared satisfied by the outcome of the talks. The opposition protested Iran’s inclusion in monitoring the ceasefire and mediating the conflict, and refused to sign any agreement. The government, meanwhile, announced the continuation of an offensive in Wadi Barada despite the ceasefire and had recaptured all rebel villages within a week.
An agreement to extend the ceasefire is a shaky foundation for the UN-mandated talks in Geneva starting on 20 February. Further, the exclusion of up to two thirds of opposition groups does not provide the rebel delegation with a popular mandate. The exclusion of armed groups with alleged al-Qa'ida links has further divided the opposition while providing the regime with an excuse for violating the ceasefire. Iran’s commitment to the ceasefire is a positive step towards freezing the conflict. Ultimately, it seems that a diplomatic solution is on the horizon, with the main drivers being Russia, Turkey and Iran. It will likely be a resolution that sees the co-option of certain sections of the opposition into the government, and an agreement that Asad will remain in power until the next election, when he will gracefully exit.
The United Nations has suspended all aid convoys in Syria after its lorries were attacked by warplanes near Aleppo on Monday.
The attack came a few hours after the Syrian army declared an end to a week -long ceasefire. The United States has expressed outrage at an attack on an aid convoy near the Syrian city of Aleppo.
South African aid organisations have been lauded for their humanitarian efforts in the Syrian conflict. The conflict began with the Arab spring in 2011 and now has degraded into a civil war whereby there are many armed factions fighting for control. To give us more insight and to explain South Africa's humanitarian role in Syria is Afro-Middle East Centre Executive Director Naeem Jeenah.
The 13 December surrender agreement between rebel groups and the regime of President Bashar al-Asad marked a turning point in the five-year long Syrian conflict. Opposition demands for Asad to step down through a transition process now seem impractical and unachievable, mainly because the government now controls most urban areas. Further, the agreement’s relative success will empower its chief negotiators, Turkey and Russia, to reshape the conflict to suit their converging interests, which increasingly sees a role for Asad. The regime will, however, find it difficult to establish its sovereignty over the entire country as Turkish troops and rebel groups backed by Turkey and certain Gulf states – including Saudi Arabia and Qatar – consolidate in more rural areas. Significantly, the regime is now more empowered to pursue its aims, even when these do not fully coincide with the interests of its Russian ally.
Announced late Tuesday, the agreement allowed for rebels and civilians trapped in besieged East Aleppo to evacuate to other rebel controlled areas as regime forces regain control of the remains of the city. This completes the main thrust of the regime’s latest strategy, which aimed at consolidating control of large population centres across the country’s east-west spine, confining the rebellion to rural provinces. The government now controls Damascus in the south, Aleppo in the north, and the central Homs and Hama provinces – the areas many refer to as ‘useful Syria’. This means that any transitional agreement that excludes Asad – as the opposition and Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia have been demanding – will not be possible, thus voiding a major demand of the rebellion.
Already, Qatar’s foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al –Thani, referred to the Syrian opposition’s calls for negotiations without any preconditions regarding Asad’s role. Further, although rebel groups control parts of the Aleppo governorate, much of Idlib, as well as areas in the south, their armed capabilities have been severely weakened, due in part to fears about their links with Jabhat Fatah Al-Sham (formerly Jabhat Al-Nusra). This relationship has made some governments, especially the USA and Jordan (which train and coordinate activities with the Southern Front rebel group) wary. Funding, even from Saudi Arabia, has thus been reduced, and some states, especially USA and Jordan, prefer to conclude agreements with the Syrian regime around combatting the Islamic State group and preventing a spillover into Jordan and Lebanon.
Shifting geopolitical interests have also influenced the conflict. Following Turkey’s apology to Russia over its downing of a Russian fighter jet in November 2015, a rapid rapprochement has occurred between the two states, and a convergence on Syria is emerging. In September the two countries agreed on Turkish use of Syrian airspace, and in October Turkey aligned its stance on Jabhat Fatah Al-Sham closer to that of Moscow. It is probable that Turkey’s recent troop deployment into Syria was endorsed by Moscow. Russia and Syria have virtually ignored Turkey’s incursion into northern Syria and its efforts to form a buffer zone up to the IS-controlled town of Al-Bab – in return for it limiting its support for rebel groups in east Aleppo.
Ankara’s redeployment of thousands of rebel fighters from Aleppo and its August capture of Jarabulus, in the north of the Aleppo governorate, in was a key factor influencing the Syrian regime’s ability to reimpose its siege on Aleppo in September. In recent months Ankara has attempted to negotiate a rebel withdrawal from east Aleppo, initially only for Jabhat Fatah Al-Sham fighters, thus allowing some opposition governance in the city, and later, following regime objections, for civilians and fighters belonging to other groups. This deal was key to the rapid fall of east Aleppo, and to the fact that Turkish-backed forces rather than the Kurdish YPG will likely be prominent in attempts to drive IS from Al-Bab. Turkey and the other major regional power with troops in Syria, Iran, have also been discussing Syria in the past three months, and have agreed to protect the country’s territorial integrity.
Iran was not, however, directly involved in the surrender agreement negotiations, and has been accused by some as a spoiler, because of its demands that wounded civilians in the regime-supporting towns of Foua and Kefraya in Idlib governorate, which are besieged by rebels, also be evacuated, and by then supporting militia groups which have prevented many evacuation attempts from Aleppo. Iran has attempted a deal on these towns for the past eighteen months with Ahrar al-Sham. Its proposal was to engineer a population swap, with residents of these towns to be exchanged with Sunni residents of Zabadani and Madaya. This would consolidate the Shi'a presence in the area from Damascus to the Lebanese Beka'a Valley. Iran also demanded the bodies of slain militia fighters that it had sent to Syria, including members of Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Iraqi militias. It also demanded information about any fighters that had been taken prisoner.
The Turkey-Russia agreement stalled repeatedly, and although not part of the original Aleppo agreement, it now includes evacuation plans for Foua, Kefraya, and the parts of Madaya and Zabadani as well.Significantly, the USA and EU played no role in the recent surrender agreement, and initially were unaware of it.
With this reconfiguration in interests and power, Syria could be divided into zones of influence, allowing for some cooperation despite the divergences in the Russian, Iranian, and Turkish positions. The prominence of Jabhat Fatah Al-Sham in Idlib may complicate this plan, especially since Idlib directly borders Turkey, and because the group often coordinates with Ahrar al-Sham, which is supported by Turkey and some Gulf countries. Fissures in Ahrar al-Sham have already emerged, and a splinter group, Jaish Al-Ahrar, which is critical of the former’s reliance on Turkey and its supposed antagonism to Jabhat Fatah Al-Sham, has been formed.
With Aleppo back in Syrian government control, Asad has gained the upper hand in the conflict over control of the state. However, the conflict is not about to end; it will probably continue at a lower intensity as the regime conducts operations in Idlib and other rebel-controlled regions, and because rebel groups will alter their tactics in favour of smaller insurgent operations. Many opposition groups may be forced to accept a political solution as their position further weakens, but it is unlikely the regime will allow the opposition autonomy over areas it currently controls. Earlier versions of the surrender agreement, which would have allowed for the maintenance of the east Aleppo local council, and which was accepted by Moscow and Ankara, was discarded because it was rejected by the regime. In many places opposition to the regime from citizens will endure, and not all rebel groups will accept such an eventuality, arguing that they cannot allow all their sacrifices to amount to nought.