19 October 2014

Why the Ayatollah Just Said "No"

Attached beneath my introduction are two important essays by Gareth Porter.  The first appeared in Foreign Policy and the second in IPSNews. Links to the originals are included below.
Saddam Husayn invaded Iran without warning on 22 September 1980, probably with the encouragement of the Carter Administration (see Saddam’s Green Light).  Chemical weapons were used extensively during the Iran-Iraq War (Sept 1980 - August 1988).  While it was well known that Iraq initiated their use, the mainstream media became littered with insinuations that Iran had retaliated in kind — and a general impression was created that both sides were using chemical weapons.  In retrospect, it is now widely acknowledged by scholars that Iran did not resort to chemical weapons; i.e., that only Iraq used them. See, for example, this entry in wikipedia:
At the time of the conflict, the U.N. Security Council issued statements that "chemical weapons had been used in the war." U.N. statements never clarified that only Iraq was using chemical weapons, and according to retrospective authors "the international community remained silent as Iraq used weapons of mass destruction against Iranian[s] as well as Iraqi Kurds."[40][41][42]  [emphasis added]
Nevertheless, the impression that both sides used chemical weapons persists in many quarters to this day.  It is important to remember the context of the 1980s: the Reagan Administration (1) was allied with Iraq, (2) was adept in creating narratives for the press and in pressuring the United Nations, and (3) had an interest in demonizing Iran.  
Now, fast forward to 2003: The Bush Administration convinced the American people that the US had to invade and bomb Iraq because Saddam Husayn (1) was  developing atomic weapons, (2) had demonstrated he had no compunctions against using weapons of mass destruction,  and (3) these weapons might well be given to Saddam’s Al Qaeda terrorist allies.  While the Iran-Iraq war suggested the second claim was probably true; the first and third claims were patently false, and neither represented the consensus view of the intelligence community in 2003.  The intelligence was fixed to fit the policy narrative.  Today, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Iraqis have died because of the US invasion and its consequences.  Iraq is physically in ruins and is now well on its way to disintegrating into at least three permanent-warring, quasi-tribal statelets, with a good dose of religious war to boot.  Without the U.S. invasion of Iraq, there would be no ISIS to spook the world.  ISIS units are led and trained, at least in part, by former Iraqi military officers, who were impoverished and made unemployable by the U.S. de-ba’athification policy.
A variation of the same info op that grew into the 2003 invasion of Iraq has been in play with respect to Iran for several years.  Today, similar claims vaguely conflating nuclear weapons and terrorism are being made by the U.S. and especially by Israel: namely Iran has an atomic weapons program that must be stopped, in part because Iran is the world’s most dangerous supporter of an undifferentiated blend of global Islamic terrorism.  Prime Minister Netanyahu’s 29 September 2014 speech to the UN conflating Hamas, ISIS, and Iran being perhaps the most bizarre example of this kind of narrative in action. 
So, the question of why Iran did not use chemical weapons when so strongly provoked to do so by Iraq’s chemical attacks in the Iraq-Iran war, ought to be quite relevant to any assessment of Iran’s intentions today.  
But this is a question that has not really been addressed until now.  Attached below are two very important reports by Gareth Porter, one of America’s very best investigative journalists.  In Attachment 1, Porter reveals the inside history of Iranian decisions not to use chemical weapons in the 1980-88 war on moral and legal grounds and its tight connection to the Iranian decision not to develop atomic weapons.  In Attachment 2, Porter describes a specific case of how information is being manipulated and twisted to support the contention that Iran is aggressively pursing an atomic weapons capability (the credibility of which depends in large part on one’s ignorance of the kind of information contained in Attachment 1).  Attachment 2 is also a revealing bookend to Netanyahu’s hyping of the Iranian threat in his speech to the UN. 
Chuck Spinney

—[Attachment 1: This essay first appeared in Foreign Policy]—

When the Ayatollah Said No to Nukes
In an exclusive interview, a top Iranian official says that Khomeini personally stopped him from building Iran's WMD program.
BY Gareth Porter, Foreign Policy, OCTOBER 16, 2014
[Reprinted with permission of the publisher]
The nuclear negotiations between six world powers and Iran, which are now nearing their November deadline, remain deadlocked over U.S. demands that Iran dismantle the bulk of its capacity to enrich uranium. The demand is based on the suspicion that Iran has worked secretly to develop nuclear weapons in the past and can't be trusted not to do so again.
Iran argues that it has rejected nuclear weapons as incompatible with Islam and cites a fatwa of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei as proof. American and European officials remain skeptical, however, that the issue is really governed by Shiite Islamic principles. They have relied instead on murky intelligence that has never been confirmed about an alleged covert Iranian nuclear weapons program.
But the key to understanding Iran's policy toward nuclear weapons lies in a historical episode during its eight-year war with Iraq. 
The story, told in full for the first time here, explains why Iran never retaliated against Iraq's chemical weapons attacks on Iranian troops and civilians, which killed 20,000 Iranians and severely injured 100,000 more. And it strongly suggests that the Iranian leadership's aversion to developing chemical and nuclear weapons is deep-rooted and sincere.
A few Iranian sources have previously pointed to a fatwa by the Islamic Republic's first supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, prohibiting chemical weapons as the explanation for why Iran did not deploy these weapons during the war with Iraq. But no details have ever been made public on when and how Khomeini issued such a fatwa, so it has been ignored for decades.
Now, however, the wartime chief of the Iranian ministry responsible for military procurement has provided an eyewitness account of Khomeini's ban not only on chemical weapons, but on nuclear weapons as well. 
In an interview with me in Tehran in late September, Mohsen Rafighdoost, who served as minister of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) throughout the eight-year war, revealed that he had proposed to Khomeini that Iran begin working on both nuclear and chemical weapons -- but was told in two separate meetings that weapons of mass destruction are forbidden by Islam. I sought the interview with Rafighdoost after learning of an interview he had with Mehr News Agency in January in which he alluded to the wartime meetings with Khomeini and the supreme leader's forbidding chemical and nuclear weapons. The interview had never been translated into English.
Rafighdoost was jailed under the Shah for dissident political activity and became a point of contact for anti-Shah activists when he got out of prison in 1978. When Khomeini returned to Tehran from Paris after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Rafighdoost became his bodyguard and head of his security detail. He was also a founding member of the IRGC and was personally involved in every major military decision taken by the corps during the Iran-Iraq War, including the initiation of Iran's ballistic missile program and creation of Hezbollah.
Despite his IRGC background, however, Rafighdoost has embraced the pragmatism of President Hassan Rouhani's government. In October 2013, he recalled in an interview that Khomeini had dissuaded him from setting up the IRGC's headquarters at the former U.S. Embassy in Tehran.
"Why do you want to go there?" Rafighdoost recalled Khomeini as saying. "Are our disputes with the U.S. supposed to last a thousand years? Do not go there."
Rafighdoost received me in his modest office at the Noor Foundation, of which he has been chairman since 1999. Looking younger than his 74 years, he still has the stocky build of a bodyguard and bright, alert eyes.
Saddam Hussein's Iraq began using chemical weapons against Iranian troops after Iran repelled the initial Iraqi attack and began a counterattack inside Iraq. The Iraqis considered chemical weapons to be the only way to counter Iran's superiority in manpower. Iranian doctors first documented symptoms of mustard gas from Iraqi chemical attacks against Iranian troops in mid-1983. However, Rafighdoost said, a dramatic increase in Iraqi gas attacks occurred during an Iranian offensive in southern Iraq in February and March 1984. The attacks involved both mustard gas and the nerve gas tabun, which prompted him to take a major new initiative in his war planning.
Rafighdoost told me he asked some foreign governments for assistance, including weapons, to counter the chemical-war threat, but all of them rejected his requests. This prompted him to decide that his ministry would have to produce everything Iran needed for the war. "I personally gathered all the researchers who had any knowledge of defense issues," he recalled. He organized groups of specialists to work on each category of military need -- one of which was called "chemical, biological, and nuclear."
Rafighdoost prepared a report on all the specialized groups he had formed and went to discuss it with Khomeini, hoping to get his approval for work on chemical and nuclear weapons. The supreme leader met him accompanied only by his son, Ahmad, who served as chief of staff, according to Rafighdoost. "When Khomeini read the report, he reacted to the chemical-biological-nuclear team by asking, ‘What is this?'" Rafighdoost recalled. 
Khomeini ruled out development of chemical and biological weapons as inconsistent with Islam.
"Imam told me that, instead of producing chemical or biological weapons, we should produce defensive protection for our troops, like gas masks and atropine," Rafighdoost said.
Rafighdoost also told Khomeini that the group had "a plan to produce nuclear weapons." That could only have been a distant goal in 1984, given the rudimentary state of Iran's nuclear program. At that point, Iranian nuclear specialists had no knowledge of how to enrich uranium and had no technology with which to do it. But in any case, Khomeini closed the door to such a program. "We don't want to produce nuclear weapons," Rafighdoost recalls the supreme leader telling him.
Khomeini instructed him instead to "send these scientists to the Atomic Energy Organization," referring to Iran's civilian nuclear-power agency. That edict from Khomeini ended the idea of seeking nuclear weapons, according to Rafighdoost.
The chemical-warfare issue took a new turn in late June 1987, when Iraqi aircraft bombed four residential areas of Sardasht, an ethnically Kurdish city in Iran, with what was believed to be mustard gas. It was the first time Iran's civilian population had been targeted by Iraqi forces with chemical weapons, and the population was completely unprotected. Of 12,000 inhabitants, 8,000 were exposed, and hundreds died.
As popular fears of chemical attacks on more Iranian cities grew quickly, Rafighdoost undertook a major initiative to prepare Iran's retaliation. He worked with the Defense Ministry to create the capability to produce mustard gas weapons.
Rafighdoost was obviously hoping that the new circumstances of Iraqi chemical weapons attacks on Iranian civilians would cause Khomeini to have a different view of the issue. He made it clear to me that Khomeini didn't know about the production of the two chemicals for mustard gas weapons until it had taken place. 
"In the meeting, I told Imam we have high capability to produce chemical weapons," he recalled. Rafighdoost then asked Khomeini for his view on "this capability to retaliate." 
Iran's permanent representative to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) disclosed the details of Rafighdoost's chemical weapons program in a document provided to the U.S. delegation to the OPCW on May 17, 2004. It was later made public by WikiLeaks, which published a U.S. diplomatic cable reporting on its contents. The document shows that the two ministries had procured the chemical precursors for mustard gas and in September 1987 began to manufacture the chemicals necessary to produce a weapon -- sulfur mustard and nitrogen mustard. But the document also indicated that the two ministries did not "weaponize" the chemicals by putting them into artillery shells, aerial bombs, or rockets.
The supreme leader was unmoved by the new danger presented by the Iraqi gas attacks on civilians. 
"It doesn't matter whether it is on the battlefield or in cities; we are against this," he told Rafighdoost. "It is haram [forbidden] to produce such weapons. You are only allowed to produce protection."
Invoking the Islamic Republic's claim to spiritual and moral superiority over the secular Iraqi regime, Rafighdoost recalls Khomeini asking rhetorically, 
"If we produce chemical weapons, what is the difference between me and Saddam?"
Khomeini's verdict spelled the end of the IRGC's chemical weapons initiative. "Even after Sardasht, there was no way we could retaliate," Rafighdoost recalled. The 2004 Iranian document confirms that production of two chemicals ceased, the buildings in which they were stored were sealed in 1988, and the production equipment was dismantled in 1992.
Khomeini also repeated his edict forbidding work on nuclear weapons, telling him, 
"Don't talk about nuclear weapons at all."
Rafighdoost understood Khomeini's prohibition on the use or production of chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons as a fatwa -- a judgment on Islamic jurisprudence by a qualified Islamic scholar. It was never written down or formalized, but that didn't matter, because it was issued by the "guardian jurist" of the Islamic state -- and was therefore legally binding on the entire government. "When Imam said it was haram [forbidden], he didn't have to say it was fatwa," Rafighdoost explained.
Rafighdoost did not recall the date of that second meeting with Khomeini, but other evidence strongly suggests that it was in December 1987. Iranian Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi said in a late December 1987 speech that Iran "is capable of manufacturing chemical weapons" and added that a "special section" had been set up for "offensive chemical weapons." But Mousavi refrained from saying that Iran actually had chemical weapons, and he hinted that Iran was constrained by religious considerations.
 "We will produce them only when Islam allows us and when we are compelled to do so," he said.
A few days after Mousavi's speech, a report in the London daily the Independent referred to a Khomeini fatwa against chemical weapons. 
Former Iranian nuclear negotiator Seyed Hossein Mousavian, now a research scholar at Princeton University, confirmed for this article that Khomeini's fatwa against chemical and nuclear weapons, which accounted for the prime minister's extraordinary statement, was indeed conveyed in the meeting with Rafighdoost.
In February 1988, Saddam stepped up his missile attacks on urban targets in Iran. He also threatened to arm his missiles with chemical weapons, which terrified hundreds of thousands of Iranians. Between a third and a half of the population of Tehran evacuated the city that spring in a panic.
Khomeini's fatwa not only forced the powerful IRGC commander to forgo the desired response to Iraqi chemical weapons attacks, but the fatwa made it all but impossible for Iran to continue the war. 
Although Khomeini had other reasons for what he called "the bitter decision" to accept a cease-fire with Iraq in July 1988, the use of these devastating tools factored into his decision. In a letter explaining his decision, Khomeini said he was consenting to the cease-fire "in light of the enemy's use of chemical weapons and our lack of equipment to neutralize them."
Khomeini's Islamic ruling against all weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, was continued by Ali Khamenei, who had served as president under Khomeini and succeeded him as supreme leader in 1989. Iran began publicizing Khamenei's fatwa against nuclear weapons in 2004, but commentators and news media in the United States and Europe have regarded it as a propaganda ploy not to be taken seriously.
The analysis of Khamenei's fatwa has been flawed not only due to a lack of understanding of the role of the "guardian jurist" in the Iranian political-legal system, but also due to ignorance of the history of Khamenei's fatwa. A crucial but hitherto unknown fact is that Khamenei had actually issued the anti-nuclear fatwa without any fanfare in the mid-1990s in response to a request from an official for his religious opinion on nuclear weapons. Mousavian recalls seeing the letter in the office of the Supreme National Security Council, where he was head of the Foreign Relations Committee from 1997 to 2005. The Khamenei letter was never released to the public, apparently reflecting the fact that the government of then President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani had been arguing against nuclear weapons for years on strategic grounds, so publicizing the fatwa appeared unnecessary at that point. 
Since 2012, the official stance of U.S. President Barack Obama's administration has been to welcome the existence of Khamenei's anti-nuclear fatwa. Obama even referred to it in his U.N. General Assembly speech in September 2013. But it seems clear that Obama's advisors still do not understand the fatwa's full significance: 
Secretary of State John Kerry told journalists in July, "The fatwa issued by a cleric is an extremely powerful statement about intent," but then added, "It is our need to codify it."
That statement, like most of the commentary on Khamenei's fatwa against nuclear weapons, has confused fatwas issued by any qualified Muslim scholar with fatwas by the supreme leader on matters of state policy. The former are only relevant to those who follow the scholar's views; the latter, however, are binding on the state as a whole in Iran's Shiite Islam-based political system, holding a legal status above mere legislation.
The full story of Khomeini's wartime fatwa against chemical weapons shows that when the "guardian jurist" of Iran's Islamic system issues a religious judgment against weapons of mass destruction as forbidden by Islam, it overrides all other political-military considerations. 
Khomeini's fatwa against chemical weapons prevented the manufacture and use of such weapons -- even though it put Iranian forces at a major disadvantage in the war against Iraq and even though the IRGC was strongly in favor of using such weapons. It is difficult to imagine a tougher test of the power of the leader's Islamic jurisprudence over an issue.
Given the fundamental misunderstanding of the way in which the Islamic Republic has made policy on weapons of mass destruction, the episode of Khomeini's fatwa has obvious implications for the nuclear negotiations with Iran. Negotiators who are unaware of the real history of Iran's anti-nuclear fatwas will be prone to potentially costly miscalculations.
——[Attachment 2: This essay first appeared in IPS News]——

History of Key Document in IAEA Probe Suggests Israeli Forgery
Analysis by Gareth Porter

[Reprinted with permission of the Author]

WASHINGTON, Oct 17 2014 (IPS) - Western diplomats have reportedly faulted Iran in recent weeks for failing to provide the International Atomic Energy Agency with information on experiments on high explosives intended to produce a nuclear weapon, according to an intelligence document the IAEA is investigating.
But the document not only remains unverified but can only be linked to Iran by a far-fetched official account marked by a series of coincidences related to a foreign scientist that that are highly suspicious.
The original appearance of the document in early 2008, moreover, was not only conveniently timed to support Israel’s attack on a U.S. National Intelligence Estimate on Iran in December that was damaging to Israeli interests, but was leaked to the news media with a message that coincided with the current Israeli argument.
The IAEA has long touted the document, which came from an unidentified member state, as key evidence justifying suspicion that Iran has covered up past nuclear weapons work.
In its September 2008 report the IAEA said the document describes “experimentation in connection with symmetrical initiation of a hemispherical high explosive charge suitable for an implosion type nuclear device.”
But an official Iranian communication to the IAEA Secretariat challenged its authenticity, declaring, “There is no evidence or indication in this document regarding its linkage to Iran or its preparation by Iran.”
The IAEA has never responded to the Iranian communication.
The story of the high explosives document and related intelligence published in the November 2011 IAEA report raises more questions about the document than it answers.
The report said the document describes the experiments as being monitored with “large numbers of optical fiber cables” and cited intelligence that the experiments had been assisted by a foreign expert said to have worked in his home country’s nuclear weapons programme.
The individual to whom the report referred, Ukrainian scientist Vyacheslav Danilenko, was not a nuclear weapons expert, however, but a specialist on nanodiamond synthesis. Danilenko had lectured on that subject in Iran from 2000 to 2005 and had co-authored a professional paper on the use of fiber optic cables to monitor explosive shock waves in 1992, which was available online.  
Related IPS Articles

Those facts presented the opportunity for a foreign intelligence service to create a report on high explosives experiments that would suggest a link to nuclear weapons as well as to Danilenko.  Danilenko’s open-source publication could help convince the IAEA Safeguards Department of the authenticity of the document, which would otherwise have been missing.
Even more suspicious, soon after the appearance of the high explosives document, the same state that had turned it over to the IAEA claimed to have intelligence on a large cylinder at Parchin suitable for carrying out the high explosives experiments described in the document, according to the 2011 IAEA report.
And it identified Danilenko as the designer of the cylinder, again basing the claim on an open-source publication that included a sketch of a cylinder he had designed in 1999-2000.
The whole story thus depended on two very convenient intelligence finds within a very short time, both of which were linked to a single individual and his open source publications.
Furthermore, the cylinder Danilenko sketched and discussed in the publication was explicitly designed for nanodiamonds production, not for bomb-making experiments.
Robert Kelley, who was the chief of IAEA teams in Iraq, has observed that the IAEA account of the installation of the cylinder at a site in Parchin by March 2000 is implausible, since Danilenko was on record as saying he was still in the process of designing it in 2000.
And Kelley, an expert on nuclear weapons, has pointed out that the cylinder would have been unnecessary for “multipoint initiation” experiments. 
“We’ve been taken for a ride on this whole thing,” Kelley told IPS.
The document surfaced in early 2008, under circumstances pointing to an Israeli role. An article in the May 2008 issue of Jane’s International Defence Review, dated Mar. 14, 2008, referred to, “[d]ocuments shown exclusively to Jane’s” by a “source connected to a Western intelligence service”.
It said the documents showed that Iran had “actively pursued the development of a nuclear weapon system based on relatively advanced multipoint initiation (MPI) nuclear implosion detonation technology for some years….”
The article revealed the political agenda behind the leaking of the high explosives document. “The picture the papers paints,” he wrote, “starkly contradicts the US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) released in December 2007, which said Tehran had frozen its military nuclear programme in 2003.”
That was the argument that Israeli officials and supporters in the United States had been making in the wake of the National Intelligence Estimate, which Israel was eager to discredit.
The IAEA first mentioned the high explosives document in an annex to its May 2008 report, shortly after the document had been leaked to Janes.
David Albright, the director of the Institute for Science and International Security, who enjoyed a close relationship with the IAEA Deputy Director Olli Heinonen, revealed in an interview with this writer in September 2008 that Heinonen had told him one document that he had obtained earlier that year had confirmed his trust in the earlier collection of intelligence documents. Albright said that document had “probably” come from Israel.
Former IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei was very sceptical about all the purported Iranian documents shared with the IAEA by the United States. Referring to those documents, he writes in his 2011 memoirs, 
“No one knew if any of this was real.”
ElBaradei recalls that the IAEA received still more purported Iranian documents directly from Israel in summer 2009. The new documents included a two-page document in Farsi describing a four-year programme to produce a neutron initiator for a fission chain reaction.
Kelley has said that ElBaradei found the document lacking credibility, because it had no chain of custody, no identifiable source, and no official markings or anything else that could establish its authenticity—the same objections Iran has raised about the high explosives document.
Meanwhile, ElBaradei resisted pressure from the United States and its European allies in 2009 to publish a report on that and other documents – including the high explosive document — as an annex to an IAEA report. ElBaradei’s successor as director general, Yukia Amano, published the annex the anti-Iran coalition had wanted earlier in the November 2011 report.
Amano later told colleagues at the agency that he had no choice, because he promised the United States to do so as part of the agreement by Washington to support his bid for the job within the Board of Governors, according to a former IAEA official who asked not to be identified.

04 October 2014

Damascus SITREP: a Window into Syria's Complexity

US policy in the Syrian Civil is confused and contradictory.  On the one hand, we are trying to overthrow the Assad regime; and on the other hand, President Obama just declared war on ISIS, Assad’s most dangerous enemy.  To this end, Obama initiated a bizarre open-ended strategic bombing campaign that aims at merely degrading ISIS by attacking ISIS's critical nodes, as if ISIS were an industrial power with a conventional infrastructure and large army (i.e., leadership targets, oil refineries, and command centers, checkpoints, buildings etc).  Moreover, the U.S. is funneling resources and weapons to our supposed allies on the ground, the so-called Free Syrian Army (FSA).  But we know that elements of the FSA are shipping or selling many of these weapons to, and providing recruits for, the same Jihadis we and the Assad government  are fighting.  This confusion is the outward manifestation of a war policy shaped by a toxic brew of cavalier attitudes in government, hysteria in the mass media and the general public, little or no appreciation for what is going on in the Syrian Civil War, and what the real U.S. interests are in the war's outcome.
Regarding the question of what is going on in Syrian, attached herewith is Franklin Lamb’s SITREP for one neighborhood in Damascus. Think of it as microscopic portrait of a tiny part of a complex whole.  While it is dangerous to generalize from such a specific; this report is important, because it illustrates the complexity and nuance of Syrian Civil War, and Lamb is a very knowledgeable observer.  Note especially his discussions of recruiting, the declining support for all the militias, and the outreach being made by the Assad regime.  He concludes with an assessment of the neighborhood’s attitudes toward the so-called Free Syrian Army.
I reformatted his report to highlight its important feature (no text has been changed or omitted).
Chuck Spinney

Da’ish (IS), FSA and al Nusra Compete for Dwindling Support…

Street Scenes from a Damascus Neighborhood

Franklin Lamb
Franklin Lamb is a visiting Professor of International Law at the Faculty of Law, Damascus University and volunteers with the Sabra-Shatila Scholarship Program (sssp-lb.com).
Barzeh neighborhood, Damascus
Changes are underway in Damascus’s suburban neighborhoods. 
  • In some of these neighborhoods there are few families’ left—only fighters. 
  • But in others, residents are trickling back in (or in some cases never even left) despite the danger. Here in these areas, those who have chosen the armed opposition route fall are grouped roughly in the following percentiles: 70% FSA, 25% Al Nusra, and, as of now, relatively few, Da’ish (IS). 
During meetings with young men from the Barzeh neighborhood, an area maybe five blocks by eight blocks, this observer learned of approximately 700 FSA fighters in the neighborhood, 110 from al Nusra, compared with only 7 or 8 Da’ish fighters. The latter do not appear very active in community matters, but reportedly keep their eyes peeled watching what the other militia are up to. Even so, Dai’sh still recruits and sends applicants to other locations for military training, this while promising that within two months the Islamic State will attack central Damascus. 
At the same time, desertions among the rebels are reportedly on the upswing in these areas, and some of the FSA and al-Nusra fighters are splitting off to join Da’ish. It seems that some of these young militia members—pretty much like youngsters everywhere—simply want to play for a ‘winning team’ or in the ‘big leagues,’ and Da’ish is still a strong magnet for ‘tryouts.’ Al-Nusra and Da’ish fighters both claim they are eager to fight Hezbollah—and Western forces—who they believe will show up sooner or later. And many of them exhibit an attitude similar to that of a European jihadist who recently remarked to this observer, “Let’s get it on. And the world will itself judge who are the best fighters, we who believe in Allah or the kuffers (disbelievers).”
Another disturbing attitude, all too frequently expressed in Damascene neighborhoods, is the desire of many of these young men, many of them from “good” families, to sacrifice themselves and become martyrs to their various causes. Residents report that some of the most promising students—majoring in subjects like medicine, law, engineering, computer science, business and other professions—are disaffected and see no future for themselves. And while many are deeply religious, a surprising number appear not to be.
Overwhelmingly the rebels come from areas where outsiders are few. This observer’s friend of more than three years, whose name I withhold for his security, has lived most of his life in Barzeh and knows many of the militia guys. He reports that currently there are only two foreign fighters in Barzeh, one from Algeria and the other from Saudi Arabia. And he expressed shock to me that a friend of his from childhood—who joined al-Nusra 18 months ago and had since become one of its local leaders—had suddenly disappeared. A few days later, my friend got a ‘what’s up’ message from Turkey and learned that his friend had shaved his beard, changed his style of clothing, and left Barzeh without telling anyone. Now he reports that he wears shorts and swims during the day on the Turkish coast and no longer has any desire to fight anyone.
Many among al Nusra and other rebel groups, it seems, are trying to leave Syria and go somewhere, anywhere, that might offer them a positive future of some sort—because they see the war in Syria as being a long one. And in this respect they are no different from the war-weary, exhausted, traumatized Syrian population in general. With very few jobs and nearly ten million displaced from their homes—and with some 3 million living as refugees in neighboring countries—what one finds here 
  • on the one hand is a growing desire to get out, to establish, sadly, a new life elsewhere, in a land other than the one they most love. 
  • Yet on the other, significant numbers of fairly hard-core al-Nusra fighters, as noted above, are quitting that militia in order to join the winning team—Da’ish. 
It is a combination of social factors pointing to what the Iranians have already made note of: that Obama’s strategy of trying to fight Da’ish and the Syrian government at the same time is probably doomed to failure.
Some Syrian analysts, whose views this observer credits, identify two trends that appear to be developing in Syrian neighborhoods controlled by violent militia.
  • One is the growing resistance by the local population to being intimidated and abused by the occupying gunmen—
  • while another is the role the Syrian government is playing in engaging in dialog, usually privately, with the rebels, and offering what some locals here refer to as “contracts.” These are proposals of ceasefires of varying scope in order to help give some hope and help to the increasingly besieged population.
Also, neighborhood attitudes toward militia in areas around Damascus are dramatically changing. This observer is advised by fighters from Barzeh that 
  • as recently as 12-18 months ago, maybe 80% of the citizens supported the FSA, while some backed al Nusra or other groups. 
  • Today militia support is estimated at less than 40%—and dwindling. 
Even those who still back the armed gangs are weaker in their support and no longer respect the militia or defer to them as before. Increasingly neighborhood residents are confronting the rebels on neighborhood streets via ‘citizen committees.’ They are showing up at rebel checkpoints or headquarters to complain or demand respect and an end to arbitrary street “justice.” Reasons for this include 
  • abhorrence of brutality, 
  • exhaustion, 
  • disillusionment, 
  • as well as demonstrable efforts by the Syrian government to increase and maintain services while trying to make important and long overdue changes. 
Even many rebels are said to credit the government for its willingness to be flexible and to make “contracts” with them to improve the lives of the besieged population. For example, 
  • when families return to their homes after having fled, nearly all find that their flats have been broken into and personal property stolen, and they sometimes discover some of their stolen items being sold in neighborhood ‘jihadist souks.’ 
  • According to one resident of Barzeh, computers and plasma TV’s are among the most commonly stolen property. 
By contrast, “neighborhood watch” citizen groups seek the return of stolen goods and demand that the militias stop the thievery.
Also people are increasingly calling for a return to Syrian secularism, and they may actually be making some progress on this point. 
  • Unlike Da’ish, al Nusra does not insist that people attend a mosque for prayers—while the FSA is relatively secular. 
  • Nusra does require that women wear hijabs in neighborhoods under its control, and the first two times a woman is caught without one she is issued a warning. The third time she risks a public whipping. This observer is advised that many younger women, despite the risks, will remove their head scarves the moment they cross out of rebel-held areas, sometimes in plain view of those manning the checkpoints, leaving the neighborhood at this point, traveling to downtown Damascus for work or other purposes. It’s not dissimilar actually to what one finds among many Iranian women, particularly students at Tehran University, who openly admit, often with grins, to giving the local “morality police” a hard time when demands—for instance to adjust their headscarves so as to reduce the amount of hair visible—are made by roving “purists.”
As for the Free Syrian Army, now dubbed by some in the Obama Administration as the “National Coalition—kind of like the National Guard”—it is viewed by many here as corrupt, manned to a large extent by lowlifes and thieves. 
  • The “Free Syrian Army,” as one pithy adage has it, is neither free, nor Syrian, nor an army
  • And at least in Barzeh, at any rate, it is also viewed as being for sale to the highest bidder
  • Moreover, the residents here, though increasingly vocal about jihadist militias, seem to hold actually more respect for al-Nusra, despite its Islamist extremism, than for the Western-backed FSA.

Late word just received by this observer from his friend, the aforementioned son of Barzeh: yesterday he, too, snuck across the Syrian-Turkey border in search of a new life-somewhere until peace returns to his beloved Syria.