Last night The Daily Mail reported, after embedding with Israeli commandos, on Jerusalem’s ongoing effort to treat casualties of Syria’s horrific war. The Mail, however, put a spin on this story that not only reflected badly on the Jewish State, but feeds into a narrative cast by Iran and its allies to the effect that Israel is supporting Salafi militancy in Syria, specifically al-Qaeda, a propaganda campaign that has already had deadly consequences. Continue reading
Book Review: The Assassins: A Radical Sect in Islam (1967) by Bernard Lewis
The fourth Caliph, Ali, was assassinated during a civil war that his supporters, Shi’atu Ali (Followers of Ali), lost to the Umayyads, who thereafter moved the capital to Damascus. The Shi’a maintained that the Caliphate should have been kept in the Prophet’s family; over time this faction evolved into a sect unto themselves, which largely functioned as an official opposition, maintaining its claim to the Caliphate, but doing little about it. Several ghulat (extremist) Shi’a movements emerged that did challenge the Caliphate. One of them was the Ismailis. Calling themselves the Fatimids, the Ismailis managed to set up a rival Caliphate in Cairo from the mid-tenth century until the early twelfth century that covered most of North Africa and western Syria. A radical splinter of the Ismailis, the Nizaris, broke with the Fatimids in the late eleventh century and for the next century-and-a-half waged a campaign of terror against the Sunni order from bases in Persia and then Syria. In the late thirteenth century the Nizaris were overwhelmed by the Mongols in Persia and by the Egyptian Mameluke dynasty which halted the Mongol invasion in Syria. The Syrian-based branch of the Nizaris became known as the Assassins, and attained legendary status in the West after they murdered several Crusader officials in the Levant. Attention has often turned back to the Assassins in the West when terrorist groups from the Middle East are in the news, but in the contemporary case of the Islamic State (ISIS) the lessons the Nizaris can provide are limited. Continue reading
This is the second of a six-part series. For part one, see here.
The Origins of the Nizaris in Persia
Hassan-i Sabbah would lead the Nizaris in Persia. Recruited in Rayy, near Tehran, by the chief dawa (missionary) of the Fatimids in 1072, Hassan-i Sabbah went to Egypt between 1078 and 1081, before returning to Iran to proselytize. In 1090, Hassan-i Sabbah won control of the fortress of Alamut in north-west Iran, which would become the headquarters of the Nizaris. Throughout the 1090s, the Nizaris gained control of further castles in Daylam, specifically the Rudbar area; in the southwest of Iran between Khuzestan and Fars; and in the east in Quhistan. Most impressive was the capture of the fortress at Shahdiz, near Isfahan, in 1096-7.
The Daylamis were a notoriously rebellious and hardy people; one of the last to convert to Islam, they were then among the first to assert their independence within it, first politically by forming a separate dynasty and then religiously by converting to Shi’ism. Continue reading
In a report on the internal divisions in the Assad regime and the passing of Syria’s sovereignty to Iran by Ruth Sherlock in The Sunday Telegraph on May 17, there was this stunning sentence: “Perhaps a third of all Alawite males of military age have been killed in the civil war.” This is a startling thought.
To determine if this figure for the proportion of Alawis killed is plausible it is necessary to know how many Alawis there were in Syria at the outset of the war, and how many people have been killed during the war. Continue reading
Ahrar a-Sham “merged with“—in reality annexed—Suqour a-Sham on March 22. Ahrar’s leader, Hashem al-Sheikh (a.k.a. Abu Jabbar), is the leader of the Ahrar-Suqour formation, and Suqour’s leader, Ahmed Issa al-Sheikh (a.k.a. Abu Issa) is his deputy. Ahrar is the largest and most hardline Syrian insurgent group in Syria, and Suqour has a fairly stern Salafi-nationalist ideology—at least at its leadership level—and was once the largest rebel group in Idlib Province.
The first thing this brought to mind was Sam Heller’s witticism late last year: “the most successful, lasting approach to rebel unification so far has basically been ‘Ahrar al-Sham absorbs you’.” Continue reading
In the last few days I’ve been asked a lot about my longstanding view that the beginning of a Western strategy in Syria is the removal of Bashar al-Assad. The question has come from various angles and been phrased in various ways but it always boils down to: “What comes next?”
The best response I have seen to this comes from Thomas Nichols: “When someone says ‘tell me how it ends,’ it’s another way of saying: ‘I just don’t happen to like this particular case for intervention,’ for whatever reason.” Continue reading