As I noted in my West Point CTC Sentinel study on the Islamic State's more recent caliphs, the group has had little to say in an official capacity about those who have succeeded the first caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was killed in an American raid in October 2019. While some 18 months have passed since the killing of Baghdadi's successor Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi, the Islamic State has yet to publish an official biography of him. Virtually all the information so far has come from the group's enemies.
While the ongoing protests in Syria's southern province of al-Suwayda' against the Syrian government and its policies are noteworthy, the tribal uprising in the eastern countryside of the eastern province of Dayr al-Zur against the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) is arguably of greater significance, as it amounts to an actual armed revolt that has posed a serious challenge to the SDF's authority over the area- an authority that was only established because of the American-led campaign against the Islamic State. In turn the revolt raises very serious issues about U.S. policy in the region and the supposed ongoing American mission to ensure the "enduring defeat" of the Islamic State.
The revolt itself comes in the wake of the SDF's arrest of the head of the Dayr al-Zur Military Council that has worked under the SDF's authority, but the arrest itself cannot be considered the underlying cause of the revolt. Rather, the revolt reflects a notable degree of long-standing local opposition to SDF rule over the east Dayr al-Zur countryside, driven by a variety of grievances, such as the perception that the SDF is profiting from the area's natural resources (in particular oil) with little or no dividends for locals, complaints about arbitrary arrests by the SDF, and wider resentment of the SDF as an alien political regime dominated by Kurdish cadres linked to the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) and at odds with local political preferences, whether for the Syrian government or the original uprising against the government. With regards to support for the original uprising/revolution/rebellion, the SDF in contrast is often seen as a force that does not represent it, or even as an enemy of it.
The protests against the Syrian government and its policies in Syria's southern province of al-Suwayda' have been ongoing for around two weeks, and are unprecedented in terms of the number of demonstrators, how widespread they are in the province, and the openness of the calls for political change. Yet the demonstrations still raise questions about their future direction and what they can achieve.
To talk more about the protests, I conducted an interview on 30 August 2023 with Ashraf Jamul, who is the coordinator of the local al-Suwayda' faction Faz'at Shabab al-Jabal ("Aid of the Youth of the Mountain"), which coordinates with the Faz'at Fakhr faction and has come out in support of the demands of the protests in a broad sense. This interview is slightly edited for clarity and any parenthetical insertions in square brackets are my own.
تستمر المظاهرات ضد الحكومة السورية وسياساتها في محافظة السويداء الجنوبية لمدة أسبوعين تقريباً، وهي غير مسبوقة من حيث أعداد المتظاهرين وانتشارها في المحافظة والدعوات العلنية الى التغيير السياسي، إلا أنّ المظاهرات تثير أسئلة حول اتجاهها المستقبلي وما تستطيع ان تحققه.
ومن أجل نقاش المظاهرات، أجريت مقابلة في تاريخ 30 آب 2023 مع أشرف جمول وهو منسق فصيل السويداء المحلي "فزعة شباب الجبل" الذي ينسق مع فصيل فزعة فخر وأعلن عن دعمه لمطالب المظاهرات بشكل عام.
The protests in Syria's southern province of al-Suwayda' primarily driven by the deterioration in living standards and the economic situation show no sign of abating. An important shift in the normative discourse surrounding the protests this time comes in the statements of the Mashayakh al-'Aql (the three highest Druze religious authorities in Syria) in support of the protests. Most notably, a statement issued from the "Dar al-Ta'ifa" ("Abode of the Sect") and bearing the personal stamps of two of the Mashayakh al-'Aql (Yusuf Jerbo' and Hamoud al-Hanawi) called for "a governmental change and the formation of a new government capable of managing the crisis, improving the situation, finding solutions and not off-loading responsibilities." The statement also calls on the government to cancel "all the recent economic decisions...and work to improve the livelihood situation for citizens and realise dignified life, and remove all the obstacles and phenomena that bring about the degradation of the citizens," and calls for "combating corruption, apprehend the sowers of corruption with all credibility, and bring them to justice."
To be sure, this statement stops short of calling for the removal of Bashar al-Assad as president of Syria (a call that has been chanted by some demonstrators), and so does not amount to 'regime change' in the sense that is conventionally understood in the Syrian context, but it is significant nonetheless. Calls for replacement of leading figures within the government are now endorsed by the leading Druze religious authorities. Clearly, the protests now have more momentum than on previous occasions in terms of the degree of popular support.
To get some further insight on the protests, I conducted an interview with Hatem al-Zghayar of Harakat Rijal al-Karama ("Movement of the Men of Dignity"), the largest 'third-way' faction in al-Suwayda'. He is also calling for the government to resign. This interview was conducted on 23 August 2023. Any parenthetical insertions in square brackets are my own.
لا تظهر المظاهرات الدائرة في محافظة السويداء الجنوبية والتي كان دافعها الرئيسي هو تردي الوضع الاقتصادي والمعيشي، اي علامات على التراجع. لقد جاء ما يدل على تغير مهم في الحوار حول المظاهرات في المحافظة، ألا وهو البيانات الصادرة عن مشايخ العقل الثلاثة (وهم أعلى السلطات الدينية الدرزية في البلد) دعماً للمظاهرات. ونخص بالذكر البيان الصادر عن "دار الطائفة" الذي يحمل ختمي يوسف جربوع وحمود الحناوي، حيث دعا البيان الى "تغيير حكومي وتشكيل حكومة جديدة قادرة لى ادارة الأزمة وتحسين الواقع وايجاد الحلول وعدم ترحيل المسؤولييات." ويدعو البيان الحكومة الى "التراجع عن كل القرارات الاقتصادية الأخيرة...والعمل على تحسين الواقع المعيشي للمواطنين وتحقيق الحياة الكريمة، وازالة كل العوائق والمظاهر التي تسبب اهانة المواطنين"، كما يدعو البيان الى "محاربة الفساد والضرب على أيدي المفسذين بكل مصداقية وتقديمهم للعدالة."
Despite the growing acceptance of the Syrian government on the regional level, most notably with the readmission of Syria into the Arab League, the economic situation has continued to deteriorate with the Syrian pound hitting record low-values. The deterioration is likely a combination of extensive Western sanctions on Syria, exhaustion through years of war, the fact that some areas with key resource assets remain beyond government control, and the government's own policies.
The government seems to have few if any solutions to these difficult problems, and there is ever growing discontent in government-held areas with the decline in the economy and living standards. This disillusionment is manifesting itself openly in the form of renewed protests in the southern provinces of al-Suwayda' (primarily Druze population) and Deraa (primarily Sunni Arab).
على الرغم من القبول المتزايد بالحكومة السورية على المستوى الإقليمي مع عودة سوريا الى جامعة الدول العربية، إلا أنّ الوضع الاقتصادي واصل ترديه حيث بلغت الليرة السورية قيماً منخفضة قياسية. يعود هذا التردي في الغالب الى مجموعة من العوامل، منها العقوبات الغربية القاسية على سوريا والاستنفاذ مع مرور السنين من الحرب وبقاء بعض المناطق التي تحتوي على موارد مهمة خارج سيطرة الحكومة، وسياسات الحكومة.
يبدو أنّ الحكومة ليس لديها أي حلول لهذه المشاكل، ويزداد عدم الرضى عن تردي الوضع الاقتصادي والمعيشي في المناطق تحت سيطرة الحكومة. وتظهر خيبة الأمل بشكل علني فيما نشهده من مظاهرات مجددة في المحافظتين السويداء (ذات غالبية درزية) ودرعا (ذات غالبية سنية عربية) بالجنوب السوري.
While the phenomenon of foreign fighters making their way to join the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq declined dramatically as the group lost control of territory on the border with Turkey in the period 2015-2017, there was a notable wave in recent years of recruits from Lebanon's northern city of Tripoli who ended up being killed fighting for the group in Iraq. This wave of recruits received coverage in a number of media outlets, and conventional explanations tended to highlight the city's impoverishment and the supposed marginalisation of Sunnis. The reliance on these conventional explanations was challenged (with some justification) as overly simplistic and sweeping in a Century Foundation analysis published in November 2022.
This week's issue of al-Naba' contains, to my knowledge, the first biography published by the group of a person who was part of this wave of Lebanese recruits. His name is given as Abd al-Rahman Musa al-Qarhani (aka Abu Ahmad al-Lubnani). His year of birth is given as 1995-1996 CE and according to the biography he arrived in Iraq in 2020-2021 CE, most notably serving as a camp instructor and then in one of the group's military units in Anbar. The biography claims he was killed in fighting a joint American-Iraqi operation against an Islamic State camp.
While the biography should be treated with caution as a work of hagiography, it contains some credible details that suggest a narrative simply focusing on poverty and perceived Sunni marginalisation is reductive.
A Brief Biography of Former Islamic State Spokesman Abu al-Hasan al-Muhajir: Translation and Overview
The world is generally familiar with the figure of Islamic State spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, who was killed in August 2016 and gave some of the most memorable speeches in the name of the group during the height of its success. In contrast, his successors have generally been shrouded in a veil of obscurity, though with the figure of Abu al-Hasan al-Muhajir, who was spokesman until October 2019 (the month in which Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed), there was a general rumour that he originated from the Arabian Peninsula and there was some information indicating that he was a veteran from the days of al-Qa'ida in Iraq.
As it happens, a brief biography of Abu al-Hasan al-Muhajir has emerged (thanks to "Mr. Orange" for sharing it with me), which I feature in translation below with annotations in square brackets.