Syria’s civil war has resulted in its neighbors, – including Iraq, the Kurdish region of Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon – being awash in refugees. A total of 1.9 million Syrians have sought refuge abroad. And as the unbridled savagery of the conflict has gone on, organized crime has had time to arrive, dig in and start to spread its roots.
War crimes and criminal rings are not the province of one party. The Syrian leader, Bashar Assad, already has been portrayed in the US media as some sort of grotesque monster. Eugene Robinson of The Washington Post, called him a “thug,” and others have hinted he is a sort of Mideast Hitler. He is constantly painted as a man addicted to spying, deception, corruption and atrocity, an enemy of law and order and legitimate authority, a breaker of the peace heading a crushing machinery of repression, etc.
Unfortunately, Assad has come to have rivals in criminality among his opposition, and reportedly the rebels increasingly embody the very evils that they claim to want to overthrow. The Syrian rebels have displayed such brutality and savagery – including the cold-blooded murder of captured Syrian soldiers – that they are beginning to undermine their own cause. Many Syrian insurgents are more and more resorting to murder, smuggling, kidnappings and looting of priceless Syrian artifacts to raise funds to buy weapons and influence. Already last year, residents of Damascus reported to Reuters that car thefts have been increasing since the conflict began, sometimes for use in attacks by insurgents and the government. The report is typical of what is happening. According to several news accounts, the rebels have turned into their own worst enemies. And for the first time since the start of the uprising, Assad looks relatively comfortable in his grip on power.
“The criminality of the Syrian opposition, I think, is the chief reason President Obama is steering clear of more involvement there,” Vince Cannistraro, former CIA counterterrorism chief, told Truthout.
A veteran Mideast expert at National Defense University in Washington, DC, Judith Yaphe, described the Syrian civil war as “a complete mess” that the United States would be warned to stay out of.
Some of the most cruel groups have found support from Arab nations such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and, to a more limited degree, the West. Other elements of the opposition have assumed an extremist face and are openly allied with al-Qaeda. US State Department officials have pointed out to Truthout on background that Syria has always maintained contacts with jihadists to manage their threat to Assad’s regime, but the new influx of al-Qaeda jihadists is likely to complicate any attempt at ending the war. One State Department official who also spoke on background said that the presence of such fanatics only helps shore up Assad’s regime, and another US official agreed, saying that it was “clearly tragic” that Assad’s opponents are “more and more using repellent methods.” This official said that the presence of jihadists dampened any prospect of US military action, because US strikes inadvertently might strengthen Islamic extremists and criminals.
An analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, Joseph Holliday, remarked that organized crime played “a major role in creating nearly insolvable insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, as the governments became hopelessly corrupt and insurgents secured regular sources of weapons and cash. As time went on, it became difficult to differentiate between insurgents, criminals, and government officials, as the profit motive became at least as salient as political motives, creating a volatile mix of war, crime and corruption. It is likely that the conflict in Syria will move in the same direction as the fighting continues,” he wrote.1
Former State Department Mideast official Henry Precht told Truthout the Syrian opposition “seem a pretty lousy lot. That happens when you demonize one side of the conflict – you are left supporting the un-demonized opponents.”
The Killing of Captives
Murder is history’s greatest crime in most all civilizations. But the Syrian opposition’s killing of captives is a cruel, incomprehensible and wanton act. A New York Times article made this point with great impact last month when it described the execution of five trussed men, badly beaten, whose faces were pressed into the dirt as Syrian rebels, posed casually, fired bullets into the back of each prisoner’s head.2
The video that surfaced in The Times article was shot in 2012 and augments evidence of what the newspaper calls a growing body of evidence of an “increasingly criminal environment populated by gangs of highwaymen, kidnappers and killers.”3
Rebel groups, including some affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) “are often summarily killing people with a chilling sense of impunity, and the death toll continues to rise as more towns and villages come under the control of armed opposition groups,” according to a report by Amnesty International. The most alarming extremists are the Nusra Front and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which use terrorist tactics that aim at establishing an Islamic state in Syria.
Jabhat al-Nusra’s growing visibility on the streets of Syrian cities highlights one of the reasons the United States and its allies have been reluctant to arm Syrian rebels even as officials in the Obama administration repeatedly insist that Assad must go. Fears are widespread among Western governments that weapons sent to the rebels could wind up in the hands of extremists and be turned against their benefactors in a region already primed to burst because of sectarian rivalries. But with the decline of the “moderate” – secular – rebels, the opposition may be fast losing the hearts and minds of all but the most committed ordinary Syrians, US experts said.
Several US sources interviewed by Truthout agreed that the Syrian civil war personifies ruthlessness. Yaphe made the point that the atrocities of the rebels are much smaller in scale than those committed by Assad’s army forces, yet their occurrence is increasing.
The FSA introduced a code of conduct for fighters, but it holds no sway over many of the armed groups, particularly the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra group, which dominates in key battlefronts.
Jabhat al-Nusra is the only Syrian rebel group that posts on a Web forum that is used by al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri and known affiliates of the terrorist network, according to Aaron Y. Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He maintains that this suggests a link, at least through its media department, to the main al-Qaeda organization, a connection that endows Jabhat al-Nusra with credibility among jihadists that other groups lack.4
By challenging the secular Syrian opposition, jihadists such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria have forced moderate Syrian rebels to fight on two fronts and divert resources from their battle with the government of Assad, the official said. By presenting an extremist face to the world, the Saudi jihadists aid Assad’s efforts to portray the conflict in Syria as a tug of war between the government and jihadists.
US policies aimed at isolating the extremists are not working, according to US officials who spoke on background to Truthout. By the end of 2013, a group of United States Marines currently deployed inside Saudi Arabia, is supposed to field 1,300 “moderate” Syrian rebels to hurl against Assad, but US reluctance to arm the new rebels was made clear when the weapons given the new group were Russian and Chinese, not American. “We feel that the loyalties of the so-called moderates are not really something we can count on,” a former senior US intelligence official said.
He also noted, “It has finally come clear that whatever weapons the US supplied to the opposition were not going to tip the balance on the battlefield.” He added that thanks to the Russian deal to destroy Assad’s stores of chemical weapons, an issue that removes some of their motivation and incentive, the rebel opposition seems more ineffective and wobbly than ever before.
Refugees Under Attack
UN-run refugee camps are victims of organized criminal rings. Refugee camps in the countries bordering Syria are overflowing. There are now more than 1 million child refugees from Syria. That’s more than the combined under-18 populations of Los Angeles and Boston. A UN refugee agency asserted August 6 that “both organized crime networks and Syrian opposition groups operate in the camp, and use it to pursue their financial and political objectives.”5 Organized crime networks are operating in the biggest refugee camp, Za’atari in Jordan, which is home to 130,000, it said. Because there is an absence of “functioning grievance structures,” the camp is “lawless is many ways,” with resources that are “constantly stolen or vandalized.” The report added, “Both organized crime networks and Syrian opposition groups operate in the camp.” A former senior US intelligence official said that both cooperate to victimize the refugees; their “aims are the same,” and the number of victims is growing. Crimes there include under-age prostitution of girls and drug trafficking.
While the UN is discussing strengthening the Jordan police presence, the government of Jordan has issued statement to the US media denying any organized crime rings in the camp.
Piling on Hardships
The Syrian families displaced by the civil war not only face shortages of basic supplies and services, they are afraid of being caught in the civil war’s crossfire, and their daily lives are menaced by the absence of a proper security apparatus. In the camps, women are not safe, and all too often, teenage boys are recruited as soldiers to fight in the conflict, according to an internal UN report.6
As both sides fight, the security vacuum raises the levels of crime. For example, the city of Aleppo has formed “the Bustan security forces,” established chiefly to curb the number of robberies of local shops by the FSA.7
The FSA is an armed opposition structure that has been operating in Syria since the start of the war. Mainly, it’s composed of defectors from the Syrian Army, and its volunteers began with no political goals except the removal of Assad. The new chief of police in Aleppo, a man named Ryhan, commented, “We now have serious complaints about members of the Free Syrian Army. Some of them are stealing cars to move around.” He added that there were “too many robberies and people being kidnapped in the streets.”8
Other opposition groups are ejecting families from their living quarters to be closer to the front, and the conclusion is that that ordinary Syrians are “losing trust in them.9
Looting Syria’s Past
The rebels control the bulk of Syria’s archeologically rich regions. And to finance their operations, they have begun to engage in large sales of illicitly acquired Syrian artifacts and antiquities. Thanks to a sophisticated network of smugglers and dealers whose clients are the cash-strapped members of the insurgency, in the process of raising funds to buy weapons, the rebels are destroying the country’s cultural heritage. Average pillaging can rake in $50,000 per haul, US intelligence officials said. The rebels are dispatching excavation teams that search for gold, statues, mosaics, tapestries, Roman tombs, etc.9 New accounts tell of the systematic looting of ancient Syrian sites.
To Yaphe, the looting of Syrian treasures and antiquities is a painful reminder of the looting of Iraq’s museums in 2003 after the US invasion of that country – where 32,000 artifacts were looted from 12,000 archaeological sites. “It’s Iraq all over again. A lot of what you are seeing today is simply a mirror image of what happened there,” she told Truthout. A former US intelligence official who witnessed the 2003 US invasion of Iraq told Truthout, “We were going to install a democracy, but we knew nothing about the political structure of Iraq. We didn’t have sufficient troops to fend off the looters, who then burned, listen to this – the Ministries of Education, Trade, Irrigation, Industry, Foreign Affairs, Culture and Information. Our actions destroyed the rule of law in Baghdad, and looters began to destroy the priceless treasures of the Baghdad Archeological Museum. What did we save? Not institutions, oh, no. We put tanks, and armored personnel carriers and humvee jeeps around the two ministries, the Ministry of Interior because of its intelligence files – and the Ministry of Oil. The revenues from the oil were going to pay for the invasion, you see.”
The extent of the antiquities trade is unknown because of difficulties accessing historical sites in the war-torn country, according to UNESCO, which hosted a regional workshop in Amman in October on protecting Syrian cultural heritage from trafficking. There are conflicting reports about the fate of artifacts from Syria, long a cultural crossroads in the region.
In March 2012, then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee and noted some of the issues that restrained US support for the Syrian opposition. One of these was its loose chain of command and its loose control of units in the field. “It is not clear what constitutes the Syrian opposition – there has been no single unifying military alternative that can be recognized, appointed or contacted,” Panetta said.10 Yaphe said bitterly, “You would think that all of this chaos would have provided at least some spark that would have brought people together. It hasn’t happened.”
US experts pointed out that America no longer has any hope of shaping the FSA into a fighting force of moderates that can beat Assad. It helped form the Supreme Military Council in December 2012 to add a command structure to a resistance that lacked any effective structure.” Organizing even those groups into a competent command structure was like “stabbing a jellyfish with a knife,” said a former US intelligence official.
Such squabbling ineffectiveness, combined with the huge burden of suffering that ordinary Syrians have endured, has produced a strain of despair in Yaphe who said, “What if the end in Syria is just another man with a gun?”
So far that question remains unanswered.
2) “Brutality of the Syrian Rebels Posing Dilemma in the West,” C.J. Shivers, Sept. 6, 20013, The New York Times.
Syrian rebels loot artifacts to raise money for fight against Assad, Feb. 12, 2013, The Washington Post.
9) Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, Testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, 7 March 2012, reply to Sen. Ben Nelson.
10) Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, Testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, 7 March, 2012, reply to Sen. Reply to Sen. Ben Nelson.