From Beirut To Baghdad, Syria's Spillover Is Redrawing The Middle East

The Syrian conflict and the surrounding chaos are allowing al-Qaeda to reinforce its presence in the region, starting with Iraq and Lebanon.

Atmah, a former ISIL stronghold and a crossing point for trafficking
Atmah, a former ISIL stronghold and a crossing point for trafficking
Benjamin Barthe

In Syria, there is now a war within the war.

After months of latent clashes (and a common enemy), anti-Assad rebels and al-Qaeda militiamen have entered into open conflict. Shocked by the abuses committed by the extremist Islamists in zones under their control, and fearing the increasing power they have over the insurrection, the major Syrian armed rebel groups launched a series of attacks Jan. 3 against positions on Da’ish, the Arabic acronym of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) — the incarnation of al-Qaeda in the Middle East.

This offensive may however turn out to have arrived too late to contain the rise in power of transnational jihad in the region. The same day, a few hundred miles to the east, in Iraq, Da’ish fighters, at war against Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s authoritarianism and sectarianism, took over Fallujah and several areas of Ramadi, the two main cities of the Sunni Anbar province.

In the climate of hatred between the two major branches of Islam, ratcheted up by the Syrian civil war, the ISIL has made a powerful comeback in the country where it was founded, in the wake of the American invasion in 2003, under the name of “Islamic State of Iraq.”

It is even possible that this organization may be gaining a foothold in Lebanon, seeing as it claimed responsibility for the car bomb that killed five people on Jan. 1 in the Beirut suburbs, the fourth bombing committed against the Lebanese capital’s Shiite zones since the beginning of last summer.

“A crescent of crisis is starting to emerge, from Iraq to Lebanon, and testifies that the Syrian tragedy is spilling over into the region,” says Peter Harling of the International Crisis Group. "This is a crescent composed of a multitude of conflicts interlocking with each other, with a very strong denominational aspect, even though the current conflagration cannot be fully reduced to a Shiite-Sunni conflict. All these crises are taking advantage of the undermining of state structures, the vanishing of borders, the cross-pillar activity of companies and the American withdrawal out of the Middle-East.”

Spreading like fire

In Syria, the war against the ISIL, which has already killed several dozen people, broke out after residents living around Aleppo accused certain members of the organization of having killed a doctor. Established mostly in the north, the group, made up largely of foreign fighters, soon antagonized the civilian populations because of their ultra-violent practices — such as decapitating soldiers of the regular army because of their Alawite faith, a dissident branch of Shiia Islam.

If food distributions made them momentarily popular in certain areas, their reputation suffers from the intolerance often displayed by the group’s members: pillaging churches, imposing the veil, arresting journalists, and so on.

After the leaders of Da’ish refused to hand over the doctor’s murderers, brigades affiliated with the Islamic Front, a rebel coalition with Salafist leanings, escalated into hostilities. Very soon, other armed groups joined the attack — including the Al-Nusra Front, a movement affiliated with al-Qaeda, but made up of mostly Syrian fighters, who are much better integrated in the rebellion.

Starting in the Aleppo province (north), the clashes then spread over to Idlib (northwest), Ar-Raqqah (east) and Hama (center). Under pressure, the ISIL abandoned some of its strongholds such as Atmah, a locality at the Turkish border, a crossing point for trafficking, where it was replaced with Ahrar al-Sham, an Islamist brigade. In retaliation, over 50 rebels were killed on Sunday by summary executions or car bombings — practices that the ISIL used only, until then, in areas under the control of loyalist forces.

Referred to as “second revolution” by militants convinced that these jihadists are playing into the hands of the regime, the attack was supported by the Syrian National Coalition. The main group of regime opponents sees this as an opportunity to restore its image with the West, a few weeks from a possible Jan. 22 peace summit in Switzerland.

In Iraq, the ISIL, which took refuge in Fallujah, is not facing an easier task. The Iraqi army, which has undertaken a siege of the city, is calling its inhabitants to leave before a potential frontal assault. In Ramadi, 30 miles west (50 kilometers), air strikes got more intense on Sunday, with 25 Islamists reportedly killed.

Iraq's Ministry of Defense revealed aerial photos suggesting that weapons and modern equipment had arrived from Syria into the Anbar province and into Ninive, the other mostly Sunni province in Iraq. “The ISIL has managed to make the most of its networks and capacities in Iraq to obtain a strong presence in Syria and it used this presence in Syria so reinforce its positions in Iraq,” explains Brookings Center analyst Daniel Byman.

No going back

To put an end to these inter-connected conflicts, the central government is attempting to rally to its side the main Sunni tribes, key figures of this region. Such an approach had already helped it to subdue a first jihadist insurrection in 2007-2008, with the help of American troops that withdrew from the country in 2011.

But Prime Minister al-Maliki’s job has now been made more difficult because of the hatred a large part of the Sunni community feel towards him. For the last year, they have been protesting, in vain, against their marginalization inside the state apparatus. The protest movement gradually turned into armed rebellion — the ISIL being only one cause among many others for the chaos hitting the country, where 9,500 civilians were killed in 2013.

Meanwhile, touring the Middle East to support the ongoing Israel-Palestine talks is U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who has ruled out the possibility of redeploying troops on the ground. “We will help the Iraqi authorities in their fight, but this fight, in the end, they will have to win and I am confident they can,” he said this week from Jerusalem.

As for Iran, the great Shiite neighbor, authorities announced they were prepared to supply military equipment, but also refuted any troop support. Tehran seems confident. Comforted by the interim agreement it signed with the U.S. on its nuclear program, the Iranian regime considers that, for now, it has the upper hand over its show of force by proxy with Saudi Arabia, the champion of the Sunni cause.

“The feeling of persecution that has long been specific to the Shiite world is currently switching,” Peter Harling of the International Crisis Group says. “The most sectarian Sunni are under the impression that, after taking over Baghdad and Beirut, placed under the sign of Hezbollah, Iran is about to take Damascus away from them. They fear a domino effect. And as they feel more and more abandoned by their traditional ally, the U.S., they’re ready to do anything to prevent it.”

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!