Understanding Russia's Military Objectives in Syria

Timur Akhmetov- Despite Russia's recent announcement that it is scaling back its direct involvement in the Syrian civil war, which is now entering its sixth year, the overall policy objectives of the Kremlin included an aspect that is often overlooked: namely, the fact that Russia needed to test, demonstrate, and showcase its contemporary military arsenal in order to prove not only that Russia is capable of acting on the global arena, but also in order to convince potential clients to consider Russian technology in the future. In that vein, the introduction of new technologies became one of the prominent features of the Russian military operation in Syria. Officially, Russian actions are limited to deployment of air forces, there is evidence, however, that Russian latest technologies are actively used on the ground by the Syrian army (SAA) and its proxies.

The transfer of military technology between Russia and Syria occurred long before the outbreak of the civil war, with the first installments dating back to the mid-1950s. Russia's Minister of Foreign Affairs1 noted last September that the country's military personnel were in Syria before the active phase of the military operation began, and their presence was associated with the supply of Russian weapons and arms to Damascus.

In its first stage, Russian engagement was primarily focused on rebuilding and reconstruction of available technological resources of the Syrian military machinery. The SAA, with the help of Russian advisors, managed to establish a system of training and provision of their units as well as the maintenance and repair of heavy fighting machines like the T-55 or T-72 Soviet battle tanks, which are widely used by government troops.

According to military expert Victor Murakhovski, newly available infrastructure for servicing heavy military equipment has allowed Syrian troops to considerably minimize their losses and continue to advance in strategic areas with a steady pace, an underlying factor of its success in Latakia and northern Aleppo.2

At the same time, the conflict in Syria allowed some of the latest Russian technologies to be put to the test in real combat conditions, which is particularly important for Moscow in terms of the export potential of military equipment and investment in new R&D projects.

Internet publications reported in early February3 on the successful debut of  Russia’s T-90 tanks in northern Syria. These reports not only mentioned  the  first combat use of these modern tanks, but experts also mentioned the successful use4 of Russian experience in the protection of military equipment vis-à-vis modern anti-tank systems like TOW-2.

There is also evidence that the ad hoc transfer of certain military technologies takes place between Russian advisors and the SAA as well. According to the information portal Military Review, photos of military vehicles equipped with an improvised optical-electronic suppression system began appearing around the internet in late 2015.5 The development of such a system was then necessitated by a sharp increase in anti-tank systems in the hands of Syrian opposition forces.

Russia has also enabled better communications within the SAA through non-military technologies, such as GoPro cameras mounted on military vehicles and tanks. This enables infantry and machine crews to know what each other is seeing in the hazardous environments of urban warfare.

New Russian technologies in the hands of the SAA are not necessarily implemented in a way that ensures optimal usage. A lack of formal training among crew members6, especially in case of highly sophisticated battle machines, and rising expertise of the opposition fighters in the anti-tank warfare tactics may still lead to considerable losses among the Russian made tanks -- particularly the older models that are still used on the front lines of the Syrian conflict.

In that way, Russia helps establish a full-fledged military infrastructure and deploy a number of its latest technologies on the battlefield. At the same time, Russia seems to be inclined to limit its presence and financial commitments to the ongoing campaign using available technologies. Russian newspapers, with reference to an Austrian military journal, draw attention to the fact that the government manages to keep the costs of the military operation to a minimum. One example of these efforts was introduction of the SVP-24.7

This technology allows helicopters and fighter jets, which rely heavily on Soviet made freefall or 'dumb bombs,' to calculate more precise release points and to increase accuracy at a relatively low cost. However, the bombs themselves have been known to cause casualties since they are dependent on a number of factors, including the skill and planning of the actual operators in the field. If the operators fail to account for all the various weather and air patterns at play at the moment, then this technology may not have the ability to prevent unwanted collateral damage.

Despite the negative international media attention given to the civilian casualty rate of the Russian campaign, it should also be mentioned that the deployment of Russian troops abroad and introduction of the latest Russian technologies help the Russian military test its capabilities in real fighting conditions and reveal possible vulnerabilities of their technologies.

The Kremlin's expansive policy has two basic goals: political and commercial.8 Military analyst Alex Kokcharov suggests that "demonstration of military power is aimed at potential arms buyers who may want to see how warheads work in a real combat situation, not only during exercise.”9 The commercial aspect may already be paying off, since the overall share of Russian companies in international arms manufacturing and sales has been steadily rising since 2013.10 At the same time, Russia continues to pay a considerable price for its involvement in support of the Assad regime, and while the technology used may increase the efficiency of the regime's forces for a relatively low cost, it is unclear whether the endeavor will pay off politically in the future. That partly depends on the larger issues of whether the Syrian crisis can be effectively resolved through political means, whether its refugee crisis can be stemmed, and whether global terrorism can be curbed. Most likely, these larger issues will require broad cooperation and consensus building between Russia and its allies rather than simply new military products on the market.

Timur Akhmetov is an independent analyst on the Middle East with special interest in the Russian and Turkish foreign policies. He is currently interning at the MDC and blogs for the Russian International Affairs Council.

1 RIA news agency, “Lavrov: Russian servicemen have been in Syria for many years” [Russian], September 10, 2015.
2 Lenta.ru, “Cumulative effect” [Russian], January 27, 2016.
3 Ekaterina Zgirovskaya and Pavel Kotlyar, “Vladimir” gets to Aleppo,” Gazeta.ru [Russian], February 5, 2016.
4 “TOW missile v T-90, direct hit: Probably first-ever footage from Syrian battleground,” February 26, 2016 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2rfyeR-YaJw
5 Voennoe Obozrenie (Military Review), “Russian “nestling boxes” successfully “suppress” American TOW-2s” [Russian], February 8, 2016.
6 Viktor Murakhovsky, “What is the chief threat to Russian’s T-90 tank on the Syrian battlefield?” Russian Beyond The Headlines (RBTH), March 2, 2016.
7 Anton Valagin, “How Russia will save in high-precision war,” Rossiyskaya Gazeta [Russian], January 1, 2016.
8 An expert on Russia and Ukraine in the IHS Country Risk.
9 Mashable via Russia Today, “Russia turned airstikes in Syria into advertisement of Russian weapons,” [Russian], December 10, 2015.
10 The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), “Global arms industry: West still dominant despite decline; sales surge in rest of the world, says SIPRI,” December 14, 2015.

Silencing the Conscience of Syria: Are Rebels Mimicking the Regime?

Marie-Sophie Roeder- More than two years have passed since the kidnapping of a group of secular opposition activists in Syria known on social media as the #Douma4. Yet unsettling questions emerging from this  isolated event in the grand Syrian tragedy have not been answered yet. Though several rebel militias had full control of the area of their abduction, none seems willing to admit any knowledge of their current whereabouts and conditions. The area of Douma, which was hit with chemical weapons in August of 2013, has been increasingly consolidated by the Jaysh al-Islam militia, which is vying to be part of the negotiations for Syria's future. Were these activists targeted due to their work of documenting human rights crimes, or perhaps merely because they were well-known secular intellectuals, or were they were merely victims of the general chaos of the civil war? Answers to such questions are more complex than they would appear at first glance.

Razan Zaitoneh, her husband Wael Hamada, and their colleagues Samira Khalil (married to Syrian writer and intellectual dissident, Yassin al-Haj Salih) and Nazim al Hamadi, human rights campaigners and central figures in the Syrian unarmed secular opposition, were abducted from their office of the Violations Documentation Center (VDC) on December 9, 2013 in the Douma, a suburb of Damascus. It was reported that masked gunmen stormed the office, stole computers and documents and abducted the four staff members.1 The activists worked together in the VDC on reporting human rights violations in Syria and had established several centers aimed at empowering women. Several of the staff members of the VDC had been awarded for their efforts in peaceful protest against the Syrian government and the armed rebel factions.

Their kidnapping is only one example of abductions over the past three or four years in Islamist jurisdictions of Syria that seem to target prominent intellectuals. Such kidnappings fall in between two more typical types of kidnappings: one that is the domain of all sorts of criminals seeking to gain some ransom fees, and the other being a sort of political kidnapping aimed to stop or intimidate a direct political opponent. In the context of the civil war, labelling abductions of famous people is in itself tricky, since the difference between a kidnapping and an arrest depends to some extent on how one perceives the legitimacy of the ones doing the abduction. For supporters of the Salafi agenda in the Syrian context, perhaps the disappearance of these four activists represents something other than a kidnapping. Perhaps it is an arrest or a legitimate silencing of "secular" voices. If this is the case, as Yassin al-Haj Salih has pointed out, why were the Islamist factions, from the Muslim Brotherhood to the hard-core Salafis so quiet?2 Why did they fail to own up to the crime? And moreover, why did they blow off the moderate civilian Syrian National Coalition in Istanbul, and its appeal for the immediate release of the kidnapped prisoners?

These are not purely rhetorical questions, but rather, they speak to the heart of the crisis, which is the fact that civilians have almost no influence on the actual events in Syria and some of them desire to bring about a different system based on transparency and openness above all. This is less a matter of moderate versus extremist, secular versus religious, and more a problem of the cycle of violence that has besieged Syria since the beginning of 2012. Since the Assad regime decided to target civilians with violence and intimidation and certain external elements seemed to support an armed uprising as a reaction to the regime’s actions, civilians were immediately caught in the aforementioned cycle of violence without a choice. No matter how benevolent the militias that wrested control from the regime—they had to be ruthless and powerful above all. Otherwise, they too would have been crushed and the revolution would have been lost altogether.

Activists calling for the release of these and all other political prisoners have blamed the Sunni-Salafist rebel group Jaysh al-Islam, a central militia in the Islamic Front with strong ties to Saudi Arabia, for the kidnapping.3 Jaysh al-Islamhas increasingly gained control of Douma and its larger area of Eastern Ghouta but has, however, repeatedly denied any connection to the abduction. At the same time, early statements appeared to be unconcerned with the particular abductions of the activists, who came to be known as the Douma Four, or by the hashtag #Douma4. Among factors that pushed this incident to the side, the civil war itself was already at a deeply chaotic and violent stage, particularly following the regime's chemical weapons attack in that area in August of that year.4 Indeed, a more recent Syrian air force strike killed the leader of Jaysh al-Islam, Zahran Aloush, known for his obscure statements on democracy and the construction of a military junta in Ghouta to the east of Damascus.5 There is no confirmed information about the current whereabouts of the human rights activists, although there has been speculation that they are being held in a jail under the control of Jabhat al-Nusra.6 If this is the case, they may be in particularly acute danger, since Russian air strikes have targeted known detention centers held by that group in recent weeks.

Looking at the history of Syria, one can draw similarities between this kidnapping and regime strategies over the past half century, since the concept of silencing opposition voices is not a new phenomenon within the country. The previous regime of Hafez al-Assad notoriously imprisoned numerous opposition leaders and prominent intellectuals such as Riad al-Turk, Jamal al-Atassi and Michel Kilo. Samira Khalil and Wael Hamadeh, two of the Douma4, were imprisoned for their opposition activities before 2011, and Razan Zaitoneh was forced into hiding after being accused of being a foreign spy by the Assad regime. While the Hama massacre of 1982 and the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in the late 1970s and early 1980s is well-known today, it is less known that the regime simultaneously targeted intellectual elites and professionals with arrest and long-term imprisonment.  
Assuming that the opposition group Jaysh al-Islam bears some responsibility for failing to properly investigate and aid in the release of the Douma4 activists, it appears as if they are complicit in regime-style crimes. Through these old methods, the kidnappers operating in rebel-controlled areas aim to silence new opposition voices. More recently, Jabhat al-Nusra arrested a radio DJ in Idlib, whose equipment was damaged, accusing him of corrupting morals through secular music.7 One source mentioned that this may have come in reaction to anti-Islamist graffiti.8 Arresting individuals following a graffiti incident, of course, brings to mind the 2011 arrests of a number of youth in Dera ͑a by the regime, which set off a storm of protests leading to the anti-regime uprising in the first place.
Whether one calls the abduction of the Douma4 an unfortunate kidnapping or an intentional arrest depends on whether ordinary criminal gangs are responsible, or whether one of the militias under the auspices of Jaysh al-Islam played a role. Either way, the disappearance of the voices calling for transparency, participation and the empowerment of women in particular, prevents their potential criticism and political activism against militia leaders. If indeed Jaysh al-Islam carried out the arrest of the Douma4 for political purposes, or knows where they are and refuses to negotiate their release from kidnappers, one must conclude that cooperation between secular and Islamist factions of the rebellion against Bashar al-Assad may not appear soon, despite the December 2015 agreement of 34 rebel organizations including Jaysh al-Islam to cooperate with Saudi Arabia in formulating a negotiating platform against the regime. Moreover, the Assad regime benefits from the silencing of secular intellectuals, which was made clear last summer when the regime symbolically declared the death penalty was due to Michel Kilo, and the journalist Faisal al-Qassem, both of whom live outside of Syria.

Marie-Sophie Roeder is currently pursuing her B.A. in Middle Eastern Studies and Politics at Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg with a focus on Radical Islamic Movements and International Relations.  This semester, she is on exchange at TAU and conducting a research internship at the MDC with a primary focus on the Syrian Civil War and its conflicting parties as well as on Women in the Syrian secular Opposition.

1 The Syrian Human Rights Committee, December 10, 2013, http://www.shrc.org/?p=17698.

2 Yassin al-Hajj Salih, "The Issue of the Kidnapping of the Douma Four and the Position of the Political Opposition Organizations," [Arabic] al-Hayat, June 10, 2014.

3 Human Rights Watch, April 28, 2015, https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/04/28/syria-human-rights-organizations-mark-birthday-razan-zaitouneh-renewed-call-release.

4 See for instance, YouTube video from May 18th, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3WQkHg7P1vg.

5 http://www.mcclatchydc.com/news/nation-world/world/middle-east/article24784780.html.

6 Syria Untold, May 27, 2014 retrieved from http://www.syriauntold.com/en/2014/05/free-douma-4/.

7 http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/syria-jabhat-al-nusra-seize-two-prominent-activists-in-raid-on-opposition-radio-station-a6805186.html.

8 https://twitter.com/CombatChris1/status/686180788841394176.

EU Labelling of Israeli Settlement Products: Finding Nuance Amongst Complexities

Natasha Spreadborough - A look at the new European Union guidelines on products made in the West Bank and Golan Heights, what they entail, and the questions they raise at the political economy of Israel and Palestine.

Back in November 2015, the European Union issued a series of guidelines as to how products made in the West Bank and Golan Heights should be labelled, according to the origin of their producer. Products made in Israeli settlements will be identified as such, whereas Palestinian products will be described as "products from the West Bank (Palestinian product)" or "product of Gaza" or "product of Palestine". These new regulations are not part of any new legislation, but according to the EU, an attempt to clarify their position on Israel's presence in the West Bank and the Golan Heights in accordance with international law.

The EU instatement of labels on Israeli products made in the West Bank and Golan Heights illustrates the complexity of the political economy of the occupation, and the intertwining of the Israeli and Palestinian economies. Whilst seeking to provide clarity as to Israeli products produced in occupied territories, the labelling system's simplicities clash with the reality of Israeli enterprises that operate in the territories. At the same time, the implication of boycott raised runs into problems with the dependence of Palestinians on both legal and illegal employment in settlements. This article seeks to explore and discuss the nuances of one aspect of the political economy of Israel and Palestine.


The labelling seeks to notify EU consumers which products made in the West Bank or Golan Heights come from Israeli companies, as the EU considers these territories occupied under international law. The EU presented these new regulations as a clarification in alignment with its official position regarding the legality of Israel’s presence in the West Bank and the Golan Heights. Whilst presented by the EU primarily as a legal technicality,  and more privately indicated to be a diplomatic move, it also implicitly allows consumers the choice of boycotting products made in disputed territory by the occupying power. In this way, though seeking to bring clarification, the EU’s labelling has over-simplified the economics surrounding Israeli companies that operate in the Golan and the Palestinian territories. This discussion is not intended as an advocate either for or against boycotts, of any kind, but instead an attempt to highlight some complexities surrounding the political economy of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

For starters, the legal and political issues surrounding the Golan Heights, captured in 1967 during the Six Day War1 , and the West Bank, not annexed but considered occupied territory, are vastly different. But for the purposes of this discussion I will focus on the West Bank, as that is where the implications of boycotts really come into play.

Let’s break it down. The West Bank products will now be marked separately according to whether they emerge from an Israeli or Palestinian factory. The issue here is that the Israel has used land that, according to international law, is not theirs to use, to produce their products. The EU’s stance aligns with this interpretation of international law, and considers Israeli settlements in the West Bank illegal, and a barrier to the peace process. The EU therefore views these guidelines as a technical clarification.2 It does also explain, however, that there has been “a demand for clarity from consumers, economic operators and national authorities” about the EU’s position with regards to the origins of settlement products, and that the new labelling is therefore partly in response.3 So the EU’s new guidelines have a second implication with regards to the potential for consumer boycotts.


First let's address the labels themselves. They've been in the pipeline for several years, facing stiff opposition from Israeli diplomats and government officials. They come after three years of administrative work and discussions, during which time the EU repeatedly warned Israel of the consequences of further settlement construction.4 Two years ago, their publication was delayed at the behest of the US, in the middle of nine-month long negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.5 We can infer, then, that the guidelines are more than a helpful clarification, rather they constitute a punitive reaction to perceived Israeli resistance to the peace process. This is strengthened by the lack of information from EU diplomats surrounding the guidelines on what sort of positive action the EU expects Israel to take, such as deconstructing settlements, or what exactly the EU would expect Israel to do in order to stop the labelling process.

The labelling tactic does not emerge from a void. The EU has previously used similar measures that have sought to clarify the origins of imports from the disputed territory. Since 2003 the EU has used numerical codes on Israeli imports that allow customs to distinguish between products made within the Green line, and those beyond it. Back in 2012, the UK adopted its own guidelines for labelling settlement products.


Evidently these labels and their consequences do not exist in a vacuum, and imply the possibility of boycotting these products made in factories on illegal land. The EU Fact Sheet accompanying the guidelines explicitly states they “give consumers the possibility to make an informed choice”.6 This is a separate, but related issue, stemming from the use of Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) as a form of non-violent resistance against the occupation. From a BDS point of view, by purchasing products made in these factories consumers enable them to profit and make it worthwhile to continue production, thus perpetuating the Israeli settlement of occupied territories, and the problems for Palestinians that ensue (inability to access land, closure of roads, increased army presence etc).

Crossing Borders

It is here that labelling reveals the complexities of the economics surrounding the occupation. Where the aim is to identify and boycott Israeli products clearly made from factories in occupied land, companies that hold factories and manufacture various parts of their products on both sides of the Green Line throw complications. Take Ahava, a brand that has come under heavy fire by the BDS movement for operating its main manufacturing facility just beyond the Green Line, in the small settlement of Kibbutz Mitzpe Shalem. The company maintains that the majority of its products are not made in the West Bank manufacturing plant. Salts and minerals come from mud mined by Dead Sea Works, which operates only on the Israeli and Jordanian side of the Dead Sea, however Ahava is licensed to extract mud from the West Bank section. Raw materials for soaps are made in another kibbutz plant in northern Israel, and many other Ahava products come from factories in south and central Israel. In some cases, Mitzpe Shalem is only used for packaging. Conversely, anti-occupation groups point out that two of its main shareholders (the settlements of Mitzpe Shalem and Kalia) are located in the West Bank. Under the new EU labelling agreement, at least some of Ahava’s products could be labelled as Made in Israel.7

Palestinian Employment

Where the aim is to pressurise Israeli companies to withdraw from the occupied territories through punishing them for being there, the Palestinian employees of factories in the settlements also lose out. Researchers of West Bank settlement conditions and supporters of boycotts have acknowledged the importance of settlement industry in providing economic opportunities for Palestinians, despite the deeply problematic working conditions and lack of pensions, vacation days and disability insurance.8 A 2014 report issued by the International Labour Office declared that Palestinians are increasingly dependent on employment in Israeli settlements.9 Around 25,000 Palestinians work for Israeli settlements, although this does not include any of the 35,000 workers estimated to be employed by Israelis (including in Israel) illegally. However, around half of those work recorded officially work in construction. As the EU has made clear, the main focus of the labelling is on agricultural products, meaning less than half of the companies that employ Palestinians would be affected.

In the end, the labelling affects roughly 1% of all trade into the EU. It clearly will have no severe practical implications for the Israeli economy, where only about $150 million of the annual $15 billion in Israeli exports to the EU are believed to originate in the settlements.10 Its significance lies in the diplomatic message European officials are sending to Israel; namely, Israel’s continued settlement building and the lack of movement on the peace process are unacceptable.

Natasha recently graduated with a Master’s degree in Middle Eastern Politics from SOAS, University of London, where she focused on Middle Eastern political economy, international law and the Israel-Palestine conflict, and wrote her Master’s thesis on the political economy of the occupation. She currently works as a research assistant at the Moshe Dayan Center, where she concentrates on the Palestinians, political economy, and Iran.

1 Israel extended its laws to the territory in 1981, effectively annexing it, even though most countries including members of the EU do not recognize the annexation.

2 http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2015/11/israel-palestine-european-labeling-guidelines-settlements.html

2 European Union, ‘Interpretative Notice on indication of origin of goods from the territories occupied by Israel since June 1967’, 11 November 2015, http://eeas.europa.eu/delegations/israel/documents/news/20151111_interpretative_notice_indication_of_origin_of_goods_en.pdf

3 http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-1.685428

4 http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/nov/11/eu-sets-guidelines-on-labelling-products-from-israeli-settlements

5 European Union, ‘ Fact Sheet on indication of origin of goods from the territories occupied by Israel since June 1967’, 11 November 2015, http://eeas.europa.eu/delegations/israel/documents/news/20151111_indication_of_origin_fact_sheet_final_en.pdf

6 http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-1.686990

7 http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/11/world/middleeast/palestinians-work-in-west-bank-for-israeli-industry-they-oppose.html?_r=0

8 International Labour Office, ‘The situation of workers of the occupied Arab territories’, 2014 http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---ed_norm/---relconf/documents/meetingdocument/wcms_242965.pdf

9 http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-1.686990

The Weight of Turkey's Kemalist Past: The CHP's Social Democratic Makeover Stalls

Though in the wake of Turkey’s latest parliamentary elections the Kurdish-leftist HDP has received far more media attention than the Republican People's Party (CHP) in the Western press, the latter remains by far the largest political opposition force in the country. The CHP has, for most of its history, been defined by the legacy of its founder—Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, also the founder of the modern Turkish Republic—and the ideology of state-imposed secularism and Turkish nationalism which he propounded. In recent years, however, the party has been reexamining this heritage under the leadership of Kemal Kilicdaroglu. Chosen to head the party in  2010, Kılıçdaroğlu has since then been attempting to remake the CHP into the social-democratic party it has long proclaimed itself to be. The 2015 elections were the second national electoral test of Kılıçdaroğlu’s leadership; though the party certainly seemed to be in need of a new direction prior to his ascension, the results showed that the CHP may now again be politically stalled.

Despite being a self-described social democratic party since its inception, in recent decades the CHP has been principally supported by the secular upper middle class, particularly in the less religious western parts of the country.[1] The party’s appeal to the working class – the traditional base of social democratic parties – has, by contrast, been extremely limited. In large part, this is because in recent years the party has focused on promoting secularism and blind opposition to the ruling AKP rather than developing a genuine social democratic critique of Turkey’s government or economy.[2]

When Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu was elected as party head in 2010, he immediately began a makeover of the party’s personnel and policy proposals with the aim of forging a genuine social democratic movement and attaining greater working class appeal. To that end, he helped maneuver much of the party’s old guard out of their positions in the party’s governing body and replaced them with younger officials who were more connected to civil society than their predecessors. A number of these appointees were labor union officials, but in a sign of possible ambivalence about the party’s new direction, they were in fact outnumbered by newcomers with ties to the business world.[3]

The CHP made modest gains in the 2011 national elections, the first to be conducted under Kılıçdaroğlu’s leadership, as well as in the 2014 local elections, though in neither case did it make serious inroads into the AKP’s electoral lead. The relative disappointment of the 2014 elections led the disgruntled Kemalist old guard to mount a challenge to Kılıçdaroğlu’s leadership. Though it failed, the attempt to oust Kılıçdaroğlu received one-third of the vote, indicating that a sizable number of party members were dissatisfied with Kılıçdaroğlu’s direction of the party.[4]

Undaunted, Kılıçdaroğlu vowed to “purge” the old “elitists” from the party, and entered the 2015 campaign attempting to show a new comfort with the religious sector while at the same time emphasizing measures aimed at helping the working class.[5]  With regard to the former, Kılıçdaroğlu largely dropped the party’s former obsession with banning the headscarf from Turkish universities and welcomed several openly religious candidates into the party’s ranks. Similarly, the aggressive secularism the party espoused in the previous decade was replaced by a platform written in conjunction with trade unions and other civil society groups, which included an impressive array of social democratic proposals.[6]

Some of these new proposals mirrored the sort of policies called for by center-left parties across the Western world, such as increasing pensions and the minimum wage, expanding health insurance coverage, and hiring workers currently sub-contracted by the government as permanent staff.[7] In this vein, Kılıçdaroğlu went so far as to promise that under the CHP, there would be no poor people in Turkey within 4 years. Other CHP proposals focused on governance and democratic rights, for instance, lowering Turkey’s notoriously high electoral threshold from 10% to 5%, granting autonomy to universities, decriminalizing the act of insulting the President, and providing official status to Alevi houses of worship. These ideas were topped off by what was surely the CHP’s most original proposal: creating a new “Mega City” in Central Anatolia to be built with $40 billion of public investment through 2035, by which time it would serve as a trade hub and home to 3 million people. Through a somewhat vaguely-explained mechanism, this Mega City is intended to free Turkey from the middle-income trap [A21] and increase the country’s per capita income from $10,000 to $30,000.[8] In addition to these policy proposals, the CHP couched its campaign in the motifs of the 2013 Gezi Park protests, as well as the images of some who were killed in the confrontations, likely hoping that association with the populist demonstrations would help provide the party with a new, more attractive sheen..[9]

Though the party’s shift in focus was dramatic enough to cause several nationalist stalwarts to resign and form splinter parties, it was not enough to provide a real electoral boost for the CHP. [10] The party took just under 25% of the vote, about 1% less than it had received in both the 2014 local elections and the parliamentary national elections in 2011. Regional breakdowns of the results showed that the party largely failed to break out of its pre-existing stronghold in the country’s relatively liberal and wealthy western provinces.

The similarity of the party’s last 3 election results—26%, 26%, and 25%—strongly suggests that it has hit an electoral wall under Kılıçdaroğlu's leadership. The nationalist splinter parties are significant here not because they succeeded in drawing votes away from the CHP—combined, they attracted less than 0.5% of the vote—but because their difficulty in accepting the “new” CHP is a reflection of the difficulty faced by those who are not traditional CHP voters. The CHP's new language of social democracy and promotion of minority candidates and LGBQ rights seems to have been sufficient to alienate, to varying degrees, much of the party’s nationalist old guard. But unfortunately for CHP partisans, non-traditional CHP voters, more religious than the party’s pre-existing constituency, seem to continue to view the party as tainted with the legacy of this increasingly disaffected nationalist elite. It's possible that all the CHP’s social democratic shift needs in order to take hold is more time, or a new, younger leader. Indeed, polls showed that even among CHP voters, the HDP leadership was more popular than their CHP counterparts.[11] If a change at the top is not enough, however, it may simply be that because of its history, the CHP is not an appropriate vehicle for left-wing politics in Turkey. In that case, it remains to be seen whether the newly resurgent HDP is able to take up that mantle instead.

34: ISIS and Social Media (Extended Interview)

Dr. Michael Barak, researcher for the Middle East Network Analysis Desk at the MDC as well as the Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the IDC, spoke with Diwaniyya about the extensive use of social media by jihadi organizations across the Arab world.
Below is a transcript of our extended interview with Dr. Barak.


Stephan Barton: So we’re talking today about social networks and the influence they have on the different extremist groups and the way that they use them. Why don’t you start by telling us what social networks are, and what are the different Islamist groups that are using it.
Michael Barak: Briefly, social networking is an online platform that allows users to create a public profile and interact with other users on the website. Social networking sites [commonly abbreviated SNS] usually have a new user input, a list of people with whom they share a connection, and then allow the people on the list to confirm or deny the connection.

Today, most of the Islamist groups are using social networks. The most active terrorist organization is ISIS, which has developed sophisticated ways to disseminate its propaganda. You can find ISIS, you can find al-Qaeda, and Nusra Front also.

SB:      I think that’s interesting because al-Qaeda had very different methods to build its network. It seems this is a much more recent take on how to go about that. The use of the internet has developed a lot over the last decade and a half.
MB:    Right. So I think we should take ISIS as an example of an organization that took it to a new level. There is an official media outlet, al-Furqan, which disseminates official messages, videos, and audio [recordings] via SNS. There are also semi-official media outlets which support ISIS. For example, we can take the Palestinian group that supports ISIS from the Gaza Strip, al-Nusra al-Maqdisiyya (The assistants of Jerusalem). Hamas is also [active on social media], it’s not only the Salafist jihadist organizations. Hamas recently opened an option for [Internet] surfers called “Ask Hamas a Question.” Each day, there was a different leader from Hamas, for example Isma’il Haniyeh, who answered questions of surfers on Twitter. The main goal is to disseminate Hamas ideology and propaganda against Israel.

Most terrorist organizations can be found on Twitter. If you are not on Twitter, you don’t exist.

SB:      Should we move on to the question of why the new generation of the social networks is becoming so successful in disseminating these kinds of ideas?
MB:    SNS is widespread among young people. ISIS tries to disseminate its ideology to the young generation and to recruit young people from Europe. You can find propaganda on Twitter in English and in Arabic. In France, for example, there is a big community from Morocco and Tunisia, so many young people from there are being exposed to the propaganda via Twitter, and they join the jihadist theater in Syria and Iraq. So first of all, it’s a good tool to use because most young people are aware of how to use it. Secondly, it costs nothing. You can easily open a Twitter account to spread short messages.
The short message is an important tool to spread and to appeal to young people because it’s short and to the point. You send the message clearly. The messages show that ISIS is successful in the field, having managed to establish a caliphate. They managed to destroy the Iraqi Army, the Shi’a. They spread photos and videos to show how the Iraqi Army was defeated, and also publish online magazines dedicated to this purpose. So when young people see that, messages of success, they want to be part of this success. And they join. It’s also kind of a psychological warfare against the enemy.

SB:      It’s actually very interesting. The notion that you send those small messages, there’s more percussion, it’s almost like advertising, like slogans that will catch.
MB:    And these messages are wrapped, Hollywood-style. The quality of the material is very high. Like for ISIS, sometimes they publish on Twitter or Facebook the desire to recruit [technically-skilled people] who will help them produce these movies. If you watch a movie – I don’t suggest it because it’s filled with violence – but if somebody watches these films, you can see that a lot of thought was invested, every frame has been taken into consideration. So these movies also appeal to young people. And when they come to the field, they get weapons, they get cars, and also a woman, a Yezidi woman for example. Every warrior has the right to have a woman. All this propaganda about the things that he’s going to receive in the field is what attracts young people from Europe.

Now, ISIS also speaks about the old generation. They want to recruit them also, so they opened a new office to invest efforts [towards] a strategy for recruiting older people.

SB:      Is that something that they do to gain more credibility, to have not only youths, but to actually bring in some of the older guard? What’s the purpose behind that?
MB:    They want to show that the message of jihad is not limited only to the young generation, but it’s for the whole Ummah, the whole nation. So they appeal to the whole [Muslim] nation, young and old, men and women. There are special battalions of women that patrol the streets in Syria, for example, in the provinces that ISIS conquered, that are responsible for public order and applying Sharia’. Concerning the media outlets that I mentioned, upon every province that ISIS conquered, there is a local outlet [established]. For example, in Iraq’s Salah ad-Din province, in Baghdad province, there is a media outlet that produces news about what is going on in the field, like, “we succeeded in conquering an Iraqi base, we succeeded in killing Iraqi soldiers,” things like that. So this is also part of the structure of the media of ISIS.

SB:      Why don’t you tell us a little bit about the security measures, if any, that social networks are undertaking to try and control…
MB:    So ISIS is very aware of that, and published guidelines in Twitter, Facebook, and other social media networks [about] how to become aware of the activity of the intelligence factors. So first of all they advise to use encryption software. For example, the most famous one is Tor. [1] This way they hope to prevent any exposure of ISIS activities. This is one step of security. The second is to hide your IP address, to hide your identity on Twitter. You don’t have to expose your location when you are tweeting.

SB:      So obviously, some of these kids are very savvy with using these techniques, and this explains also why the recruitment is so international. You know, adolescents from all walks of life, from all around the world who are going there because they are IT specialists, and they take advantage of the techniques that they’ve learned abroad.
MB:    Right. They even sent a threatening message to the founder of Twitter because the management saw that the messages that were being disseminated were too violent, so they shut down the Twitter accounts and the hashtags that ISIS created. So ISIS threatened the Twitter management to stop or risk losing his life.

SB:      What kind of measures can social networks take to do a better job of stopping these incidents?
MB:    There is a debate in the United States whether it’s ethical to close these Twitter accounts or to prevent their political expressions on Twitter. So I think we have to solve this issue first, if it’s ethical or not. Secondly, the Obama administration [speaks] about how they are going to recruit the moderate Muslim voice in the world. The leadership of the Muslim world has to be more aware and more active on Twitter. They have to create a counter-narrative against ISIS. So for example, if ISIS justifies jihad against the Shi’a, there should be involvement of leaders from the Muslim world saying that it is not right to spread your belief by violence. If you want, you can do it by da’wa, by propaganda, but not by [violence]. So first of all, we have to involve the leadership of the Muslim world, for example al-Azhar. [2] Secondly, we can also involve the public to create special units that will monitor ISIS messages on SNS, and to counter them. It’s a never-ending war. You have to be aware all the time.

In the beginning of September 2014 British Muslims from the Active Change Foundation [3] launched an English-language PR campaign against ISIS under the heading #notinmyname. The campaign included a PR video explaining not only why ISIS does not represent Muslims, but also that its behavior and practices actually violate the laws of Islam. In Canada, the Ahmadiyya Muslim community launched a similar campaign under the title #stopthecrisis. [4] So there is also a war of hashtags. If ISIS opens a hashtag promoting jihad in France or the United States, you can find intelligence factors that create hashtags [countering] that this is not right, that this is against Islam.

SB:      We’ve seen that the international community was having some trouble and is usually a step behind in controlling the flow of information that goes back and forth. So it was interesting to me to see a few months ago that [hacktivist group] Anonymous was going to start the struggle against ISIS. Do you think this is a phenomenon that will really take shape? What kind of influence can it have?
MB:    Anonymous, well, first of all you don’t know who stands behind it. This activity, I cannot consider it very successful. OK, they managed to shut down several ISIS accounts, but if you shut down one, a day after that, a terrorist can open two [new] accounts. So it can maybe hinder or slow down the propaganda, but it’s not a useful tool.

SB:      But as far as you’re concerned, if anything is actually going to be effective, it will have to come from nations rather than…
MB:    There should be international cooperation. There should be cooperation between the state, universities, the public, and religious leadership to produce a counter-narrative against ISIS. Everyone has to be involved. Not all the public, [but] there should be special courses for civilians where they will learn how Twitter works, how Facebook works, and [how] to spread a counter-narrative against ISIS.

SB:      Should we go over the recruiting techniques?
MB:    There are several. I can mention for example several online magazines like DabiqDabiq is the most important ISIS magazine. In the end of every magazine, like Inspire which is published by al-Qaeda, there is a special code with a link to a special software program. You have to install this program, in al-Qaeda’s case it’s called asrar al-mujahideen (secrets of the mujahideen). As you install this software, you have to put in this special code, and then you have access to one of the leaders of terrorist organizations, and then you can ask him how you can join. This is the most prominent one. You also have closed groups inside Jihadi forums. You have al-Fidaa’, Shumukh al-Islam, al-Minbar, in which you can also ask the manager of these jihadi forums how you can join. And blogs: Recently we heard about the Pakistani from the UK who opened a blog trying to recruit English-speaking Muslims.

SB:      That, to me, is a great paradox, because on the one hand, these things are supposed to be hidden enough so that they’re not open to just about anybody. But at the same time, there are a lot of people who are able to gain access to it. And yet, the governments and social networks fail to stay ahead of it. It seems like these groups are always a step in front of the security measures.
MB:    Yes. You know that these terrorists, they also translate researchers in the West, about what are the intentions of the West to counter ISIS, or the use of social media networks. By these translations, they want to bring new material to the terrorists, saying, OK, we have to think now how to find new ways to cope with the West.”

ISIS follows think-tank research that tries to find ways to combat cyber warfare. This research has been translated into Arabic in order to let the terrorists learn how the West is thinking, and how to find creative ways to answer that threat. So you can find guides, you can find videos on YouTube explaining to terrorists how to prevent, or how to be cautious of cyber warfare from the West. For example, the United Kingdom is creating a special force of “Facebook Warriors,” skilled in psychological operations and the use of social media, to engage in unconventional warfare in the information age. [5] The Israeli and the US militaries also have similar teams.

SB:      So there is really a concerted effort now by the international community to try to come up not only with an individual response for their particular country, but to create an international web to slow down this process.
MB:    Yes. But again, the activity of these intelligence factors is not enough. The Muslim religious leadership should be [a part of] this story. They should be involved with SNS, to produce and create hashtags against ISIS to show that their messages are against the tenets of Islam.

I mentioned that ISIS and other terrorist organizations are trying to find new ways how to hack into infrastructures in the West, how to cause more damage. Recently, an ISIS hacker group that calls itself the “Cybercaliphate” [6] hacked the French television network Le Monde, and they managed to shut down eleven channels of their TV network for three hours. Not only that, but they also planted a message saying that France should stop interfering in Iraq and pull out its forces from the coalition against ISIS. This is very worrying because if they manage to shut down this TV channel, it means that they are developing their skills. This is the first time we are aware of such a phenomenon. Intelligence factors are worried that ISIS or other terrorist organizations can hack electricity networks and shut down electricity or other facilities like water, [which] can cause a lot of damage and psychological effect.

SB:      Do you think this is what we can expect in the near future? That the development of this warfare technique will actually go beyond recruitment and advertising and into actual concrete terrorist attacks?
MB:    Yes, you are right. That is what’s going on. [As] the terrorist organizations develop their skills, they’re showing new, creative ways to hack, and because of ISIS, they’re successful in the field. Because they fight against the coalition, they provoke more empathy for their cause. So you can find hackers from Morocco, from Mauritania, from Turkey, who try to hack Western sites. For example, there are also attacks against electricity in Israel. Israel, until now, managed to cope with that very successfully. But this is a never-ending war.



Stefan Barton - Host
Jordan Sokolic - Producer, Editor