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North of Latakia, Syria
This observer is advised that every school kid here in Syria learns at an early age about the various colonial land grabs that have lopped off key parts of their ancient country and they receive instruction about their personal national duty to recover this sacred territory. This applies equally to still occupy Palestine, or at least it did before the 2011 uprising which has seen some Syrian government resentment over some Palestinian participation with rebel groups trying to topple their government.
One such land grab that is galvanizing resistance on behalf of Syria and against the Turkish, Qatar, and Saudi sponsored jihadists is the case of Iskanderun, north of Latakia at the current and disputed Syria-Turkish. This area, which for thousands of years was part of Syria and rich in natural resources, was cut from Syria and grafted onto Turkey by the French more than half a century ago. And some pro-government militia is fighting to get it back.
Iskenderun, preserves the name, but probably not the exact site according to historians, of Alexandria ad Issum where around 333 BC Alexander the Great camped and ordered Iskenderun to be built up establishing the city. One importance of the place comes from its geographical relation to Syrian Gates, the easiest approach to the open ground of Hatay Province and Aleppo.
Syria and Turkey’s ongoing dispute over the areas around Iskenderun has been heating up recently, partly as a result of the current crisis and it all started on July 5, 1938, when Turkish forces under Colonel Sukril Kanath launched an aggression with French approval and ethnically cleaned the local Armenian Christian and Allawi populations. The Turkish invasion was made possible by the French, partners with Britain in Sykes-Picot, and who had remained as illegal occupiers of Syria as holdovers from the League of Nations mandate. The French were complicit in a rigged referendum and essentially ceded this Syrian territory of Iskanderun, by then referred to as the Republic of Hatay. This land grab was part of a secret deal to secure Turkey’s help with the fast approaching war with Germany. Paris and Ankara struck a deal that resulted in Turkey, while not joining the allies against Germany, declaring neutrality and essentially sitting out WW II.
Rather than being expansionist, as it’s sometimes accused of by Turkey and the Zionist regime, Syria has been losing territory not gaining it. “We lost northern Palestine in 1918, Lebanon in 1920 and the Iskenderun area through French duplicity. During the Zionist aggression of 1967 we lost Golan. We intend to recover all this territory starting with Iskenderun in Turkish occupied Syria. One retired western diplomat here, speaking only for myself and representing no government stated one a related subject, “ Surely Lebanon must also be returned to Syria. It was never a real country and it never will be as far as I am concerned. It is part of Syria!” Indeed, as Robert Fisk points out, after the First World War, most Lebanese wished their land to remain part of Syria – see the results of the King-Crane commission – rather than live in a separate “nation” under French domination. As we parted, the gentleman shook my hand and declared: “Of course Iskandurun is part of Syria. No honest person can deny this!”
Enter one remarkable Syrian nationalist, Ali Kayali, aka “Abu Zaki”. So how did a polite, reputedly sweet, mother adoring kid from Turkish occupied Syria (Iskanderun) end up leading one of the most effective Resistance militia in the northern theater in the current Syrian crisis while vowing to liberate and restore Iskanderun to Syria? He did it the same basic way as untold numbers of Palestinian supporting young Syrian men did during the early 1980’s. He went to Beirut to resist the 1982 Zionist aggression. Soon he was, in one sense, being baptized under fire, while carrying the banner of his new group, The Popular Front for the Liberation of Iskenderun (PFLI) under the tutelage of Dr. George Habash’s, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). He fought in a number of south Lebanon fronts and inside West Beirut. After the PLO withdrew (8/20/82), he sailed to Tartous, Syria and joined the rebellion against PLO chairman Arafat and fought against him near Bedwari camp as part of the Fatah Intifada uprising after the PLO split along Pro-Arafat and Pro-Hafez Assad cleavages.
After studying on his own in Tartous (Tripoli, Syria) Ali Kyali, and having escaped from prison in Turkey after being jailed for demonstrating against the fascist regime in Ankara he returned to Tripol, Lebanon and joined Syrian army battles against the Bilal Shaaban led Al Tawhid Islamic (Muslim Brotherhood ) and from then he and the PFLI moved to the area of Halba in Akkar, Lebanon and organized a resistance training camp and eventually returned to Syria to continue the fight to liberate the Syrian territory of Iskanderun. Back in Syia, the Kayali led group was supported by Syrian citizens but was not formally part of the Syrian security/resistance apparatus.
Speaking with non-government analysts in Latkia, this observer was repeatedly told that the PFLI has the reputation of understanding the geography and politics of the Syrian coast area where its fighters are currently active including Aleppo, Banias, between Tartous and the countryside around Latakia, as well as the Idlib, Homs and Damascus areas.
Sitting around and talking to PFLI fighters and officials, this observer was briefed on the past two years of PFLI Resistance in Syria raising the slogan “Syria will not kneel” as Commander Ali puts it, “ to the Zionist-Arab project to destroy the unity and independence of the Syrian Arab Republic.” According to the PFLI spokesperson, the PFLI “supports and stand in the same trench, hand in hand with the state confronting two foreign projects. The first to destroy the achievements of the Syrian people and Syria’s social fabric and multi-cultural heritage and the second being to infiltrate foreign intruders.”
One of the places the PFLI is currently fighting is in the strategic rebel bastion of Yabrud in the Qalamoun Mountains, north of Damascus near the Lebanese border. On 3/3/14, during a meeting with this observer and some of his associates, President Kyali got a phone call with information that Sahel village, about four miles from Yabrud is now controlled by Syrian and pro-Syrian forces including the PFLI. Ali, who is open and forthcoming with battlefield details, explained that pro-Syria forces do not want to occupy Yabrud but rather their strategy is to control the villages surrounding it in order to trap al Nursa and other rebel militia inside.
When asked about the trapped local population and whether their likely fate is not the same as the inner city populations of Aleppo, Homs and a dozen other locations, Ali shrugged and turned up his palms.
Today, (3/7/14) the PFLI is fighting to try to cut off the road linking Yabrud, to Arsal in eastern Lebanon, whose majority population supports the Syrian revolt. They were involved last week with the fall of Al-Sahl, a town a little over a mile south of Yabrud, and now fighting in and around Yaboud preparing for the anticipated final assault. According to Ali’s personal body guards, they are facing Al-Qaida’s Syria affiliate, al-Nusra Front. Some of PFLI’s 3000 troops are also fighting also this week in Douma, Jobar, Aleppo, the countryside around Lattakia, and Deralcia near Nubek on the main Damascus-Homs highway. Earlier they had a key role in Baniyas battle between Tartous and Latakia. One youtube clip being given to visitors to the PFLI HQ in Latakia, shows their groups participation, including women, in a recent important battle against the ISIS:
The PFLI organization receives a variety of sporadic support from the local community according to President Kayali and his staff. But like most militia, PFLI needs money and weapons and regular supplies of food. Commander Ali explained to this observer that the PFLI also needs places for his men to sleep at the various battle sites, more uniforms for a sharp influx of resisters joining their ranks and funding for death benefit payments for the families of PFLI men and women killed during their Resistance.
PFLI fighters are not paid salaries which sets them far apart financially from many Gulf backed, and sometimes Western trained, militia who can garner monthly salary payments of between $ 500-1,000. By contrast, pro-government popular committees numbering approximately 5,000 and National Defense units which number approximately 25,000 fighters, receive approximately 20,000 Syrian Pounds or $ 126 each month. Footing much of this bill are Syrian businessmen such as Rami Mahlouf, cousin of President Bashar Assad. Regular Syrian army recruits get only 3000 Syrian Pound or about $20 monthly but they also receive food and lodging and health and travel benefits. Syrian army reservists are said to receive approximately $ 10.50 per month.
For Ali Kayali, the PFLI which he commands is also a family matter. His wife and daughter and two sons are deeply connected with the Resistance goals of the PFLI. The sons as fighters and his wife and daughter as fighters when called upon and meanwhile they do other Resistance projects. His 22 year old daughter, nicked-named “Joan of Arc” is in medical school but is also reputedly a ferocious fighter and battlefield tactician, with dramatic results in a number of battles against rebels over the past nearly two years. She is a strong no-nonsense feminist and told me she loves to shock takiris who sometimes appear amazed to see her and her female unit chasing them up the side of some mountain.
Returning to the subject of PFLI need for more regular meals, this observer was treated to an impromptu road side lunch with half a dozen PFLI fighters last week. Their favorite cook, Mahmoud, a small guy who always seems to wear the same blue shirt, invited us. Within minutes, Mahmoud gathered some twigs and small chunks of wood, lite a small fire, covered it with a metal grate, grabbed a bag of flour, mixed in water, needed it a bit and shaped and roasted small irregular round loaves. On these he then sprinkled from another plastic bag some hands full of spices. His fast and hot food was delicious and constituted Mhamra manouche,( roasted pita bread with spicy red pepper sauce) Zaatar manouche, (oregano, thyme, & sesame seeds ) and Jibneh (cheese) manouche.
Sitting in the lobby of a run-down, less than one star dock-side hotel, opposite the Mediterranean and used for sleeping by various militia, this observer and his companion spoke leisurely with the other early morning with one of the sons of PFLI President, Ali Kyali and a companion who, when not fighting jihadists in “Have AK-47, Will Travel” mode are among his father’s bodyguards. I have for a while been interested in Western government claims that it was supplying “humanitarian non-lethal aid” to rebel groups including “night goggles, telecommunication equipment, and GPS devices.” This observer views all this equipment as misnamed and that it indeed constitutes lethal aid inasmuch as the equipment facilitates one side killing the other via night snipers and facilitating troop movements.
I was a bit surprised to learn what PFLI fighters thought of this kind of equipment being given to their adversaries and labeled ‘humanitarian aid.’ Ali’s son told me: ‘Not having night goggles, except for some we take off the enemy is not much of a problem for us because we can sense where al Nursa fighters are and they tend not to fight at night.” I ask why, thinking maybe is had something to do with a religious edict of some sort. But once more I was mistaken. “Ali” explained, “No it not that, it’s because they are too paranoid and exhausted from taking Captagon and even stronger drugs to fight at night”. According the guys I was sitting with, some with more than two years fighting experience with the PFLI, many if not most of the Gulf sponsored jihadists are given bags of pills to enhance their battle field courage. And it works to a degree.
At dawn each day, jihadists take drugs, including sometimes, large doses of Captagon and other widely available drugs among militia including but not limited to some potent drugs locally known as “Baltcon”, “Afoun”,”Zolm”, Opium, Heroin, Cocaine, Hashish. The main drug routes into the Syrian battle zones I was advised run from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Lebanon and lesser amounts form Turkey, Iraq and Jordan. Lebanon’s Bekaa valley apparently produces large amounts of Captagon pills for shipment to the Gulf and now to Syria. Jihadists high on drugs apparently feel invincible and hostile and do not fear death. Many are indeed ferocious and fearless fighters during the day, as many media sources have reported. But by nightfall, when the drug wears off the fighters become exhausted and sometimes they are found asleep on the spot they were fighting from. “Ali” explained that “Many of the “Gulfies” are in fact heavily addicted to strong heroin like drugs and they crave them and sometimes they even fight with their fellow militiamen to get their ‘fixes.’ We are told by some we capture that sometimes when one of their comrades is killed some of the fallen fighters “friends” will descend on his body, not particularly to pray over it but to rummage his pockets his drugs.
In point of fact, in 2011 alone, Lebanese authorities confiscated three amphetamine production labs, in addition to two Captagon-producing labs which they claim send hundreds of thousands of the pills to the Gulf, which forward the stimulants to their fighters in Syria. The seizure of trucks with Captagon in their chassis in Lebanon and at Beirut airport shows a growing demand for these products in the Syrian militia market. The UN recently reported that the Middle and Near East is experiencing the majority of drug busts globally.
As some media outlets have reported “AL Nusra Front and ISIS being some of the more extreme “imported jihadists” as some here call them, claim to be better fighters than Hezbollah, whose units set the fighting-skill bar fairly high these days. Some also claim that they have not really started their battle to defeat Hezbollah on its own territory but will do so when they are ready and that they have no doubt they will defeat Hezbollah. But as one PFLI fighter explained, and some of his buddies nodded agreement, only when high on drugs do Qatari/Saudi jihadist’s exhibit bravery and bravado and pose a serious threat because they ignore normal defensive fighting tactics. “We know many of these guys quite well lots of them were never even religious. They are many who are drug addicts who get high and lose their fear of dying. So they are dangerous to confront and they often use strange tactics.”
According to another PFLI source, the “imported Jihadists” die in high numbers because they ignore the battle field realities. Their average number of dead in any given firefight over the past two years in estimated to be approximately five times the number of Hezbollah casualties, three times the number of PFLI fighters and twice the number of casualties than the regular Syrian army.
As the Syrian crisis enters its fourth year and with more jihadists arriving and more militia being formed across the political and religious spectrum, the U.S. intelligence community and Congressional sources are now predicting the war will continue for another decade or more. It’s anyone’s guess what the post-Syrian crisis period will bring to this region given the rise of ethno-nationalism demanding the return of Sykes-Picot land grabs, and the growing signs of a cataclysmic intifada in Palestine. Add to this US Intelligence Community prediction of the overthrown of two, possibly three, Gulf Monarchies and quite possibly another Hezbollah-Zionist war, plus the deterioration of the social and religious fabric across the region, and the future appears bleak indeed.
Franklin Lamb is a visiting Professor of International Law at the Faculty of Law, Damascus University and volunteers with the Sabra-Shatila Scholarship Program (sssp-lb.com).