Lebanon Uprising (Days 9,10,11): Some Observations

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Human chain by Lebanese protesters. (Photo: CNN)

A few observations regarding the last 3 days of the Lebanon uprising, which entered a new stage over the weekend from several different perspectives:

1) Nasrallah’s speech on Friday (10/25/19), where he rejected the downfall of the government and asked Hizballah’s supporters to exit the streets, was a turning point and somewhat of a setback; indeed, the power of the uprising from the beginning was its cross-sectarian people power, and some of that was unfortunately lost after the speech.

I say that because the Hizballah supporters who attacked protesters in Riad al Solh square on Friday were not the only ones to evacuate the square, but it also seems like a number of peaceful Hizballah sympathizers that had every reason to demonstrate along with everyone else about the wretched situation in the country heeded the call from Nasrallah to stop participating in the demos (after participating throughout the week). I say that based on a few lines of evidence (though I won’t pretend to be scientifically exact here), including the smaller crowds the following day after the speech and over the weekend in Riad al Solh square and Martyrs square (versus previous days), the online chatter among their supporters, and the general sway that Nasrallah has over his constituency. Regardless of what people think of Hizballah and of Nasrallah specifically, they / he commands the sympathy and loyalty of a large segment of the population, including large swaths of the poor and disenfranchised in the country, and the uprising surely loses some of the wind in its sails when a large segment of the population withdraws from participating in it (at least for now), especially since this uprising is, afterall, for all Lebanese.

Nasrallah’s speech furthermore alluded to conspiracies and suspicious agendas behind the uprising, which wasn’t helpful, since his remarks were in large part misleading (and this after clearly stating in his first speech at the onset of the uprising that this was a true uprising of the people), which provided the impetus for some of his constituents to start “detecting” hidden agendas and intrigue.

2) As mentioned above, the crowds over the weekend in Beirut on Saturday and Sunday were smaller than those earlier in the week (for e.g. on 10/20/19), but they were still large, numbering in the tens of thousands, though short of the million protesters they were hoping to attract. Some of that is related to 1) above, and some of it is related to the beginning of a counter-revolutionary current that threatens this uprising (more on that below). On a more positive note, the human chain from Sour to Tripoli was a nice and symbolic gesture of unity, and though some may belittle the value of such efforts (surely such acts don’t force the resignations of governments, they say), these gestures are important from the perspective of trying to create a new culture of unity that overcomes sectarianism and differences in the country; so I say kudos to such efforts.

3) Regarding the counter-revolutionary current that’s beginning to form, it’s remarkable to see it build up in the real time, and to examine how it operates. First and foremost, it works by sowing fear and doubt into people’s minds about the objectives of the uprising by either misleading about certain issues or by taking discrete and real but non-representative incidents and framing them as representative and fundamental to the goals of the uprising. As an example of the former, a large cutout of the “clenched fist symbol” that made an appearance in Martyr’s square over the weekend is not really the universal and generic symbol of “revolution” or “power to the people”, but instead, represents George Soros’ nefarious schemes to overthrow the government via OTPOR (an organization that went defunct in 2004 and whose symbol bears a distant resemblance to the Martyr’s square fist). As an example of the latter, a small group of students (surely numbering less than a 100 in a sea of tens of thousands) chanting against Hizballah (after Nasrallah’s disappointing speech) is suddenly the one true objective of the uprising, as opposed to the overwhelming cries heard throughout these past 12 days of throwing out the entire corrupt political class and dealing with the socio-economic crisis that threatens to destroy the country.

A great example of the dishonest tactics mentioned above is a video that was released by OTV a couple of days ago (beholden to the Free Patriotic movement or FPM, which was founded by our current President Michel Aoun and which is led by his son-in-law and current Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, he of Hela Hela Ho fame), which literally threw a bunch of shit against the wall and hoped something would stick; and when I say shit, I mean they literally brought up every fear-mongering tactic under the sun to create a narrative of a galactic Saudi Jihadi Zionist conspiracy from Mars that was about to take over Lebanon. It really was something to behold, in one of the most transparently amateurish attempts at propaganda I’ve seen in a while.

4) Having said the above, it’s also clear that opportunists are trying to “ride the wave” of the uprising, and to position themselves as guarantors of the people’s demands vis a vis the government when they are part of the system that needs to be overhauled (e.g. Samir Geagea and the Lebanese Forces). These are opportunists and spoilers, and though they are being rejected in large part, this in turn, provides those critics of the uprising with something to point to in order to undermine it and justify not participating in the effort.

5) The uprising is entering what I would call the “grinding stage”, where protesters are grinding it out with the government in a battle of wills. They’re calling for general strikes and trying their best to block roads to constrict the economic activity in the country to force the government to yield (a tried tested and true non-violent tactic employed in countless struggles), while resisting government efforts to remove their erected barriers. A particularly valiant effort that is to be commended is the blockade erected around Ring Road, where protesters decided to furnish and remodel the highway with couches and refrigerators while entertaining themselves by playing soccer and participating in yoga classes on the asphalt.

6) Regardless of what comes out of the current incarnation of this uprising, I strongly suspect that this is only the first phase of what promises to be a long struggle against the ruling class in the country. The government is counting on physical and emotional exhaustion of the protesters combined with a disinformation campaign that aims to sow fear and doubt in people’s minds in the hopes of keeping them away from the protests. In their attempts to foil the protests, they will also likely attempt to cosmetically reshuffle the cabinet in the hopes of calming tensions and then try to pass some reforms. But the economic crisis is here and isn’t likely to go away anytime soon (and likely will get worse over time), and it’s hardly believable that the gang of politicians that got us into this mess in the first place will be able to get us out. As such, even if the protests dwindle somewhat in size (and maybe even temporarily pause in certain parts of the country), surely there will be more to come as it’s highly unlikely that the same (or similar) gang will succeed in addressing the true malaise that ails the country.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t once again salute the protesters leading the struggle against this corrupt government. All my love and admiration to you for trying to improve this country for all of us.

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Lebanon Uprising (Day 9): Attacks against Protesters

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Hezbollah and Amal supporters clash with protesters (Image Credit: Twitter)

Today 10/25/19 was a really tough day for the Lebanon uprising. Hizballah and Amal supporters went down to Riad Solh square (in Beirut) and intimidated and assaulted entire crowds of peaceful protesters. FPM supporters did the same in Jbeil. The Lebanese Forces, who had 4 ministers resign last week, have been trying to co-opt the movement in Jal-el-Deeb and trying to present themselves as part of the people (stop dreaming).

10/25/19 (Ring road) – Hizballah and Amal supporters (in black) assault peaceful protesters (see 0:17 where a girl gets knocked out), and proceed to dismantle protesters’ tents

10/25/19 (Riad Al Solh Square) – Nasrallah asking Hizballah supporters (who are beating protesters) to leave the squares; Nasrallah says “we can defend the resistance” (not my video)

10/25/19 (Riad Al Solh Square) – Hezballah and Amal supporters (in black) throwing projectiles at protesters; one supporter is heard in background insisting that no one insults Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah

The lines are starting to become clearly drawn between those who are trying to subtly (or not so subtly) undermine the uprising (the corrupt political class and committed members of those sectarian political parties who stand to lose the most by virtue of this government falling), those who are trying to exploit it for opportunistic gain (e.g. Lebanese Forces) and those who support it (almost everyone else). The scenes today were disheartening, and I fear that the uprising will be a dragged out affair, with the ruling class counting on physical and emotional exhaustion of protesters and /or internal divisions to disintegrate it.

On the other hand, I’ve been heartened to see calls for a million-man show of support for the uprising tomorrow (on 10/26/19) and a human chain from Sour to Tripoli, from the very South to the very North of the country (on 10/27/19).

To the protesters: we are with you, and we’ll do our best to support you even though we are oceans away. Don’t lose hope, and stand strong and proud. Don’t let thugs intimidate you. This is your best chance to change the country for the better, and for all of us. Nothing but love and admiration to you all.

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Lebanon Uprising (Day 9): Nasrallah’s Second Speech

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So I finally had a chance to listen to Nasrallah’s speech

 

Some of the more salient points are as follows:

1) Nasrallah categorically rejected the fall of the government, the dissolution of parliament and the call for early elections

2) He fear-mongered about the country falling into a vacuum in case the government fell; thus the need to maintain the current government

3) He commended the reforms proposed by our PM Hariri and suggested that this was an accomplishment due to the protesters and that the government was serious about implementing these reforms

4) He payed lip service to economic demands by protesters and asked them to designate representatives to negotiate with the government

5) He cast aspersions on the sources of funding for the protests, mentioning political sects and foreign embassies as possible “behind the scene” actors that were partially bankrolling the protest movement and that were trying to exploit the situation, and made strange accusations about people checking IDs at roadblocks (silently alluding to the worst days of the civil war), and asking for bribes to allow cars to pass through

Surely Nasrallah knows that the majority have no faith in this government’s ability to rule or to implement any of the proposed reforms. His speech will probably be satisfying only to committed Hizballah supporters (and their allies). Everyone else will be somewhere between disgusted and disappointed (especially the allegation of foreign funding). I know several well-known Lebanese leftists who expressed disappointment. After hearing his first speech at the beginning of the uprising, I’m not too surprised by this speech. At this point, it’s clear that Nasrallah is throwing his lot with the ruling class and providing cover for the corrupt government.

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Lebanon Uprising (Day 8): Aoun’s Speech

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I’m watching Aoun’s speech again (our president), and I just can’t get over how amateurish this is.

 

I was angry in the morning, but now I can’t stop laughing every time I see the change in angle in the video (for example between 0:35 and 0:41, and again between 1:57 and 1:59, where his fingers on his left hand change positions, thus confirming this was not recorded live). It literally feels like a 10 year old stitched this together as his first media project and proudly displayed it to the world. Also, it feels like he’s barely alive. Struggling to pronounce words, slurring some of them; he’s clearly in ill health.

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Lebanon Uprising (Day 7): Nabatiyyeh

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Protesters Nabatiyyeh

Demonstrators shout slogans during an anti-government protest in the southern city of Nabatiyyeh, Lebanon, on Thursday. (Reuters)

Some more details on the situation in Nabatiyyeh (South Lebanon) today, where peaceful protesters were assaulted by the municipality’s police, who belong to Amal and Hizballah. You rarely hear criticism of Hizballah by the locals there who tend to be very supportive of the party, so this is an important development. Salute to the protesters and people of Nabatiyyeh for standing their ground.

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10/23/19 (Nabatiyyeh) – “This is how it all started in Nabatieh when the peaceful protestors were attacked. Lebanese army came afterwards and separated both groups. More protestors are joining and they’re refusing to leave the street. This city isn’t getting enough coverage, please share”

10/23/19 (Nabatiyyeh) – Young man describing how peaceful protesters were assaulted by the municipality’s thugs.

10/23/19 (Nabatiyyeh) – Powerful series of interviews (by Al Jadeed News) with the locals of Nabattiyeh who witnessed the assaults earlier in the day. Stinging criticism of Amal and Hizballah. Rarely do you hear criticism of Hizballah in the area, as the locals tend to be very supportive of the party.

10/23/19 (Nabatiyyeh) – Despite the assaults earlier in the day, the people of Nabatiyyeh remained steadfast and continued protesting throughout the night.

10/23/19 (Tripoli, North Lebanon) – Tripoli, who so far is the shining light of this uprising, sends Nabatiyyeh a message of solidarity: “Nabatiyyeh, Tripoli is with you until death” (not my video). In a tough day for the uprising, heartwarming to hear messages like this

Lebanon Uprising: Senpai Noticed Us

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Senpai noticed us

Feels like a case of “Senpai Noticed Us” when Lebanese Americans (and Arab Americans) get excited because Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders tweets about the Lebanon uprising to express their support and their desire to help.

I’ll try to be succinct on this point: one of the worst possible developments that could happen to this uprising is formal (or informal) support and/or help by the US government or US government officials (and I just saw that a senior US official in the State Department also expressed support). We’re already hearing our corrupt Information Minister talking about “foreign agendas” and the oligarch controlled TV stations constantly asking whether “foreign hands” are at play. The truth is that US government support is the death-knell of any popular movement in the Arab Middle East. The vast majority of people in the Middle East do not trust the US government (and rightfully so). Even if their support was sincere (and people have every right to be skeptical about that), the road to hell is often paved with good intentions.

And to be clear, I’m talking specifically about the US government or people in the US government, not regular people. On the contrary, human to human solidarity in times like this is a must, and the outpouring of support from American friends has been very much appreciated.

Lebanon Uprising (Days 1-5): Some Observations

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Lebanese Uprising Riad al solh Oct 20

Some observations about the Lebanon uprising so far (which began on October 17):

1) The protests have been large-scale, widespread, inclusive, cross-sectarian and with participation from all sectors of society. The number of examples and displays of unity so far by protesters are too abundant to list and are nothing short of miraculous for Lebanon (which is why there is hope in the streets that this could be a turning point in our history).

The most touching example of unity so far (for me) is protesters in Tripoli (overwhelmingly Sunni and second largest city in Lebanon) chanting and standing in solidarity with the protesters in Sour (overwhelmingly Shia) who were being beaten by thugs from the Amal movement because they dared to criticize and forcibly speak out against Nabih Berri (who is our Speaker of the House, the leader of Amal and the most influential political figure in Sour). Nothing but love and admiration for all these people.

2) There is palpable rage directed at the corrupt ruling political class, who have enriched themselves at the expense of the immiserated people over the past 30 years.

One of the more widespread demands of the protesters, codified into the popular slogan “killon ya3ne killon” (which means “all of them means all of them”), is for the entire political class to step down. I should mention that special ire has been reserved for our Minister of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates, Gebran Bassil (who is the head of the Free Patriotic Movement Party and the son in law of our President), with the most colorful chant so far directed squarely at him: heeeela heeeela hela hela hoooo, Gebran Bassil, kiss immoooo (the latter is a powerful curse-word in Arabic that doesn’t translate well into English). Petitions to change our national anthem to this new slogan are gaining steam.

Along those lines, one of the other widespread demands from the protesters is for politicians to return stolen money, as there is a (correct and) widespread belief that the political class has stolen billions from state coffers.

3) The uprising, no doubt, is grounded in socio-economic grievances from a variety of perspectives. From lack of basic services like running electricity and water, to lack of basic amenities like healthcare and insurance for the elderly, to lack of jobs and economic opportunities for the youth, to increasing taxes on basic goods, the state has spectacularly failed to deliver on every front. People are struggling to survive and are sick and tired of living on a precipice’s edge.

There’s also a clear message being directed against the banks in the country by large swaths of the demonstrators who see the banking sector in Lebanon (which owns most of country’s debt) as financially choking the country and bleeding it dry.

4) Hariri (our PM) had given himself 72 hours since the beginning of the protests to come up with a resolution to quell popular discontent, and announced today a list of reforms that he hoped would reduce the anger in the streets. Importantly, he didn’t tender his resignation nor did anyone else in the government (beyond the 4 Lebanese Forces ministers a couple of days ago), and his announcement was met with boos in Riad Solh square in Beirut. People continued to protest post announcement, and I very much doubt his list of reforms will end the uprising anytime soon as there is no trust whatsoever that the current government can deliver on any of its promises.

5) Despite all the well-justified optimism regarding this uprising, there are some worries. There is always the possibility that the ruling class will send its thugs to forcibly clear demonstrations (e.g. the aforementioned situation in Sour), or the Internal Security Forces will engage in brute force against the protesters at a larger scale than so far (and they certainly have engaged in brutality so far, including mass arrests, tear gas and severe beatings), or even that the army will get orders to forcibly end it all (so far, the army’s reaction has been mixed from what I’ve seen; in some cases defending protesters and in other cases doing the beating). The situation is extremely fluid on this front.

The other big worry is the crumbling of that aforementioned unity and a devolution of the unified uprising via sectarian tensions and/or political disagreements into a more fragmented affair. As an example, although the vast majority of protesters are laser-focused on the entire ruling class, I’m starting to see small but worrying displays of dissent here and there by groups of protesters who want to shield certain politicians from other protesters’ discontent (e.g. killon ya3ne killon, bas mish _____). No doubt the ruling class will try its best to stoke these tensions, and hope that the current unified front dissolves over time. I continue to hope that everyone will see through these transparent attempts (and the vast majority of people, so far, certainly have), but only time will tell. Still hopeful though!

Lebanon Uprising

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Nothing but love and solidarity with the protesters in Lebanon.

People are sick and tired of the pervasive corruption, nepotism and criminality of the political class in Lebanon. Thirty years after the end of the civil war and still no running electricity, no running water, a massive trash problem that remains unresolved, no job prospects or future for the youth, the third highest debt to GDP ratio in the world, rampant economic immiseration, and a corrupt political class consisting of literal criminals and war lords from the civil war era or their entitled scions that have bled the country dry and who insist on transferring the economic burden through austerity and higher taxes to the people.

Enough is enough. Every single one of them should step down and make way for fresh blood. Stay strong Lebanon.

Why you should cheer against the Raptors in the 2019 NBA Finals and support the Warriors

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If you’re remotely pro-Palestinian, you shouldn’t be cheering for the Toronto Raptors in the NBA Finals (and you should be cheering for the Warriors). Here’s why:

Warriors Stadium

Golden State Warriors vs Toronto Raptors, Oakland Oracle Arena (Florent Lamoureux)

P1) If Toronto wins, Raptors owner Larry Tanenbaum is on record as stating that he plans to take the team to Israel

P2) Given Tanenbaum’s role in pro-Israel lobbying & advocacy (he founded the fanatically pro-Israel “Center for Israel and Jewish Affairs”), it is fair to assume that the purpose of the trip is to normalize Israel via sports

P3) Going on a trip to Israel whose purpose is to normalize is an act of normalization under any circumstance (i.e. waiving Palestinian flags on the trip does not make it a non-normalizing act)

P4) I have no good grounds to believe that Raptors players will refuse to go to Israel if their owner so desires

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C1) If the Raptors win, Israel will be normalized via sports

P5) I don’t want Israel to be normalized via sports

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C2) I should cheer against Toronto

P6) There are no good grounds to believe that Israel would be normalized via sports if the Warriors win

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C3) I should cheer for Golden State.

Also, Drake. You should always cheer against Drake.

Drake

Abdul-Baset Sarout: The Good & The Bad

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Abdel-Baset Sarout

Abdel-Baset Sarout (courtesy of BBC)

Over the past 24 hours, I’ve seen countless tributes to Abdel-Baset Sarout on social media and several pieces penned in his honor in various English-media outlets after he was killed in action by regime forces. Although I understand why many people feel the urge to honor his memory and why many of the tributes are laudatory in nature harking back to the early days of the Syrian uprising, I have to say that downplaying or passing over in silence his extremist and sectarian views as the Syrian uprising progressed into full blown-war is somewhat disturbing as the impression one is left with is that these things were “minor” and “no big deal” (and it frankly provides critics with low-hanging fruit to tar the entire uprising when a controversial figure like Sarout is lionized without serious reservation).

On the other hand, the commentary from the pro-Assad side unsurprisingly focuses exclusively on those later extremist views and also gets some important details wrong. Furthermore, his role in the early days of the uprising is completely ignored, and the context of his radicalization is absent.

The truth is that his life and his evolution are far more complex than what is being portrayed, and in the interest of fairness and completeness, I want to highlight both the good and the bad of Abdel-Baset Sarout.

This piece from the Guardian is rather typical of what I’ve seen being posted on the opposition side (all true, but essentially highlighting only the good):

“A Syrian footballer who became a symbolic figure in the rebellion against the country’s president, Bashar al-Assad, has died of wounds suffered in a battle with government forces.

Abdul Baset al-Sarout, 27, who rose to fame as a goalkeeper for his home city of Homs, joined peaceful protests against Assad in 2011 and was known as the “singer of the revolution”. He later took up arms as the country slid into civil war. Four of his brothers and his father have also been killed in the fighting.

Sarout’s life and his role in Syria’s uprising and conflict was the subject of Return to Homs, a documentary film that won an award at the 2014 Sundance film festival”.

Here are other pieces published in Al-Jazeera, The National and Haaretz) that say more or less the same thing.

There’s no doubt that Sarout was an early revolutionary who galvanized the protest movement in his hometown of Homs. He was a famous football goaltender for the (under 17 and then under 20) Syrian national team who gave up a life of comfort and fame to join and then lead the protests in Homs at the age of 19. By virtue of his singing, his charisma and his uncompromising opposition to Assad, he quickly became an icon in the early days of the Syrian uprising. Here is a good example to give you a feel for the atmosphere in those days, with Sarout leading the chants and the singing (Feb 2012).

There’s also no doubt that he personally suffered at the hands of the regime, losing multiple family members as Assad cracked down on the protests and bombed Homs to rubble. Surely this played into his transformation from non-violent protester to rebel leader, and I recommend you watch Return to Homs to get a better feel for his evolution.

Having said that, Sarout also clearly became radicalized over time. Although he did lead early protests with Fadwa Suleiman (a famous Alawi actress), he can be seen in this video (Homs, March 2012) perched up top of a platform energizing the crowd and seemingly and enthusiastically supporting the hateful message from the orator on the mic, who talks about exterminating Alawis and kicking the Shia out (1:05 to 1:30).

In this video (May 2014), within the context of the brutal siege of Homs, Sarout directs a message to Jabhat al Nusra (Al Qaeda) and ISIS, calling them brothers in arms and telling them that once he gets out of Homs with his men, that they should unite in order to fight the Christians and take back the lands that the Shias and infidels supposedly took (1:26 to 1:43).

In this video (Nov 2014), Sarout leads the singing of a song which first cheerfully encourages the slaughtering of the Alawis (2:30 to 2:55), followed by him glorifying Bin Laden and cheering for 9/11 and the falling of the twin towers (4:00 to 5:20).

There is also, of course, the infamous pledge of allegiance he supposedly made to ISIS (Dec 2014) about 6 or so months after he was “evacuated” from Homs as a result of the negotiated deal with the government to end the siege. There is quite some controversy around this with folks on the anti-Assad side saying he never pledged, while folks on the pro-Assad side insisting that he did. The truth is likely somewhere in the middle on this one.

In Dec 2014, Al-Jazeera claimed that Sarout had pledged allegiance to ISIS. Jabhat al Nusra also claimed he pledged allegiance and an extensive court case was opened to determine the truth of the matter.

Sarout, on the other hand, denied that his group had any affiliation with ISIS or any other armed faction fighting in Syria in this video (Aug 2015).

So what’s going on? From what I can tell, Sarout did want to pledge allegiance to ISIS and did so, but to a person who wasn’t empowered by ISIS to accept his pledge in any formal way. Later on, because of issues and infighting amongst the group of fighters who wanted to pledge allegiance to ISIS, as well as where Sarout would be deployed if he joined ISIS, when the formal ISIS representatives came to accept his allegiance, he rebuffed them. I recommend reading / listening to his wide ranging interview in May 2016 (while exiled in Turkey) where he discusses the details (I’ve quoted a small piece of the interview below):

“Soon after you formed Fallaq Homs, you left it. Shortly after that, rumors started to circulate that you gave allegiance to the “dawlah” [Islamic State]. What are the origins of the rumors and what are they grounded on?

There is no smoke without fire. If there was no basis to these rumors no one would even bring up such an accusation. So I can confirm it does have a basis. Seven months after I left Fallaq Homs, I was in contact with a man called Abu Dawud from Eastern Homs from the Ahlul Sunnah wal Jama’a group. He had left this group and was searching for fighters to form a new splinter group that would eventually give allegiance to ISIS. I was one of those people looking for work. I was frustrated by seven months of no progress with my previous group trying to break the siege.

So what did you do with Abu Dawud?

We gathered some groups, including mine. They asked us when ISIS reaches this area will you be prepared to give allegiance? In all honesty, I was one of those willing to give allegiance because I wanted to work. So I told Abu Dawud and he automatically took it as allegiance. However it later became clear that it wasn’t a valid way of giving allegiance and [it was] nullified.”

Finally, there is no doubt that Sarout was close to extremist groups throughout his later phases. Whether because of true ideological conviction or the “exigencies of war”, the reality is that this part of his life surely taints his legacy as the “Songbird of the Revolution”.