The Qiyam Phenomenon: Analysis of Syria’s Harakat al-Qiyam

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On an unknown date in late August of 2017, a number of small rural insurgency cells in northern Syria came together to establish the organisation “Harakat al-Qiyam“, or the “Movement of Doing.” This initial establishment followed the liberation of Raqqa and the departure of the Islamic State (IS) from the region.1.Casagrande, Genevieve. “Post-ISIS Insurgency Looms in Northern Syria” Institute for the Study of War (7 November 2017) The small-scale organisation left an equally small footprint and were focused on forcing the withdrawal of Kurdish YPG/SDF forces and PYD-led government from what they consider to be “occupied” territory. Using small vehicles and light arms, the force committed several hit-and-run attacks on YPG patrols throughout October, killing a few men but otherwise doing minimal damage.2.Casagrande, Genevieve. “Post-ISIS Insurgency Looms in Northern Syria” Institute for the Study of War (7 November 2017) However, beginning in November, the pace began to pick up. The group started to perform high profile attacks, using IEDs and targeting higher-ranking members of the YPG and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF, or Quwat Suriya Demokratik). The targeting of General Mazlum Silo and Manbij Military Council (MMC) spokesman Shervan Darwish stood out as the most high-profile attacks.

Although their modus operandi appears to be similar to other insurgent organisations, Harakat al-Qiyam is a perplexing and unique phenomenon. Their social media style is distinctive, their geographical growth has been impressive, and they appear to be the first major insurgency group in northern Syria in the post-ISIS era.3.Casagrande, Genevieve. “Post-ISIS Insurgency Looms in Northern Syria” Institute for the Study of War (7 November 2017) This article aims to examine the phenomenon that is Qiyam and attempts to analyse some of the more bizarre aspects of the group.

Timeline of Operations

Though Harakat al-Qiyam was reportedly founded in August of 2017, the official announcement did not come until 15 October, when seven masked Qiyam members announced the group’s establishment and its purpose.4.Harakat al-Qiyam tweet, 15 October 2017. The first recorded attack occurred a few days before, on 11 October, where a few Qiyam members attacked a YPG patrol with motorcycles and small arms.5.Harakat al-Qiyam tweet, 11 October 2017. Viewer discretion advised. Minor attacks like this one continued throughout October and November, causing casualties and disrupting YPG and Asayish (SDF-aligned police) operations throughout Manbij countryside. Beginning in November, Qiyam began using improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to strike higher-profile targets, starting with MMC field commander “Abu Adel”.6.Harakat al-Qiyam tweet, 5 November 2017. Following the failed assassination of “Abu Adel”, Qiyam’s attacks ceased for a time, and no attacks were recorded throughout January and into February. Qiyam’s social media networks were similarly silent until 28 February 2018, when a short tweet directed sympathisers to new social media accounts for the group after previous accounts had been shut down by the respective social media platforms they had been hosted on.7.Harakat al-Qiyam tweet, 28 February 2018.

In March, operations resumed with the assassination of Ibrahim Hasan, a member of the PYD’s Raqqa Council.8.Harakat al-Qiyam tweet, 7 March 2018. Viewer discretion advised. It became clear that the group was no longer limited to Manbij countryside and recorded attacks appeared in rural Raqqa and Hasakah as well as Manbij. Several YPG and SDF fighters were killed in a spate of gun and IED attacks; high-ranking personnel such as Shervan Darwish were reported as suffering assassination attempts.9.Harakat al-Qiyam tweet, 17 April 2018. Viewer discretion advised. Although both Darwish and the aforementioned General Silo survived the attempts, the attacks showed that Qiyam’s reach had expanded.10.Manbij’s Shervan Derwish in ‘good health’ after assassination attempt” : Rudaw Nobody, not even generals, was exempt from being a target.

Social Media Presence

Harakat al-Qiyam’s social media presence is, in short, a fairly unique phenomenon. During the first round of operations in late 2017, the productions they made were fairly standard videos with an intro and little to no audio editing.11.Harakat al-Qiyam tweet, 11 October 2017. Viewer discretion advised.Their official announcements contained standard revolutionary dialogue, painting them as similar to other Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions that opposed the Syrian government as well as Kurdish groups. The one distinguishing feature of Qiyam’s posts was that some of their productions had English subtitles that were fairly well-translated.12.Harakat al-Qiyam tweet with English translation, 5 November 2017. Beginning in March of 2018, Qiyam’s branding undertook a major shift that made them drastically distinct from the standard FSA forms of branding. Qiyam’s Facebook page (now defunct due to actions taken by Facebook staff) posted a poll asking followers which high-ranking MMC member the group should target next.13.Harakat al-Qiyam tweet, 27 Mar 2018, mentions this poll. Though the English translation for this tweet and other, more recent posts is significantly more elementary, the point comes across clearly: Qiyam’s social media presence is evolving, and they are experimenting with turning their insurgency into an interactive “game” of sorts.

English text of a Harakat al-Qiyam announcement that refers to the interactive “poll”.

The result of this experiment was the failed assassination attempt on Shervan Darwish, which the tweet mentions.14.Harakat al-Qiyam tweet, 27 Mar 2018, mentions this poll. Another notable evolution from the standard FSA branding scheme was the use of Western music, including some fairly popular American audio tracks, in the videos showing the aftermath of Qiyam operations. In a piece featuring an IED attack that resulted in the purported assassination of an MMC intelligence officer, the EDM piece “Countdown” by Dutch artist Hardwell is used.15.Harakat al-Qiyam tweet, 12 April 2018. In another piece less than a week later, the early-2000s rap “Till I Collapse” by popular American rappers Eminem and Nate Dogg was used.16.Harakat al-Qiyam tweet, 18 April 2018.  Their most recent release, and perhaps the most sensational, used both the imagery of popular ’80s arcade game “Pac Man” and the audio of pop superstar Ariana Grande.17.Harakat al-Qiyam tweet, 9 May 2018. Viewer discretion advised. German metal band Rammstein, American nu-metal group Linkin Park, and Syrian rapper Ismael Tamr were also featured in various brief productions by Qiyam, showcasing a variety of Western music styles as well as featuring a more local artist. This type of audio editing is atypical of opposition-leaning groups, who tend to use either instrumentals, anashid (Arabic a cappella), or no music at all in their productions. The shift towards utilising Western music suggests that Qiyam has members who are fairly familiar with the American and European music scenes. How familiar is difficult to say; Eminem and Linkin Park are fairly popular in America, and Rammstein has seen fluctuating popularity in Europe. The imagery aspect also deserves mention, as the usage of photoshopped images of rat heads onto pictures of slain YPG and asayish personnel adds another level to the dehumanising productions. The “rat” imagery has remained consistent throughout several Qiyam productions, and has grown increasingly crude and unapologetic with recent tweets.

A Local Phenomenon?

The distinctive nature of their social media accounts, coupled with the consistent usage of English, begs the question: is Harakat al-Qiyam a local phenomenon or is it coupled to a state intelligence agency that is operating in the background? Accusations have flown on social media denouncing Qiyam as a Turkish MIT-backed operation masquerading as a local Syrian opposition force, accusations that have some merit since Turkey has significantly increased its presence in Syria with the Olive Branch operation.18.“Turkey takes full control of Syria’s Afrin region” : Middle East Eye However, evidence exists for Qiyam being a predominantly local phenomenon, anchored in rural northern Syria with minimal influence from outside forces.

Some have pointed out that a number of Qiyam tweets had attached the hashtag “ZeytinDali”, referring to the Olive Branch operation, along with #Efrin. Alongside the English translations, this may suggest the interference of Turkish intelligence personnel, quietly supporting Qiyam and helping their media reach a wider audience, particular those in Turkey and in the West. However, the tagging is random and the same tweets have been tagged with #Russia as well as #Iran, two countries involved in Syria but distinctly separate from the events in Afrin. It seems that Qiyam has used these hashtags simply to attract as much attention as possible, not just from Turkey and the West but from all sectors of social media. More evidence exists for Qiyam as a local phenomenon, based on their reaction to events in Manbij in the first half of 2018.

In the past few months, the MMC and local YPG cordons have come into conflict with the Bani Said tribe in Manbij countryside, following the death of Sheikh Husayn Daham al-Hassan al-Abd. Sheikh Husayn, an esteemed member of the al-Ghanayim branch of the Bani Said, was found dead in a drainage ditch in January 2018 near the village of al-Hamdaniyah, south of Manbij city. Though the cause of his death and the name of his killers were unknown, al-Ghanayim tribe members immediately blamed the YPG and SDF for the killing and called upon other tribes in the region to voice their grievances and resist the YPG if necessary. Tensions with the Bani Said tribe continued to simmer, and in late April local YPG reportedly killed another member of the tribe, Muhammad Obaid al-Hammam.19.Harakat al-Qiyam tweet, 23 April 2018.

The statement on the death of Sheikh Husayn Daham al-Hassan al-Abd, as announced by al-Ghanayim elder Sheikh Abdulkarim al-Fadal.

Qiyam promised revenge for the killing of al-Hammam and other wrongs dealt to the Bani Said tribe, and on 25 April posted a video of a few of their members firing on passing YPG vehicles in Manbij countryside.20.Harakat al-Qiyam tweet, 25 April 2018. The operation, which did not show any casualties, was dedicated to al-Hammam and the Bani Said tribe, as explicitly stated by the tweet. This chain of events came not long after the leaders of the al-Ghanayim tribe called upon the people of Manbij to resist the YPG.

Why does this matter? The notion of avenging the losses of the Bani Said tribe suggests that Qiyam comes from local tribes, if not the Bani Said themselves. The fact that their attack came not long after the al-Ghanayim leadership spoke out is also indicative of their sympathies with, if not connections to, Manbij’s tribal landscape. Manbij countryside, along with much of northern and eastern Syria, is dominated by tribes whose affiliations are rooted in centuries of history.21.Munif, Yasser. “Participatory Democracy and Micropolitics in Manbij” The Century Foundation (21 February 2017) Though these tribes have often been driven apart by conflicts, there has been cooperation in the past, and there may be a willingness among some of the Manbij clansmen to cooperate against a common enemy, that being the perceived threat of the YPG-aligned MMC and police forces.22.Munif, Yasser. “Participatory Democracy and Micropolitics in Manbij” The Century Foundation (21 February 2017) The group has also called out to other local populations in northern Syria, surprisingly reaching out to the Kurdish people of Qamislo in response to the unconfirmed kidnapping of a young girl in that area by police forces.23.Harakat al-Qiyam tweet, 21 May 2018.

The evidence is not concrete, but the attachment to the plight of the Bani Said seen in the aforementioned episode suggests significant local affiliations, rather than foreign ones. This is not to say that Qiyam has zero foreign influences on its forces, as we do not know the full breadth of the group. A fairly high-profile attack on a Coalition patrol in Manbij also remains unclaimed and may have been the work of Qiyam elements, operating under the jurisdiction of foreign backers, potentially from the Turkish MIT.24.“American service member, British armed forces member killed in Syria” : CBS News The nature of the attack, at least with regards to its targets, suggests a coordinated and well-planned assault designed to strike at what is clearly an important target. Quite reasonably, a number of analysts suspected IS involvement in the attack, but the lack of attribution remains a sticking point and questions about Turkish intelligence involvement in the region remain.25.“American service member, British armed forces member killed in Syria” : CBS News Regardless, it seems evident that Qiyam’s local connections have shown themselves to be significant, whereas the evidence for foreign intervention is insubstantial, and therefore a conclusion cannot be reached about Turkish influence on Qiyam.

The Growth of Insurgency

Harakat al-Qiyam is not alone in its insurgent tactics. The Popular Resistance of the Eastern Region, a pro-government insurgency force that similarly antagonises the YPG and SDF, has recently made a brief spate of appearances in the countryside of ar-Raqqa. Though the impact of the PRER has been fairly limited and they have not caused any confirmed casualties yet, they have launched shelling operations against SDF targets in the countryside, and have claimed the shelling of American forces near the Brigade 93 base north of ar-Raqqa.26.https://i.imgur.com/VVSXEps.png The group also claimed the 7 April shelling of the LaFarge Cement Plant, where American forces have been stationed.27.https://i.imgur.com/jtM0Nv8.png In a similar vein to how Qiyam tweeted, the post in question was tagged with #Damascus and #Trump, broad hashtags that served the purpose of gaining more views and attracting attention from those searching such generic tags. However, PRER seems to be lashing out at American forces in particular, and the rhetoric on their Twitter page reserves as much vitriol for the United States as it does for the YPG and SDF.

Both insurgent groups have room to expand, but Qiyam seems to have seen more success in that regard. Granted, PRER is a more recently-organised force and has yet to get time to get off the ground, but Qiyam, in around eight months of operation, has managed attacks in three different governorates of Syria and even claimed an attack in Qamislo that has so far been unconfirmed. Their rapid growth, and their ability to target high-ranking members of the YPG and SDF, suggests a well-organised and intelligently-led force with significant local connections but unclear foreign connections. Information gathered in the near future, either by American intelligence or by the YPG themselves, may reveal more about this group’s bizarre nature. 

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Trent Schoenborn

Trent is an analyst and contributor who has worked with the IR since its inception. He specializes in Iraqi politics and the civil war in Syria, and has been studying the latter conflict since it began. He has previously worked on Syrian Civil War Map as well as some academic research projects related to the region. He can be contacted directly at tschoenborn.00@gmail.com.

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