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Latest from Syria EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW! Al Qaeda has arrived and are winning!

Interesting Article: "After Assad, is strict Islamic rule ahead for Syria?" by Tom Peter, published Thursday, January 3rd, 2012

The voice of Islamist groups is growing louder in Syria as a number of Syrians in the battleground province of Aleppo are expressing increasing interest in establishing a government that leans toward a strict Islamic state. Syria analysts say the move is a shift in Syria, which has had a longstanding presence of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood but whose people have largely shunned radical Islamic jihadism. The shift comes as radical groups from outside Syria have increasingly become part of the fight against the regime of Bashar Assad, whose military has lost ground recently in its attempt to beat down an uprising against his dictatorial rule. Foreign jihadists are in both fights. Their ultimate aim of creating an Islamic theocracy here is not new a new idea in Syria but they may be closer to their goal than ever before. Would you like to know more?

First a little history; The Muslim Brotherhood has been active in Syria for decades and it believes in a form of Islamic law and rejection of Western culture. But the secular Syrian regime created by Assad's father in 1971 has cracked down relentlessly and violently on dissent of any kind, including Islamist ideals. Wahhabist Sunnis, who form the backbone of the al-Qaeda terror group, have had no significant homegrown movement here. Assad did allow its members to transit through Syria to fight the Americans in Iraq, though, and his main ally in the region is the theocratic Shiite state of Iran. The U.S. State Department implicitly recognized the growing influence of extremist groups in Syria last month when it designated as a terrorist group Jabhat al-Nusra, which is fighting the Assad regime in Syria. The State Department said the group's ties with the group al-Qaeda in Iraq were among the main reasons for its decision.

While many in Syria look upon Jabhat al-Nusra with trepidation, it has won support among many Syrians who see it as both an effective military organization and a generous humanitarian group. "Through aid, Jabhat al-Nusra can enlarge its base of public support more and more," said Abu Ali, a Syrian involved in relief efforts in Aleppo. "Many people are starting to support them because of the aid." Among its ranks are Syrians and foreign fighters who have battle experience in Iraq and elsewhere, according to the State Department. Jabhat al-Nusra receives considerable funding from Persian Gulf states such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, according to several news reports. The funding has allowed Jabhat al-Nusra to increase operations in Syria at a time when moderate groups simply lack the resources, rebel commanders say.

Even some Syrians who want an Islamic state in a post-Assad Syria view groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra as extreme.

One former member, Abu Osama, said he left the group after it tried to get him to sign an oath pledging to fight with the group anywhere in the world. Now fighting with the rebel Free Syrian Army, Abu said some fighters with Jabhat al-Nusra consider Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, an infidel because he has not enforced sharia — strict Islamic law — in Egypt. The group, which forbids tobacco use, has also been known to pull cigarettes out of the mouths of smokers going through their checkpoints.

The question now is, do Syrians really want an Islamic state?

Though used here in a rhetorical manner, this question poses anew since the Syrian conflict steers towards sectarianism and religious fundamentalism. In fact, properly due to the polarization of the 'creed' decision-makers in the United States and Europe have been hesitant to intervene for the last 22 months, caught between the wish to possibly bandwagon on a Sunni victory, and the imperative to restrain from arming the rebels for fears of fundamentalist backlashes.

But the Syrians, it might appear, see it in a different way. As soon as in December the Obama administration branded the Salafi-Jihadi group Jabhat Al-Nusra a “terrorist organization” the main opposition Syrian National Coalition outburst in disagreement, echoed by many Local Military Councils who regard the 'front' as indispensable to outweigh Assad's better equipped forces. The organization’s leader, allegedly Abu Mohammad Al-Golani, imprinted the group with a radical platform focused on Sunni exclusivism, strict interpretation of the Shari'a law, and violent rejection of men's self-govern.

What actually strikes the most is the popular reaction to the blacklisting. Thousands of Syrians gathered in Idlib, Aleppo and Damascus to show their support for the radical Salafi group. Rallies pivoted on exalting the bravery of Al-Nusra's fighters and their heroic gestures to free the country off Assad, the “real terrorist in Syria” as most banners lamented. This all evidences the growing popularity the group enjoys at grassroots level, most appalling to Washington for it is convinced that the front is affiliated to the Iraqi Al-Qaeda.

Commentators depict the front as a 'magnet' for foreign mujahideen. In fact, contrary to the bottom, the leadership is increasingly attracting experienced 'trainers' from Iraq, Lebanon and Libya. This is evident from the shift in strategy Al-Nusra adopted. The May 2012 Damascus bombing was carried out through sophisticated remote devices, a tactic which Syrian security apparatuses taught jihadi groups who operated in Iraq: this strengthens the view proposed by the Institute for the Study of War that Al-Nusra's founding members were previously working for the Syrian government. But from the October bombing of Aleppo these attacks have been executed by suicide bombers whose jihadi cause was put well clear in video statements. This shift evidences not only further radicalization, but the presence of foreign 'know-how' in designing such attacks. Nevertheless, since most field-fighters speak with Idlib or Aleppo's accent this helps Syrians to better accept the revolution, since it assumes the connotation of a domestic struggle independent of foreign interests.

Secondly, Al-Nusra's popularity has to do with both its military efficiency and the communitarian aspect of its 'protocol'. Especially in the more industrial areas of Aleppo the population is growing frustrated with the little advances of the revolution: the constant shortages of water, bread and the disruption of local businesses have in fact alienated upper and middle classes, who come now to see the uprising essentially as a rural-driven effort with little advantages for them. Even worse there is a general lack of trust about the Free Syrian Army, who failed to manage to run daily administration in liberated areas. People lament scarce security and the fighters' lack of discipline: this resulted in widespread looting and abuses, including corruption which led cities to be run on a mafia-like style.

With Jabhat Al-Nusra things are surprisingly different. Militarily, they avoid killing of civilians trying not to alienate the population, learning from the mistakes of Al-Zarqawi's Al-Qaeda in Iraq. As documented in many videos they tend not to 'chase' Assad's forces as these are pushed out of an area: as soon as the army retreats, they suspend operations so not to destroy houses, markets and local businesses further, having understood that in doing so they would then be responsible for feeding the involved population. This is a crucial stance contributing to Al-Nusra's fame, at the expense of the less diligent FSA.

The highly communitarian ideology of Al-Nusra is the key to its popularity as it places the Sunni well-being at the core of its operate. Indeed alongside the military wing Al-Nusra has humanitarian-issues 'experts' who try to address water shortages and food. In a few villages bordering Turkey in the North there are reports highlighting how Shari'a is used to punish those bakers who increase bread prices, practice that would harm the community as a whole. Most importantly in virtue of this community-centred ideology Al-Nusra's fighters follow a self-imposed 'code of conduct' which does not tolerate any abuses on the population or any looting.

A recent interview with an official of Jabhat al-Nusra, really opened the eyes of many intelligence analysts. Abu Adnan, a 35-year-old religious scholar and Shari‘a law official in Jabhat al-Nusra’s leadership in the Aleppo area, was candid to say the least.

When asked what he thought of the U.S. designating his Islamist group a terrorist organization, he retorted, "“It’s not a problem, we know the West and its oppressive ways. We know the oppression of the [U.N.] Security Council, the lies of the international community. It’s not news. This means nothing to us.”

The designation, officially announced on Dec.11, lists Jabhat al-Nusra as an alias of al-Qaeda in Iraq and says that since November 2011 the group has claimed responsibility for “nearly 600 terrorist attacks, killing and wounding hundreds of Syrians.” The group was unknown until late January 2012, when it announced its formation, although Abu Adnan admits that it was active for months before then. In the months since then, it has become one of the most effective fighting forces against President Bashar Assad, undertaking some of the most audacious attacks against the regime.

Little is known about the religiously conservative, secretive group except for a mysterious leader and the fact that it now wants to establish an Islamic state. But Jabhat al-Nusra’s vaunted discipline and reputation on the battlefield among other fighters (even secular-minded ones) is growing in line with the boldness of its attacks, and many young men are seeking to join it. Jabhat al-Nusra does not differ ideologically from other Syrian Salafi Islamist groups like Ahrar al-Sham and Liwa al-Tawhid. “We are all Sunni Muslims,” says Abu Adnan, “so there is no difference.” The difference, he suggested, was in the type of fighter Jabhat al-Nusra was prepared to accept into its ranks: “We pay a great deal of attention to the individual fighter, we are concerned with quality, not quantity.” Smokers need not apply. A potential recruit must undertake a 10-day religious-training course “to ascertain his understanding of religion, his morals, his reputation.” A 15-to-20-day military-training program follows. abhat al-Nusra does count Syrian veterans of the Iraq war among its numbers, men who bring expertise — especially the manufacture of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) — to the front in Syria. Still, Jabhat al-Nusra is not the only rebel outfit to use IEDs and other groups — some so-called moderates operating under the loose umbrella of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) have also allegedly used suicide bombers who were either willing or unwilling (i.e prisoners). Like Jabhat al-Nusra, a number of other Islamist groups also want to install an Islamic state in Syria, while even secular rebel units increasingly speak in ugly sectarian terms that demonize minorities, particularly members of Assad’s Alawite sect. Yet only Jabhat al-Nusra’s tactics were designated as “terrorist” by a U.S. administration that admits it is still trying to understand the various armed elements in the Syrian conflict, fueling all manner of theories about why Jabhat al-Nusra was slapped with the description. Also why time the announcement just as rebels as a whole seem to have gained a renewed momentum? The key, it seems, is the alleged links to al-Qaeda in Iraq.

FYI, bhat al-Nusra is headed by a man who uses the nom de guerre of Abu Mohammad al-Golani (Golani is a reference to Syria’s Golan Heights, occupied by Israel). The U.S. Treasury Department has also slapped financial sanctions against two men it believes are senior leaders in the militia group: Maysar Ali Musa Abdallah al-Juburi and Anas Hasan Khattab. Recent media reports also mention one Mustafa Abdel-Latif, also known as Abu Anas al-Sahaba, as the new “emir” or leader of Jabhat al-Nusra. A Jordanian national, al-Sahaba is the brother-in-law of the late al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi.

Interestingly, at the end of December, in an unprecedented move, Abu Muhammad al-Julani, the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, addressed "the people of Syria and the mujahedeen.  The speech came in response to the United States designation of Jabhat al-Nusra as a foreign terrorist organization. But it seemed obvious that Julani was speaking from a strong position, warning that "those who sowed the seeds of the revolution will be the ones to reap its fruits." He also warned his supporters and the people of Syria against attempts to replace the Syrian regime with a Western one.

The speech indicates that the FSA is being subsumed. After having been the leading military entity in the Syrian revolution, the FSA has been pushed to the sidelines compared to Jabhat al-Nusra. The militant praised those parties that have condemned the US decision to designate it as a terrorist group.

To begin to understand how Jabhat al-Nusra managed to establish itself in this environment, another question must be asked: Is this militant faction merely seasonal, and will it cease to exist when the regime falls — or will it persist to implement a plan that goes far beyond Syria?

In Aleppo's countryside, a member of Jabhat al-Nusra showed a booklet entitled "Regional War Strategy in Syria." The booklet represents a serious vision by an al-Qaeda analyst. It is available on the internet and helps explain the carefully planned beginnings of jihadism in Syria. According to the study, "The title of the next battle of Damascus will be ‘survival of the smartest,'" and explains how the jihadist environment began to emerge in Syria. Jabhat al-Nusra bases its work in Syria on three pillars.

The first pillar is to show resilience: "Syria is a vast and far-reaching battlefield, which necessitates a remarkably resilient force that is able to both move and remain stationary."

Jabhat al-Nusra has shown a reasonable level of intelligence in implementing this strategy, outshining more amateur FSA planners. The group began by sending a few people to the Syrian territories on a reconnaissance mission in the rural areas of Aleppo and west of Idlib.

The second pillar, according to the vision of the "al-Qaeda analyst," is to develop a specific "functional role" for jihadists — whose role has been limited to performing military activity — because such a war in Syria "would return us to the laws of the jungle and survival of the fittest."

The third pillar of the al-Qaeda strategy in Syria is the principle of "prolonging the conflict." This is based primarily on rejecting any consensus over a political solution, such as that put forward by UN Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi. Accordingly, a series of enemies are being promoted, including the "Alawite regime" and the "Zionist enemy," in addition to whatever form of rule might replace the Assad regime.

These three pillars have been working smoothly and successfully until now. Due to the moral chaos surrounding some FSA brigades, and the fact that some of these brigades committed theft, the presence of Jabhat al-Nusra has gained support among the industrial middle class. Many factories have been looted, and the hopes of industry owners who escaped this wave of looting were relying on the movement's entrance into industrial regions "because they do not steal," according to one industry owner. The movement's access to Aleppo's society is not only religious, but also economic. It did not declare the establishment of courts to try civilians for violations they committed. Deep-seated corruption in the delicately improvised judiciary formed by militias was exposed. These indications paved the way for a call for help from the people to Jabhat al-Nusra to manage their daily affairs. In Aleppo, the protesters reiterate daily the following slogan: "The Free Syrian Army are thieves…We want the Islamic army."

Now, let’s throw Iraq into this. The Iraqi government is tracing the links between the Islamic State of Iraq, which is the Iraqi branch of al-Qaeda, and Jabhat al-Nusra, which is active in the Syrian revolution against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Iraqi politicians from the State of Law Coalition, which heads the government, have been circulating reports stating that Jabhat al-Nusra represents “the Iraqi vein” in the armed groups of the Syrian opposition. Shiite parties are concerned about the effects of al-Qaeda fighters formerly based in Iraq moving to the Syrian arena.

A senior security official from the office of the chief of staff of the Iraqi armed forces told Al-Monitor that the government has finally obtained reliable information regarding the movement of Islamic State of Iraq militants to Syria. These militants, who adhere to the wing close to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the group’s former leader who was killed in 2007, cross the Iraqi-Syrian border near Anbar and Mosul. The official, who is a politician close to Maliki, said that high-up Iraqi leaders are providing the necessary logistical and material support to facilitate the move, saying, “Iraqi insurgents are obtaining passports, and border crossings are being coordinated to facilitate travel to Syria.”

Internally, there is rifts between FSA and the Al Qaeda group. Syrian rebels accuse jihadist groups of trying to hijack revolution. Rebel commanders who fight under the Free Syrian Army banner say they have become increasingly angered by the behavior of jihadist groups, especially the al-Qaida-aligned Jabhat al-Nusra, who they say aim to hijack the goals of the revolution.

Through a growing role on the battlefield and a rising reputation as an organization that can get things done, al-Nusra has become a player in the power vacuum that has emerged from the civil war. It is also increasingly known as an enforcer, whose unbending demands are unsettling regular rebel units as well as the societies the group claims to protect. Over the past two months al-Nusra has felt emboldened enough to step from the shadows. It has opened shopfronts in most towns and villages, from Aleppo to the Turkish border, and has even set up a headquarters in plain sight in the centre of the city, alongside the base of a regular Free Syrian Army unit, Liwa al-Tawhid.

A simple black Islamic banner, the same one adopted by al-Qaida in Iraq, from where many of al-Nusra's members hail, hangs at each of the outposts. n these hubs al-Nusra cadres receive residents who come to them to resolve disputes and seek aid. Men with notebooks sit inside chronicling complaints and sometimes giving out vouchers for food or fuel.

Throughout history Syrians have sought out patrons, usually tribal sheikhs or chieftains, for assistance in all manner of things, from mediation to marriage. In some cases al-Nusra is now filling these roles.

A rebel commander told a story, as a warning of the dangers al-Qaida represented to Syrian society. Late last year the leaders of some towns in the Aleppo hinterland and the rebel commanders who move between them received word of a visitor.

"He was a Tunisian," said the commander. "And he said he brought a message on behalf of Ayman al-Zawahiri [al-Qaida's leader]. He asked us to join him and said there would be benefits for us if we did. He asked me to pledge a bayaa [oath of allegiance] to al-Qaida. I said no. This is what we all must do. If we continue with them, the Syria of our dreams will instead haunt our children in their nightmares."



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