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Syrian Al Qaeda Terrorist Units move closer to controlling parts of Syria!

Interesting Article: "The other red line" by The Economist, Washington, DC, published Saturday, May 18th, 2013

An interesting article mentioned that For all the agonizing in Western capitals about whether to channel weapons to “moderate” rebel militias in Syria and the renewed attempts to find a diplomatic solution to the civil war, one issue above all others is dominating the thinking of military planners, intelligence agencies and their political masters: the increasing danger of the regime’s vast stock of chemical weapons getting into the hands of groups with links to al-Qaeda. When reports surfaced last month about possible use of sarin, a nerve agent, by regime forces, supposedly crossing a red line drawn earlier by Barack Obama, the White House was keen to play the incidents down. If the use was small-scale and limited, of course it was deplorable and warranted rigorous investigation. It was not just that the evidence of what exactly had happened was regarded as insufficiently robust to prompt a response, but that the president’s red line (at least as far as it applied to forces loyal to President Bashar Assad) was really only supposed to relate to large-scale and systematic deployment of the terror weapons, which was still deemed unlikely and could anyway be deterred. A BBC report on May 16th that lethal chemical devices had been dropped by a helicopter on civilians near Aleppo seemed to confirm this red-line crossing, but still on a small scale. Would you like to know more?

Though the regime is believed to have tried desperately to consolidate its stocks of chemical weapons in areas it still controls, it has so much of the stuff—around 1,000 tons of mustard gas, sarin and the even more lethal VX held at about 12 sites—that in the chaos engulfing the country some will almost inevitably fall into rebel hands sooner rather than later unless something is done. Indeed, Jabhat al-Nusra, the most powerful rebel faction and the one with closest links to al-Qaeda, reportedly came very close to capturing a stockpile near Aleppo earlier this year. A senior NATO official argues that, whereas it is premature to talk about al-Qaeda getting hold of chemical weapons, conditions on the ground make it increasingly likely. Attempting to close down the chemical-weapon threat is seen as qualitatively different from other kinds of intervention. Some of Mr Obama’s closest advisers, probably including Mr Kerry, want to send weapons to boost the Supreme Military Command’s leader, General Salim Idriss. The idea of establishing a no-fly zone and a safe haven for rebels is still on the table, despite claims to the contrary. But the aim of taking action to remove the chemical-warfare threat would be neither to tilt the balance in the civil war nor to aid one rebel faction over another. Rather, it is seen as something the international community, almost without exception, could support.

On one level, it would be similar to the action that Israel has taken in the past week or so to prevent consignments of sophisticated weaponry being sent to Hezbullah, the Shia party-cum-militia that controls southern Lebanon. Israel maintains that it has no intention of getting involved in the Syrian civil war, but says it must act for its own security to prevent its sworn enemy getting potentially game-changing weapons: advanced aerial defense systems, specifically the Russian SA-17; accurate surface-to-surface missiles, especially the Fateh-110, an Iranian solid-fuelled missile with a range of 200km; and the Russian Yakhont, a cruise missile with a range of 300km (186 miles). Israel’s view is that although it must probably deal alone with the threat of such missiles being passed to terrorists, it is for other powers to prevent the same thing happening in the case of Syria’s WMD. But the feeling is growing that time is running out. The longer the delay in tackling the problem, the greater the risk of failure. For Mr Obama, who likes to weigh every possibility before taking action, the stakes could not be higher. But as a senior NATO official puts it: “The light has gone on. We can’t not deal with it.”

Last month, the leader of Syrian rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra - which has been steadily winning battles and gaining popular support since its inception in January 2012 - was forced to publicly clarify his group's relationship with al-Qaeda. In a YouTube video posted on April 10, Abu Mohammed al-Jawlani stated: "The sons of Al-Nusra Front pledge allegiance to Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri," the former right-hand man of Osama bin Laden and the acting head of al-Qaeda. With this declaration, Jawlani ratcheted up suspicions in the West that significant elements of the Syrian opposition are ideologically and tactically aligned with al-Qaeda. Nusra is now officially considered a "terrorist" organization by the US State Department.

According to a report by the Quilliam Foundation, the group's roots can be traced back to the activities of deceased al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi during the early 2000s. During a journey from Afghanistan to Iraq to fight US forces, Zarqawi is said to have amassed fighters, sending some to Syria and Lebanon to establish branches of his network; so-called "guesthouses" to train and funnel fighters to Iraq. When it became clear the Syrian uprising of 2011 would devolve into war, many of these experienced fighters in Iraq came to Syria, the report says, with the goal of overthrowing Assad and establishing an Islamic caliphate in the Levant. The experience of many Jabhat al-Nusra fighters distinguishes them from the often rag-tag Free Syrian Army cadres they sometimes fight alongside. The Quilliam report concluded that al-Nusra's leaders "can use their experience as jihadists in other countries to plan, identify goals, and strategies effectively, making them one of the most efficient groups fighting in the revolution". Jabhat al-Nusra has been regarded as a bogeyman in the West, and this preoccupation is readily apparent in statements from American policy-makers.

Just one month after Jabhat al-Nusra announced its formation, then-head US diplomat Hillary Clinton cited it and similar groups in Syria as one reason to withhold aid from the Syrian opposition. In a February 2012 interview with CBS, she said, "We know al-Qaeda's Zawahiri is supporting the opposition in Syria. Are we supporting al-Qaeda in Syria?"

In Raqqa, a once conservative but by all accounts not religious city, the triumph of al-Qaeda’s Syrian arm, Jabhat al-Nusra, would seem to be complete.
The black flag of al-Qaeda flies high over Raqqa’s main square in front of the smart new governor’s palace, its former occupant last seen in their prison. Their fighters, clad also in black, patrol the streets, or set up positions behind sandbags. The Islamists smashed up one of the two shops that sold alcohol. That much was pretty inevitable, the locals agreed. The other off-license had already closed, as had the casino on the outskirts of town. They brought in a radical cleric from Egypt to preach Friday prayers, and set up a sharia court in the city’s new sports centre with the support of other brigades. They had their fiefdom — an entire city to run only 60 miles from Nato’S border.

Jabhat al-Nusra has always been well-funded compared to other militias – most people assume due to wealthy backers in the Gulf, though few have been able to track down the lines of the money supply. Now they have control of good sources of income and can pay salaries. From the city’s main flour mill, they supply the all-important bakeries, and they have seized some of them too. At night, long queues of women form to buy their daily ration under the watchful eyes of Jabhat guards. They have also taken the oilfields in neighboring Deir al-Zour province. Production is hardly booming, but they are able to sell enough on the local market to keep cash rolling in.

According to some sources though,  “After Assad falls, there will be a second revolution, against Jabhat al-Nusra,” said Amar Abu Yasser, a battalion leader with the Farouq Brigade. The Farouq was once the most famous brigade in the Syrian revolution, spreading its power from its base in Homs across the north of the country, where it still operates several of the border crossings to Turkey, including Tal Abyad, the nearest to Raqqa. But its power and influence has been severely curbed by Jabhat al-Nusra. Abu Azzam, the Farouq head at Tal Abyad, survived an assassination attempt when a bomb was placed under his car.

For now al-Nusra is fighting alongside the much larger Free Syria Army, the 140,000 strong FSA, even though they have very different ideas about the kind of new Syria they want to build. On the other side of the Syrian divide, there are two large forces: what is left of the Syrian army and a sizable Iran-financed, Hezbollah-led contingent determined to keep President Bashar Assad in power or at least to influence Syria’s orientation the day after his fall. For Israel the immediate danger here is a seepage or deliberate transfer of long-range ground-to ground missiles, ground-to-air and ground to-sea missiles and chemical weapons to Hezbollah. FYI Al Nusra is largely made up of mercenaries recruited in Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Simply bombing them would be highly problematic. By international law, the bombers would be held responsible for any collateral damage caused by the fallout of lethal gases. On the other hand, Israel could bomb convoys transporting chemical weapons to terrorist forces, say Hezbollah, carefully choosing a spot where collateral damage is likely to be negligible or nonexistent.

According to former prime minister Ehud Olmert and former defense minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer, Hezbollah may have already received some chemical weapons. Netanyahu, however, is determined to prevent them from getting any more. 

This could entail a very difficult and complex operation against the chemical sites. Israel and the US are exchanging intelligence on this and the US is reportedly training special commando forces in Jordan. The chemical weapons issue took on added urgency after reports in late April, first from Israeli intelligence and then corroborated by Western agencies, that one of the sides in the civil war had actually used poison gas, probably the Syrian regime against rebel enclaves.

As a result, US President Barack Obama is also contemplating a dramatic policy change. Up till the reports of chemical weapons usage, he had been careful to supply moderate rebel forces with only non-lethal equipment. Now he is considering arming them with lethal weapons, which could prove a game changer.



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