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Syria: Al Qaeda, Rebels and the Terrorism Conundrum We Face!

Interesting Article: "Presence of al Qaida-linked groups in northern Syria complicates rebellion" by Mitchell Prothero / McClatchy published Monday, August 19th, 2013

An interesting article mentioned that the presence of al Qaida-linked groups fighting alongside rebels in Syria continues to grow – and reshape the conflict. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, as the local al Qaida affiliate is known, has fast been expanding its influence across virtually all rebel-held areas in northern Syria. It’s fighting alongside its ideological ally, the Nusra Front. Both the al Qaida and Nusra groups are led by veterans of the Iraqi insurgency, and both have flirted with the tactics that ultimately alienated them among Sunnis in that country who ultimately turned against them. Still, mainstream rebel factions have been reluctant to denounce the fierce Islamist militants they now find siding with them against the Damascus regime. That may be partly a factor of success. Would you like to know more?

When rebels early this month, made the critical seizure of an airbase in Idlib province, they dealt the Syrian regime a serious blow and opened up critical supply lines for their cause. They also scored the bloody victory with the help of the al Qaida group.

Likewise, those Islamist and mostly foreign forces spearheaded a high-profile offensive into the coastal region – territory previously seen as unassailable because the Alawite Muslim population supports the Assad government. In both cases, the mainstream rebels’ Free Syrian Army and Syrian Military Council publicly thanked the Islamist fighters in a series of videos. Those announcements were released by umbrella groups, who face stiff pressure from the West to confront their more radical allies.

“While other battalions might like to claim credit, the fact is that Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)” – the acronym attached to the al Qaida group – “banner is flying over the main tower at the airbase,” said Aymenn Tamimi, an analyst specializing in Iraqi and Syrian jihadist groups at Oxford University. “(The Islamists are) more successful in terms of control of territory and influence than their counterparts in Iraq could ever hope to have achieved.”

The reality on the ground in Syria indicates that a new conflict could break out at any moment between the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and ISIS. The tension between the two was revealed by reports from the liberated areas, where ISIS is practicing a harsh tyranny. The ISIS is harassing the people of Aleppo as they move between the areas held by the FSA and the Syrian army. The ISIS is arresting people on charges of secularism, and the group has also assassinated an FSA leader in the Latakia countryside. Both sides are now on alert and expecting a clash soon.

The emergence of the ISIS, which is led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was unlike that of Jabhat al-Nusra. The latter is considered the womb that gave birth to the ISIS. 
Baghdadi announced the ISIS’ establishment a few months ago based on a request, it is thought, by al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri to set up an Islamic state in the region. Despite its loyalty to al-Qaeda, Jabhat al-Nusra did not obey the request at the time, claiming that such a move was premature.

In order to avoid a dispute between Baghdadi and Jabhat al-Nusra’s leader Abu Mohammed Joulani, Zawahri did not immediately recognize the ISIS and accused Baghdadi of acting hastily without consulting al-Qaeda. In a tape broadcast by al-Qaeda supporters on social networking sites, Zawahri criticized Jabhat al-Nusra for opposing the ISIS in public.

It seems that Zawahri’s order to dissolve the ISIS was not positively received by Baghdadi, who believes that the ISIS should remain. Thus arose a Salafist schism in Syria between Jabhat al-Nusra militants, whose foreign fighters are a small minority, and the ISIS, which includes many fighters from a variety of countries.

According to sources in opposition-controlled areas, the quarrel between Jabhat al-Nusra and the ISIS is about more than loyalty to their competing leaders. Jabhat al-Nusra operates on a principle similar to that of the FSA: first overthrow the regime, then establish an Islamic state. On the other hand, Baghdadi’s supporters want to establish the Islamic caliphate immediately, regardless of when the regime is overthrown. So the ISIS has decided to halt its military actions and focus on strengthening its grip on the areas it controls: the Aleppo countryside and some the city’s neighborhoods, the Idlib countryside, specifically Binsh, and to a lesser extent the rural areas of Latakia, then Raqqa.

Raqqa is a special case. The ISIS controls most of the city's civil administration buildings in conjunction with the Salafist-leaning Ahrar al-Sham, which has not declared allegiance to al-Qaeda.

What is happening in Raqqa should be carefully examined. According to some activists, Jabhat al-Nusra gradually withdrew from Raqqa and ceded its posts to the ISIS, which moved to set up checkpoints and Islamic courts. The ISIS now controls the roads leading to the area and has imposed a dictatorship whereby anyone who professes secular ideas is arrested and tortured on the grounds that he is an “apostate and an infidel.”

In contrast to the ISIS’ actions, Jabhat al-Nusra seems unconcerned with recent events, as if it is outside the flock. It is still cooperating with like-minded armed groups, especially in the countrysides of Damascus and Aleppo. Jabhat al-Nusra’s media department recently showed pictures showing its men fighting in the Khan al-Asal battle.

Jabhat al-Nusra leader Abu Mohammed Joulani made a speech rejecting any political process or democratic governance and stressing his support for an Islamic state, but only after the fall of the regime. He also denounced transgressions by Jabhat al-Nusra fighters and called for redressing how the civilians in Nusra-controlled areas are dealt with.

Sources in opposition-controlled areas said that Jabhat al-Nusra, which has already established its presence, will try to stay on the sidelines in the expected fight between the FSA and the ISIS. But if Jabhat al-Nusra is attacked, it will defend itself.

 The assassination of Kamal Hamami — aka Abu Basir, an FSA leader in the Latakia countryside — at the hands of ISIS fighters may be a sign that a battle between the two sides is near.

Although some, if not most, FSA battalions have cooperated with radical groups, many differences gradually developed. Moreover, three advantageous factors — organization, financing and armaments — made the Salafist current more popular at the grassroots level than the FSA.

After some training, any individual can join any FSA battalion. But the jihadist organizations are very stringent in accepting new volunteers and only do so after reviewing the volunteer’s past, beliefs and commitment to jihad.

By using this method, the jihadist organizations succeeded in limiting the number of transgressions committed by their members. But many transgressions were committed by the ISIS when it fought anyone who called for a civil state. The ISIS dealt with people harshly, especially a few days ago when ISIS fighters gained control of the crossing separating west Aleppo (opposition-controlled) and east Aleppo (controlled by the regime). After the Aleppo-Damascus road was cut, that crossing became the means to get food and key supplies. ISIS fighters harassed civilians and even opened fire on a demonstration that called for the opening of the crossing. The pretext the ISIS gave was that the demonstrators were secular and opposed the establishment of an Islamic state. Recently, ISIS fighters refused to vacate their positions in a battle, leading to the killing of FSA brigade commander Abu Basir. The FSA responded with a harsh anti-ISIS media campaign. One FSA leader called on all battalions to unite under the FSA banner and put an end to the transgressions by FSA members. Some considered what happened to be the start of a conflict between the FSA and the ISIS, with Jabhat al-Nusra (the group has been formally designated a terrorist organization by the United States, a step which Washington said was vindicated by a declaration in April that it was merging with al Qaeda's Islamic State of Iraq group. Washington now says Nusra is little more than a front for al Qaeda) ostensibly on the sidelines. Others believe that such a conflict would improve the FSA’s image in the eyes of the West and the US, which would then start providing the FSA with better weapons.

In contrast, others believe that something like the Iraqi Sahwa forces will be replicated in Syria due to the presence of armed groups outside the realm of control of FSA commander Salim Idris that follow the orders of their backers, be it the Gulf or the West. These battalions will seek to impose their control over the liberated areas, while the independent and self-financed battalions will have no choice but to fight in order to defend themselves against Islamist groups that employ the same dictatorial means — but this time with a religious flavor — that the Syrians rose up against in 2011.

ISIS is quite radical in fact just a few days ago ISIS warned Western aid workers that they are at risk of kidnapping or death if they enter Syria. The directive from the terror group now officially makes many U.S.-funded organizations targets. A State Department official told CBS News that "some of our partners" have reported receiving a warning from ISIS that Western aid workers would be in danger. The official said that so far the threat is "not yet impacting our programs given the breadth and depth of local staff and partners we have on the ground."

Most disturbing is that Syria expert Günter Meyer warned that a US military intervention in Syria would only strengthen al Qaeda's position in the war-torn country. When asked what form of military intervention could take place, he answered, that the defense department wants to avoid putting soldiers on the ground but that they "...would...impose a no-fly zone over Syria. But that can only be done if the UN agrees. It would require a lot of effort since all of Syria's air defenses would have to be destroyed. But Syria has been equipped with state-of-the-art missiles from the then Soviet Union. That is going to be a very complex mission that will cost several billions. An easier solution that's been suggested would be to use missiles to destroy the Syrian army's airfields. That would indeed be a possibility, because fighter jets would no longer be able to land. But destroyed airstrips could also be quickly rebuilt. And such a mission would also require the UN's approval. But both Russia and China won't agree to that. If a no-fly zone were actually to be implemented, that would mean a tremendous weakening of Bashar al-Assad's regime, because his military successes mainly depend on his complete sovereignty over Syrian air space. If that sovereignty is no longer intact due to landing strips being bombed, it will become harder for the regime to dominate over rebel fighters." 

The war in Syria is also attracting willing supporters for Al Qaeda affiliated groups. For example, Abed al-Kader Altala, a 26-year-old student from Tayibe (Israel) is currently facing trial at the Lod District Court for joining the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat (al-Nusra or Nusra Front, one of the three most radical Syrian rebels fighting to oust Bashar Assad). Abed, of course, was arrested by the Shin Bet the moment he landed in Israel after his father and uncle met him in Istanbul and put him on a plane. At first he claimed he had only gone to offer humanitarian assistance, but a polygraph test revealed he was lying prompting the prolonging of his interrogation as well as his eventual confession. Altala is not the first Israeli Arab to attempt to reach Syria through Jordan and Turkey and the phenomenon is inspiring much concern among the Shin Bet, who fear that al-Qaeda oriented international jihadists will take advantage of youths with Israeli passports to collect intelligence on Israel or even attack it.

Most of these youths take a plane from Amman to Istanbul, from Istanbul they fly to Antika, near the Turkish-Syrian Border, then take a cab to Rehaniya. Then walk towards the border, cross through a fence and hitch a ride to Idlih, in Northern Syria. In the town of Taftanes, Jabhat has set up a HQ (hostel really) to indoctrinate new volunteers and train them.

There are currently a number of kidnapped individuals in Syria as well. One known American is still said to be alive after reports from another U.S journalists that was kidnapped escaped after seven months of captivity. Matthew Schrier, 35, fled the clutches of a rebel group aligned to Al-Qaeda in July after being kidnapped while leaving the Syrian city of Aleppo on December 31 last year. He finally escaped on July 29 after managing to sneak through a tiny opening in a window. But a fellow American prisoner being held with Schrier was unable to escape through the gap because he was too big. According to the New York Times, Schrier is one of 15 Westerners who have been kidnapped or who have disappeared this year. The experience of Schrier (he was tortured by his captors (3 individuals) who had Canadian accents and spoke perfect English) illustrates the increasing dangers of foreign extremists in the country.

This figures to be a prolonged conflict between Islamists and more secular forces with an enemy on one side, a terrorist organization on the other and western support tied to moderate rebels fighting not only Assad but the radical islamization of a country.



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