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Update on the Rise of Terrorism in Syria!

Interesting Article: "The Syrian rebels who have ‘no problem’ fighting alongside Al Qaeda" by The National / Anakara Published Monday, November 25th, 2013

An interesting article mentioned that he Syrian rebel groups that Turkey has allowed to proliferate near its border include many who have said they have no problem fighting alongside Al Qaeda against the president, Bashar Al Assad. “Al Qaeda is helping us, while foreign countries are not,” said Besil Abu Arab, 20, a member of the Ahrar Al Sham militia, as he received treatment in a makeshift hospital in the Turkish border town of Reyhanli. Abu Imar Halebi, a fighter with the Aleppo-based movement Abu Amara, agreed that Al Qaeda fighters were an asset. He said he did not oppose their goal of establishing Islamic law in Syria, though his own group prefers to explain its benefits and win popular assent rather than impose it by force. Would you like to know more?

Concerns that Islamist militants may benefit played a part in the decision by the administration of the US president, Barack Obama, to step back from using force against Al Assad’s government in September. For its allies, the calculation may be different. “Turkey should try to reduce the influence of the Al Qaeda-affiliated groups,” said Stephen Larrabee of Rand Corp, a policy institute in the US. “The longer this goes on, the more they are likely to be strengthened.” He said Turkey initially downplayed the risk from Islamist radicals because it was more concerned about Kurdish separatists in northern Syria, who have fought against the groups. “But after a while, they began to see the danger.” (Turkey is a sponsor of the Free Syrian Army, the West’s preferred opposition group in Syria, and denies it has ever permitted the more extreme groups fighting in Syria to operate from Turkish territory.) “Organizations like Nusra or Al Qaeda can’t find shelter in our country,” said the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose government has Islamist roots. He was referring to Jabhat Al Nusra, one of the biggest Islamist groups in Syria and classified by the US as terrorists linked to Al Qaeda.
In mid-October, Turkey’s army said it fired at fighters from Al Qaeda’s Iraq wing, Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, across the border after a mortar round landed near a Turkish frontier post. Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant has emerged as one of the fiercest of the rebel groups. Salih Muslim, the leader of the main Kurdish party in Syria, told Istanbul’s Taraf newspaper that Turkey had been supporting Al Nusra and Al Qaeda and has now stopped, “or at least that’s how it looks”.

For those, including the Obama Administration, exasperated with the fragmented, increasingly fratricidal rebel forces pitted against Syria’s strongman Bashar Assad, any consolidation within the insurgents’ ranks would have once come as a welcome development. That time is now gone, however, and that rule no longer holds.

In yet another sign that the Syrian insurgency has come under the sway of radicals unwilling to answer to the Western-backed secular opposition, seven Islamist groups united on Friday as the Islamic Front, forming what is said to be the largest rebel alliance in Syria. “This independent political, military and social formation aims to topple the Assad regime completely and build an Islamic state where the sovereignty of God almighty alone will be our reference and ruler,” Ahmed Eissa, commander of the Suqur al-Sham brigades, one of the groups that joined the front, said in a statement posted online. In e-mailed comments, Charles Lister, an analyst with IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre, estimated that the new alliance, which also includes the Tawhid Brigade, Ahrar al-Sham and the Islamic Army, counts at least 45,000 fighters. By consolidating external backing from the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia — the alliance members’ main outside sponsors — the front’s formation may prove a “landmark moment” for the insurgency, said Lister. It will “undoubtedly result in a renewed intensity in rebel operations across many key parts of the country.”
The Islamic Front does not include al-Qaeda affiliates like the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) and Jabhat al-Nusra, which have made major inroads in Syria in recent months. While the front isn’t likely to confront al-Qaeda intentionally, said Lister, it does represent “an explicitly Syrian Islamist body capable of co-opting Syrians away from al-Qaeda.”

Also on Friday, reports emerged that ISIS, an al-Qaeda franchise fighting in Syria, had seized control of Atmeh, a key crossing point for supplies and insurgents near the Turkish border. According to activists cited by Reuters, ISIS fighters wrested control of the town from Suqur al-Islam, a moderate Islamist unit whose men had been left exhausted by clashes with FSA units earlier this week. Videos posted online showed scores of black-clad rebels (A group of Syrian rebel brigades, including an affiliate of Al Qaeda) walking through a large arch over an entrance to the Omar oil field, rummaging through its buildings and standing atop tanks. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based opposition group that monitors the war, said a number of rebel brigades seized the area after an overnight battle and the withdrawal of government troops. Among the groups that participated were the Islam Army, which was formed east of Damascus, the Syrian capital, and the Nusra Front, which is affiliated with Al Qaeda. Syria’s oil and gas fields are concentrated in the country’s largely rebel-controlled north and east. Most have been taken over by rebels or Kurdish militias, some of which finance their operations by selling the small amounts of crude they produce or processing it locally into usable gasoline products. It was unclear whether the field’s production infrastructure had been damaged and whether the rebels would be able to maintain control, much less resume production.  
In other areas, the war is gaining momentum for the Al Qaeda fronts as well; Al Qaeda fighters in Syria have seized another town on the border with Turkey, consolidating their grip on a swath of northern Syria.

The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) took control of the town of Atimah at the end of last week, further tilting the balance away from more moderate factions of the Free Syrian Army. If ISIL's record elsewhere is any guide, the people of Atimah can expect the imposition of strict Islamic customs, with women and girls being coerced to dress more conservatively and Sharia, or religious, courts being established to dispense justice. Opposition activists say ISIL has cut down a famous landmark -- an ancient oak tree -- near Atimah. The militants claimed people had been worshipping the tree rather than God, an allegation rejected by locals, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The loss of Atimah will make it more difficult for brigades of the Free Syrian Army to bring in supplies from Turkey and get wounded fighters across the border to hospitals. It also may worsen the plight of internally displaced Syrians who have swollen the population of this northern corner of the country. Another jihadist group now controls one of Syria's main oilfields, according to the Observatory. It says Jabhat al Nusra (JaN) took over the al Omar field over the weekend, though an industry source said the rebels' lack of technical expertise and damaged infrastructure would make it difficult for them to extract the crude.

ISIL and JaN have made substantial gains in Syria in recent months. In an article for the forthcoming edition of Sentinel, the journal of the Combating Terrorism Center, Brian Fishman argues that ISIL and other jihadist groups are more dangerous in Syria than they ever were in Iraq -- "more likely to sustainably control territory, project power around the region, possibly sponsor global terrorist attacks, and catalyze a new generation of jihadist insurrection." hey "now include up to 12,000 fighters combined," Fishman says. "The ISIL is also bringing in much larger numbers of foreign fighters, including approximately 900 Europeans, many of whom are learning to use sophisticated weapons and small unit tactics." He adds: "Not only are far more foreign fighters entering the conflict, they are playing much more complex roles as fighters and commanders rather than simply as fodder for suicide attacks. Considering that the most important role of a veteran jihadist is as a trainer and motivator, this outflow is worrisome." ISIL's videos posted online highlight the contribution of foreign fighters from Chechnya, Kosovo and across the Arab world and Europe. Last week, it posted a photograph of a 17-year-old French citizen killed while fighting in its ranks.

With the capture of the town near the Turkish border, this further adds to the ability of jihadists’ fighters to flow into Syria. Including those of Turkish descent. Several hundred Turks are estimated to be among thousands of foreigners swelling the ranks of Islamist rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad's forces, generating what some politicians say is a risk that, radicalized and battle-hardened, they could one day return to stage attacks on Turkish soil. Turkey has been an outspoken supporter of rebels fighting against Syria's Bashar al-Assad and has assisted them by keeping its border open. But Turkish opposition politicians have become increasingly alarmed as hardline Islamist groups such as al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have risen to prominence among the rebels and taken control of territory in northern Syria near the frontier. The presence of foreign fighters from around the Muslim world, including Turks, adds to the risk that the conflict will spill beyond Syria, they say, accusing the government of doing too little to fight the threat.

The danger of violence hitting neighboring countries was illustrated last week when suicide bombers targeted Iran's embassy in Lebanon, killing 25 people. An anti-Assad Sunni Muslim militant group claimed responsibility. In May, a bomb attack killed 53 people in the border town of Reyhanli, although the authorities say suspects being tried over the attack are linked to Assad, not the Islamist rebels. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan denied this month that Turkey was harboring al Qaeda-linked fighters and said it was fighting against them. Turkish security forces have tightened controls along the 900 km (560-mile) border, seizing a truck loaded with 1,200 rocket warheads and other weapons in the southern city of Adana this month. Still, Turks are being recruited to join foreign fighters from around North Africa and the Middle East to fight against Assad, often with Islamist groups that openly support al Qaeda. Pictures on Turkish jihadist websites commemorate Turks who have died fighting in Syria, while videos on You Tube show armed men speaking in Turkish, apparently from inside Syria, calling on their compatriots to join the jihad. Among those who have been inspired to fight by such images were 20-year-old twins who disappeared from their home in Adiyaman, 150 km from the Syrian border, several months ago when they were due to register at university. Their father, Mehmet, blames Islamists in the town for recruiting them.

The head of the Islamist Ozgur-Der association, involved in supplying aid to Syrians, estimated around 50 Turks had died in Syria among several hundred who had left to fight there. Speaking in the group's Istanbul offices, Ridvan Kaya said Ozgur-Der itself had not sent jihadist fighters to Syria but that it was not opposed to groups which did, defending them against what he termed "black propaganda" in the Western media.

Syrians have been pouring out of their country in recent months, fleeing an increasingly violent and murky conflict that is pitting scores of armed groups against one another as much as against the government. Numbering just 300,000 one year ago, the refugees now total 2.1 million, and the United Nations predicts their numbers could swell to 3.5 million by the end of the year. “The fighting continues, people are getting displaced and we don’t know how long it’s going to take,” said Amin Awad, the head of the United Nations’ refugee agency in the Middle East. “Therefore, aside from making sure the humanitarian operations are running, we need to support the host communities and governments.” The exodus has stretched the resources of the region’s host countries — Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and even Turkey, the biggest and richest by far. Camps are full. But so are many neighborhoods in cities, towns and villages, where the Syrians’ presence has raised rents, undercut wages and increased tensions. In Lebanon, the smallest of the host nations and the most politically fragile, Syrian refugees are expected soon to make up a quarter of the population.

The Assad government, led by Alawites who are considered an offshoot of Shiite Islam, is supported by Shiite Iran and Hezbollah, the powerful Lebanese militia; Syria’s Sunni opposition is backed by Sunni-led Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The host countries themselves have carved out positions on the Syrian conflict along sectarian lines. The refugee population in the region reflects that divide and carries its risks. In Sunni-led Turkey, which backs the Syrian opposition, most of the Syrians in the camps and cities are believed to be Sunni. Alawite and Shiite Syrians have gravitated to southwest Turkey, a religiously mixed region, or tried to melt away in the Istanbul megalopolis. Syrians of both sects have fled to Lebanon, a country with a weak central government and a fragile balance between its Sunni and Shiite populations.

Syrian Kurds have gone to the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. Young refugee men are joining Kurdish militias that are increasingly locked in battles along the Turkish-Syrian border with Sunni-led Islamic extremists, who move easily between eastern Syria and western Iraq. Jordan, a Sunni country that supports the Syrian opposition, has received Sunni Syrians. But the kingdom, an American ally, fears the contagion of an increasingly potent dimension of the Syrian conflict: the battle between moderate and radical Islam. “The longer the conflict continues, the more we see Jordan becoming a destination for extremists,” said a high-ranking Jordanian government official. Jordan is worried not only about extremists among the Syrian refugees but also about their effect on its own jihadist Salafists. “More and more young Jordanians are becoming extremists because of Syria,” said Osama Shihadeh, a prominent moderate Jordanian Salafist. His own nephew, he said, had gone to fight inside Syria despite his parents’ opposition.

The flood has also raised fears that the refugees will import the Syrian conflict into the host countries, and destabilize already fragile borders. Like the other host nations, Turkey, which is actively supporting the Syrian opposition, was struggling to control the mass movements across its border. , Iraq is also devolving into sectarian violence, with explosions in Sunni, Shiite or Kurd neighborhoods almost every day. With fundamentalists of all stripes effectively sidelining the moderate opposition in Syria, the only thing the West may now fear as much as the rebels’ total defeat, it appears, is their total victory. If Assad is allowed to win, “it sends a message to the world that if you’re willing to kill hundreds of thousands of your people, the international community will let you stay to power,” says Hadley. “And the opposition winning … increasingly that means Islamists and al-Qaeda.”

Syria's government and opposition will meet for the first time in Geneva in January, in an attempt to halt the nearly three-year-old civil war that has killed more than 100,000 people, the United Nations has announced. Previous attempts to bring the two sides together have failed, mainly because of disputes over who should represent the government and opposition, the future role of President Bashar al-Assad, and whether Iran, Saudi Arabia and other regional powers should be at the table. Setting the January 22 date for the “Geneva 2” peace conference ends six months of wrangling over when Syria's government would meet the opposition for talks.

Either there comes a peace settlement, or we are looking at a deeply unstable middle east as the years go on, with the rising of more hard line fundamentalists that will eventually turn towards the west with their new found partners for deadlier terrorist related incidents.



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