Monday, September 30, 2013

Syrian rebels reject the West? (continued)

The background, clashes between ISIS and other rebel groups in Azaz and elsewhere:
The Islamic State of Iraq and [the] Levant (ISIL) (*), an armed group operating in Syria and a US-designated "terrorist organisation", announced last week it would "go to war" against two other rebel groups in the town of al-Bab, in Aleppo governorate.The two groups had stormed the ISIL headquarters - based in a school - in an attempt to evict its fighters. ISIL had refused to comply with an agreement among the town's rebel factions to stay away from education institutions and allow children to return to school in the new academic year. The raid led to an hours-long firefight, and both sides traded blame after several people were left injured. 
The situation in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor, near the Iraqi border, is hardly any better. On Saturday night, deadly clashes in al-Bu Kamal erupted between jihadists and the Allahu Akbar Brigade, an opposition group credited with the capture of the city from Assad forces in November 2012 and which also operates under the Supreme Military Council. 
In the northeastern province of al-Raqqa, meanwhile, fighting between ISIL fighters and the Ahfad al-Rasoul battalion, another Supreme Military Council-linked organisation, also killed some 11 people in the past month. ISIL accused Ahfad al-Rasoul of being collaborators with the Assad regime - and blew up its headquarters, rounding up several of its members. ISIL also released a video that purports to show an Ahfad al-Rasoul commander admitting to being a French intelligence agent. An Ahfad al-Rasoul fighter told Al Jazeera the confession was filmed under duress, pointing to the commander's shaking voice and tied hands. "Had we been collaborators with the regime, you would not have seen us at the hotspots," said Ibrahim Edliby.
(Al Jazeera report, The end of the rebel alliance?)
The formation of the Islamic Coalition also came less than a week after a major escalation in fighting between the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the other al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, and the Free Syrian Army. Tensions rose after the Islamic State seized control of the Azaz border-crossing in Aleppo from the FSA’s Northern Storm Brigade and then spread to other parts of Syria including Raqqa, the province where al-Qaeda’s footprint is deepest. Protests against the Islamic State – and counter-protests in support of it – erupted throughout the country.

Significantly, what began as a rebel vs. jihadist showdown soon transformed into a jihadist vs. jihadist one. The Islamic State even battled Nusra in Hasakah, reifying months of simmering hostility between the more hardcore and veteran Zarqawist branch of al-Qaeda (the Islamic State was established a decade ago in Iraq) and the comparatively more “pragmatic” junior partner (Nusra came into existence in late 2011) [..] And, just to complicate things further, an entire “division” of the FSA defected to Nusra in Raqqa last Thursday. According to local activists cited by the Syria Deeply website, the FSA’s Division 11 felt hopelessly outgunned and terrified by the Islamic State and saw Nusra as their only safeguard against annihilation. This was doubly interesting, in fact, because the Islamic State had expelled Nusra from Raqqa last spring. Nusra only returned on September 7 and evidently in enough force to become the second-most powerful militia in the province in a matter of days. In a just world, it would fall to Lewis Carroll rather than your humble servant to explain why moderate rebels would align with al-Qaeda in order to close ranks against al-Qaeda. (Islamists assemble, Michael Weiss) 
Ayman al-Zawahiri accuses the FSA of being an American agent (whereas in fact they are not receiving aid in any meaninful way):
Once united in the fight against government forces, the ISIL and other similar groups have recently labelled some Supreme Military Council factions "Sahwat", likening them to US-funded "Awakening Councils" in Iraq. Those armed groups established themselves in Sunni tribal areas in 2005 ostensibly to help the Iraqi government with security, as violence raged throughout the country. The Awakening units were at the forefront of the fight against al-Qaeda and other jihadists in Iraq. Now, some suspect the US is planning to establish similar armed factions in Syria.
ISIL's leadership is based in Iraq and its ranks include many non-Syrian fighters. It has declared a "purifying maliciousness" military campaign to round up fighters from the al-Nasr and al-Farouq battalions, both operating under the loose banner of the Western-backed Supreme Military Council.
Echoing the fears of jihadist groups that other rebel groups may turn their arms against them - especially if Assad's regime falls - al-Qaeda's leader Ayman al-Zawahiri said in a video recording released on September 11 the "Sahwat the US is trying to create in the Levant will be destroyed - God willing". He urged armed Islamist groups not to "reconcile with secularists and enemies of Islam in any way". The talk of a possible air strikes by the US on Syrian military installations has accentuated divisions on the ground and deepened the jihadists' suspicions of secular and moderate Islamist armed groups. (Al Jazeera report)
On September 11, the global head of al-Qaeda elected to celebrate the twelfth anniversary of his organization’s most spectacular terrorist attack by adding the Free Syrian Army to his list of “enemies of Islam.” Zawahiri’s rationale was that the FSA was an American hireling and therefore an inevitable vehicle for an “Awakening”-style turn against al-Qaeda in Syria. So an enormous bull’s-eye was suddenly painted on the back of this loose confederation of rebel militias, many of which had been pining in vain for over a year to see Zawahiri’s portrayal of them made real. His words were not wasted. Within days of this announcement, the Islamic State launched Operation “Purification of Filth” (rhetoric not really indicative of a localized territorial spat or ideological misunderstanding) aimed at sites in Aleppo run mostly by the al-Farouq and al-Nasr brigades, both members of the US-backed Supreme Military Command of the Free Syrian Army. This is what led to the Islamic State’s seizure of Azaz, a crisis that was only tenuously negotiated after Liwa al-Tawhid, one of the new signatories to the Islamic Coalition, dispatched reinforcements to the border crossing, effectively surrounding the Islamic State nasties, and shooting a few too.  (Michael Weiss)
Supreme Military Council commanders have unequivocally called on Washington to carry out missile strikes on Assad's military assets, hoping such an offensive could help bring the regime down. The jihadists, meanwhile, say if the US decides to intervene militarily in the Syria, they themselves would not be spared. "Once the Syrian skyline is violated, the air strikes would extend to the positions of the jihadists [in rebel-controlled areas]. They will start targeting them in the name of the fight against terrorism," a member of Jabhat al-Nusra [..] told Al Jazeera.
Bracing for a US attack, members of ISIL have already emptied some of their offices in Aleppo, relocating to more discreet areas in the northern city's suburbs. Commanders in Jabhat al-Nusra have also taken new security measures in anticipation of a US strike, the source in the group told Al Jazeera, speaking on condition of anonymity. The Jabhat al-Nusra member said he believed the West was intervening in the country because "the US proxies" in Syria were losing ground to the jihadists. "The developments in Syria are straying away from the US calculations," he said. "The Syrian street has never been more attuned with the Islamists and more supportive of an Islamic project in the country the way it is now. Syrians have been rejecting the Western-backed projects in the country, including the Jarba project."
The Jarba project is a proposal put forward by Ahmad Jarba, the leader of the opposition Syrian National Coalition. He called for the creation of a 6,000-strong national army to unite the hundreds of rebel groups and to counter the influence of the jihadists. The proposal has not yet materialised because of a lack of logistical and financial resources, said spokesman Louay Mokdad of the Supreme Military Council, the military wing of the Syrian National Coalition. "It would be a proper national army with the purpose to protect the Syrian people from those who kill them, be it the Syrian regime or anyone else," Mokdad told Al Jazeera. "If the jihadists see themselves in a position where they are killing Syrian people, then this would be their problem." (Al Jazeera report)
ISIS are not focusing on the struggle against Assad, some accuse:
[The Ahfad al-Rasoul fighter] said ISIL was trying to capture strategic areas from other rebels who had fought for months to take control of territory from Assad forces. "You do not see ISIL fighters in hotspots clashing with the regime. You see them trying to extend their control to areas we struggled hard to liberate." (Al Jazeera report)
Michael Weiss does have his critics. Aymenn J Al-Tamimi tweeted: ‏Basic error in this piece: Jabhat al-Nusra was not 'expelled' by ISIS from Raqqa in the spring as the author claims: ... . It turns out that Weiss is accused of being "pro-SNC".

* ISIL / ISIS Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham or of Iraq and the Levant or of Iraq and Syria - the Levant and, I think, al-Sham refer to "Greater Syria", that is, including Lebanon at least. "Currently, the Arabic term Suriyya refers to the modern state of Syria." (wikipedia)

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