Thursday, September 26, 2013

Syrian rebels reject the West?

Some big news breaking early on the 25th.
  : Northern Storm Brigade supports recent rebel statement rejecting SNC & democracy for Islam as law of land: //   ... //  @abdulkadr_saleh Translated from Arabic by Translator, The Islamic Alliance @ statement (1 ) :: on the coalition and the Government assumed 24-9-13

25/9 11 islamist groups say they do not recognize SNC, group based outside Syria did not represent them (BBC WS, 8:03) Islamists reject Syria coalition
(12:00) New Islamist Bloc Declares Opposition to National Coalition and US Strategy Posted by Aron Lund on Tuesday, September 24th, 2013 (US time)
Abdelaziz Salame, the highest political leader of the Tawhid Brigade in Aleppo, has issued a statement online where he claims to speak for 13 different rebel factions. [..] what it purports to do is to gut Western strategy on Syria and put an end to the exiled opposition.
The statements has four points, some of them a little rambling. My summary:
  • All military and civilian forces should unify their ranks in an “Islamic framwork” which is based on “the rule of sharia and making it the sole source of legislation”.
  • The undersigned feel that they can only be represented by those who lived and sacrificed for the revolution.
  • Therefore, they say, they are not represented by the exile groups. They go on to specify that this applies to the National Coalition and the planned exile government of Ahmed Touma, stressing that these groups “do not represent them” and they “do not recognize them”.
  • In closing, the undersigned call on everyone to unite and avoid conflict, and so on, and so on.
Who are these people? The alleged signatories make up a major part of the northern rebel force, plus big chunks also of the Homs and Damascus rebel scene, as well as a bit of it elsewhere. Some of them are among the biggest armed groups in the country [..]  All together, they control at least a few tens of thousand fighters, and if you trust their own estimates (don’t) it must be way above 50,000 fighters. Most of the major insurgent alliances are included. Liwa al-Tawhid, Liwa al-Islam and Suqour al-Sham are in both the Western- and Gulf-backed Supreme Military Council (SMC a.k.a. FSA) and the SILF, sort-of-moderate Islamists. Ahrar al-Sham and Haqq are in the SIF, very hardline Islamists. Jabhat al-Nosra, of course, is an al-Qaida faction. Noureddin al-Zengi are in the Asala wa-Tanmiya alliance (which is led by quietist salafis, more or less) as well as in the SMC. [..] already at this stage, it looks – on paper, at least – like the most powerful insurgent alliance in Syria.
Is this a big deal? Yes, if the statement proves to accurately represent the groups mentioned and they do not immediately fall apart again, it is a very big deal. It represents the rebellion of a large part of the “mainstream FSA” against its purported political leadership, and openly aligns these factions with more hardline Islamist forces.
That means that all of these groups now formally state that they do not recognize the opposition leadership that has been molded and promoted by the USA, Turkey, France, Great Britain, other EU countries, Qatar, and – especially, as of late – Saudi Arabia.
Why now? According to a Tawhid Brigade [Liwa al-Tawhid] spokesperson, it is because of the “conspiracies and compromises that are being forced on the Syrian people by way of the [National] Coalition”. [..]
Mohammed Alloush of the Islam Brigade (led by his relative, Mohammed Zahran Alloush), who is also a leading figure in the SILF alliance, was up late tweeting tonight. He had a laundry list of complaints against the National Coalition, including the fact that its members are all, he says, “appointed”, i.e. by foreign powers. He also opposed its planned negotiations with the regime. This may have been in reference to a (widely misinterpreted) recent statement by the Coalition president Ahmed Jerba [see below]. Alloush also referred to the recent deal between the National Coalition and the Kurdish National Council, and was upset that this will (he thinks) splinter Syria and change its name from the Syrian Arab Republic to the Syrian Republic.

Who’s missing? These are of course not all the rebels; far from it. Dozens or hundreds of small and local groups are missing from this alliance, just like they’ve been missing from every other alliance before it. Some really big groups are also not in there, like the Farouq Battalions or the Ahfad al-Rasoul Brigades, both of them quite closely aligned with the SMC and the National Coalition.
Most notably, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham [ISIS] – Syria’s most querulous al-Qaida faction – is absent from the list. Given the recent surge in tension between the Islamic State and other factions, that seems significant. Does it mean the new coalition is in fact aimed at isolating the Islamic State, while also upping its own Islamist credentials? Striking a kind of third way between the Western-backed SMC and its al-Qaida rival? Maybe. The question then remains, what should we make of Jabhat al-Nosra [Nusra front] being included, which is also an al-Qaida group. [Rami al-Lolah ‏@RamiAlLolah @Charles_Lister JAN is needed in the alliance for the sake of isolating ISIS AQ!  12:03 AM - 25 Sep 13 ]
In either case, the Northern Storm Brigade – which was routed by the Islamic State in its home town of Aazaz just recently – has quickly expressed support for the new coalition. In a statement posted online, they fell over themselves to explain how they’ve always been all about implementing sharia law. This is of course, how shall I put it, not true. [..]
the reason that the Northern Storm Brigade has suddenly gone all Islamist is that they desperately seek protection from Tawhid, after being beaten up by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Perhaps they also figure that this alliance might be the only thing big and mean enough to actually crush the Islamic State. Size, money and momentum are the things to look for in Syrian insurgent politics – ideology comes fourth, if even that. That’s also why this statement seems so important.
On the other hand, the statement is in no way hostile to the ISIS. It might in fact suit them pretty well, since it weakens the hand of the Western-backed camp and adds weight to Islamist demands. When I asked a representative of Tawhid, he said the reason they’re not on the list of signatories is just because they’re not members. If they want to, and share the principles, they could join.

Is it just a local thing?
There’s also not that much of a presence from the Syrian south. The Furqan Brigade is an exception – founded in Kanaker, and now stretching from the western Ghouta to Quneitra. Then you have the Islam Brigade in Damascus, the Homsi Haqq Brigade, and so on. Generally speaking, however, this list of names has a heavy northern flavor to it, specifically Aleppine.On the scanned original statement, there’s even an addition of “Aleppo” next to the name of “Abdullah al-Shami”, who signed for Jabhat al-Nosra. The Tawhid spokesperson, again, says that this doesn’t mean they only signed on for the Aleppo branch. He insists that the alliance is intended for all of Syria.

[..] foreign funders could put the squeeze on groups that have not grasped the magnitude of what they just said.
On the statement by Ahmed Jerba (Ahmad Jarba) and the alleged misinterpretation by Reuters, this seems to relate mainly to the omission of words such as, "Cette décision, qui sera axée sur le départ d’Assad et de tous ceux qui portent une part de responsabilité dans la mort de Syriens .. La  Coalition réaffirme son plein engagement en faveur d'une solution politique agréée par l'Assemblée générale. Elle déplore que le régime d’Assad, qui ne souhaite pas de processus politique, poursuive sa campagne meurtrière contre les Syriens", which the SNC has said often enough in the past. 

Islamists assemble, Michael Weiss:
It was no coincidence that this repudiation of Syria’s Washington-backed leadership followed swiftly from several major turning points. The first was the calamitous US climb-down from direct military action for the Assad regime’s August 21 chemical weapons attack in East Ghouta. The majority of yesterday’s rebel signatories had been hoping for weeks for US airstrikes on regime installations – however minor or symbolic these might have been – because they would have at least afforded the chance for opportunistic ground assaults. Two weeks ago, while on assignment in Antakya, I interviewed half a dozen fighters who felt, not for the first time, completely disillusioned with the United States for a promised intervention that got un-promised overnight
More to follow.
The West has lost Syria, Ana Maria Luca:
The truth is that the West has lost Syria. Simply because they deceived the Syrian people into waiting for two and a half years for the international support that never came. For two and a half years they had hope. But in Washington, London, Paris, Moscow the bureaucrats had dinners and elegant debates over doctrines and interests. Now, the Syrians’ hope is gone.  Eventually, they turned to the only faction that can actually give them a chance to earn their freedom.
More media reports.
Zeina Khodr ‏@ZeinakhodrAljaz 1:57 PM - 25 Sep 13 
Fighting rages in Syria as UN team returns: 25 Sep 2013 19:51
Opposition revolt Reports of Wednesday's fighting came as 13 rebel groups released a statement saying they rejected the authority of any foreign-based opposition groups, including the internationally recognised National Coalition. The groups include members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), nominally the military arm of the National Coalition, but also groups such as the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra. Critics of the National Coalition, which is based in Istanbul, Turkey, say it is not transparent with its funding and political functioning. They say it is out of touch with people in Syria, where more than 100,000 have been killed and large chunks of territory have been destroyed by combat and shelling. Some Jabhat al-Nusra fighters and supporters who spoke to Reuters news agency said their groups had been courting ideologically moderate rebels as they watched their relationship sour with the National Coalition.
Saudi Arabia, which had taken over as the main foreign player and financier of the National Coalition, is said to have been trying to sideline Islamist rebels and bolster secular forces. "Our brigades are tired of the National Coalition's strategy. It is acting on the exterior and ignoring the interior," one Nusra supporter said. "And a lot of the moderate Islamists were shoved aside when Qatar's role was overtaken by Saudi Arabia. The Saudis started aggressively supporting the secular groups."
( See also The end of the rebel alliance?, 14/9)

Powerful rebel forces reject authority
WP: Syria's biggest rebel factions align with Al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra. Updated with US caught unawares.
NYT: Key Syrian Rebel Groups Abandon Exile Leaders By BEN HUBBARD and MICHAEL R. GORDON As diplomats push for a peace conference to end Syria’s conflict, a collection of some of the country’s most powerful rebel groups publicly abandoned the opposition’s political leaders

Aron Lund  UPDATE, Sep. 25, 2013:
Lots of media have now reported on the joint statement based mainly on this blog post. Unfortunately, some have shed all the “what if” and caution.
I contacted the Tawhid Brigade spokesperson I talked to earlier, who had spoken of this as a gathering (tajammou) or bloc (takattul) that might have more lasting significance. He says there is so far nothing in the way of a common organization. He explicitly denied that it is anything like the SILF or SIF insurgent alliances. There will be more statements, but at this stage he seems to say it’s really only a position paper by the 11 or 13 (see below) factions involved. [..] When I pointed out that Abdulqader Saleh’s rather offhand comment on Twitter using the phrase “Islamic Alliance” or “Islamic Coalition” (al-tahaluf al-islami) could be interpreted as the name of a new group, and that this version is now gaining currency in the media, he responded “it could become that, but so far there’s nothing”.

[..] two of the groups included on the list of signatories above are not mentioned in either the video statement by Abdulaziz Salame or the scanned copy of the declaration. The groups in question are the Haqq Brigade of Homs and the Furqan Brigades of Quneitra. That’s true. I copied and translated my list from a text version on the Tawhid Brigade website. That text has since been altered to fall in line with the signed copy and the video statement, removing the names of both groups. According to the Tawhid Brigade spokesman, both Furqan and Haqq were part of the drafting process and are verbally in agreement with the statement, but he says they were not present for the signing ceremony.
Incidentally, the Al Jazeera report cited above seems to indicate that the rebels are making some gains on the ground, although they are small.

Opposition activists told Al Jazeera on Wednesday that the fighters were now "in control of most of Ramtha post" in the southern province of Deraa.

The clashes came as the UN inspectors returned to Syria to investigate the use of chemical weapons. Convoys of inspectors arrived at a Damascus hotel on Wednesday, a week after they confirmed that sarin gas was used in an attack August 21 in the suburbs of the Syrian capital. ... The team of investigators is expected to examine the alleged use of chemical weapons up to 14 times in Syria's 30-month conflict.

On the ground, meanwhile, fierce fighting erupted in the strategic northern town of Areeha, forcing locals to seek cover in nearby caves. Rebels are battling for control of the town, which sits along a key supply route for Assad's forces. In the northern province of Aleppo, rebels said they seized control of the Madajen district, another key supply route for the regime that is located near the airport road.

Activists in the northeastern province of Raqqa reported the death of five people in air raids by government fighter jets on the city of Tabqa.

Fighter jets also dropped shells near a bakery [in] rebel-held Raqqa city, activists reported, causing several casualties and fire outbreak in the area. Activist[s] in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta witnessed heavy artillery shelling by regime forces on Wednesday. The town has been under blockade for several months and medical supplies there are running desperately low.


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