Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Syria: the fight against ISIL

The rise and fall of ISIL in Syria, Robin Yassin-Kassab (19/1):
ISIL should not be considered part of the revolutionary opposition. It has fought Free Syrian Army (FSA) divisions as well as Kurdish groups; it has assassinated FSA and more moderate Islamist commanders and abducted revolutionary activists. It serves the regime's agenda by terrifying minority groups, deterring journalists, and influencing the calculations of men like the former US ambassador to Syria Ryan Crocker who wrote (from a deficit of both information and principle, and with stunning short-sightedness): "We need to come to terms with a future that includes Assad - and consider that as bad as he is, there is something worse."
Indeed, many Syrians are convinced that ISIL is an Assad creation, or even a collaborative work of Assad and the great powers. Why else, they ask, does Turkey, a NATO member, make it so easy for foreign militants to cross the border? Why has the regime bombed the schools and marketplaces of Raqqa (a city held by ISIL for half a year), but not the well-known ISIL headquarters?
This alliance of seven leading Islamist factions [the Islamist (or Islamic) Front, fighting against ISIL] was cobbled together last fall, and so far seems much more disciplined, certainly better armed, than the FSA ever was. Its eclipsing of the secular FSA happened not despite Western policy (as many journalists insist on misleadingly describing them as "Western-backed") but because of it. The vanishing of Obama's "red line" and his handing the Syria file over to Putin after the mass Sarin gas attacks of August 2[1], catalysed the Islamist realignment, and probably a burst of Saudi largesse. 
I think I agree with most of this. I should point out though that the anti-ISIL forces do not seem to be doing very well lately (this map is a useful summary) and, as Charles Lister points out, ISIL could be a big nuisance for some time to come, as they are in Iraq

As an update to what I posted, regarding the Latakia massacres last August:
Ahrar al-Sham, the largest organisation in the [Islamist] Front, was implicated by Human Rights Watch in the slaughter in Lattakia province in August 2013 - so far the only documented large-scale massacre of Alawi civilians. The organisation denies involvement. 
That ISIL carries out horrific abuses, that are as bad as the regime's, is well-documented. One of the most-detailed accounts, in a recent article by Isabel Hunter about events in Jarabulus, illustrates both this and the fightback by ISIL:
[..] scenes of medieval violence in Syria's northern border-town [..] Fighting came to a head on January 17, between rebel groups Liwa al-Tawhid Brigade and [ISIL] in the town, when reinforcements arrived from Raqqa and reclaimed the city in a brutal four-hour battle. By nightfall, at least 10 men had been beheaded, their heads mounted on spikes, and more than 1,000 refugees fled the 3kms across the border to Turkey.
It's a shocking turn of events for residents and Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters alike, who just a week ago believed they were hours away from expelling the al-Qaeda group from their city altogether after surrounding the last 40 fighters in the city's cultural centre.

Al-Qaeda's [ISIL's] extreme tactics goes a long way to explain how they have reclaimed much of the territory in northern Syria. Despite being fewer in number than the opposing rebel factions, their use of terror and increasing use of attacks on civilians is winning out. (Al-Qaeda slaughters on Syria's killing fields, 21/1)
The brutality of ISIL in regaining control in some towns in the North seems to exceed even that with which they established control in September (see, for example, events in Azaz).

Update: more (gruesome) details here - La ville syrienne de Jarablus, de la révolution à l’horreur, Cedric Labrousse (21/1).