Exit Free Syrian Army... in favor of Al-Qaeda
By Pierre Khalaf
After rehashed for over two years the chorus on "moderate opposition" in Syria and stubbornly denied the existence of extremist-Takfirists groups, Western powers warn today against the mounted Al-Qaeda power, which they themselves provided, via retrograde Gulf monarchies and some European countries, with weapons and political environment favorable its expansion. All the experts say that the weakening of the State power in any country is the ideal condition for the appearance , installation and development of Al-Qaeda. This is what Westerners have worked in Syria over the past two years. But their plans remained incomplete because the Syrian government and its army have shown a resistance they did not expect.
The lie of the so-called Free Syrian Army (FSA), behind which the West used to hide to justify its war to destroy the Syrian state, has collapsed. This army of mercenaries, bandits and traitors to the country barely exists. The head of the Military Council, the deserter General Salim Idriss, fled to Syria through Turkey Doha, Sunday, Dec. 8, according to the Wall Street Journal. His deputy, General Mustafa al -Sheikh, fled to Sweden, where he applied for political asylum, while Colonel Riad al- Asaad, the founder of FSA, fled to Holland.
Another leader of the FSA, the deserter Colonel Ammar al- Wawi, has been arrested along with his bodyguards by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS, close to Al-Qaeda ), when he was returning to Syria from Turkey.
Salim Idriss fled after delivering FSA arms warehouses and his own offices the pro-Saudi extremist Islamic Front (a coalition of seven extremist groups formed at the initiative of Bandar bin Sultan, the head of Saudi intelligence), at the end of last week near the crossing point of Bab al -Hawa.
The collapse of the FSA is recognized by the press, policy makers and experts in the West. The setbacks FSA is a "big problem and reflect the dangerousness of the situation and its unpredictability," confessed the U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. "It is clear that the staff of the FSA is becoming weaker and lost power", said Aron Lund, an expert on Syrian rebels based in Sweden. He said that "FSA has lost large groups and fighters with the creation of the Islamic Front." According to him, the loss of key passage of Bab al-Hawa means that Salim Idriss, "could no longer return to Syria."
The French daily Le Figaro writes that taking control of weapons supplied by the West to "moderate rebels," means that their Salafi rivals have crossed the red line. The newspaper spoke of a "miniputsch against the staff of the FSA" and reveals that the extremists seized "dozens of anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles".
All these developments are accompanied by Western experts statements about the installation of al-Qaeda in Syria, a fact they refused to recognize before.
"The al-Qaeda affiliated groups in Syria have created an alliance with at least 45,000 fighters, double the number of Taliban fighters in Afghanistan," said at a conference in Jamestown Australian David Kilcullen, a specialist of insurgencies. "Al-Qaeda is getting stronger on all fronts. Its leadership has been weakened but not eliminated."
The presence in the ranks of radical Islamists in Syria of hundreds of volunteers from Europe and other Western countries, where some will return, is an issue of major concern. "With the training they acquired in Syria, there is a strong possibility that over the next two years they will be able to fulfill the last wishes of Osama bin Laden, who was to mount an attack like the one of Mumbai in Europe, "says Bruce Hoffman.
"The expansion of Al-Qaeda that we are witnessing in the Arab world is truly phenomenal, greater than what we saw during the first decade of its existence," said Bruce Riedel, a former senior member of the CIA, now a member of the Brookings Institution.
Early December Senator Diane Feinstein, Chairwoman of the Committee of Intelligence in the U.S. Senate, said: "Terrorism is increasing worldwide statistics show, the number of victims increases There are more groups, more radical, more jihadists determined to kill to achieve their goals. "
This confession is a late recognition of everything said by the Syrian State, which claimed at the early stage of the crisis that it was facing a real war waged by terrorists from 80 countries.
After two years of denial, Westerners are willing to look the truth in the face. They begin to adapt themselves to the victory of the Syrian state, led by its President-resistant Bashar al-Assad. "The victory of Assad might be the best of three very, very horrible scenarios", none of which provides for the victory of the rebellion, said Thursday in Washington, former CIA Director Michael Hayden. "The narration of the dominant story of what is happening now in Syria is the takeover by Sunni fundamentalists of a significant part of the geography of the Middle East," he added. "This means the explosion of the Syrian state and the Levant as we know it."
But like all American plans and wishes, this one will also be condemned to failure. The war in Syria will end with the victory of the State, the defeat of the terrorists and the reunification of the country ... under the banner of Bashar al-Assad.
Naïm Kassem, deputy secretary general of Hezbollah
«March-14 proposed the idea that the government would not get the confidence of Parliament -a minority government- to rule in place of the Caretaker cabinet. But this proposal failed because of the violation of the Constitution and therefore it would have been removed. The surprise came when the President of the Republic, General Michel Sleiman, who proposed to form a government that would be responsible for overseeing the presidential election, even if it did not obtain confidence. This is contrary to the Constitution. Such a process would tip the country into conflict, division and chaos. It would be wiser to form a national unity government, get the confidence of the House and assume his duties, including the supervision of the presidential election.»
Mohammad Raad, head of the parliamentary bloc of Hezbollah
«In truth, I try to believe that this time the president (of the Republic) rushed and improperly expressed his thoughts (in response to what Hassan Nasrallah against Saudi Arabia). The data available to the Secretary General and he had given during the television interview form a long indictment. And he has others. But between the president and us, we solve problems in our meeting and not through the press. What matters to Hezbollah is that the program of government and the president come from the political commitment of national resistance. The outgoing caretaker government must assume its responsibilities. There is also a designated Prime Minister, but there is an inability to form a new cabinet.»
Sergei Lavrov, Russian Foreign Minister
«Geneva 2 main task would focus on uniting efforts to fight extremist groups which are trying to establish Islamic caliphate (Khilafah) and this is a serious matter. The main task of the conferees should be fighting these groups and international community should support this initiative. Upon reviewing issues related to holding the international conference on Syria, Geneva 2, and its agenda with our Western partners, we say there should be an alliance between the Syrian government and the national opposition to fight foreign terrorists who came to Syria from all over the world to carry out their satanic schemes. Crystallized conditions impose on all Syrians to realize what the most important for them; either to fight alongside those who want to transform Syria into Khilafah or to be united to return the real image of their homeland as a secular state of multi-sects and ethnic groups. This would top agenda of Geneva 2 conference. We are not working with the Syrian government only but also with all opposition spectrums. All the opposition spectrums should be represented at a suitable level and not in a one shape that creates big question marks on its eligibility.»
Ali Abdel Karim Ali, Syrian ambassador to Lebanon
«Mr. Walid Jumblatt has contributed to the campaign against Syria, distorting realities and protecting armed elements. Comments about Damascus’ doors being open to Jumblatt’s son Taymour are only media speculation.»
Walid Joumblatt, Progressive Socialist Party leader
«Who said we want to go to Damascus? Neither I nor my son [Taymour] have thought for a moment about going. We will not go until Damascus is freed from the group currently in power.»
• An Nahar daily reported that the leaders of Mars-14 coalition firmly believe that before leaving the presidential palace, the President of the Republic, Michel Sleiman, will sign the decree for a new government, which will have the double mission to overthrow the caretaker government and take over the prerogatives of the Presidency of the Republic in case of vacuum.
• According to An Nahar, the designated Prime Minister, Tammam Salam, think that the presidential election will not take place on the scheduled date as the political forces will be unable to agree on the formation of a new government.
• According to Al Akhbar , a unit of the intelligence services of the Lebanese Army has arrested a boy of twelve years old, who suspiciously prowling around a place of prayer (Moussalla) close to Hezbollah, in the Taamir Ain el Hilweh neighborhood. The child confessed that he was entrusted by Jund al-Sham group, based in the camp, the mission to explore the place of prayer in preparation for a bombing. Investigators establish a link between this case and another incident that happened there two weeks before the building of the Dirani family, close to Hezbollah and the Resistance Brigades, which was attacked last year by the Sheikh Ahmad al- Asir in order to remove a portrait of Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah. Two teenage brothers were arrested for suspicious activities. They recognized that two members of Jund al-Sham had charged them of an exploration mission to place a bomb.
• The White House claimed Friday that a US man reportedly working for the CIA when he went missing in Iran six years ago was not a US government employee, but refused to provide more details on the case. Reports by The Washington Post and the Associated Press on the fate of Robert Levinson said the US spy agency had been paying the former FBI agent to gather intelligence. "Bob Levinson was not a US government employee when he went missing in Iran," said White House spokesman Jay Carney, though he offered few other details on Levinson’s case and his phrasing did not explicitly rule out that Levinson was working for the CIA. The US government had repeatedly said that Levinson was on a business trip when he disappeared on Kish Island, a tourist destination. Carney also rebuked the news organizations that ran the story, suggesting that the accounts could put Levinson in greater danger and that it was "highly irresponsible" to publish them. Carney said that President Barack Obama had raised Levinson’s plight with Iranian President Hassan Rohani in their historic phone call in September. The State Department said that Secretary of State John Kerry had raised Levinson’s case with his Iranian counterpart Mohammed Javad Zarif during nuclear talks in Geneva and reiterated its call for Tehran to help the retired FBI agent get home.
• Iranian security forces have arrested a "spy" working for the British government in Kerman, a judicial official in the southeastern province told the state IRNA news agency on Saturday. The announcement came just a day after Iran’s new envoy to Britain, Hassan Habibollah-Zadeh, held talks in London on his first visit since his appointment last month, which ended a two-year freeze in diplomatic relations. "Through the efforts of Iranian security forces, an MI6 spy has been arrested," the head of the Kerman revolutionary court, Dadkhoda Salari, said, referring to Britain’s foreign intelligence service "He has met British intelligence officers in person 11 times, both inside the country and abroad, and provided them with intelligence," Salari said. He said the suspect had confessed to his crimes and was now being tried.
• A rebel commander has frozen to death in the bitter cold brought by a snowstorm that has swept Syria this week, a monitoring group said Saturday. "The body of a rebel commander who was on his way from [the northwestern province of] Idlib to Homs [in central Syria] has been found. He died during the snowstorm," said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP there were no signs of gunshots or other wounds and that the body was "frozen." The Britain-based Observatory also reported that the frozen bodies of two men in their 30s were found in Homs province on a road to neighboring Hama province.
As Safir (Lebanese daily, Arab nationalist)
Imad Marmal (December 11, 2013)
The Speaker of the House, Nabih Berry, called "all Parliament members to take part in the election of a new president," adding that it is the head of the Legislative power to work during the period from 25 March to 12 May to fix things, to control the atmosphere in the country and feel the pulse in an attempt to reach a consensus before the convening of the session devoted to the election of next president. According to him, the best scenario is to elect a president receiving the largest number of votes in his favor. Asked about the recent pronouncements of Michel Sleiman on Hezbollah’s weapons, Mr. Berry said he did not have time to examine all the statements that were made. "Resistance is synonymous with sacrifice. It is not a privilege. It must be known that the son of the south, which has already paid a heavy price of Israeli occupation and aggression, will not accept to be again left homeless, and we will not allow the repetition of the past scenario." "If the resistance does not exist, we would have to invent it, because it is the guarantor of the continuation of the liberation of the entire territory and the preservation of our water and oil wealth against the continuing Israeli aggression", said Mr Berry. Speaking to those who are eager to end the arms of the Resistance, he asks: "What is your alternative to protect the Lebanese in general, and the southern population in particular?"
An Nahar (Lebanese daily, close to March-14 Coalition)
Sarkis Naoum (December 13, 2013)
Politicians have received a report on developments that could occur in Lebanon in 2014 several months ago. The report, prepared by an international company that follows the explosive situation in the Middle East, provided that Lebanon could be the theater of sectarian military operations similar to those occurring in Syria. The document finds that Lebanese political parties were unable to reach agreement on the adoption of a new electoral law for parliamentary elections and it is unlikely that the necessary quorum for holding a meeting Parliament for the election of a president is reached. Pointing that the vacuum will take over the country, undermining the capacity of the security and military forces, and promoting the arming of religious groups. The report estimates that all these factors combined could cause a civil war in Lebanon, where appropriate to begin the middle of next year. Asked about the report, U.S. sources considered that the year 2014 will be difficult for Lebanon, but stressed that the developments that occur in Lebanon and Syria are largely related to agreements which may be concluded between the international community and the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Al Joumhouria (Lebanese daily, close to March-14 Coalition)
Johnny Mnayyar (December 1e, 2013)
Information from diplomatic sources suggest a dialogue between Paris and the U.S. embassy in the French capital on the Syrian issue. The discussions focused on the situation on the ground, the outline of the Geneva Conference 2 , the possible infiltration of terrorist groups in Lebanon. At the time of these discussions, the French officials informed their American counterparts about contacts between several European security officials and Syrian security services, represented by General Ali Mamlouk, regarding the extremists arrested by the Syrian authorities. France has, however, informed his U.S. interlocutors that these contacts have been frozen in recent weeks by Syria, who asked the following condition: security cooperation will only resume through Syrian embassies in different countries, once reopened ... It seems that some European countries are planning to reopen their embassies actually in the Syrian capital, limiting their representation to civil employee and military attachés.
Diplomatic sources added that President Francois Hollande is about to make a visit to Saudi Arabia on December 29. The French president, who coordinated with Washington, wants this visit takes place before Geneva 2, to discuss issues that annoy the Saudis, especially since France organizes and sponsors the delegation of Syrian opposition. According to the same information, Hollande will discuss during his talks in Riyadh domestic situation in Lebanon, the aim being to ensure full political coverage to the Lebanese Army to face terrorist groups, but also to help unlock the political crisis in the country.
Al Akhbar (Lebanese Daily close to the Lebanese Resistance)
Sami Kleib (13 December, 2013)
Since he became president on the eve of the current millennium, former KGB officer Vladimir Putin has been stubbornly shaking up the one-sided international order dominated by Washington and its Western allies – and in most cases, succeeding at it.
In cooperation with China, Russia became increasingly more assertive on the UN Security Council, and has not shied away from vetoing resolutions they don’t find agreeable. The two powers also entered into a global alliance with other major emerging economies to form what is known as the BRICS countries, even proposing the establishment of an international fund and the replacement of the US dollar with an alternative global currency.
Putin entered the Middle East by way of Syria and Iran, knowing full well that President Bashar al-Assad’s survival in the face of an international assault on his rule would only strengthen Moscow in the region. From the beginning, Putin wisely did not to commit his country to the person of Assad, but to the Syrian nation as a whole, insisting on a diplomatic solution to the conflict while supporting the regime with weapons and experts.
In the past week, he sent his foreign minister Sergei Lavrov to Tehran to discuss expanding ties with the Islamic Republic, to be followed soon with Iraq. At the same time, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) were meeting in Kuwait, trying their best to paper over deepening schisms within the alliance over a host of issues, from their stance toward the Muslim Brotherhood to forming a military union, to confronting Tehran’s growing power.
Putin may agree with the West on preventing Iran from possessing a nuclear bomb, the importance of Israel’s security, the need to fight terrorism, and the spread of Islamism. However, tensions on many issues remain. Today, for example, Washington is trying to find a role for itself in the developing crisis in Ukraine – a move that will surely provoke Moscow.
The world is changing: Putin knows well that Washington is reluctant to rush into any military adventures, which makes Obama more amenable to compromise. The Russian president is convinced that he has succeeded in imposing new conditions that will eventually see the end of a unipolar world.
Al Akhbar (December 12, 2013)
The Free Syrian Army and al-Nusra Front are quietly battling it out for leadership over the “the refugee republic” in Ersal, now home to an estimated 80,000 displaced Syrians.
Unlike other remote mountain towns, the cold weather and the snow beleaguering the town of Ersal in the northern Bekaa have not been translated into calm on its streets. The town’s alleys are teeming with Syrian refugees, whose numbers are growing by the day. Women carrying nothing but “bindles” and children with visibly fatigued faces try to find a tent to shelter from the cold.
The roads are dominated by motorcycles and cars bearing Syrian license plates. Ersal mayor Ali al-Houjeiri claims that more than 80,000 Syrian refugees now populate the town alongside its original population of 40,000. This has caused a major humanitarian crisis that relief efforts are failing to tackle. The crisis has been exacerbated by recent battles in Qalamoun on the other side of the Anti-Lebanon mountain range that runs along Ersal and surrounding areas.
Ersal these days looks like an ant colony. On the northeastern side of town, a group of young men are busy putting the final touches on al-Rahma field hospital – the only one of its kind in the area – and it has already started receiving the wounded and sick on its eight beds.
In the southeast, around 20 workers are building a camp of concrete rooms and their fixtures to house twenty families during the harsh winter. This project is undertaken by al-Jamaa al-Islamiyah. Its social affairs official on the scene Yahya al-Baridi told Al-Akhbar, “What concerns us is to find a shelter for our displaced women and children who escaped death, siege, and hunger...and to find ways to help them.”
In the main overcrowded camp and the mosques that have been turned into refugee shelters, the relief work is undertaken primarily by Lebanese and international NGOs.
As the fighting in Qalamoun has intensified, there has been an influx of refugees coming through the barren hills separating Ersal from the border.
Adnan, a fighter from the Free Syrian Army (FSA), was brought in to Ersal after he was wounded in the battle of Qara. He predicted more people fleeing to Ersal. “Don’t be surprised by the number of refugees coming to Ersal. There are entire villages [in Syria] where people are still trying to find a way to get out,” he said.
This was echoed by Umm Hassan, who was recently displaced from Nabak with her five children along with dozens of women and their children. “We only have Ersal. Where shall we go when all roads ahead of us are closed?” she said. For her part, Hasnaa, the wife of an FSA fighter, claimed the reason she came from Nabak to Ersal was that her husband had told her, “Do not go anywhere but Ersal. It is safer for us and our children.”
Meanwhile, there is a struggle playing out over leadership of the town between the mayor and Salafi cleric Mustafa al-Houjeiri. Some residents of Ersal believe that the dispute is the local manifestation of a bigger, regional one. One resident said, “The mayor protects and shelters FSA members at the behest of Saad Hariri, while Sheikh Mustafa Houjeiri shelters supporters of al-Nusra Front with backing from Salafi groups.”
The rift between the supporters of the two men has reached the point of enmity. The supporters of the cleric accuse the mayor of misappropriating Saudi and Qatari funds. They also claim he collaborates with Lebanese army intelligence citing his ability to move freely between Ersal and Beirut and meet with security and military leaders without being arrested, despite the fact that he is wanted by the military tribunal for his alleged involvement in an attack against the army that took place in Ersal in February 2013.
But mayor Houjeiri denied to Al-Akhbar that relations had soured between him and the Salafi cleric. He said, “The sheikh is a dear friend and brother. I do not interfere in his work, nor he interferes in mine.”
Houjeiri also refuted the accusation leveled against him concerning collaboration with the army saying, “We cannot fight our national army, its sons are our sons. We were the first to request the army to deploy along all informal crossings with Syria to impose order and prevent violations from the Syrian side, which bombards us every day.”
The mayor said that Ersal shares around 100 km of border with Syria, and thus, “We cannot possibly replace the government and cover all this distance. All we do is nothing more than some precautionary and relief-related measures.”
Houjeiri claimed the infiltration of FSA and al-Nusra fighters was due to the sheer length of the border, and said, “Dozens of people come to the town every day. How can we check the identity of everyone who comes in?”
When asked why he has banned assembly in squares and Syrians from driving in their cars at night, he replied, “This is to avoid a massacre in case rockets or shells fall...Not all the refugees we have are pro-opposition. Dozens of them are agents of the regime.”
The mayor has been keeping his distance from projects sponsored by al-Jamaa al-Islamiyah, and was absent from the inauguration ceremony for the field hospital the Islamist group has built. Some have explained this as a message through which he wanted to say that he was still strong, and that no one in town can impose anything on him. When we queried him about this Houjeiri said that he has nothing but utmost respect for the residents of his town, but added, “I do not deal with them from a partisan standpoint. I do not attend any partisan event even if it was sponsored by the Future Movement in order not to take sides.”
Al Akhbar (December 11, 2013)
Over the past two months, Syrian opposition fighters backed by Saudi Arabia have been waging a number of military campaigns to the south and west of Damascus – including the strategic Qalamoun area that runs along the Lebanese border – as well as in Deraa and Aleppo, in an attempt to change the balance of power on the ground, ahead of the Geneva II conference.
Very little was achieved in the Deraa area near the Jordanian border in the country’s south, as regime forces seized the initiative and struck first, dealing a blow to opposition plans to launch an attack. At best, the armed groups could be said to have been making very slow progress on many of the Hauran Plain’s fronts.
In Aleppo, the opposition did make some gains by surrounding the city and taking some regime-controlled areas, before the Syrian army waged a successful counter-attack from the southwest, breaking the opposition’s siege and reclaiming vast stretches of territory and a number of strategic towns, like al-Sfaira.
As for Damascus, the opposition sought to apply pressure on the capital from three areas: from the south by way of Western Ghouta and the southern suburbs; from the east by way of the Eastern Ghouta, where regime forces recently regained control; and finally from the north by way of the Qalamoun mountains.
The battles to the south of the capital went nowhere fast, as the Syrian army —backed by national defense forces and Hezbollah— launched a series of quick attacks on a series of opposition-controlled towns, which were surrounded and cleansed of fighters within a matter of hours and days. All that remained now were the Eastern Ghouta and the Qalamoun area.
On November 22, the opposition launched a concerted attack on a broad front in this area, striking a painful blow against the Syrian army which was deployed in the area. The armed groups’ target was the strategic town of al-Otaiba in the far eastern corner of Ghouta, which they succeeded in entering, but were unable to break the regime-imposed siege.
The army’s response, however, was extremely costly to the opposition, with around 1,000 fighters succumbing to death or severe injuries, which will prevent them from returning to the battlefield. Military sources maintain that fighters involved in the Eastern Ghouta campaign were among the best armed and trained they had come across in the conflict to date, and they operated according to a plan on an unprecedented scale.
The last front that threatened Damascus was the Qalamoun area, which both regime and Hezbollah sources say they had no interest in opening up until next spring. In an effort to compensate for their losses elsewhere, opposition groups here – most of them close to al-Qaeda – had taken the town of Mhain in early November, the site of a large military storage facility containing a massive of amount of ammunition, including 10,000 Katyusha rockets.
As the armed groups began to move ammunition from Mhain in the direction of the Qalamoun and the Lebanese border, the Syrian army launched a preventative counterattack that eventually allowed them to retake most of the mountainous border area’s main towns and villages, including Qara, Dayr Attiya, and al-Nabak, leaving only an isolated Yabrud as the opposition’s last holdout.
All of this does not mean that regime forces will be able to maintain control over the areas they wrested from the opposition, which in turn will continue to launch attacks in the area around the capital. But Syrian army and Hezbollah sources insist that Damascus is no longer in the danger zone, and the Saudi plan to shift the balance of forces on the ground in the opposition’s favor has ended in failure.
Al Akhbar (December 10, 2013)
Both March 8 and 14 don’t seem to be interested in reviving the resigned Najib Mikati government. When acting Prime Minister Mikati finally showed an interest in holding an exceptional cabinet session, it was shot down by virtually all sides.
No one took Mikati’s recent proposal to hold a cabinet session seriously, despite repeated calls by some parties that the resigned government meet to settle urgent matters, such as accepting bids for oil exploration and dealing with Tripoli’s persistent security problems.
The first to respond was Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, who did not see any exceptional circumstances that required the ministerial council to meet, as the Lebanese constitution stipulates.
For its part, March 14 is dead set against any such move, urging the formation of a new government instead. March 8 is in favor of an extraordinary session to deal with the oil and gas exploration file and has no objection to putting Tripoli’s security on the agenda, although they know that Mikati is reluctant to take the necessary step of declaring the city a military zone under the army’s control.
Minister of Energy and Water Gebran Bassil has been among those in favor of holding a ministerial meeting, which he sees as necessary to facilitate the oil and gas exploration process that he was largely responsible for launching. “What needs to be done is to approve simple measures,” Bassil insists, maintaining that the laws on this matter had already been passed in the cabinet.
The minister, however, contends that without March 14’s – and more specifically the Future Party’s – approval, it’s unlikely that the matter can be taken up by the acting government. “Therefore,” he says, “we direct ourselves to the Future Movement and their national conscience” to allow for the file to move forward.
President Suleiman also represents an obstacle to any such meeting, even if oil and gas exploration was the only item on the agenda, justifying his position by a Shura Council ruling barring the current government from taking any further decisions in this particular matter.
The Daily Star (Lebanese Daily, December 14, 2013)
Syrian troops loyal to President Bashar Assad launched an offensive Friday aimed at expelling Islamists rebels from a town northwest of Damascus, as concern mounted over signs radical groups have commandeered the opposition movement against his rule. Syrian soldiers surrounded the industrial town of Adra, strategically located on a main road to the capital after an Al-Qaeda-linked opposition rebel faction infiltrated the area earlier this week, reportedly killing dozens of civilians in what appeared to be a sectarian massacre.
According to the government and activists, the Nusra Front entered buildings housing workers and their families, shooting men, women and children in Adra.
Most residents of the area are from the minority Alawite and Druze sects, which largely support Assad in his fight against mainly Sunni rebels.
The exact death toll could not be determined. State-run Syrian TV reported that scores of civilians have been killed since Wednesday, prompting the army to surround the town.
The opposition linked Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it has documented the names of 19 civilians killed – most Alawites and Druze – and many more were feared dead after the rampage by the Islamic militants.
Syrian Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi condemned what he called the “brutal massacre in Adra’s industrial city” in comments carried by Syrian TV. Syrian Social Affairs Minister Kinda Shammat said the army was now carrying out an operation in the area to restore security.
The three-year conflict has taken on increasingly sectarian overtones in the past year, particularly as fighting brigades composed of Al-Qaeda loyalists gain influence.
Assad is an Alawite, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, as are many of his security forces. Other minorities in the country including Christians, Druze and Shiites have mostly sided with Assad or remained on the fence, fearing a takeover of the country by Islamic extremists.
In another development Friday that could serve to harden those fears, Islamist rebels linked to Al-Qaeda kidnapped at least 120 Kurdish civilians from a village near the Turkish border in Aleppo province, activists said.
The Observatory said the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) fighters entered Ihras, 20 south of the border town of Azaz, and took the captives, including at least six women, to an unknown location. It was the latest in a series of kidnappings and killings by ISIS this month targeting Kurds in northern Syria.
The latest reports come on the heels of a damaging setback to the western-backed moderate opposition.
Islamic militants took control of a cache of machine guns and ammunition intended for the Western-backed Free Syrian Army in Atmeh, in northern Syria last Friday, prompting the U.S. and U.K. to suspend non-lethal military assistance on Tuesday.
The mainstream Syrian opposition confirmed the takeover Friday and demanded the weapons be returned.
Syrian National Coalition official Monzer Akbik told reporters in London that it still wasn’t completely clear how a new alliance of hard-line Muslim fighters came to control warehouses containing rebel machine guns and ammunition at the Bab al-Hawa border crossing between Syria and Turkey, but they did.
The Wall Street Journal (American daily, December 10, 2013)
Adam Entous and Rima Abushakra
Islamist fighters ran the top Western-backed rebel commander in Syria out of his headquarters, and he fled the country, U.S. officials said Wednesday.
The Islamists also took over key warehouses holding U.S. military gear for moderate fighters in northern Syria over the weekend. The takeover and flight of Gen. Salim Idris of the Free Syrian Army shocked the U.S., which along with Britain immediately froze delivery of nonlethal military aid to rebels in northern Syria.
The turn of events was the strongest sign yet that the U.S.-allied FSA is collapsing under the pressure of Islamist domination of the rebel side of the war. It also weakened the Obama administration’s hand as it struggles to organize a peace conference next month bringing together rebels and the regime.
The Islamic Front is a recently formed alliance of the largest Islamist rebel groups that excludes the two main al Qaeda-linked rebel groups—the Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham—and is considered the more moderate faction among Islamist rebel groups.
Gen. Idris flew to the Qatari capital of Doha on Sunday after fleeing to Turkey, U.S. officials said Wednesday. "He fled as a result of the Islamic Front taking over his headquarters," a senior U.S. official said.
An Islamic Front spokesman also said Gen. Idris had fled to Turkey. The Front took over the warehouses and offices controlled by the Supreme Military Council, the moderate opposition umbrella group that includes the FSA and coordinates U.S. aid distribution, officials said. They also seized the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey, near the warehouses in the town of Atmeh.
The growing strength of the Islamic Front prompted the U.S. and its allies to recently hold direct talks with Islamic Front representatives. The goal, according to Western officials, was to persuade some Islamists to support a Syria peace conference set for Geneva on Jan. 22 for fear that a lasting accord won’t be possible without their backing. The SMC already agreed to participate in the peace talks.
The Obama administration is still trying to determine the circumstances of the takeover over the weekend. At the same time, the U.S. is urging Gen. Idris to return to Syria, American officials said.
Two senior officials said the warehouses taken over by the Islamic Front appeared to contain a range of lethal and nonlethal equipment.
The Central Intelligence Agency has been providing small amounts of arms to handpicked moderate rebels. A CIA spokesperson declined to comment on whether American weapons were in the warehouses that were seized by the Islamic Front. Gen. Idris also receives weapons from other countries, including Saudi Arabia. The warehouses also housed nonlethal military gear, including American-supplied trucks and communications equipment.
Republicans and Democrats in Congress have been complaining to the administration for months that the moderate opposition was being weakened by a lack of U.S. support, fueling the rise of Islamists.
U.S. officials said the Islamic Front offered to help protect the headquarters and two warehouse facilities from harder line groups. Then, when the Islamic Front came in and helped secure the sites, "they asserted themselves and said: ’All right, we’re taking over,’ " a senior U.S. official said.
U.S. officials say there was no battle for control of the facilities between the SMC and the Islamic Front. One senior U.S. official said the takeover amounted to "an internal coup." But other U.S. officials disputed that characterization.
"I wouldn’t say this is the end of the SMC and the end of Gen. Idris," a senior U.S. official said.
Earlier in the day, the Obama administration said it still wanted to work with the SMC, but it was unclear when the suspension of aid would be lifted.
They said it was also unclear whether the Islamic Front’s actions will affect any future contacts with U.S. diplomats regarding the peace conference.
A White House spokesman said U.S. humanitarian assistance, which is distributed through international and nongovernmental organizations including the United Nations, wouldn’t be affected by the suspension.
Like the U.S., the British Foreign Office said it was investigating the events over the weekend. The British government said it wanted to ensure that military assistance reaches the SMC and doesn’t fall into the hands of hard-line Islamists. The British also said their humanitarian aid wouldn’t be affected. The American nonlethal aid includes trucks, food and medical kits for Free Syrian Army fighters, who are allied with the SMC.
The British have supplied search-and-rescue equipment, power generators and communications support and training for civil administrations. In August, they provided equipment to protect against chemical weapons attacks such as protective hoods, detector paper and nerve agent treatments.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the U.S. remains supportive of the SMC but acknowledged that any pause in aid makes those efforts more challenging. "The SMC continues to be, and this hasn’t changed, the group that we work through and that we want other countries to provide aid and assistance to," she said.
The Turkish government said it closed the border crossing of Cilvegozu in Hatay province after the Islamic Front took control from the SMC of the checkpoint just across from it on the Syrian side, Bab al-Hawa. The checkpoint is near the aid warehouses and about 25 miles west of Syria’s largest city and commercial center, Aleppo.
Opposition activists in the disputed area said the Islamic Front is seeking to diminish the moderate umbrella group. "They don’t want the SMC to exist. They took over all their bases and set up new checkpoints," an activist in the area said by Skype.
Elements of the Islamic Front have in the past cooperated in antigovernment operations with both FSA fighters as well as the al Qaeda-linked Islamist groups.
Members of the moderate, Western-backed opposition said the only differences they have with the Islamic Front is that it seeks to establish an Islamic state in Syria, whereas the SMC and FSA want a secular, democratic state.
New Orient News