Syria: Are ‘extremists’ and ‘al Qa’eda’ taking over towns in the North?

Scott Lucas writes: For several months, EA’s analysts have argued against a simplistic reduction of Syria’s conflict to a takeover by “extremists” and “jihadists”.

It appears to have been a futile effort, at least with respect to most leading Western media. Headlines proclaim the takeover of much of northern Syria by the Islamic State of Iraq and as-Sham, even though the group has only a fraction of the fighters in the insurgency and is being challenged by other leading factions. They dwell on the phrase “Al Qa’eda-linked”, even with insurgents who have no such connection. A cartoon in The Economist shows the genie of a menacing, bearded man — holding a sub-machine gun and a blood-stained knife — emerging from a bottle to face President Assad.

The repetition of images like these has intersected with — and may have even fed — a shift among some Western governments to consider Assad’s stay in power, fearing the supposedly lone alternative of “extremist” rule of Syria.

Yet, occasionally, a reporter or analyst offers a detailed examination of the situation in Syria’s northern towns that returns to our argument: the political picture is far more complex than these easy, scary headlines.

On Wednesday, Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi wrote for the Brown Moses blog about the town of Al-Bukamal in Deir Ez Zor Province near the border with Iraq, captured by insurgents last year.

Asking the question, “Who exactly controls or is present in the town?”, al-Tamimi finds no less than six groups: Kata’ib Junud al-Haq, Katiba Bayariq al-Sunna, Kata’ib Allahu Akbar, Liwa Allahu Akbar, Liwa al-Mujahid Omar al-Mukhtar, and Liwa al-Qadisiya al-Islamiya.

None of these groups has received the media attention given to the Islamic State of Iraq and as-Sham, although Kata’ib Junud al-Haq is the local affiliate of another bogeyman, the “terrorist”/”Al Qa’eda-linked” Jabhat al_Nusra. So, to answer his question, al-Tamimi goes through a granular examination of evidence from websites and social media.

He finds stories of shifting alliances: for example, Kata’ib Junud al-Haq sided with the Islamic State of Iraq and as-Sham this spring but switched to ISIS’s rival Jabhat al-Nusra. Other groups are affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, or with factions of the Islamic Front.

He finds clashes between groups, followed by cease-fires, most recently in September.

In the main, he finds that almost all the groups are made up of Syrians rather than foreign “extremists”, moving outside Al-Bukamal to fight throughout Deir Ez Zor Province. [Continue reading…]

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