‘There’s no hope left’: the Syrian refugee camp that is becoming a township

f13-iconRobin Yassin-Kassab writes: This must be how the Palestinian camps began their slow transformation into towering townships. The Syrian families here are still living in canvas or plastic tents, but the little shops selling falafel and cola on the Atmeh camp’s “main street” are now breeze-block and corrugated-iron constructions. And now nobody dares talk about going home.

Atmeh camp, just inside Syria, hugs the Turkish border fence. It is December, and the population has risen in the six months since I was here in June, from 22,000 to almost 30,000. This new settlement is one of many – there are more than 6 million people displaced inside Syria, and more than 2 million in neighbouring states. The camp’s population dwindles and swells according to the vicissitudes of battle. When the regime reconquered (and obliterated) the Khaldiyeh quarter of Homs last July, an additional 50 to 60 families a day arrived.

Six months ago, when I last visited, I was able to travel deep into liberated Syria – as far as Kafranbel in the south of Idlib province – with nothing to fear from the Free Army fighters manning checkpoints. This time I don’t dare go as far as Atmeh village, sitting on the nearby hilltop, because it is occupied by al-Qaida franchise the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis). Last June the camp’s residents referred derisively to the mainly foreign jihadists as “the spicy crew”. Now they are a real threat – abducting and often murdering revolutionary activists, Free Army fighters and journalists. This development contributes greatly to the gloom of the camp’s residents.

In the camp, the steaming vats of the Maram Foundation’s charity kitchen are cooking the same meal they were six months ago: lentil soup. Children wait with buckets in the red mud outside for lunch to be distributed. Also on the main street is a new clinic and one-room dentist (funded by the Syrian-American Medical Society). Dr Haytham grins as he complains about the conditions. The roof leaks, and the recent snowstorm has flooded his crowded space, destroying electrical equipment. As he serves us tea, a boy called Mahmoud, aged about five, walks in to observe us, his face marked by post-treatment leishmaniasis scars (a resurgent disease caused by the sand flies which prosper in uncollected rubbish). Mahmoud seems a pleasant child at first, but after a smiling photograph with one of our group his mood flips; he violently pinches the hand of the man he’d been cuddling up to and then takes to whipping his older sister with a cable. “Nobody can control him,” somebody remarks. “He doesn’t have a father.”

Fatherless, husbandless, homeless … When I ask a man where he’d come from he changed the name of his town from Kafranboodeh to Kafr Mahdoomeh, “the Demolished Village”. I ask him why. “Because they haven’t left one house standing, nor any animals in the fields. What will we ever return to? The whole town’s gone.” [Continue reading...]

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ISIS retreats from key Syrian town

n13-iconThe Washington Post reports: Radical fighters staged a strategic retreat from a key Syrian town on the Turkish border Friday amid growing tensions with rival rebel factions that threaten to erupt in a new war.

The retreat from Azaz of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria ended a five-month reign of terror by the renegade al-Qaeda faction, which has used its position in the town to control access to Turkey and compromise supply routes for more moderate rebels.

The withdrawal could signal a new phase in the intra-rebel fighting that has pitted more moderate factions against extremists across northern Syria in the past two months, undermining the wider battle against forces loyal to President Bashar ­al-Assad.

The exit came a day ahead of a deadline issued by Jabhat ­al-Nusra, the official al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, for ISIS to cease confronting rival rebels or face a new war. Commanders speculated that the ISIS fighters, who have resisted previous attempts at mediation, chose to pull out from Azaz to reinforce strongholds elsewhere in preparation for further conflict. [Continue reading...]

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ISIS withdraws from parts of northern Syria

n13-iconThe Associated Press reports: Members of an al-Qaida-breakaway group withdrew Friday from parts of the northern province of Aleppo, ahead of a Saturday deadline issued by another rebel group that could spark more infighting, opposition activists said.

Fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant evacuated from several towns north of Aleppo, including Azaz near the Turkish border, Aleppo-based activists who go by the names of Ibrahim Saeed and Abu Raed said. Rival fighters moved in shortly after, the activists and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The pullout came three days after the leader of a powerful al-Qaida-linked group in Syria gave the Islamic State a five-day ultimatum to accept mediation by leading clerics to end infighting or be “expelled” from the region.

The ultimatum, announced in an audio recording by the leader of the Nusra Front, aims to end two months of deadly violence between the Islamic State and other Islamic factions that activists say has killed more than 3,000 people. The infighting is undermining the opposition fighters’ wider struggle against President Bashar Assad’s government.

There has been no official reaction from the Islamic State so far but they most likely will reject the ultimatum, possibly leading to more deadly battles in the coming days.

Saeed said Islamic State fighters appear to be withdrawing toward their stronghold in the northeastern city of Raqqa, the first provincial capital in Syria to fall to the rebels. The Islamic State’s shadowy leader, known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, once called it the group’s capital. [Continue reading...]

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Syria: Leader of the Nusra Front challenges ISIS

n13-iconThe Associated Press reports: The leader of a powerful al-Qaida-linked group in Syria gave a rival breakaway group a five-day ultimatum to accept mediation by leading clerics to end infighting or be “expelled” from the region.

The ultimatum announced in an audio recording by the leader of the Nusra Front aims to end months of deadly violence between the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and other Islamic factions. The fighting has killed hundreds of people since the beginning of the year and is undermining their wider struggle against President Bashar Assad.

It comes two days after the killing of Abu Khaled al-Suri, who had acted as al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahri’s representative in Syria. Rebels and activists believe he was assassinated by two suicide attackers from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

Both the Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant are considered terrorist organizations by the United States.

Al-Zawahri has named the Nusra Front al-Qaida’s branch in Syria and broken ties with the Islamic State, which has increasingly clashed with rebel brigades in opposition-held areas of Syria. The Islamic State has angered other factions with its brutal tactics and campaign to Islamize areas under its control in the northeast.

More than 2,000 people have been killed in the fighting between the Islamic State and rebel groups, including the Nusra Front.

Abu Mohammed al-Golani, the Nusra Front leader, suggested in the audio recording arbitration by clerics to stop the infighting. He warned the Islamic State that it would be driven from Syria and “even from Iraq” if it rejected the results of arbitration. He did not elaborate on how his group might do that. [Continue reading...]

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Iraq offers $17,200 reward for killing jihadists

n13-iconBBC News reports: Iraq’s government has offered a reward of $17,200 (£10,300) for each foreign militant killed from al-Qaeda or the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), a former affiliate.

A larger reward of $25,800 (£15,500) is being offered for the capture of militants belonging to the two groups.

The announcement was made on the website of the ministry of defence.

Al-Qaeda and ISIS have been blamed by the authorities for the surge in sectarian violence over the past year.

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ISIS suicide bomb instructor kills most of his Iraqi students by accident

n13-iconThe New York Times reports: A group of Sunni militants attending a suicide bombing training class at a camp north of Baghdad were killed on Monday when their commander unwittingly conducted a demonstration with a belt that was packed with explosives, army and police officials said.

The militants belonged to a group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, which is fighting the Shiite-dominated army of the Iraqi government, mostly in Anbar Province. But they are also linked to bomb attacks elsewhere and other fighting that has thrown Iraq deeper into sectarian violence.

Twenty-two ISIS members were killed, and 15 were wounded, in the explosion at the camp, which is in a farming area in the northeastern province of Samara, according to the police and army officials. Stores of other explosive devices and heavy weapons were also kept there, the officials said. [Continue reading...]

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The Iraqi re-awakening

f13-iconMark Perry writes: Gen. Raad al-Hamdani holds a unique place among Iraqi military commanders: He openly confronted Saddam Hussein — and lived.

The incident occurred during a high-level briefing in the summer of 2002. A war with the U.S. was looming, but Saddam told Hamdani not to worry. There won’t be a war, he said confidently, because the American people “have no taste for blood.”

Hamdani, who commanded six divisions in Saddam’s elite Republican Guard Corps and was viewed as one of his country’s toughest fighters, disagreed. The Americans would not only invade, he responded — their plan was to occupy Baghdad after a lightning campaign. The only way to fight them, he argued, was to “bleed them slowly” in a series of delaying actions.

Saddam might easily have lost his temper, but he smiled and dismissed his general’s prediction. After all, there was good reason to value Hamdani’s knowledge: He not only owned a library filled with books on America’s World War II campaigns, he was known for his obsessive study of U.S. military tactics. Saddam regularly taunted him about his obsession, calling him “my American General.”

After his conference with Saddam, Hamdani returned to his command. Less than a year later, his divisions fought the U.S. Marines in Nasiriyeh, but failed to hold the southern Iraqi city’s bridges. Without air power, Hamdani’s army didn’t stand a chance; most of his units were destroyed. After Saddam was toppled, Hamdani returned to his home in Baghdad where, one night, American soldiers burst through his door, wrestled him to the ground, and questioned him. Hamdani was enraged.

The experience didn’t rob Hamdani of his courage. After his questioning — and after receiving death threats from Iraq’s new Shiite-dominated government — he moved to Amman. From there, he worked with Anbar tribal leader Talal al-Gaood to kick-start a political opening with the U.S. military that led to the Anbar Awakening. Hamdani’s idea, proposed in a quiet meeting with U.S. Marine Corps officers in an Amman hotel in July 2004, was to arm Anbar’s Sunni militias to face off against Islamic extremists flooding into the province from Syria. Anbar’s insurgents, he told his U.S. military interlocutors, had at least one thing in common with their American occupiers — they both hated al Qaeda.

Gaood established a think tank called the Iraq Futures Foundation in Amman in the summer of 2005, and signed Hamdani on as the organization’s military advisor. The think tank’s goal was to unite Anbar’s tribes against the al Qaeda threat. While it took many months for this vision to be realized, their pioneering work — alongside officers of the U.S. 1st Armored Division — resulted in the formation of the Anbar Awakening Council. The council fought off al Qaeda, empowered Anbar’s Sunnis, and returned the province to political and economic stability.

Hamdani, who is still living in Amman, is now increasingly concerned that his achievements in Anbar are unraveling. Over the last few months, he’s watched with growing alarm as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki cracked down on an anti-government protest movement in the province, laying the groundwork for the resurgence of al Qaeda.

His worries are shared by current and former U.S. military officials, who believe that Iraq will need to build another Awakening to defeat al Qaeda, but are convinced the obstacles to doing so will be even more daunting this time around.

Maliki appears to be preparing the Iraqi Army for a renewed assault on Anbar province. His forces shelled the outskirts of the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi on Monday, Feb. 3, and the Iraqi Defense Ministry claimed that the attacks killed 57 militants.

The violence has returned Anbar to the dark days of 2004 and 2005, when hundreds of U.S. soldiers lost their lives battling a jihadist insurgency there.

“People who know Iraq and Anbar best saw this coming as early as this last summer,” a former senior advisor to both Donald Rumsfeld and Robert Gates told me. “Maliki kept poking at Anbar, inflaming the tribes. It was an absolutely cynical power play. He figured the angrier Anbar got, the more he could pose as Iraq’s strongman. He thought he’d be viewed as the defender of the Shias and win himself another term as prime minister.”

But by cracking down on Anbar’s Sunnis, the Iraqi premier set the stage for a full-blown uprising. [Continue reading...]

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Iraq: Execution of SWAT forces furthers crimes against humanity

a13-iconHuman Rights Watch: The execution-style killing of four members of Iraq’s SWAT forces, apparently by the ISIS armed group, is the latest atrocity in a campaign of widespread and systematic murder that amounts to crimes against humanity, Human Rights Watch said today.

Men presenting themselves as members of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS) claimed responsibility for the killings, which took place near Ramadi on January 20, 2014. A video posted online showed ISIS members firing on and disabling the last truck of a SWAT convoy.The ISIS members then take four SWAT members into custody, interviewing them in front of an ISIS flag, and shooting them in the back of their heads.

“These abhorrent killings are the latest in a long list of ISIS atrocities, at a time when civilians in Anbar province are stuck in the fighting and getting abused by all sides,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Together with the ISIS car bombs and suicide attacks targeting civilians, they are further evidence of crimes against humanity.” [Continue reading...]

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The effort to isolate ISIS, Syria’s renegade jihadists

e13-iconIf the Assad regime had wanted to plant a Trojan Horse inside the Syrian revolution, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS or ISIL) would have provided the perfect vehicle. Whether ISIS is actually doing the regime’s bidding is almost besides the point since by design or not, the group is undoubtedly serving Assad’s interests. For all the other rebel groups in Syria, ISIS now represents the enemy within.

The conflict within the opposition — conflict which the press conveniently describes as “infighting” — predictably presents an image of a movement that is imploding; a movement whose lack of legitimacy is rising to the surface. Again, in this narrative the interests of the Syrian government and its supporters are being served.

Yesterday’s statement issued by al Qaeda’s central leadership is significant and should probably be taken at face value. It says:

Qae’dat al-­Jihad (AQ) declares that it has no links to the ISIS group. We were not informed about it’s creation, nor counseled. Nor were we satisfied with it rather we ordered it to stop. ISIS is not a branch of AQ & we have no organizational relationship with it. Nor is al-­Qaeda responsible for its actions and behaviors.

Aron Lund provides some background to this announcement:

In April 2013, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced that the ISI would become the ISIL by extending its activity into Syria and taking full possession of the Syria-based jihadi faction known as the Nusra Front, which Baghdadi had helped create in August 2011.

All this happened without Zawahiri being informed, to his great dismay. When he complained and attempted to assert authority over the ISI(L), ordering Baghdadi to dissolve the new cross-border entity and head back to Iraq, Baghdadi simply refused to comply. From his hideout, which is probably in Pakistan, there was little Zawahiri could do about it.

But the al-Qaeda leader didn’t leave the Syrian dispute empty-handed: he gained or regained the allegiance of the Nusra Front, whose leader, Abu Mohammad al-Golani, publicly declared his allegiance to Zawahiri in an attempt to avoid being gobbled up by the ISIL. Since then, the Nusra Front has functioned as a de facto al-Qaeda branch, even though it isn’t yet publicly declared as such.

This split between the ISIL and the Nusra Front, which took place in April 2013, set in motion the process that now, after almost a year, has resulted in brutal infighting in northern Syria, with the ISIL and the Nusra Front on different sides. But it also forced al-Qaeda to finally come clean about what may have been the reality for quite a while: it no longer seems to have an Iraqi wing.

Over the last few weeks, @wikibaghdady, who presents himself as an inside source, has revealed many details about the inner workings of ISIS and Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI/ISI).

Although Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is most often referred to as the leader, according to @wikibaghdady (see an English translation of his tweets) the core leadership is a three-man military council of former officers who served Saddam Hussein and were members of the Ba’ath Party. Brigadier General Haji Bakr led the council until his death near Aleppo in January.

General Haji Bakr first met Abu Omar Al-Baghdadi when he offered his services to him due to having experience in Saddam’s Ba’athist army. He demonstrated his dedication to him and he is now considered to be one of the closest to him. However, Haji Bakr didn’t have any previous jihadi experience before that. He was accepted to the Military Council on the one condition of providing the State [AQI / ISI] with important information about the Iraqi army. When he did that and proved his loyalty, he was then appointed as the military adviser to Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Hafs al-Muhajir and continuously provided them with information about previous military leaders, plans and successfully linking them with previous members of the Ba’ath Party.

Although ISIS has become infamous for its outward brutality, the account of Haji Bakr’s leadership makes it clear that he imposed his own internal reign of terror.

When Haji Bakr became a leader, a new era started that was important to Iraq as well where the amount of fear between citizens increased. A lot of people considered Haji Bakr to be arrogant next to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, who many considered to be a quiet personality. In addition, Haji Bakr completely changed the way he looked where he shaved his beard off and even changed the way he speaks in the first few weeks. The main issue here is that no one in the State dared to question anything taking place because questioning was considered not trusting the other person. This issue was serious to a point where it was allowed to kill another member who considered being suspicious of another.

Haji Bakr then started holding private meetings with Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi to reshape the State. The first agreement was protecting the State from the inside and out. This involved creating a security outlet that would be able to respond to any type of danger. An important step that took place was that Haji Bakr prevented Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi from meeting with leaders from other groups so they didn’t impact or advise him in any way. The orders came from the Shura council that Abu Bakr created to ensure that all decisions made were fair. After this, the two became very close and were always with each other where many considered him to be Al Baghdadi’s private minister.

Among their plans were various assassinations that in fact took place. This first started with twenty people and within a month, the number increased to one hundred people. It is essential to understand that no one in the State AQI/ISI would dare to take any orders from anyone else but Haji Bakr or Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi during that time. Every member in the Shura was carefully chosen by Haji Bakr and most of them were in the previous Baath party. One of the members’ main responsibilities was assassinating everyone who disobeys or betrays the State.

The most recent tweets reveal:

There were about twenty to thirty fighters who split from the ISIS on a daily basis. They found that fighters from Saudi Arabia were the most likely to split and that Tunisians were the least. This is when he [Al Baghdadi?] ordered that the suicide bombers should be Saudi as much as possible, and that Tunisians shouldn’t be involved since they’re the most loyal.

If a jihadist group turns out to be run primarily by former Ba’athists — a thoroughly secular political movement — this begs the question: is ISIS being viewed through the right ideological prism?

No doubt ISIS recruits jihadists, but if it is led by men who drew their power from the security apparatus of a Ba’athist state, then their overriding interests may have less to do with the creation of a Caliphate and more to do with surviving in a harbor provided by the last remaining Ba’athist government in the Middle East.

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Al Qaeda breaks link with Syrian militant group ISIS

n13-iconReuters reports: Al Qaeda’s general command said on Monday it had no links with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL aka ISIS), in an apparent attempt to reassert its authority over fragmented Islamist fighters in Syria’s civil war.

After a month of rebel infighting, al Qaeda disavowed the increasingly independent ISIL in a move likely to bolster a rival Islamist group, the Nusra Front, as al Qaeda’s official proxy in Syria.

The switch is seen as an attempt to redirect the Islamist effort towards unseating President Bashar al-Assad rather than waste resources in fighting other rebels, and could be intended to shift the strategic balance at a time when government forces are increasingly active on the battlefield. It could also embolden Nusra in its dispute with ISIL.

Meanwhile, Jeffrey Goldberg writes: Two prominent Republican senators say that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told them — along with 13 other members of a bipartisan congressional delegation — that President Barack Obama’s administration is in need of a new, more assertive, Syria policy; that al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in Syria pose a direct terrorist threat to the U.S. homeland; that Russia is arming the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, and is generally subverting chances for a peaceful settlement; that Assad is violating his promise to expeditiously part with his massive stores of chemical weapons; and that, in Kerry’s view, it may be time to consider, once again, supporting the arming of more moderate Syrian rebel factions.

At a time that al Qaeda, the organization led by Ayman Zawahri, is disavowing ISIS, it’s time that Washington and the press stop using al Qaeda and al Qaeda affiliates as the preferred catch-all terms for branding America’s enemies.

Know Your Enemy 101: Al Qaeda, Jabhat al-Nusra, and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant/Syria (ISIL or ISIS) are not interchangeable terms. The idea that all these groups pose a threat to the U.S. homeland is either an expression of the ignorance of those making the claim or a cynical attempt to exploit the ignorance of their audience.

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ISIS fighters kill Syrian rebel leaders

n13-iconAl Jazeera reports: Fighters linked to al-Qaeda have killed two rebel leaders in bombings in Syria, in an apparent shift of tactics to target the command structures of their rivals.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that Adnan Bakour, the leader of Liwa al-Tawhid, was among 26 people killed in a double suicide bombing late on Saturday in Aleppo.

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which has links with al-Qaeda, said it carried out the attack on Tawhid, a brigade aligned to the Islamic Front coalition, a group fighting the ISIL [aka ISIS] in Aleppo and beyond.

In another attack late on Saturday in Hama, the leader of the powerful Suqour al-Sham group, Abu Hussein al-Dik, was killed by the ISIL, according to sources spoken to by Al Jazeera.

Charles Lister, of the Brookings Doha Centre, told Al Jazeera that the ISIL was clearly targeting key headquarters, “strategic checkpoints and senior influential commanders” of their rival rebel groups.

The attacks are the latest in weeks of rebel infighting that has pitted a loose alliance of Syrian fighters against al-Qaida linked groups such as the ISIL. [Continue reading...]

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With Assad regime in stronger position, chemical weapons disarmament stalls

AnalysisThe Institute for the Study of War has released a new report: The Assad regime’s military position is stronger in January 2014 than it was a year ago and remains committed to fighting for Damascus, Homs, and Aleppo. Nonetheless, the conflict remains at a military and political deadlock.

In the spring of 2013 the regime lacked the necessary manpower to conduct simultaneous operations on multiple fronts against rebel groups that were quickly making gains throughout the north, south, and Damascus countryside. The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) had sustained more losses than it could replenish. It relied on air assets to resupply besieged troops in its Aleppo and Idlib outposts because it lacked overland logistical lines connecting those outposts. The regime had contracted its military footprint to Damascus and Homs in order to its secure supply lines while rebels contested Homs, the lynchpin of the regime’s logistics system that connected Damascus to Aleppo and to the coast.

The Syrian regime has since been resuscitated by infusions of men and materiel from Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia and from the formalization of pro-regime militias under the National Defense Forces. This report will lay out the changes in the regime’s strategy and conduct of the campaign that allowed it to regain some of its strength. It will also lay out how opposition movements have attempted to conduct multiple, sometimes competing campaigns of their own against the regime. [See the complete report.]

Reuters reports: Syria has given up less than 5 percent of its chemical weapons arsenal and will miss next week’s deadline to send all toxic agents abroad for destruction, sources familiar with the matter said on Wednesday.

The deliveries, in two shipments this month to the northern Syrian port of Latakia, totaled 4.1 percent of the roughly 1,300 tonnes of toxic agents reported by Damascus to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), said the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“It’s not enough and there is no sign of more,” one source briefed on the situation said.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post reports: In his battle against an al-Qaeda-led insurgency in western Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s is providing arms and funds to unnatural bedfellows – Sunni tribesmen who complain of being neglected by his Shiite-dominated government.

The government has trucked weapons and approved millions of dollars in payments to tribesmen in Anbar province in a bid to win their help ousting al-Qaeda-linked fighters who took over the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi earlier this month. The United States is also speeding up its supply of small arms to Iraq, urging them to pass them on to tribesmen.

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ISIS selling Syrian oil to Assad regime

EditorialWith the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, and Jabhat al-Nusra fighting each other, the latter fighting against the regime and the former increasingly appearing to have at least some kind of tactical alliance with the government, to continue branding them both as al Qaeda affiliates is accurate and confusing. What’s the value of giving two entities the same name if the differences between them appear more significant than the similarities?

This isn’t just a semantic issue. It’s merely one example of the ways in which Western governments with the support of the media persist in their effort to treat terrorism as a cohesive phenomenon. If disparate groups with separate and sometimes conflicting aims can all be lumped together and treated as some kind of shape-changing global entity, the primary effect is to legitimize representations of terrorism as a global threat.

Imagine if the World Health Organization had successfully argued for a massive increase in its funding in order to fight a pandemic but the pandemic turned out to be no such thing. Instead, small outbreaks of different diseases none of which were particularly contagious were occurring in various regions and yet with each new occurrence there would be alarming headlines about the spreading “pandemic” along with solemn statements from government officials promising that no effort would be spared in trying to halt the widespread threat and protect humanity.

That’s what the global terrorist threat amounts to: a fictitious pandemic.

The New York Times reports: Islamist rebels and extremist groups have seized control of most of Syria’s oil and gas resources, a rare generator of cash in the country’s war-battered economy, and are now using the proceeds to underwrite their fights against one another as well as President Bashar al-Assad, American officials say.

While the oil and gas fields are in serious decline, control of them has bolstered the fortunes of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, and the Nusra Front, both of which are offshoots of Al Qaeda. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is even selling fuel to the Assad government, lending weight to allegations by opposition leaders that it is secretly working with Damascus to weaken the other rebel groups and discourage international support for their cause.

Although there is no clear evidence of direct tactical coordination between the group and Mr. Assad, American officials say that his government has facilitated the group’s rise not only by purchasing its oil but by exempting some of its headquarters from the airstrikes that have tormented other rebel groups.

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Iraq’s battle with Al Qaeda in Anbar leaves 140,000 displaced

The Associated Press reports: More than 140,000 Iraqis have fled parts of Anbar province over clashes between security forces and al-Qaida militants, the worst displacement of civilians in years, a United Nations official said Friday.

The spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Peter Kessler, described it as “the largest” displacement witnessed in the country since the sectarian violence of 2006-2008. He added that more than 65,000 people fled the conflict just in the past week alone.

Since late December, members of Iraq’s al-Qaida branch — known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant — have taken over parts of Ramadi, the capital of the largely Sunni province of Anbar. They also control the center of the nearby city of Fallujah.

Kessler said that many civilians are trapped and suffer from a lack of supplies. [Continue reading...]

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Al Qaeda’s real impotence and the threat from Iraq’s prime minister Maliki

A lot of ink has been spilled in recent weeks about the rising power of al Qaeda.

“Fallujah fall just the beginning — Al Qaeda virus is virulent and spreading,” an op-ed by the Heritage Foundation’s Peter Brookes, captures the spirit of this perception of a resurgence of what some people portray as the greatest source of evil ever to appear on Planet Earth.

The thing is, viral growth of any kind cannot be reliably measured by the ability to grab headlines. However widely dispersed groups branded as al Qaeda affiliates become, the feature that distinguishes each of them is that their predilection for violence makes them unpopular. They are like psychopathic gatecrashers. Everyone knows when they show up at a party and everyone wishes they’d go some place else.

Scaring everyone around you is a good way of getting noticed but it’s not a good way of making friends and at the end of the day, whatever else one might say about these men of violence, they have profound problems making and sustaining meaningful relationships. Their dysfunctionality makes it impossible for them to become the driving force behind any popular social movement; their direct impact on the wider world will never be more than marginal.

The real global impact of al Qaeda is not one that it has the capacity to generate itself; it is the impact created by governments which either cynically or paranoiacally react to a threat whose scope they been blown out of all proportion.

Anthony H. Cordesman writes: No one can deny that al Qaeda is a violent extremist threat wherever it operates. It poses a threat in terms of transnational terrorism in the United States and Europe, and a far more direct threat to the people who live in every area it operates. It has consistently been horribly repressive, violent, and often murderous in enforcing its political control and demands for a form of social behavior that reflect the worst in tribalism and offers almost nothing in terms of real Islamic values.

Like all extreme neo-Salafi movements, al Qaeda is also an economic and social dead end. It does not offer any practical way of operating and competing in a global economy, it is too dysfunctional to allow meaningful education and social interaction, and it finances itself largely through extortion in ways that cripple the existing local economy. Moreover, it does not tolerate competition even from other Islamist fighters. In Syria, it has provoked its own civil war with other hardline Islamist movements – a civil war it now seems to be decisively losing to other Sunni rebel factions.

It is precisely that type of behavior, however, which should lead U.S. officials, analysts, and media to do a far, far better job of reporting on exactly what has really happened in Anbar, and in cities like Fallujah and Ramadi. Bad as Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) is, far too much of the evidence points to Prime Minister Maliki as an equal threat to Iraq and to U.S. interests. Ever since the 2010 election, he has become steadily more repressive, manipulated Iraq’s security forces to serve his own interests, and created a growing Sunni resistance to his practice of using Shi’ite political support to gain his own advantage.

He has refused to honor the Erbil power-sharing agreement that was supposed to create a national government that could tie together Arab Sunni and Arab Shi’ite, and he has increased tensions with Iraq’s Kurds. As the U.S. State Department human rights reports for Iraq, Amnesty International, and the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) make all too clear; Maliki’s search for power has steadily repressed and alienated Iraq’s Sunnis on a national level. It has led to show trials and death sentences against one of Iraq’s leading Sunni politicians including former Vice President Taqris al-Hashimi, who has been living in asylum in Turkey since being convicted and sentenced to death in absentia by an Iraqi court. It has shifted the promotion structure in the Iraqi Security Forces to both give the Prime Minister personal control and has turned them into an instrument he can use against Sunnis.

Al Qaeda in Iraq – nor its recent incarnation the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) – has not risen up as a rebirth of the opposition the U.S. faced in 2005-2008. In spite of attempts by the Maliki government to label virtually any major Sunni opposition as terrorists, the steady increase in that opposition orginated primarily in the form of peaceful and legitimate political protests against Maliki’s purges of elected Iraqi Sunni leaders, and a regular exclusion of Sunnis from the government – including the Sons of Iraq in areas like Anbar. It came because Maliki used the Iraqi Security Forces against segments of his own population in the name of fighting terrorists and extremists. It came because of the failure to use Iraq’s oil wealth effectively and fairly – resulting with an economy that the CIA ranks Iraq 140th in the world in per capita income. The opposition to Maliki’s government also resulted from corruption so extreme that in December 2013 Transparency International ranked Iraq the seventh most corrupt country in the world, with only Libya, South Sudan, Sudan, Afghanistan, North Korea, and Somalia ranking worse than Iraq in terms of corruption.

Any analysis or news report that focuses only on al Qaeda’s very real abuses is little more than worthless – it encourages the tendency to demonize terrorism without dealing with the fact that terrorism almost always only succeeds when governments fail their people. Just as serious counterinsurgency can never be successful if it only addresses the military dimension, counterterrorism cannot succeed if it is not coupled with an effort to address the quality of the nation’s political leadership and governance, and the legitimate concerns of its people.

Any failure to analyze Maliki’s actions since the 2010 election – his disregard for the Erbil agreement that called for a true national government, his manipulation of the courts to create multiple trails and death sentences for political oppponents, including one of Iraq’s vice presidents – Tariq al-Hashemi; his use of temporary appointments to take control of key command positions in the Iraqi Security Forces; his efforts to bribe senior Iraqi Sunni politicians to support him with ministerial posts; and his steadily increasing suppression of Sunni popular opposition and protests – is dishonest, lazy, intellectual rubbish. [Continue reading...]

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ISIS execute dozens of Islamist captives

Reuters reports: The al Qaeda-linked Islamist State of Iraq and the Levant executed dozens of rival Islamists over the last two days as the group recaptured most territory it had lost in the northeastern Syrian province of Raqqa, activists said on Sunday.

One of the activists, who spoke from the province on condition of anonymity, said up to 100 fighters from the Nusra Front, another al Qaeda affiliate, and the Ahrar al-Sham brigade, captured by ISIL in the town of Tel Abyad on the border with Turkey, the nearby area of Qantari and the provincial capital city of Raqqa, were shot dead.

There was no independent confirmation of the report.

“About 70 bodies, most shot in the head, were collected and sent to the Raqqa National hospital,” the activist said.

“Many of those executed had been wounded in the fighting. The fact that Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham are ideologically similar to the ISIL did not matter,” he added. [Continue reading...]

Whether ISIS and the Assad regime have direct lines of communication and are coordinating their fight is purely a matter of speculation, but what seems indisputable is that their interests so closely overlap they are essentially fighting on the same side.

Abdallah al-Sheikh, an activist in northern Syria, said Assad’s forces had began bombarding areas from which ISIL had withdrawn, such as the town of Maarat Misreen and parts of Aleppo city.

“ISIL have been doing Assad a huge favour by killing many of the formidable rebel commanders and the regime has chosen to help it by not touching many of the areas it had taken. As soon as it withdrew, the bombing resumed,” he said.

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