Syria’s Foreign Rebels Demand Islamic State

Rebels Say Democracy Out of the Question for Post-Assad Syria

From the moment the first defectors from the Syrian military took up arms against the Assad regime, rebels have couched their fight as an extension of pro-democracy protests that erupted across Syria. But as the rebellion is increasingly composed of foreign fighters, many religiously motivated, their agenda has changed.

syria-lebanon-map1Far from Western assumptions that removing Assad and installing the rebels would mean a “Free Syria,” the Islamist rebels are demanding an Islamist state, with a harsh brand of Sharia law and Sunni clergy given positions of significant power. Democracy, let alone a secular state that respects religious minorities is for them out of the question.

This shouldn’t be surprising. After all, the rebellion has changed dramatically from the days when military defectors were the rank-and-file soldiers. It is now a sectarian civil war, and despite US efforts to sequester the al-Nusra Front from the rest of the rebellion, it seems the fighters have more in common with the al-Qaeda-backed rebel group than the Western nations that continue to support them.

This is a long-term concern, as many of these fighters are pledging to continue the fight against whoever replaces Assad if they don’t get their way. Much as with Libya, the current civil war could set the stage for another one.

Aleppo misery eats at Syrian rebel support

(Reuters) – At a crowded market stall in Syria, a middle-aged couple, well dressed, shuffle over to press a folded note, furtively, into the hand of a foreign reporter.

It is the kind of silent cry for help against a reign of fear that has been familiar to journalists visiting Syria over the past two years. Only this is not the Damascus of President Bashar al-Assad but rebel-held Aleppo; the note laments misrule under the revolution and hopes Assad can defeat its “terrorism”.

“We used to live in peace and security until this malicious revolution reached us and the Free Syrian Army started taking bread by force,” the unidentified couple wrote. “We ask God to help the regime fight the Free Syrian Army and terrorism – we are with the sovereignty of President Bashar al-Assad forever.”

While they might not be all they seemed – agents of Assad’s beleaguered security apparatus want to blacken the rebels’ name – their sentiments are far from rare in Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city and once vibrant hub of trade and industry, whose diverse urban communities now face hardship and chaos at the hands of motley bands of fighters recruited from surrounding rural areas.

SyriaAs government forces fight on in parts of Aleppo, in large areas that have been under rebel control for six months or more complaints are getting louder about indiscipline among the fighters, looting and a general lack of security and necessities like running water, bread and electricity in districts that have been pounded by tanks and hit by Assad’s air force.

Recognizing that mistrust, rebel units have set up command and policing structures they see forming a basis of institutions which might one day run the whole country and which, meanwhile, they hope can show Arab and Western supporters that they have the organization to handle aid in the form of money and weapons.

For those who fear the worst for Syria now that the revolt has unleashed long suppressed ethnic and sectarian rivalries, however, evidence in Aleppo that these new institutions have had little practical impact on often rival rebel groups is ominous.

And all the while relations grow testier between the rebels and Aleppines, for whom many fighters harbor some disdain after the urbanites’ failed to rise up on their own against Assad.

“PARASITES”

Rebel commanders interviewed in and around Aleppo in the past two weeks acknowledged problems within the FSA – an army in name only, made up of brigades competing for recognition and resources. But they laid much of the blame on “bad apples” and opportunists and said steps are being taken to put things right.

“There has been a lot of corruption in the Free Syrian Army’s battalions – stealing, oppressing the people – because there are parasites that have entered the Free Syrian Army,” said Abu Ahmed, an engineer who heads a 35-man unit of the Tawheed Brigade, reckoned to be the largest in Aleppo province.

Abu Ahmed, who comes from a small town on the Turkish border and like many in Syria would be identified only by the familiar form of his name, estimated that most people in Aleppo, a city of over two million, were lukewarm at best to a 21-month-old uprising that is dominated by the Sunni Muslim rural poor.

“They don’t have a revolutionary mindset,” he said, putting support for Assad at 70 percent among an urban population that includes many ethnic Kurds, Christians and members of Assad’s Alawite minority. But he also acknowledged that looting and other abuses had cost the incoming rebels much initial goodwill.

“The Free Syrian Army has lost its popular support,” said Abu Ahmed, who said the Tawheed Brigade was now diversifying from fighting to talking on civic roles, including efforts to restore electricity supplies and deal with bread shortages. His own wife was setting up a school after months without classes.

Hunger and insecurity are key themes wherever Aleppines gather this winter. Outside a busy bakery in one rebel-held neighborhood men complained of having to stand in line for hours in the hope of bread, and of feeling the need to arm themselves for their own protection on the streets of the city.

Schools are being stripped of desks and chairs for firewood.

LOOTING

Lieutenant Mohammed Tlas, like many FSA officers, defected from Assad’s army. He now commands the 500 men of the Suqoor al-Shahbaa Brigade and put civilian complaints down to “bad seeds” who can label themselves as FSA fighters without any vetting.

“There are some brigades that loot from the people, and they are fundamentally bad seeds,” he said, chain-smoking in a green army sweater as he sat at his desk in a spartan office. “Anyone can carry a rifle and do whatever he wants.”

But concern about fighting other anti-Assad units holds Abu Golan back from trying to contain abuses, for now: “Are we going to be fighting Bashar and them?” Tlas asked of untrustworthy new fighters. “There’s a lot of that in Aleppo … We cannot reject them. It’s not the time for that. Those are the bad seeds.”

Many rebel commanders have a low opinion of their fellows. Abu Marwan, a uniformed young air force pilot leading a long siege of a government air base, described another rebel leader as running his brigade as a personal fiefdom, ignoring any semblance of military hierarchy by promoting his favorites.

“It was like the regime all over again, wanting only their own family or sect to rule,” he told Reuters as a walkie-talkie cackled nearby. “After the regime falls, we still have a long battle just to clean up the revolutionaries.

“There are a lot of parasites.”

syria_fightersREBEL POLICE

Some rebels in Aleppo have formed what they call a military police force to try to stop abuses. Headed by another defector, Brigadier-General Zaki Ali Louli, it is funded by the Tawheed and Mohamed Sultan Fateh brigades, Louli said, and aims to coordinate with others. He declined to say how many men he had.

“We’re in the final stage of the revolution and the tyrant Assad regime is fading,” he said in a sprawling police building where rebels in army fatigues worked in offices. “We have set up institutions that in the future will become the administration,” he added of his hopes for a post-Assad role for his unit.

“In each regiment, there’s a police officer whose responsibility is to observe the revolutionaries and tell us about all their observations within that regiment,” he said, as he stamped paperwork. They pay particularly close attention to those who join up “on the pretence that they are fighters”.

Sometimes, Louli said, “through observing them it becomes obvious to us that they are anomalous”. On the alert for agents of Assad, the rebels’ military police is quick to remove those it does not trust, and also vets new defectors from the army.

A sister institution deals with complaints from Aleppo civilians, said Louli, adding that he was in talks to spread that organizational model nationwide.

Such hopes for national structures reflect similar moves in the overall command of the opposition movement. After a National Coalition was formed abroad in November with Arab and Western backing, an Islamist-dominated military command was set up last month to oversee operations against Assad’s forces inside Syria.

Accounts differ on how effective the new structure is but rebel leaders say there is a clearer chain of command than before, and rebel groups are more aware of who is in charge of which sectors within Aleppo and the surrounding countryside.

Lieutenant Tlas, whose Suqoor, or Falcons, brigade has been in the thick of fighting in the city, says the rebel forces now have a combined operations room and hold weekly meetings for all brigades, as well as daily gatherings of frontline commanders.

“STONE AGE”

“Basically a ministry of defense has been created. A force for Syria,” he said. “But this force needs weapons and money.”

That is a common refrain among those fighting Assad, and reflects frustration at hesitation among Western powers in particular to aid rebel groups whose wider goals are unclear.

The United States has branded one rebel force a “terrorist” organization, accusing it of links to al Qaeda. Most Islamist fighters – including Tlas, who sits beside a black flag bearing a religious slogan – have declared loyalty to the Western-backed National Coalition. But allies in the West remain suspicious.

While there are arms coming in from abroad, most rebels complain of a lack of weapons and a chronic shortage of ammunition, which has hampered their advance on several fronts.

Tlas said he been told that only a few thousand bullets had reached rebel forces in Aleppo province in one month and sources of revenue were drying up. In desperation, some leaders have sought out wealthy Gulf Arabs to fund their revolt.

One Kuwaiti businessman met Tlas: “He came on a tour, we showed him the different fronts, immersed him in the atmosphere of a war zone and even let him fire a rifle,” he said. “He left here really happy. I thought … he would solve everything.

“And we never heard back from him. Maybe he got scared of the rifle. That was about a month and a half ago.”

As the war grinds on, and despite efforts by some commanders to create a semblance of order, some Aleppines are growing impatient with the Free Syrian Army: “We don’t care about the regime,” said 48-year-old Abu Majid, who worked in one of Aleppo’s many textile factories. “We need peace and security.”

Sitting on a plastic chair in the middle of a busy market on Thirtieth Street, Abu Majid held the rebels responsible for desperate conditions in the city: “We’ve gone back to the Stone Age. The Free Syrian Army must get an organized leadership.

“At the beginning people rallied behind them; now they’re alienated from the rebels.”

Tlas, who comes from central Syria, and other rebel commanders in the northern city bristle at such complaints, saying their men, too, are short of bread and power.

Of Aleppo’s civilians, Tlas said: “They think the Free Syrian Army owns everything or that it can substitute a state.”

While many people in Aleppo still say they, too, want rid of Assad, the rebels’ inability to bring order or to improve the miserable conditions of the city, an ancient jewel of the Arab world now ravaged by 21st-century war, is losing them support.

“The Free Syrian Army’s brand has mostly been tarnished,” said Abu Marwan, the pilot.

“After it gained an international reputation for being an army that is fighting for the Syrian people, for Syria, all this stuff, these people, has diminished the value of the Free Army.”

(Editing by Dominic Evans and Alastair Macdonald)

US Sending Missiles, Troops to Syrian Border

Officials: Turkey Deployments Aimed at ‘Defending’ Border

US troops and Patriot missile batteries will be deployed to southern Turkey, along the border with Syria, in a move US officials claim is aimed at defending against a possible Syrian attack on its much larger and vastly more powerful neighbor.

syria-lebanon-map1Of course there is no reason to believe Syria is considering an attack on Turkey in the first place, and indeed much of northern Syria is already in the hands of Turkish and NATO-backed rebel factions, making such a strike even less plausible.

The deployment is said to include two missile batteries and 400 US troops. This is not the only US deployment on the Syrian border, however, as additional US troops were sent to the Jordanian border to prepare a possible invasion of Syria.

Turkey has been seeking deployments of Patriot missiles for quite some time, and while they could be used to impose a no-fly zone in the region, NATO officials insist that this isn’t going to be the case, and that the deployment is rather meant to defend Turkey from a non-existent missile threat.

by Jason Ditz

Caught between al Qaida and Iran, U.S. struggles over Syria conflict

The bloodshed in Syria has continued for so long that extremist forces have taken charge, with U.S. officials saying they now face two familiar enemies in the struggle to find a resolution: al Qaida in Iraq cells and Iranian-backed sectarian militias.

Those groups were responsible for thousands of American and Iraqi casualties during the eight years U.S. forces fought them next door in Iraq. Now, U.S. officials and some analysts say, the Sunni Muslim extremists of al Qaida have regrouped in Syria as the Nusra Front, the leading rebel faction fighting President Bashar Assad’s regime. The Syrian military, meanwhile, is relying increasingly on backup from the thuggish pro-Assad militias known as shabiha, elements of which receive Iranian training and funding, U.S. officials say.

Syria“Round 2,” said Joe Holliday, a Washington-based researcher who specializes in Syrian militants at the Institute for the Study of War, noting the resurgence of two foes the United States thought it had left behind after withdrawing from Iraq last year.

The Obama administration designated the Nusra Front and elements of the shabiha as terrorist groups earlier this month in a move to isolate extremists on the battlefield. While few observers dispute that al Qaida-style forces have moved into Syria from Iraq, some analysts say the U.S. government might be overstating the Iranian role with the shabiha, an unstructured entity that was born of Syrian clan loyalty rather than any shared ideology with the Iranians. However, the analysts added, the chance for more Iranian involvement only increases as the bloodshed nears its second year with no end in sight.

With unfriendly forces now on both sides of the conflict, analysts say, the U.S. seems out of policy options in Washington as its leverage on the ground in Syria evaporates. Joshua Landis, a Syria expert who’s the director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oklahoma, said the Obama administration was now sandwiched between its archenemies al Qaida and Iran, making it hard to maintain a position of avoiding direct involvement in the conflict.

“America is paralyzed,” Landis said. “They don’t like Assad, but they’re even more fearful of the rebels.”

The Nusra Front’s connections to Iraq seem concrete, with U.S. officials tracking movement of the group’s leaders from the northern Iraqi city of Mosul to Syria in late 2011. The administration believes that Nusra is just a renamed incarnation of Iraq’s al Qaida branch, which has “dispatched money, people and materiel from Iraq to Syria over the past year,” one senior administration official said, speaking only on the condition of anonymity in a conference call this month. Nusra fighters have openly – and proudly – admitted that they’re veterans of the anti-U.S. insurgency in Iraq.

The Syrian regime’s connections to Iran and the Iranian-backed Shiite Muslim militias based in Iraq are harder to prove, analysts say, though that hasn’t stopped the Obama administration from drawing direct links. During the conference call this month, a second senior administration official said the Syrian shabiha known as Jaysh al Shaabi, or the People’s Army, was modeled after the powerful Iranian paramilitary group known as the Basij.

“Jaysh al Shaabi was created and continues to be funded and maintained with support from Iran and Hezbollah, and it is modeled after the Iranian Basij militia, which has proven so deadly and effective at using violence and intimidation to suppress political dissent in Iraq,” the official said.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland parroted the administration’s line that the shabiha militias, made up primarily of fellow members of Assad’s minority Alawite sect, copy the Iranian Basijis’ tactics.

“They are very much, in terms of the form that they’ve taken, a reflection of Iranian tactics and Iranian methods and advice to the Syrian regime,” Nuland said this month.

Some analysts who specialize in Iran and who’ve closely followed Iranian involvement in neighboring Iraq say the U.S. assertions about Iranian training of the shabiha are overblown, designed to protect the administration from looking too pro-regime as it goes after Nusra on the rebel side.

And Syria experts say the shabiha certainly are not modeled after the Basij, a deeply ideological force born of the Islamic revolution that turned Iran into a Shiite theocracy. The shabiha, by contrast, began as Alawite protection rackets that were loyal to the clans and “paid by cousins,” as Landis put it.

Juan Cole, a University of Michigan professor who specializes in the Middle East and Iran, said it didn’t make sense for the Iranians to train a loose militia confederation such as the shabiha. He said such assistance more likely would go to more formalized fighters such as Assad’s special forces.

“The shabiha are a much more murky and informal and criminal group,” Cole said. “The idea that the shabiha are like the Revolutionary Guard Corps or the Basij is, to me, an error of analysis.”

Other analysts said the better model for the Iranian role with the Syrian militias was the Shiite sectarian groups that flourished in Iraq thanks to their leaders’ long-standing ties to Iran.

The Institute for the Study of War issued a report this week on the resurgence in Iraq of a particularly sophisticated militia that was part of the so-called “special groups,” the catchall term U.S. forces used for the Iranian-backed militias that fought them and participated in attacks on Sunnis during Iraq’s sectarian war.

The report’s author, research analyst Sam Wyer, found that this militia, Asaib Ahl al Haq, whose name means “League of the Righteous,” had been quietly transforming itself into a Hezbollah-style group, with not only a militia but also political and charitable offices throughout Iraq and the region.

One of those new offices, Wyer said, was in the northern, predominantly Sunni town of Tal Afar, a strange choice for a Shiite extremist group except that it’s strategically located on a long-established smuggling route into Syria. Another of the new offices, Wyer said, was opened in Beirut, where the Iraqi militiamen have met regularly with Hezbollah operatives and once again play “an integral role in Iran’s regional proxy strategy, augmenting Lebanese Hezbollah in the struggle for Syria.”

Wyer said there wasn’t enough evidence to say conclusively what the scope of the Iraqi special groups’ activities in Syria was but that he’d seen surprisingly similar organizational and tactical maneuvers.

“Obviously, Iran has pretty huge stakes in Syria, and they’re going to want to influence the conflict any way they can – and the best way they know how is through these proxy groups,” Wyer said.

email: [email protected]; Twitter: @HannahAllam

US Initiative to Set Up Syrian Opposition Council Collapses

One day before the official start of the conference, opposition leaders selected by the US began to drop out

The Obama administrations initiative to set up a new Syrian opposition council, possibly to serve as an interim government following the fall of the Assad regime, appeared to have failed on Thursday before the convention in Qatar even began.

One day before the official start of the conference, at which Syrian opposition activists selected by the State Department were to meet, ”three of the dissident bodies included in the US-backed initiative refused to attend,” diplomats and opposition figures told the Daily Telegraph.

“There are too many people against this initiative for it to work now,” said a western diplomat who chose to remain anonymous.

News of the US’s latest failure in solving the Syrian crisis came as Turkey said it was aiming to deploy NATO’s Patriot missiles on its border with Syria as a response to the alleged cross-border threat posed from Syria. But talk of that threat is incomplete without mentioning the fact that Turkey has been aiding the rebels and aiming for regime change in Syria.

This is only the most recent failure in a catalog of past US failures to gain control of Syria, going back several decades. But it seemed doomed to failure from the beginning, as the technocrats in Washington have very little local knowledge of the internal dynamics in Syria.

Many opposition activists not included in the Doha meeting expect the effort to be another failed attempt to unify the opposition.

“Right now, the opposition groups are very vague and there’s no agreement on who’s representing who and what and where,” one opposition activist told The Cable last week. “Right now there is a lot of risk that this will be another failed approach that will not achieve anything.”

By John Glaser 

 

 

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