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French commentary profiles jihadist group active in Syria
BBC Monitoring Middle East
December 01, 2012

A Free Syrian Army fighter holds his rifle as he stands on a damaged street in Aleppo`s Karm al-Jabal district November 29, 2012. Picture taken November 29, 2012. REUTERS/Zain Karam

Commentary by Catherine Goueset: “Syria: Al-Nusra Front, A Growing Jihadi Group”

Jabhat al-Nusra, a jihadist movement that has come out against the Syrian opposition coalition currently formed in Doha, has claimed responsibility for many attacks in Syria. What do we know about this group that for a while was suspected of colluding with the Syrian regime?

Recent months have seen a growing number of attacks in Syria, such as the one that left more than 50 dead Wednesday [ 28 November]. Jabhat al Nusra, a jihadist movement that seems to be gaining in importance, has claimed responsibility for many of them. So what do we know about this group, which rejects the Syrian opposition coalition recently set up in Doha, and that is fighting Kurdish militias in the north of the country?

A Movement With Obscure Origins

The group Nabhat al Nusra announced its creation on 24 January, via a video, under the name Jabhat an-Nusra li-ahi ash-Sham min mujahidin ash-Sham fi sahat al-Jihad [Front for the protection of the people of Greater Syria]. While it has claimed responsibility for attacks since January, their number is limited, with three operations between January and mid-April, according to Elizabeth O`Bagy, analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. But the number of attacks, kidnappings, and assassinations has grown significantly since May with a further increase since the fall.

Suspicions of Manipulation

At first, the appearance of this movement aroused questions among observers who suspected the regime of manipulation. By choosing to repress the protest movement in Syria, Bashir al-Asad`s regime is trying to discredit the opponents by describing them as a growing armed jihadist opposition. Its opponents therefore suspect this new group of being the creation of Syrian security services. Doubts are now appearing even within the jihadist movement. Itself. Thus, Syrian activist Abu Bassir al-Tartoussi, who has since joined the FSA [Free Syrian Army], points out that the tone of the message and the anonymity of its presumed authors are not in keeping with the usual practice of jihadists.

In July, a former security services official who had defected accused the regime of being behind the attacks on the security services in Qazzaz that left victims in the month of May: “Not a single officer was injured during this attack and the office was evacuated 15 minutes earlier,” he points out.

A Long Practice of Using Armed Groups

The hypothesis of manipulation is based on the common practice, by Damascus, of supporting various terrorist groups, whether in Lebanon or Iraq.

“The Syrian regime showed in the past - in particular with the use it made in Lebanon of the Fatah al-Islam group (originating in a Palestinian refugee camp at the end of 2006, ed) and notoriously created under its auspices - its ability to use the methods of the Algerian eradicators of the 1990s. The Algerian military having perhaps in turn drawn their inspiration from the “founding” methods of President Bashir al-Asad`s father in the early 1980s,” points out Francois Burgat, researcher at the French Institute of the Middle East and an expert on radical Islam.

As regards Iraq, “the dispatch of fighters there was official policy during the first months of the US occupation, in 2003, then unofficial policy due to pressure from Washington,” believes the researcher Thomas Pierret, a Syria expert.

More recently, in the first hours of the uprising, “the Syrian regime freed several dozen elements classed as `jihadists,`” recalls Francois Burgat.

Elizabeth O`Bagy sees the Al-Nusra Front as being originally a small group that tried “to imitate the practices of groups affiliated to Al-Qa`idah,” hence the anomalies observed by the observers. The group, she says, is “a regrouping of former jihadists who were sponsored by the Syrian regime in the past. These individuals were trained by Damascus in the use of arms and insurrectionist tactics, and then acquired experience in Iraq and Lebanon.” This analyst attributes their e ffectiveness in attacks against the regime to their earlier links with the Syrian security apparatus that gave them a level of access to the regime that the FSA does not have.”

Today, “a credible hypothesis is that the puppet created by the regime has escaped the control of its master,” believes Francois Burgat. Indeed, “manipulation is a double-edged sword. There is a price to be paid for those who practice it. The Al-Nusra Front therefore certainly inflicts military losses on the regime. It does this even more so as on occasions it has been seen to have more systematic access to weapons, to be able to mobilize fighters ready to carry out suicide attacks, and to engage foreign fighters who are often more experienced.”

A Limited Movement Initially, But Growing

Based initially in the Homs region, these Syrian jihadists are believed to have been joined during the spring by Palestinian jihadists, and from Fatah el Islam in particular. They are also present in the desert region of Deir Ez-Zor in the east that served as a rear base for jihadists fighting in Iraq in the 2000s. “The logistics chain that brought fighters from Syria to Iraq is now operating in the opposite direction,” points out Elizabeth O`Bagy. They are also present in Idleb and Aleppo where they sometimes fight alongside the FSA rebels, but without there being any real organizational links between the two movements, Jahbat Nusra having an operating and recruiting method that is more secret and controlled than the FSA rebels.

Its members are currently estimated at 1,000, “but their number is no doubt increasing,” believes Thomas Pierret: “They command a certain admiration for their discipline, which is in marked contrast to certain groups that engage in looting, and their courage, which is easy to understand as many members are intent on dying as martyrs.”

What Relations With the FSA and Political Opposition?

FSA officials recognize the professionalism of its leaders and its attraction for young recruits. They mention the existence of coordinated actions but also of violent clashes and dissensions. But, adds Abu Odai, a militant in the Damascus area, “the jihadists do not hold positions. They move to the front and then pull back. It is the rebels who then set up the roadblocks and hold the land.” Many Syrian oppositionists remain suspicious of the organization`s goals and its attraction is largely linked to the sense of being abandoned by the international community.

The announcement, on 19 November, by about 15 armed Islamist groups, including the Al-Nusra Front, of the ambition to set up a “just” Islamic state and their rejection of the Syrian opposition coalition born in Doha, is a setback for the latter that still lacks credibility on the ground. “If the statement is confirmed, it is the most determined fighters that are becoming most prominent on the armed front,” observes Francois Burgat. But “the presence of this radical fringe does not make it possible to prejudge the ultimate political balance of the fighting forces: The `Front` is appreciated as an armed spearhead and not as an ideological leader. And at least one other major group in this movement, Liwa al Tawhid, has disassociated itself from its declaration and allied itself with the coalition set up in Doha,” says this political expert.

What Relations With Al-Qa`idah?

This remains an open question. To date, “Al-Qa`idah has not awarded any recognition to the `Front.` That may mean that Ayman Al Zawahiri`s organization has the same reservations as it has in regard to Fatah al-Islam or other groups whose autonomy in regard to the regimes could not be credibly established,” observes Francois Burgat. But “the group was approved by the Shumukh al-Islam website, regarded as a reference in salafist-jihadist circles,” points out Thomas Pierret.

What Impact on Balance of Power Between the Opposition and the Regime?

Given its operating method, the political impact of Jabhat al Nus ra is superior to its operational capacity and it has little chance of changing the military balance in the field. Above all it risks complicating matters for the FSA, by damaging its legitimacy and inflaming religious tensions. “On some videos they praise Mollah Omar (Taleban leader) and Usamah Bin-Ladin, calling for the throats of the Alawites - the religious minority to which Basir al-Asad belongs - to be slit,” says one militant.

Yet, says Elizabeth O`Bagy, unlike Al-Qa`idah in Iraq, the Al-Nusra Front has limited its attacks against the civilian population and its sectarian attacks, this enabling it to avoid the outright rejection the Iraqi jihadist movement experienced in the 2000s. This policy, which could strengthen its base in Syria, makes the organization`s growing strength all the more worrying, says this researcher.

If the regime “Agrees the pay the price of the military attacks inflicted upon it,” reasons Francois Burgat, “it is because the high media profile of the jihadists and their brutally sectarian rhetoric that encompasses the same rejection not only of the Syrian regime but also of all the opposition`s allies - the West, Turks and Arabs - is of great interest to it in terms of international legitimacy.”

Source: L`Express website, Paris, in French 29 Nov 12

© 2012 The British Broadcasting Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

Syrian Kurdish parties unite to confront Islamists – website
BBC Monitoring Middle East
December 01, 2012

In this photo taken on Thursday, Nov. 29, 2012, a Free Syrian Army fighter is in position in front of destroyed buildings in Aleppo, Syria. Syrian rebels battled regime troops south of Damascus on Friday and Internet and most telephone lines were cut for a second day, but the government reopened the road to the capital`s airport in a sign the fighting could be calming, activists said. (AP Photo)

Report by Carolyn Akum, from Beirut: “Syria`s Kurds Unite in Groups to Confront the Islamist Battalions”

After nearly a week of clashes witnessed in areas of Al-Hasakah Governorate between Kurdish fighters, especially those affiliated to the Democratic Union Party, on one side, and a number of Islamist battalions on the other side, it seems that effective Kurdish activities have started to mobilize along the line of closing the ranks.

This has been confirmed by Nawwaf Khalil, official in charge of information at the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, to Al-Sharq al-Awsat saying: “There are meetings of the institutions of the Kurdish National Council, which includes 16 parties, being held in Iraqi Kurdistan to reach an agreement about including military Kurdish powers and groups in order to confront the Islamist battalions that have entered the region demanding that the sons of the region depart and abandon their weapons.” Khalil stresses that the Kurds are an integral part of this revolution, and are in the heart of the opposition that works to achieve one aim, namely the toppling of the regime.

While Khalil stresses that there are no security centres affiliated to the regime in Al-Jazeera region with the exception of Al-Qamishli, he points out: “There are four Kurdish military battalions working under the banner of protecting the people, and there is coordination between these battalions and the Free Syrian Army with which the Kurds have no problem, but on the contrary the aims and cause of the two sides represent a joint single issue.”

On the other hand, Agence France Presse [ AFP ] has attributed to an opposition Kurdish activist, who introduces himself as Hafidar, that the principal Kurdish groups in Syria have agreed to form a unified military force to confront the Islamist opposition fighters in northeast Syria. Hafidar explains: “An agreement has been contracted in Iraqi Kurdistan region between the Kurdish National Council and the West Kurdistan Council to form a unified Kurdish military force to protect the Kurdish regions and to protect the region from anyone who constitutes a danger to its security.” Hafidar points out that the force “consists of the forces of the Kurdish Democratic Union and the Kurdish dissidents residing in Kurdistan Province.”

According to AFP, the Kurdish fighters are in control of a number of border towns and villages in northeast Syria, which is a step that analysts and activists consider to be some kind of “collusion” between President Bashar al-Asad`s regime and the most prominent Kurdish power on the ground in order to lure the armed groups and address a political message to Ankara. Most of the Syrian Kurds, some 2 million people, reside in north and northeast Syria.

In his turn, Free Syrian Army Commander Col Malik al-Kurdi has confirmed to Al-Sharq al-Awsat that there is a decision by the command not to engage in confrontations as much as possible with the Kurds. Col Al-Kurdi calls on the Kurdish groups to unite in order to achieve the one aim, namely to topple the regime. Col Al-Kurdi adds: “Our problem is not with the Kurds, and we will not accept to engage in a confrontation with them; our problem is with the Kurdistan Workers Party, which leads these confrontations. The best proof of this is that we have withdrawn from Ra`s al-Ayn in exchange for the withdrawal of the Kurdistan Workers Party.”

Col Al-Kurdi points out:”Recently,noticeable infiltrations by groups of members of Kurdistan Workers Party from Turkey into Syria have been recorded; according to the information we received, the latest of these infiltrations was by a group of trained women, who enter while disguised.” Col Al-Kurdi adds: “Bear in mind that large numbers of Kurds are in the heart of the Syrian opposition, and are fighting together with the Free Syrian Army in a battalion of their own.”

With regard to the role or the coordination of the Islamist battalions, which are fighting on the ground, especially from Al-Nusrah Front and Ghuraba al-Sham, Al-Kurdi says that Al-Nusrah Front is an independent group that operates on its own, while some members of Ghuraba al-Sham are within the Free Syrian Army; “while some of them agree to our call to stop the fighting against the Kurds, some others consider that the Kurds are standing by the region, and ought to be confronted.”

In its turn, Italian news agency AKI [ Adnkronos International ] attributed to opposition Syrian Kurdish sources that an agreement has been reached among the Kurdish parties of different tendencies in the town of Hawler in Iraqi Kurdistan to form what has been called the Free Kurdish Army from the Kurdish soldiers dissenting from the Syrian regular army residing in the Kurdish region in the north of the country in harmony with the name of the Free Syrian Army, which is fighting with the aim of toppling the regime in Damascus.

The sources stress that the formation of this battalion was due to the fact that the Kurds in the Kurdish regions in the north of Syria in fact are exposed to a fierce campaign by extremist Salafi groups, some of which are from outside Syria.

With regard to the political authority over this Free Kurdish Army, the sources point out: “The political authority is that of the Kurdish Supreme Council.”

The sources have refused to estimate the expected volume of the Free Kurdish Army, but they point out that the army will operate in coordination with its “brethren” of the Free Syrian Army, “because the Syrian Kurds are convinced that the aim and interests are the same, namely toppling the regime and establishing a pluralistic democratic system.”

On the other hand, according to a video clip transmitted by activists on the Internet, the Ghuraba al-Sham group has warned anyone, who “raises weapons against us,” especially the Kurdistan Workers Party and the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, against any action that “contradicts the course of the revolution,” and has called on both parties to withdraw “immediately” from Ra`s al-Ayn.

The statement, which was read by an armed man surrounded by dozens of others, calls on all the factions of the Free Syrian Army to unite in “the battle to liberate Al-Hasakah,” which is the city that still is under the control of the Syrian regular forces, the same as the city of Al-Qamishli, which is also in Al-Hasakah Governorate.

Source: Al-Sharq al-Awsat website, London, in Arabic 24 Nov 12

© 2012 The British Broadcasting Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

Syrian activists fear military may destroy Damascus if regime falls – website
BBC Monitoring Middle East
December 01, 2012

In this Thursday, Nov. 29, 2012 photo, destroyed buildings, including Dar Al-Shifa hospital, are seen on Sa`ar street after airstrikes targeted the area in Aleppo, Syria. (AP Photo/Narciso Contreras)

Unattributed report: “Syrians fear reprisals from Fourth Armoured Division following al-Assad ouster -Activist”

Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat -For Omar, a young Damascene who lives in the popular district of Jobar, “the regime has already fallen, it no longer controls the districts except from outside”. Speaking exclusively to Asharq Al-Awsat via telephone, Omar revealed that “everyone here is waiting for the decisive moment and is hoping for the best”.

He is following the conflict in the Daria district with interest, claiming “it is crucial”, adding “with the presence of more than 10,000 Free Syrian Army [FSA] elements in the city, this time Daria will not be broken, its people will not be slaughtered and its houses will not be destroyed...the FSA have learned from their mistakes”.

However, the young man, who is active in helping the FSA, expressed his concern about the potential reaction of the infamous Fourth Armoured Division in the event of the fall of the regime. He said “they will not surrender Damascus even if they know their regime has fallen, they will choose to destroy it and bombard it indiscriminately”.

The Fourth Armoured Division has been used in offensive missions against protestors and revolutionaries since the outbreak of the Syrian revolution in 2011, and is the second most important military unit for the al-Asad regime, after the Republican Guard. Its key mission is to besiege the capital Damascus and maintain a military grip upon it. The division, with its main headquarters located in the Muhajireen district of Damascus, is led by Brigadier General Maher al-Asad, the younger brother of Bashar al-Asad who is also the commander of the Republican Guard.

For his part, a member of the Damascus Coordinating Committee for the Syrian Revolution has revealed that “Mount Kassioun, overlooking the capital, has in recent weeks transformed into the largest military barracks Damascus has ever known, pointing its artillery guns at all rural areas surrounding the capital”.

He added “the Syrian regime thinks that the rebel march upon the capital is imminent. Hence ammunition depots have been assembled in and around the capital, with the biggest being stationed on Mount Kassioun. The regime is aware that should the outskirts of the capital fall into the hands of the FSA, this would be the beginning of the end, especially after the experiments conducted by the FSA during the month of Ramadan when its front ranks penetrated Damascus regions such as Kafar Souseh and Mezzeh”.

The opposition activist stressed that “it is unlikely that the Fourth Armoured Division will announce its defection from the Syrian regime the moment it collapses”, adding “it will continue to kill and bombard the capital until it has destroyed it”.

The activist attributes this to the fact that “the division`s troops are completely loyal to the current regime, in addition to the sectarian connection”. The vast majority of officers and troops in the Fourth Armoured Division belong to the Alawite sect, the same sect that President Bashar al-Asad hails from.

However the activist asserted that “fear of the Fourth Armoured Division`s reprisals will not prevent the revolutionaries from preparing for the battle for Damascus, which is now just around the corner”.

He added “we on the inside are preparing for this battle with all our capabilities; people have begun to stock up on medical supplies, others are drawing up plans to evacuate civilians, and others are waiting for the assault to begin”. He pointed out that “the battle will be especially bloody, so the FSA is trying now to think of a way in which to fight the conflict whilst distancing civilians from the battleground”.

The Fourth Armoured Division dates back to the era of the late Syrian President Hafez al-Asad. It was established by his brother Rifaat al-Assad, who led the “Defence Brigades” responsible for the massacres in the city of Hama in 1982. It is believed that those brigades were incorporated into the fourth division after Rif`at al-Asad was exiled in 1984, due to a dispute with his brother over power. The Fourth Armoured Division is considered the best trained and equipped military entity within the Syrian army, possessing the latest heavy weaponry such as Russian T-72 tanks, whilst estimates suggest it has around 20,000 cadres.

According to activists, the division`s tanks have taken part in violent attacks on Syrian cities, especially the city of Homs, where districts such as Babr Amr have been exposed to widespread destruction. A number of Alawite officers from the Fourth Armoured Division are also reportedly deployed in other military formations, especially those with Sunni majorities, in order to prevent defections.

Source: Al-Sharq al-Awsat, London, in Arabic 28 Nov 12

© 2012 The British Broadcasting Corporation. All Rights Reserved.





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