Posted by Matthew Barber on Sunday, April 14th, 2013
Al-Qaida and Jabhat al-Nusra have each declared an Islamic State in Syria, in their own way.
And by the way, Jabhat al-Nusra is al-Qaida. The head of al-Nusra, Abu Muhammad al-Julani, finally confirmed the obvious through an official declaration of allegiance.
An Islamic State in Syria? For Real?
Al-Qaida in Iraq already styles itself as the “Islamic State in Iraq” (ISI). The difference between it and Jabhat al-Nusra is that the latter actually controls territory, making the declaration of a state cause for a moment of disconcerted reflection: If Jabhabt al-Nusra currently administers various villages and cities (such as Raqqa) through a manifestation of Islamist governance embodied in shari’a councils, and if Jabhat al-Nusra is al-Qaida, then it’s not absurd to say that something resembling a rough patchwork of quasi city-states has been established by al-Qaida in Syria. This is a strange station that no one expected to arrive at when the Syrian uprising began.
Whether or not al-Nusra is developing the various ministries and institutions typically associated with statehood, they are expanding their scope of shari’a governance, and as al-Julani stated in his announcement, they receive some kind of budget from al-Qaida in Iraq.
The lately growing anticipation of total failure of statehood in Syria—code for the emergence of an al-Qaida-branded Islamist patchwork state—is behind the U.S. reaction to train nationalist rebels (of course not “secular rebels”—a strange term frequently appearing now), as well as an alleged change in Saudi policy (more below). Should an al-Qaida state grow into even more of a reality, Israeli and Jordanian border integrity are the primary concerns motivating the counter effort, which would likely develop into buffer zones.
He Said—I Say
It all started with a speech from Ayman al-Zawahiri who apparently decided to rip the lid off the affiliation between Jabhat al-Nusra and al-Qaida. This seemed to prompt the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to quickly go public in announcing that together with Jabhat al-Nusra, they were forming an entity called “The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.”
According to MEMRI:
… Al-Baghdadi then says that ISI [al-Qaida in Iraq], following the same path set by its predecessors regarding the group’s adherence to a doctrine that does not abide to geographical border or ethnic affiliation, has in fact had training and support cells operating in Syria; however, these cells have been “awaiting the chance” to expand their operations. Such a chance came after the bloodshed ensued in Syria, and after the Syrians’ call for help was answered. Therefore, Al-Baghdadi says, ISI decided to answer the call by assigning the “Julani” – a reference to Abu Muhammad Al-Julani, the leader of [Jabhat al-Nusra] – to lead the group there. Al-Baghdadi confirms that Al-Julani was in fact dispatched from Iraq along with a group of men to Syria in order to meet the aforementioned cells there. Furthermore, Al-Baghdadi says that ISI provided JN with the plans and work strategy needed in Syria. He also says that ISI has been in fact splitting its funds evenly with JN, which received those funds on a monthly basis.
Addressing Syrians, Al-Baghdadi says that the announcement about JN being part of ISI was not released earlier for security reasons, and also in order to provide the Syrian people the opportunity to see and judge JN on their own, as a separate entity that is not part of Al-Qaeda, rather than perceive the group through the eyes of the biased media.
Al-Baghdadi then declares the nullification of both the names of ISI and JN, while announcing the two will be joined under the name “Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham.”
Al-Baghdadi then urges Islamic scholars to join the mujahideen in Syria, while inviting the various opposition groups and tribes to work on raising the banner of tawhid in Syria, and to work on instating the shari’a.
Al-Baghdadi warns Syrians not to fall victims of democracy, while adding that democracy should not be the outcome for the endless suffering and death they have faced thus far.
After this announcement from al-Baghdadi, al-Nusra leader al-Julani countered some of al-Baghdadi’s assertions through a statement of his own, revealing that al-Nusra had not been involved in planning for the announcement and generally expressing a greater degree of separateness from al-Qaida in Iraq than that conveyed by al-Baghdadi. However, he did not renounce the declaration of establishing this “state” (though he framed it differently), and he affirmed al-Nusra’s allegience to Ayman al-Zawahiri. We are providing a rough translation of al-Julani’s statement, with some considerations following:
Muslims everywhere, leaders of the jihadist movements, leaders of the armed factions, people of the Levant, children of Jabhat Al-Nusra, as-salam wa’leikum.
Al-Haq [one of the names of Allah], praise his highness, said: [Surah Al-Ankaboot 1-3]
“Alif, Laam, Meem
Do the people think that they will be left to say, “We believe” and that they will not be tried? But We have certainly tried those before them, and Allah will surely make evident those who are truthful, and He will surely make evident the liars.”
There have been talks about a speech attributed to Sheikh Abi Baker al-Baghdadi, may Allah protect him. In the speech attributed to the Sheik, there was mention of Jabhat al-Nusra being an expansion of the ISI [Islamic State in Iraq] and a declaration of the nullification of both the names of ISI and Jabhat al-Nusra, to be replaced with one name: “The Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham.”
Thus, we would like the people to know that the leaders of al-Nusra, its Majlis al-Shura [advisory council], and the al-‘abd al-faqir [“the poor slave of God”–a self-debasing reference to himself], the Secretary General of Jabhat al-Nusra were not informed about this declaration, except for what they heard through the media. So if this speech is true, then we weren’t consulted or briefed about it.
Now that some cards have been revealed, I can say that we were part of the the jihad in Iraq from the beginning until we came back following the start of the Syrian revolution. Despite the disconnect that we had [?], we observed those momentous events that the path of jihad in Iraq went through and took from our experience there what brought joy to the hearts of the believers in the land of Sham [the Levant], under the banner of Jabhat al-Nusra.
And Allah knows, that we haven’t seen from our brethren in Iraq anything but great generosity and hospitality. We won’t be able to pay them back for that graciousness for as long as we live. I did not wish to leave Iraq until seeing the banners of Islam flying over it, but the rapidly-developing events in the Levant came between us and our wishes.
I was honored to accompany those who we believe to be the people of righteousness in Iraq. We lost so many of them that I have to say “May God accept him [as a martyr]” for almost every name mentioned in front of me. In addition to the tens if not hundreds of muhajariin [those who emigrate for jihad] who met their destiny, from the Levant and elsewhere, for the sake of raising the word of Allah under the banner of the Iraqi Islamic state.
Then God honored me by introducing me to Sheikh al Baghdadi, who returned the favor multiplied, to the people of the Levant. And he did that by agreeing to a project that we proposed to him, to aid the oppressed in the Levant.
He then provided us with the money of the state [the “Islamic State of Iraq”], even despite the harsh times that they were passing through. And he put his complete trust in me to produce policies and plans. And he sent us a few brothers, who, even with their small numbers, Allah had blessed their gathering.
Jabhat al-Nusra started facing the difficulties, a bit at time, until Allah blessed us and our banners were raised high and waved along with the hearts of the Muslims and the oppressed. And al-Nusra became those who made the difference in the battle of the umma today. And it became the center of hope for Muslims around the world. We declared, from the start, that our aim is to bring back the power of Allah to his land, and to raise the umma to follow his judgment and his way.
And we did not want to rush the announcement, as the role of the state in applying sharia and settling disputes and bringing security to Muslims and meeting their needs is already underway in the liberated areas, even with all the shortcomings. The matter of announcing it was not of importance, as long as it was underway.
In addition, the Islamic state in the Levant is built with the help of everyone without the exclusion of any principal parties, from jihadi groups and renowned Sunni clerics to the muhajariin, who fought and performed jihad alongside us in the Levant.
In addition to the exclusion of Jabhat al-Nusra leaders and its shura. [?]
The delay in the announcement was not because of weakness in religion or fear on the part of the men of Jabhat, but it was wisdom based on principles of the sharia and a long history of effort in understanding the sharia politics applicable to the situation of the Levant and which were agreed upon by the people of wisdom and logic in the Levant, from the leaders of Jabhat and its students, and the leaders of other factions and their students and those who support and advise us from outside the country.
I won’t respond to [I comply with] the invitation of al-Baghdadi, may Allah protect him, in moving from the lower to the greater and I say:
[Thanks to Cole Bunzel for identifying the correct Arabic word that we misheard when performing the translation from the audio version]
This is a pledge of allegiance that Jabhat al-Nusra and their secretary general renews for Sheikh of jihad Ayman Al Zawahiri, may Allah protect him. We pledge allegiance to him and will listen to and follow his orders […] in hijra and jihad and we won’t dispute his decisions unless we see blasphemy in them.
And the banner of the Jabhat will stay as it is, even though we are proud of the flag of the ISI and those who carried it and sacrificed their lives for it. And to the people of the Levant, rest assured that what you saw from the Jabhat in its defense of your religion, blood, and honor and its good manners with you and the fighting factions will remain the same. And this declaration of allegiance will not change any of its policies. May Allah bring us together to the path of righteousness. Amen, Amen
Thanks to Allah
The servant of Muslims
The Secretary General of Jabhat al-Nusra
Abou Mohamad Al Julani
A number of interesting observations can be made about this statement. First, it is amusing that al-Julani would begin his speech—a response to a speech by a fellow jihadi—by quoting a Qur’anic verse about liars. He clearly states that Jabhat al-Nusra had not been informed that the announcement was forthcoming. Though framed with respectful language, the entire statement represents a veiled rebuke to al-Baghdadi.
Al-Julani discloses the real picture of al-Nusra, revealing that the core of al-Nusra are Syrian jihadis who participated with al-Qaida in Iraq “from the beginning” of the Iraq war, only returning to Syria after the uprising began in order to engage in jihad against the Syrian regime by employing all the experience and tools gained through the long period of fighting in Iraq. And in addition to being the offspring of al-Qaida in Iraq, al-Julani affirms that al-Nusra has been supported by them throughout its tenure in Syria—supported both financially and with fighters. He intentionally downplays the numbers of fighters from Iraq, however; while expressing gratitude for their participation, he endeavors to place distance between the Iraqi and Syrian jihadi groups by framing the role of jihadis from al-Qaida in Iraq as minimal. Even when emphasizing a degree of autonomy from al-Qaida in Iraq, he nevertheless ends up indicating a measure of subordination by saying “he put his complete trust in me to produce policies and plans.”
So if al-Nusra was born of al-Qaida in Iraq, includes Iraqi jihadis, has continually received support from al-Qaida, and willingly affirms allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri, what is the rub between al-Julani and al-Baghdadi’s statement? The point of tension seems to center around the declaration of an Islamic state. Though he never denies affiliation with al-Qaida in Iraq, or what he sees as the evolving emergence of an Islamic state in Syria, he seems to have taken offense to the timing and manner of the declaration, and rejects al-Baghdadi’s approach of a single state for Syria and Iraq under a single governing structure. Though he has no problem being under the authority of al-Qaida’s top command, he experiences possible resentment at the suggestion that al-Nusra be subordinate to al-Qaida in Iraq.
Al-Julani therefore rejects al-Baghdadi’s assertion that the two wings will abandon their separate titles and merge into a single unit. He maintains that al-Nusra will continue to use its name and flag. He confirms the declaration of an Islamic state in Syria (saying it is “built” by all parties who participated in the struggle), but he does not link it with that in Iraq: Rather than the “Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham” it is merely “The Islamic State of al-Sham.” Though acknowledging the presence of an Islamic state, he says that declaring statehood is not important, since the state has been coming into being through a process of implementing shari’a to the degree it is possible in the Syrian context. (This process is ongoing, through such projects as the effort to bring shari’a classes to the public.)
These announcements therefore do not represent a “merger of Jabhat al-Nusra with al-Qaida” but the disclosure of their equivalency. While it has long been perceived that ISI and al-Nusra were linked counterparts, this reality is now in the open. Further, both factions declare an Islamic state in Syria, through formulated differently.
From the France Press article “Why al Qaeda has admitted its role in the Syrian conflict“:
On Tuesday, the head of al Qaeda in Iraq publicly unveiled its links to the jihadist group al-Nusra Front, which is fighting against the regime in Syria. In turn, the head of the al-Nusra Front has pledged allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri, who as Osama Bin Laden’s successor is at the helm of the entire terrorist organisation and has recently called for an Islamic holy war in Syria. FRANCE 24 talked to a jihadist fighter who shared his analysis of al Qaeda’s strategy in the Syrian conflict.
In his latest announcement, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, head of al Qaeda’s branch in Iraq – an operation al Qaeda refers to as the “Islamic State in Iraq” – confirmed what the United States had long claimed: that the al-Nusra Front had ties to his organisation. The al-Nusra Front first made its appearance in Syria in early 2012, and has since become one of the most well-organised and well-equipped groups of rebel fighters in the country. In the same statement, al-Baghdadi announced that he planned to rename his organisation the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant [a historical name for Syria] in order to include the al-Nusra Front.
In an audio recording published on YouTube, Abou Muhammad al-Julani, the head of the al-Nusra Front, says he was not consulted on this decision. However, he explains that he “accepts al-Baghdadi’s call to rise toward excellence by vowing allegiance to Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri.” While he did not refuse to work under the new “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant”, he did say he wanted to “keep the banner of the al-Nusra Front”.
Louaï Mokdad, the spokesman for the Free Syrian Army, which has fought alongside the al-Nusra Front, says his rebel group “does not support al-Nusra’s ideology” and that their cooperation in battle was born out of necessity. However, a few weeks ago, the head of the Free Syrian Army, Riad al-Asaad, publicly expressed his support for the al-Nusra Front and criticised Washington for labelling it a terrorist organisation.
Riad al-Asaad’s recent expression of support for al-Nusra and criticism of the U.S.’s designation of it a terrorist group will now be a source of consternation for many. That al-Nusra is now more visibly subsumed under or an extension of al-Qaida will make such criticism difficult to deliver in the future.
France Press spoke to “the head of Ansar al-Sharia, a Syrian jihadist group that has close ties to the al-Nusra Front,” who sheds light on the spontaneous announcement that was delivered quickly rather than following a planning phase that would coordinate with all the various groups. He suggests that al-Qaida in Iraq was trying to beat several other groups to the punch, groups that can be viewed as competitors in the ambition to establish an Islamist state. The following are his words, reported in the FP article:
We’re all happy with al-Baghdadi’s announcement. But we also understand our chief al-Julani, who has asked that we wait for the results of a planned meeting between all the different groups fighting in Syria to work out the details of this new form of cooperation and to understand why the al-Nusra Front wasn’t consulted beforehand.
Everyone knew about the al-Nusra Front’s orientation and about its ties to the Islamic State in Iraq – that was no secret. I don’t think this has had any negative impacts on the battlefield, since, up until now, the international community hasn’t given us anything even though the Syrian regime has been murdering its people for two years now. In any case, creating an Islamic state in Syria is the logical next step for us.
On Wednesday, I took part in a meeting with different groups fighting in the region of Douma [a suburb of Damascus], including the Free Syrian Army. All those that attended were in favour of creating an Islamic state. Why would we make all these sacrifices just to see foreign states name others to rule over Syria? Or even to create a democracy? We’ve seen what’s happened in other Arab states where they tried to install democracies, and the results aren’t at all encouraging.
Many people think that al-Baghdadi’s announcement may have been a little premature, but there are two parameters to consider. First of all, recently, new groups of fighters have emerged, notably in the region of Ghouta al-Sharkiya [near Damascus] and in Deraa. These groups use Islamist names. But in fact, these fighters are controlled by the United States government, with the aim of curbing the al-Nusra Front’s influence. I believe the al Qaeda chiefs decided to make this announcement in order to regroup all the fighters who are truly jihadists under their banner.
Secondly, there’s a political side to this: we know that some jihadist groups, like the al-Furqan brigade, are backed by Qatar, and others by Saudi Arabia. We’ve heard that these groups were getting ready to announce the creation of their own Islamic state. So it seems that al-Baghdadi decided to pre-empt this by declaring the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.
The rebel leader is referring to Syrian rebels being openly trained by Jordan and the U.S. as an alternative to an Islamist presence near Israel, though he adds the conspiratorial twist that their purpose is to impersonate Islamists.
The Syrian regime doesn’t seem to share the enthusiasm for the strategy of distinguishing between breeds of rebels: Syria warns Jordan over supporting rebels:
Amid reports that Syria has turned the main destination of the world’s Jihadists, Damascus warned that unless those Jihadists are denied access, the crisis it has sustained for over two years will spill over across its border and set the entire region ablaze.
Syria, via its state-controlled newspaper al-Thawra, warned Jordan on Thursday against training foreign fighters on its territory and accused it of espousing the policy of a double ambiguity.
While the Syria conflict may be the biggest break al-Qaida has had in a long while, it remains to be seen how much appetite there will be for Islamist rule on the part of the Syrian people, some of whom have already shown an unwillingness to stomach it through protests against al-Nusra.
Other opposition factions have expressed dismay at al-Nusra’s declaration of statehood and the relationship with al-Qaida: Syrian Rebels Break With Group Over Qaeda Wing Alliance – NYT
A leading coalition of Syrian Islamist insurgents broke with a more radical group on Friday, sharply criticizing its announced alliance with Al Qaeda’s Iraq branch as a moral and political mistake that would benefit only their common enemy, President Bashar al-Assad. …
“This is not the right time to declare states, or to unify a state with another state.”
Expressing “surprise and dismay” at the development, the coalition statement said, “We don’t need imported charters or a new understanding of the nation’s religion.” And in a further criticism of Nusra’s loyalty to outsiders, the statement said, “We won’t be doing our population, and our nation, any service if we pledge our allegiance to those who don’t know a thing about our reality.”
… Assad has long contended that his enemies are foreign-backed terrorists affiliated with Sunni extremist groups like Al Qaeda. The news that Al Qaeda and Nusra were joining together not only appeared to partly validate his claims but reflected the divergent paths of the insurgency against him.
Additionally, Syria rebel chief Al Khatib urges rejection of Al Qaeda
… “The bottom line is that Al Qaeda ideology doesn’t suit us, and rebels in Syria have to take a clear stance about this,” Mr Al Khatib, the leader of the Syrian National Coalition, said yesterday on Facebook.
Peter Bergen and Jennifer Rowland also have a useful article on the development, though framing this development as a “merger” is not exactly correct, as discussed above: Syria rebel group’s dangerous tie to al-Qaeda
On Tuesday, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq announced that it had merged with the Syrian opposition group Jabhat al-Nusra to form the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.” …
The merger was first reported by SITE, a Washington-based group that tracks jihadist material online. The authors were able to confirm the announcement by monitoring the jihadist site, Ansar al Mujahideen, which frequently posts material from al Qaeda, including Tuesday’s news of the merger of the Syrian and Iraqi wings of al Qaeda. Complicating matters, on Wednesday al Nusra claimed it wasn’t merging with al Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq, but instead was pledging its allegiance to al Qaeda’s overall leadership.
… The fact that al-Nusra has publicly aligned itself with central al Qaeda is worrisome. A long-term safe haven for this group in Syria could be the prelude for the formation of an organization with the wherewithal to attack the West, just as al Qaeda’s sojourn in Afghanistan when it was controlled by the Taliban prepared the group for the 9/11 attacks.
Second, al-Nusra is widely regarded as the most effective fighting force in Syria, and its thousands of fighters are the most disciplined of the forces opposing Assad.
Al-Nusra is also the first al Qaeda affiliate to take a page out of Hezbollah’s book and operate not only as an effective fighting force but also as a large-scale provider of services…
Finally, al-Nusra is the first jihadist group for many years that has chosen to merge with al Qaeda at a time when it is having significant success on the battlefield. Al Qaeda’s North African franchise, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, as well as the Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, both announced their affiliation with al Qaeda only when they were struggling for resources and exposure.
… Sheikh al-Baghdadi, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, said that he had delayed the announcement of the formal merger with al-Nusra because he wanted to allow Syrians time to get to know al-Nusra on its own terms, without the inherent negative bias that would be caused by an early announcement of its ties to al Qaeda.
… According to Leila Hilal, a Syrian-American who meets regularly with the Syrian opposition and is the head of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation, the merger announcement may “confirm the suspicions of much of the Syrian public that al-Nusra is not fightingfor a free Syria, but for the establishment of an ultra-fundamentalist state.”
That might explain why the head of al-Nusra, Abu Mohammed al-Jawlani, claimed in an audio message released on Wednesday that he wasn’t “consulted” on the announcement of the merger of the Syrian and Iraqi wings of al Qaeda. Jawlani then stepped on his effort at damage control by announcing his pledge of allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is, of course, the overall head of al Qaeda worldwide.
Syria could become a “long-term safe haven” from which al-Qaida could attack “the West”? Ah, that’s why they’re talking about drones…
While Qatar inaugurates first Syria interim government embassy and welcomes Hitto in Doha (who “has begun talks to form an interim government of 11 ministries to administer the whole of Syria”), Saudi Arabia is allegedly beginning to second-guess its participation with Qatar and Turkey in supporting Islamist rebels:
Saudi Arabia is seeking to inherit Syria’s role in Lebanon, which began in the 1970s and lasted until Syrian troops withdrew from the country following accusations that Syria was behind Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination in 2005.Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Lebanon has undergone many phases. During the rise of Nasserism, Riyadh espoused in Lebanon a policy of opposition to the Egyptian leader. After Gamal Abdel Nasser’s death in 1970 and the beginning of the Lebanese civil war and the growth of Syrian interference there, Riyadh vacillated between having an adversarial, peaceful or even harmonious relationship with Damascus in relation to Lebanon.
During the last 10 years, Lebanon has become akin to a mirror of the sometimes intimate, and other times strained, relationship between Riyadh on one end and the Damascus-Tehran alliance on the other. The last harmonious period Syria and Saudi Arabia had in Lebanon occurred following King Abdullah’s initiative aimed at reconciling with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at the 2008 Arab Economic Summit in Kuwait. This led to the Lebanese adopting the term “seen-seen” (Arabic for S-S) to describe the Syrian-Saudi Arabian accord relating to the management of the Lebanese crisis. This accord, in turn, led to Lebanon enjoying a period of political calm and the formation of a national unity government headed by Riyadh’s most prominent ally, former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, which included members of Hezbollah and representatives of all the components of Lebanon’s incongruous political factions.
But, the S-S understanding soon collapsed, with Hezbollah turning against Hariri’s cabinet. The reason was that Damascus, under Iranian pressure, had forsaken another of its agreements, namely to work together toward guaranteeing that Ayad Allawi, and not Nouri al-Maliki, became prime minister of Iraq.
…Once the Syrian crisis erupted, Riyadh’s announced priority was to back the Syrian opposition’s efforts to change the Assad regime. Since then, Saudi Arabia’s ally in Lebanon, Saad Hariri, has remained outside the country, bound by a Saudi decision to do so and by Riyadh’s desire to make it known that it was choosing to “disengage” itself from the Lebanese scene.
…Recent weeks, however, have seen a radical change in the Saudi policy of turning its back on Lebanon, with events pointing to a Saudi Arabian decision to return in force and re-establish its influence on the country’s political scene…
What led Saudi Arabia to change its stance and re-immerse itself in Lebanon’s quicksand? Several sources point to a Saudi re-evaluation of the policy adopted toward Syria. This does not equate to a change in position regarding the necessity of toppling the Syrian regime, for that remains a constant in its Syria policy.
This re-evaluation occurred as result of Saudi Arabia espousing a different view than Qatar and Turkey concerning the political alternative that would inherit Syria’s regime, if it were to fall. While Doha and Ankara favor the ascension of the Muslim Brotherhood to power, Saudi Arabia strongly opposes that eventuality. In fact, it will expend great diplomatic effort to prevent the establishment of yet another Brotherhood regime in an Arab country.
According to experts in Saudi affairs, Riyadh is of the view that Muslim Brotherhood rule in Syria would lead to the Brotherhood eventually coming into power in Jordan, thereby threatening to turn the attention of Arab revolutions from military presidential totalitarian regimes to regimes ruled by royal families.
Riyadh is also wary that the fall of Jordan into the hands of the Brotherhood would leave Saudi Arabia half-surrounded by Brotherhood regimes, and threaten to spread Brotherhood control over Syria and some other Gulf monarchies.
According to these sources, Riyadh started a concerted move on three different axes. The first aimed to thwart a Brotherhood takeover of Syria. The second proposed an alternative to the Syrian regime composed of Salafists and some elements who defected from the Syrian army. There is some diplomatic information pointing to the fact that US Secretary of State John Kerry was informed by his Saudi interlocutors, during his visit to Riyadh, that the Brotherhood experiment, as seen in Egypt, has proved to be a failure and that Riyadh strongly objected to the establishment of Brotherhood rule in Syria.
The third axis revolves around Saudi Arabia’s return to the Lebanese scene, which emanates from a Saudi belief that it needs both a Levantine card and Syrian opposition bargaining chips to bolster its position and influence when negotiating for the establishment of an alternative to the Syrian regime. …
Part of the apparent change in Saudi policy may be what is described in this article:
Syrian rebels say they have been told access to weapons from Arabian Gulf states will be conditional on their pledging allegiance to the Free Syrian Army and its civilian overseers in the Syrian National Coalition.
The conditions are part of an effort to better organise the revolt against Bashar Al Assad and rein in Islamist militants.
The Free Syrian Army commander Gen Selim Idriss visited Gulf states last week to ask if the flow of weapons to the rebels could be increased. …
There has been no public comment on the talks from any Gulf countries. Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been supplying elements of the opposition with arms for months via Turkey but not in sufficient volumes to act as an equaliser between rebels and the regime.
This is in addition to Saudi issuing explicit warnings regarding the illegality of its citizens going to fight in Syria, after confirmations of the presence of high numbers of young Saudis fighting in Syria. Considering the role that Saudi Arabia is known to play, this alleged, sudden change of policy seems puzzling. Saudi interests have long been characterized by a high degree of ambivalence.
The Syrian government is sending members of its irregular militias for guerrilla combat training at a secret base in Iran, in a move to bolster its armed forces drained by two years of fighting and defections, fighters and activists said.
… Israel’s intelligence chief and a Western diplomat have said Iran, Assad’s main backer, is helping to train at least 50,000 militiamen and aims to increase the force to 100,000 – though they did not say where the training occurred.
…if the reports by Syrian fighters are true, the move to train combatants in Iran suggests that their country’s increasingly regionalized conflict has grown well beyond – and could even outlast – a battle for power between Assad’s circle and the opposition.
… Nabeel, a muscular Christian fighter from Homs nicknamed “The Shameless One”, said Iranian trainers repeatedly lectured on looting, a crime widely committed by fighters on both sides.
“On our first day of training, the Iranian officer overseeing our course said, ‘I know exactly what is going on in Syria and want to tell you one thing: If you joined the National Defence Army for looting and not to defend your country, you will die an ugly death and go to hell’.” …
GULF SEEKS TO “BLEED” IRAN
The following paragraph of this article conveys the general sense that has been held about Saudi Arabia’s agenda in the conflict, and stands in stark contrast to the understanding laid out in the above article on Saudi influence in Lebanon, which, if to be confirmed, needs to be developed and aired further.
“If the Saudis felt that the Iranians are really moving this game up, they will be sure to check that escalation by increasing assistance to rebel fighters,” said Michael Stephens, a Doha-based analyst for the security think tank RUSI.
“Saudi Arabia is totally focused on this as a way to make the Iranians bleed … keep the Iranians bogged down in this proxy war, bleed them dry.”
That the conflict could drag on beyond the fall of the Syrian regime is echoed by MARK LANDLER and ERIC SCHMITT:
Rebel Victory in Syria Might Not Stop Conflict, U.S. Officials Say – April 11, 2013
WASHINGTON — As it cobbles together additional aid for rebel fighters there, the Obama administration believes Syria could face a protracted, bloody conflict, even if the rebels succeed in ousting President Bashar al-Assad, several officials said Thursday.
The top American intelligence official, James R. Clapper Jr., said that even if Mr. Assad’s government fell, sectarian fighting would most likely engulf the country for a year or more. The American ambassador to Syria, Robert S. Ford, warned that without a negotiated political transition, supporters of the Assad government, “fearing death, would fight to the death.”
Those bleak assessments, delivered in separate hearings before the House and the Senate, underscore the grinding nature of the conflict in Syria and the administration’s pessimism that outside intervention will avert further humanitarian tragedy.
“I agree with you that the prospects in Syria are not good,” said Elizabeth Jones, the acting assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, who along with Mr. Ford faced sharp questioning from members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee over what the members said was an inadequate American response to the continuing bloodshed.
President Obama has signed off in principle on more aid for the military wing of the opposition, which could include battlefield gear like body armor and night-vision goggles. The United States has already pledged medicine and food, and is training rebels covertly in Jordan….
Administration officials said the rebels had made slow but steady gains against the forces of the Assad government, and now controlled significantly more territory than five months ago. But they also warned about the rising danger of extremist groups, which Mr. Ford said were being bolstered by the “pernicious” influence of Iran.
“There is a real competition under way now between extremists and moderates in Syria,” said Mr. Ford, who had just returned from London, where he met with leaders of the opposition. “We need to weigh in on behalf of those who promote freedom and tolerance.”
Mr. Ford said the United States was also urging the Syrian opposition to reach out to minority groups, including Christians and the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam to which Mr. Assad and many of his closest advisers and loyalists belong.
“There needs to be a negotiated political settlement because if there is not a negotiated settlement, our sense is that regime supporters, fearing death, would fight to the death,” he said.
Mr. Obama discussed Syria on Thursday in a White House meeting with the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, who urged the president to show “stronger leadership” in dealing with conflict.
The president, acknowledging that the situation there was at a “critical juncture,” said, “It is important for us to bring about an effective political transition that would respect the rights of all Syrians.”
In the short term, Mr. Obama added, it was important “to try to eliminate some of the carnage.”
Speaking to the House Intelligence Committee, Mr. Clapper, the director of national intelligence, said the most likely situation was a Syria divided along geographical and sectarian lines, with militias fighting for at least a year to 18 months after an exit by Mr. Assad.
“There are literally hundreds of these militia groups that are fighting on a local basis in the north and east of the country,” he said. “They are gaining more control of the area.”
But Mr. Clapper acknowledged that American intelligence agencies were not venturing a guess about when or how Mr. Assad might go, given continuing support from Russia and Iran, and the Syrian leader’s own belief that he can ride out the civil war.
“His own perspective is that he believes he’s got the upper hand, that he’s winning,” Mr. Clapper said. “He’s also said that he was born in Syria and he’s going to die there.”…
Another article underscoring the intractable character of the conflict: The Battle of Armageddon by Michael Weiss
The impregnable regime bases are in the Qassioum, which, in addition to being Assad’s domicile, is also the headquarters of the Republican Guard, al-Drejj (to the north of Qudssaya), Mazzeh, home a military airport and army bases belonging to the Fourth Armored Division, Qataneh, and Kiswah.
The rebels face two major obstacles in any concerted foray into central Damascus. First, there is a greater concentration of conventional regime forces here than anywhere else in Syria, including not just the bulk of the two praetorian divisions but other divisions and the now mainly Alawite-staffed Special Forces. Rebels have never encountered this quotient of Syrian regulars before because these troops constitute a loyalist hardcore, the possibility of prompting defections is much slimmer. This is to say nothing of the capital’s buildup of the Popular Committees and Jaysh al-Sha’bi militias which stand to take the place of Syrian army in a coming sectarian free-for-all. Urban combat here will be longer and bloodier than it was in Aleppo. Imagine every street another Salaheddine.
The second problem is topographical. All of the regime installations cited above are in elevated positions meaning that, as rebels advance into downtown Damascus, a steady barrage of rockets and artillery can rain down on the capital until there aren’t any buildings left standing. As grim as it may sound, this may actually constitute the rebels’ end-game in the absence of foreign intervention.
How does a guerrilla insurgency make up for its lack of firepower or an air component? By using the other side’s to do its bidding. Typically what has happened in other fought-over swaths of Syria is that the rebels have laid siege to regime installations with their own rockets and artillery for the purpose of infiltrating them and confiscating whatever materiel they can carry or drive off with. (This ranges from Kalashnikovs to surface-to-air missiles). The regime inevitably responds to the loss of its own strategic terrain, and the prospect of better-equipped enemies, by bombarding these sites and rendering them inoperable even when the rebels are flushed out.
According to analysts I’ve spoken to, there is simply no way that the rebels can penetrate the Rif Dimashq military installations given their current capability, even with Croatian rocket launchers and recoilless guns. Since they don’t have a no-fly zone or close air support, or heavier caliber weapons the West has been reluctant to supply them, they will likely resort to the kind of pinprick measures – suicide and car bombings – we’ve seen used against NATO and coalition forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Rebels will thus act as both moving targets and guidance systems for the regime’s own war machine, raiding one base in the hopes that it will be cannibalistically powdered by the adjoining. Jahbat al-Nusra is well-poised to be the vanguard fighting force in Damascus since its militants have the fewest reservations about sacrificing themselves. Idriss’ Supreme Military Command, although it disclaims Nusra membership in its ranks, is not above partnering with the caliphate-minded jihadists for precisely this reason.
… But be under no illusions about how long it will take or at what price the fall of Sham will come. Since the siege of Aleppo began last summer, 10,000 have been killed in that province, a million have fled, another half million are internally displaced, and out of a total population of 2.4 million, 2.3 million are living in areas needing humanitarian aid. Not for nothing did the rebels name the battle for Damascus the ‘Battle of Armageddon.’
Back to Iran, they support the Syrian regime, do they not? But they also seem to have a relationship with al-Qaida… what exactly is their game? Strange bedfellows — Iran and al Qaeda By Peter Bergen
The appearance Friday in a lower Manhattan courtroom of Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law and one-time al Qaeda spokesman, to face charges of conspiracy to kill Americans underlines the perhaps surprising fact that members of bin Laden’s inner circle have been living in Iran for the past decade or so.
It was Abu Ghaith’s decision to leave the comparative safety of his longtime refuge in Iran for Turkey a few weeks ago that led to the chain of events that landed him in Manhattan for trial.
… As is well known, many of bin Laden’s family and members of his inner circle fled Afghanistan for Pakistan after the fall of the Taliban in the winter of 2001, but what is less well known is that some also fled to neighboring Iran.
According to U.S. documents and officials, in addition to Abu Ghaith, other of bin Laden’s inner circle who ended up in Iran include the formidable military commander of al Qaeda, Saif al-Adel, a former Egyptian Special Forces officer who had fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan, as well as Saad bin Laden, one of the al Qaeda’s leader older sons who has played some kind of leadership role in the group.
Saad bin Laden spent the first six months of 2002 living in Karachi in southern Pakistan. From there he helped one of his father’s wives, Khairiah bin Laden, and several of his father’s children to move from Pakistan to Iran.
For years these bin Laden family members all lived in the Iranian capital, Tehran, under some form of house arrest. Their conditions were not unpleasant, with time for visits to swimming pools and shopping trips.
Meanwhile, U.S. intelligence learned that some al Qaeda operatives were living in the northern Iranian town of Chalus, on the Caspian Sea.
… A year after that operation was called off, according to US and Saudi officials, from his Iranian refuge Saif al-Adel authorized al-Qaeda’s branch in Saudi Arabia to launch a series of terrorist attacks in the Saudi kingdom that began in the capital Riyadh in May 2003, a campaign that killed scores of Saudis and expatriates.
On the face of it, the fact that a number of al Qaeda leaders and operatives and bin Laden family members found shelter in Iran is puzzling, as the Shia theocrats in the Iranian regime are hostile to the Sunni ultra zealots in al Qaeda, and vice versa. …
As al-Qaida’s influence in Syria becomes more visible, it also grows in Lebanon:
Waving al-Qaeda’s flag during protests and marches carried out by Salafists in Lebanon has become very common. Al-Qaeda’s flag was recently seen flying in the center of Beirut when 2,000 Salafists gathered in the capital upon the call of Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir to go to the streets. In one of Beirut’s neighborhoods [Tariq al Jadidah], which is the stronghold of the Sunni sect in the Lebanese capital, young masked men go occasionally to the streets waving al-Qaeda’s flag, as is the case in the city of Tripoli [the capital of North Lebanon], which is currently dominated by the Salafist movement.
In light of the current political situation, this phenomenon does not bode well for Lebanon. Al-Qaeda’s presence has become prominent on the Lebanese arena to the extent that it has become part of its normal political and partisan life. At the security level, it is believed that the Syrian crisis has been spilling over into some areas of Lebanon, as clashes in the Damascus countryside and Homs are reflected in some of the towns on Lebanon’s northern and eastern border.
The Lebanese security apparatus has been trying as much as possible to hide the grim reality from the public. It has been saying that al-Qaeda’s flags flying during protests do not suggest that the organization has a physical existence in Lebanon. …
Interior Minister Charbel Mansour, however, does not hesitate to appear on local television to warn that “Lebanon’s security situation is increasingly worsening and that armed groups have become more present than the state in many streets and regions.” …
According to the security information, al-Qaeda has affiliated groups in Lebanon, which have begun to grow and engage in raging confrontations in its northern cities, mainly the clashes taking place in Tripoli against Alawites. This is not to mention the confrontations waged by Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, especially in the rural areas of Damascus and Homs. Moreover, the security information shows that first indications of al-Qaeda public appearance in Lebanon go back to period before the eruption of the Syrian revolution between 2007 and 2011, with the growing semi-public appearance of the movement of Fatah al-Islam, Abdullah Azzam Brigades and the Ziad Jarrah Brigades.
Nevertheless, al-Qaeda has had an increasingly heavy presence in Lebanon with the growing rise of the jihadist Salafist movement within the Syrian uprising, which created some sort of a link between the jihadist Salafists in Homs in particular, and the nascent Salafist movement in northern Lebanon. It was not long before the extremely poor Sunni-dominated northern Lebanon turned into the backyard of the Syrian armed Salafist opposition and an extension of its ideological climate. …
Imitating Jabhat al-Nusra
According to this information, the rise of Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria prompted the emulation of its jihadist model by Lebanese Salafists who are active in northern Lebanon and some Palestinian camps in the process of “supporting their brothers in Syria.” The information also indicates that “the Salafist arena of jihad” in Syria has started to produce an organic and organizational extension of it inside several Lebanese areas. It is noteworthy that al-Qaeda, which includes Jabhat al-Nusra, still classifies Lebanon as a “Nusra arena” (i.e., an arena to gather mujahedeen and prepare them for jihad in another). …
Since the mix isn’t diverse enough, let’s add Hamas. After years of support from the Assad regime, Hamas, now supported/hosted by Qatar, joins the array of Sunni Islamist groups participating in the Syrian uprising:
Hamas cuts ties with Assad and sends military to train rebels – Washington Times
Prior, Hamas was offering only support and assistance, but had held back from tapping its military forces, Ynet reported. But Friday, various media outlets reported that Hamas had completely severed ties with Mr. Assad and had sent military experts to Damascus to train the Syrian opposition, the Free Syrian Army. The group is now friends with Qater, Ynet reported.
A lot has been happening in Egypt, including sectarian attacks on churches and violent clashes between the Muslim Brotherhood and their opponents. The following scratch the surface of what’s been happening.
It has come to be known as the “Battle of the Mountain”: a ferocious fight between members of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and their opponents near the group’s Cairo headquarters. In a country that has already seen crisis after crisis, it could mark a dangerous turning point in the political turmoil.
The aftermath of the fighting is raising worries that the confrontation between Islamists,, who dominate power in the country, and their opponents is moving out of anyone’s control. The riot on March 22 revealed a new readiness of some in the anti-Brotherhood opposition to turn to violence, insisting they have no choice but to fight back against a group they accuse of using violence against them for months. The fight featured an unusual vengefulness. Young protesters were seen at one point pelting a Brotherhood member with firebombs and setting him aflame. Others chased anyone with a conservative Muslim beard, while Islamists set up checkpoints searching for protesters. Each side dragged opponents into mosques and beat them.
Since the fight, Islamists enraged by what they saw as aggression against their headquarters have for the past week hiked up calls for wider action against opponents — and the media in particular — accusing them of trying to overthrow Islamist President Mohammed Morsi.
Those calls may explain moves by the country’s top prosecutor the past week: the questioning of a popular television comedian, Bassem Youssef, whose Jon Stewart-style satires of Morsi drive Islamists into knots of anger, the summoning of several other media personalities and the issuing of arrest warrants against five opposition activists on accusations of fomenting violence.
Opposition activists warn the moves are the opening of a campaign of intimidation to silence Morsi’s critics. The presidency says the prosecutor is just enforcing the law and that Morsi’s office has nothing to do with the moves. Morsi’s supporters say they are showing restraint against extreme provocation.
… The fury growing for months was on display in the March 22 clashes in Moqattam, a district located on a rocky plateau overlooking Cairo, where the Brotherhood’s headquarters is located. Both sides came ready for a fight. Opponents had called for a march on the Brotherhood headquarters to “restore dignity” after an incident a week earlier, when Brotherhood members beat up activists who were spray-painting graffiti outside the building, as well as journalists filming the incident, slapping one woman to the ground.
The Brotherhood brought in several thousand supporters, vowing to defend the building, referring to it as “our home.” The mayhem erupted the minute the two sides faced off, and each accuses the other of throwing the first stone. The heaviest fighting was in a square several kilometers (miles) away from the Brotherhood headquarters, which was guarded by lines of police. Rains of stones and gunshots were exchanged, while “popular committees” formed by residents to protect their neighborhood joined in, swinging poles and machetes.
All day and into the night, the two sides battered each other with everything from knives and iron bars to homemade pistols, leaving 200 injured. Bearded Brotherhood members dragged dozens of activists into the Bilal bin Ramah Mosque, where they beat them and flogged them with whips, several of those who were held told The Associated Press.
Christian activist Amir Ayad recalled how, while he was being beaten, he’d hear Brotherhood supporters coming into the mosque greeted by their comrades who told them, “Go warm up on that Christian dog inside.” Ayad — who was left with a fractured skull and broken ribs — said Brotherhood members forced him to pose for photograph, wielding a knife they pushed into his hands to use as evidence that he was thug.
Opponents, meanwhile, snatched a number of Brotherhood members and took them into the Al-Hamad Mosque. A reporter for the Brotherhood’s party newspaper, Mustafa el-Khatib, told the AP he was seized and carried by his arms and legs into the mosque and beaten.
“You sheep, we’ll show you,” his tormentors shouted, using a term many protesters use against Islamists they see as blindly following their leaders, el-Khatib told the AP. He had deep cuts in his head and bruises all over his body. …
At least one person is killed outside Cairo’s main Coptic Cathedral on Sunday night following attack by unknown assailants during funeral for victims of Saturday’s sectarian bloodletting
Unknown assailants attacked the main Coptic cathedral in Cairo’s Abbasiya district on Sunday as hundreds of mourners held a funeral for victims of Saturday’s sectarian clashes in the Qalioubiya governorate, north of Cairo. At least one was killed in the melee.The Head of the Egyptian Ambulance Organisation, Mohamed Sultan, announced that one person had been killed after having been struck by birdshot outside Cairo’s main Coptic cathedral. The identity of the deceased is yet to be revealed.
As of 6pm, the health ministry said that the injury toll had reached 29, at least two of which were in critical condition.
… After being pelted with stones, mourners at the cathedral responded by throwing stones back. Gunshots were heard during the subsequent clashes; some eyewitnesses confirmed that assailants used firearms.
Witnesses at the scene confirmed that teargas canisters had landed inside the cathedral’s precincts. Other eyewitnesses said that unknown assailants dressed in plainclothes were hurling Molotov cocktails towards the cathedral.
… Hundreds of mourners had turned out for the funeral on Sunday for those killed in Saturday’s sectarian clashes in Qalioubiya governorate.
In the early hours of Saturday, five people were shot to death – and at least eight injured – in Qalioubiya’s Al-Khosous town. Four Christians and one Muslim were killed in the violence, Egypt’s health ministry reported.
A Coptic priest, however, told the private CBC satellite channel on Sunday that six Copts had died and many more had been injured.
Egypt’s leading Islamic authority Al-Azhar said on Thursday its clerics must be consulted on a law allowing the state to issue Islamic bonds, setting it at odds with the Muslim Brotherhood which drove the legislation through parliament last week.
It marks the first time Al-Azhar, a thousand-year-old seat of Islamic learning, has said its Senior Scholars Authority should be consulted on issues pertaining to Islamic law as set out in Egypt’s new, Islamist-tinged constitution.
Al-Azhar’s intervention could set a precedent for clerical oversight of other affairs of state. The Salafi Nour Party has said Al-Azhar must also approve an agreement Egypt is seeking with the International Monetary Fund because it includes a loan upon which Egypt will pay interest.
The Islamic bond, or sukuk law, will allow Egypt to issue debt compliant with Islamic principles, allowing the state to tap a new area of finance as President Mohamed Mursi’s administration grapples with an unaffordable budget deficit.
The popular Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef was released on bail yesterday after prosecutors questioned him on charges that he insulted Islam and the president.
Egypt’s administrative court rejects the case filed by a Brotherhood lawyer to suspend Bassem Youssef’s Jon-Stewart-like political satire programme
Arab League Opinion
Yesterday, I had the opportunity to sit down with a member of Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s inner circle. He is Syria’s Ambassador to the UN. His name is Bashar Ja’afari and he began his career at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1980. Back then, Syria was governed by Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez al Assad.
Our meeting came in the wake of a General Assembly vote that approved the historic Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). The ATT will attempt at regulating the $70 billion dollar arms trade by scrutinising whether sales of weapons breach international law, abet terrorism or foment genocide.
Syria, North Korea and Iran voted against the ATT. Ja’afari was quick to point towards India’s decision to abstain. India, a major importer, complained that the treaty favored exporting over importing states. …
ALIA ALLANA: At the Arab League’s most recent meeting in Doha (Qatar), Syria’s seat was given to the Opposition, Syrian National Council. How do you respond to this?
BASHAR JA’AFARI: There is no more Arab League. How can there be one without Syria, Egypt, Algeria and Iraq? These four countries are the four pillars of Arabism and they have either collapsed or face serious problems. There is a heavy weight vacuum that is being taken advantage of by Gulf States, by Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
All the decisions made by the Arab League are a violation of the Charter. The league deals with states, not bodies such as the Syrian National Coalition. The Arab League has become an integral part of the problem, not the solution. The Arab League had a duty to help Syria resolve the crisis not to allow and approve terrorists to acquire more weapons. …
Has the Arab League mortally wounded itself by declaring war on Syria? – by Franklin Lamb
This week the global community saw that the Charter and by-laws of the Arab League, has not been respected with respect to the Syrian crisis from the beginning despite its mission to bring together Arabs. Rather it has been actively working to prevent coming together especially with respect to Syria.
Frankly, it never was much of a “League” of Arab states. And arguably it never really achieved a whole lot but two dozen lavish ‘summits’ offering inflated rhetoric, often calculated to assuage the Arab people about their central cause, Palestine.
… Despite years of pledges to eliminate visas requirements, along the lines of the European Ginga visa it should be noted that only one Arab country has waived visas for their Arab sisters and brothers internationally.
That would be the Syrian Arab Republic.
It is Syria, along with Palestine, out of all the 22 Arab League members, who most consistently and steadfastly have represented Arab Nationalism, Arab resistance to occupation, and the stated goals enunciated 66 years ago when the Arab League was established.