Posted by Joshua on Sunday, December 2nd, 2012
Al-Qaeda affiliate playing larger role in Syria rebellion
By David Ignatius
Syrian opposition leaders report an alarming growth within their ranks of fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra, an extremist group linked to al-Qaeda.
The Jabhat group now has somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000 fighters, according to officials of an non-governmental organization that represents the more moderate wing of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). They say that the al-Qaeda affiliate now accounts for 7.5 percent to 9 percent of the Free Syrian Army’s total fighters, up sharply from an estimated 3 percent three months ago and 1 percent at the beginning of the year.
The extremist group is growing in part because it has been the most aggressive and successful arm of the rebel force. “From the reports we get from the doctors, most of the injured and dead FSA are Jabhat al-Nusra, due to their courage and [the fact they are] always at the front line,” said a message sent today to the State Department by the moderate Free Syrian Army representatives, warning of the extremists’ rise.
These estimates are very rough, given the scattered and disorganized nature of the opposition. But they are based on detailed reporting from the field by the members’ military councils, which are the closest thing to an organized command structure among the rebels. In reports sent this week to the State Department, the NGO representing the Syrian moderates offered a detailed breakdown of the extremists’ growth:
* In Aleppo, the Jabhat force is reckoned at around 2,000, mostly in the Al-Bab area northeast of the city. This estimate is based partly on reports from a doctor in the area who has treated injured fighters. The total FSA presence in the Aleppo area is about 15,000.
* In Idlib province, west of Aleppo, Jabhat’s ranks number 2,500 to 3,000, or about 10 percent of the total number of FSA fighters there.
* In Deir al-Zor, to the northeast, the extremist group has about 2,000 of the FSA’s total force of 17,000, according to the reports. Among Jabhat al-Nusra’s most spectacular operations were recent seizures of the Al-Ward oil field and a Conoco gas field, the reports said.
* In Damascus, the Jabhat al-Nusra force is somewhere between 750 and 1,000. Another 1,000 fighters are spread around the country in Latakia, in northwest Syria, Homs in the center and Daraa in the south.
The Syrian reports paint a picture of a disorganized rebel force in which the extremists are filling the vacuum caused by the lack of clearly established command and control.
“In some areas, other extreme groups are merging with [Jabhat] al-Nusra, in others many are leaving it because they did not fulfill promises of support,” notes one report sent to the State Department.
In the chaos of the Syrian battlefield, smaller battalions drawn from neighborhoods or small towns are combining forces with larger groups to form brigades, many of them led by extremists. “This means more [mergers] of extreme groups within Jabhat al-Nusra as it becomes more and more franchised,” the report explains. “Their risk is paying off. They are on a high [rate] of growth.”
A message sent earlier this week from the Free Syrian Army representatives touted the new use of anti-aircraft missiles to down a Syrian helicopter: “It’s thrilling to see it [the anti-aircraft weapon] in action finally. The bad news is that it was not through the U.S. but from the regime bases fallen into the hands of the [FSA] battalions. The other bad news is that it’s not under the control or the supervision of the MC [Military Council] commanders.”
“We are feeling the heat, time is closing up, the fall of Assad appears to be in the very near future,” continued this message, sent last Tuesday.
As the rebels gain momentum, the spoils of war apparently are going to the rebel group that captures a particular Syrian army base. This is one factor boosting the rapid growth of Jabhat al-Nusra. Its fighters provide the muscle and weapons and, as a result, explained an official of the NGO that represents the moderate FSA fighters: “They will get all the goodies, reputation and recognition.”
Inside Jabhat al Nusra – the most extreme wing of Syria’s struggle
One of the men behind a series of jihadist attacks inside Syria tells Ruth Sherlock about their battle to overthrow President Assad.
By Ruth Sherlock, Beirut, 02 Dec 2012
…His accounts of the operations conducted by his wing of the Islamist group Jabhat al-Nusra provide an exclusive and terrifying glimpse inside the most extreme wing of the Syrian rebellion – one which many members of the more secular Free Syrian Army loathe, and which may prove to be the West’s worst nightmare.
They also give an insight into the further conflict to which Syria may descend, if or when the Assad regime finally falls….
…”I swear to God that we are peaceful,” begs one of the men to the camera, which is being held by the gunman. Cowering, the man gets up to plead with rebels. As he approaches a rebel off-screen, a shot is heard and he returns holding his bloodied arm.
The cameraman then points the camera along the barrel of his Kalashnikov assault rifle as he shoots the men.
“God is great. Jabhat al-Nusra,” he says,… the video said it was filmed in Ras al-Ain…
Syrian opposition edges toward appointing transition PM
By Khaled Yacoub Oweis
CAIRO | Fri Nov 30, 2012
(Reuters) – Syria’s new opposition coalition edged closer on Friday toward choosing a prime minister to lead a transitional government after three days of talks in Cairo that furthered the dominance of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Former Prime Minister Riad Hijab, a longtime apparatchik in President Bashar al-Assad’s Baath Party before he defected in August, is the strongest candidate for the job, delegates said.
Hijab, who is backed by Jordan and Gulf states, is likely to be chosen before or during a gathering in mid-December of the Friends of Syria, according to coalition insiders.
The grouping of dozens of nations had pledged mostly non-military backing for the revolt but is worried by the influence of Islamists in the opposition.
A popular uprising erupted in March 2011 against Assad’s autocratic rule in which 40,000 people have been killed and hundreds of thousands forced to flee the country
Coalition member Louay Safi said the prime minister would be the point man for the coalition with the international community and act as the head of an alternate Cabinet ready to fill the political and security void if Assad falls from power.
Members of the new government cannot be members of the coalition, which numbers 60.
“I think Hijab has the best chance. He has taken big risks to defect and has since come across as a balanced and composed choice,” said coalition member Munther Bakhos, a veteran opposition figure forced to flee Syria during the 1970s, as bloody repression by Assad’s father, late President Hafez al-Assad, intensified, eventually killing many thousands.
Under internal coalition rules reached late into the night, the prime minister will be elected by a simple majority in the coalition, in which the Brotherhood and its allies have more than 50 percent of the seats.
Candidates must have contributed to the 20-month revolt against Assad and not be tainted by corruption, according to internal rules reached at 2 a.m. (midnight GMT).
NEW EXECUTIVE BODY
The coalition earlier on Friday created an executive body, less than a month after the group came into being with Western and Arab support.
The 11-member “political assembly” will be headed by moderate preacher Moaz al-Khatib, the current president of the coalition.
They will include his two vice presidents and the coalition’s secretary general, Qatari-backed businessman Mustafa Sabbagh, who has emerged as one of the most powerful figures in the new structure.
But the delegates failed to agree on the names of the 11 members after a lengthy election procedure and postponed deciding on the issue, delegates said.
Hardball politics have overshadowed the three-day proceedings in Cairo, with the Brotherhood becoming an overwhelmingly powerful kingmaker.
Since the coalition was set up in Qatar earlier this month, the Brotherhood has swiftly assembled a de facto majority bloc, according to insiders keeping track of changes in the membership of the coalition.
The revolt against four decades of rule by Assad and his late father revived the Brotherhood’s fortunes after decades of repression that killed many thousands of its members, and opened more sources of financing for the organization from exiled conservative Syrians.
France, Britain, Turkey and Gulf Arab states have already recognized the coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. The United States has been more cautious….
Syria rebels say captured missiles downed army aircraft
(AFP) / 2 December 2012
Syrian rebels say a former army missile specialist in their ranks used captured shoulder-launched weapons to down two government aircraft in as many days last month.
Rebel commanders said that the army helicopter shot down on November 27 and the fighter jet shot down the following day were both hit with Russian-made surface-to-air missiles captured from an army base west of Syria’s second city Aleppo in mid-November.
Defence analysts cited by the Western media had said that the aircraft were likely brought down with surface-to-air missiles provided from abroad, including by the Gulf state of Qatar, an outspoken champion of arming the rebels, over the opposition of the United States.
The rebels said the expertise to use the SA-16 Gimlet missiles, which they said they captured from Base 46 along with other heavy weaponry, came from within their own ranks in the form of a former army missile specialist.
‘This is Musa Abu Omar. He shot down both of the aircraft,’ said Abu Abdel Rahman, a leading rebel commander in the town of Darret Ezza, 30 kilometres (20 miles) northwest of Aleppo, as he introduced the fighter to AFP.
‘Both the missiles came from Base 46,’ Abu Omar said. ‘We’ve got enough of them now to bring down the whole Syrian air force,’ he boasted, refusing to give any specific numbers.
Asked where he got his training on the use of the SA-16, a missile most famous for its use by Saddam Hussein’s forces against coalition aircraft during the 1991 Gulf war, Abu Omar said: ‘It was my specialism in the army during my three year service.’
The 27-year-old showed AFP a photograph of himself holding a shoulder-launched missile that he said was one of the two he fired. The picture’s authenticity could not be independently verified.
Abu Omar said instruction was now being given to other rebel fighters.
‘We’ll impose our own no-fly zone without any need from help from foreign governments,’ he added in reference to the repeated refusals of Western governments to heed opposition calls to intervene to close the skies to President Bashar Al Assad’s warplanes as they did in Libya last year….
But there have been contradictory reports about the likely source of the missiles with the Washington Post reporting on Thursday that they were likely part of a consignment of up to 40 supplied from abroad.
Some of the missiles were supplied by Qatar, the newspaper reported, citing two Middle Eastern intelligence officials it did not identify.
‘It should be worrying to everyone,’ one of the officials said. ‘When Assad is finished, terrorists could end up with these, and commercial flights would be at risk.’
Washington has consistently opposed providing SAMs to the rebels for fear they could fall into the wrong hands.
Flow of Arms to Syria Through Iraq Persists, to U.S. Dismay
By MICHAEL R. GORDON, ERIC SCHMITT and TIM ARANGO.
NYTimes December 1, 2012
WASHINGTON — The American effort to stem the flow of Iranian arms to Syria has faltered because of Iraq’s reluctance to inspect aircraft carrying the weapons through its airspace, American officials say.
The shipments have persisted at a critical time for President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, who has come under increasing military pressure from rebel fighters. The air corridor over Iraq has emerged as a main supply route for weapons, including rockets, antitank missiles, rocket-propelled grenade and mortars.
Iran has an enormous stake in Syria, which is its staunchest Arab ally and has also provided a channel for Iran’s support to the Lebanese Islamist movement Hezbollah.
To the disappointment of the Obama administration, American efforts to persuade the Iraqis to randomly inspect the flights have been largely unsuccessful.
US accelerates intervention in Syrian war
RT: 29 November, 2012,
The US government is contemplating significant intervention in the Syria conflict and has discussed employing Patriot Air and Missile Defense Systems in Turkey and directly providing arms to opposition fighters.
In an attempt to defeat Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, government officials told the New York Times that the US might bring its military resources to the region for either intimidation purposes or direct use in Syria.
NATO will likely decide next week whether or not to deploy surface-to-air Patriot missiles in Turkey, which would serve to protect the country from potential Syrian missiles that could contain chemical weapons, as well as intimidate Syrian Air Force pilots from bombing the northern Syria border towns.
The armed rebels currently control much of Northwest Syria along the border of Turkey, making the border a likely conflict zone should Syrian missiles be implemented.
Although State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the Patriot missile system would not be used beyond the Turkish border, military sources told Israeli news service DEBKAthat all of northern Syria – including Aleppo and Homs – would become controlled by the Turkish-NATO team.
The US has so far hesitated to intervene on the ground in Syria, fearing the risks would be too great for their own soldiers and could worsen the conflict. But 18 months after the start of the civil war, intervention has increasingly entered the US radar.
“The administration has figured out that if they don’t start doing something, the war will be over and they won’t have any influence over the combat forces on the ground,” former Defense Intelligence Agency officer told the New York Times. “They may have some influence with various political groups and factions, but they won’t have influence with the fighters, and the fighters will control the territory.”
The US has so far provided nearly $200 million in humanitarian aid, but has not intervened militarily. But US officials believe the administration is now considering providing arms to the opposition groups. CIA officers located in Turkey have already determined which groups should receive such weapons, but have emphasized the difficulty of preventing them from falling into the wrong hands.
The Obama administration is also preparing to recognize Syria’s new opposition council as the official representation of Syria, likely during a Dec. 12 “Friends of Syria” conference in Morocco which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will attend, the Associated Press reports. The recognition will likely spur further US involvement in the conflict – if not militarily, then it will at least draw more humanitarian aid. Britain, France and several Arab countries allied with the US have already recognized the council as Syria’s sole representative.
But while the idea of providing arms may be considered, many still believe it to be a bad idea.
“Arms are not a strategy; arms are a tactic,” US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford said during a conference in Washington. “A military solution is not the best way for Syria. Efforts to win this by conquering one side or the other will simply prolong the violence and actually aggravate an already terrible humanitarian situation. Syria needs a political solution.”
The US government has not made any official announcements that it was considering providing weapons, but the Congressional officials and diplomats told the Times that a decision would likely be made after Obama selects his new national security team.
Syria’s war exposes fault lines of sectarian divisions
Justin Vela, Nov 27, 2012, The National
ANTAKYA, TURKEY // For some Syrian Kurds, clashes between Arab rebels and a Kurdish militia in Syria are not just related to the country’s revolution, but the outcome of deeper societal fissures.
“The sectarian divisions are growing stronger,” said Nassir Al Dean Ehme, a hulking Kurdish refugee who founded Qamishli House, a leaky four-room house in southern Turkey providing temporary accommodation to Syrian refugees and activists.
“We had these sectarian and ethnic divisions in Syria before and now it has deepened. Maybe we were one country on the map but, if we think about the feelings of people, we see many divisions,” said Mr Al Dean Ehme, who named the house after his hometown of Qamishli, the main Kurdish city in Syria.
Are Syria’s rebels about to win?
Syrian rebels have made significant gains in recent weeks as support for Assad shows signs of fraying.
Hugh Macleod and a reporter in Syria – Global Post – November 30, 2012
A man looks out below the shutter of a burnt-out building in the northern city of Lattakia, a stronghold of support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. (Anwar Amro/AFP
LATTAKIA, Syria — With coffins stacking up at the airport in Syria’s Alawite heartland, and funerals now a daily routine for its mountain villagers, support is fraying among the community on which the Syrian regime depends.
“Day by day the military operations are getting harder and harder,” said Abu Haider, 40, a member of the Syrian security forces, near Qerdaha, the home village of President Bashar al-Assad.
“The Alawites will fight to the end to defend President Bashar but are paying a big price. Most of our men are serving in the army or security forces,” he told GlobalPost.
Ali, a 28-year-old Alawite living in Lattakia, the regional capital, said Alawite villages he recently visited had been nearly emptied of men after the regime enforced conscription for any member of the Alawite sect aged between 18 and 50.
Alawites are the minority off-shoot of Shiite Islam to which the president’s family belongs. The conflict in Syria has increasingly become a sectarian war between the Alawites and the Sunni majority rebels…..
“Rebel gains in recent days give them access to weapons that could tip the military balance in their favor in the north,” said Alison Baily, a Middle East analyst at Oxford Analytica, a global analysis and advisory firm. “The regime does not have the manpower to reverse these gains.”
Alongside the capture of another key base in Saraqeb earlier this month, rebels in the north are increasingly able to choke off supply routes for Assad’s troops battling to re-take Aleppo. Despite holding large areas of countryside, the rebels have yet to exert full control over a major city.
“Regime soldiers who joined us recently said some of their units had not been resupplied with food or fuel for weeks,” said Abu Abdu, a fighter with Liwa al Tawheed, a leading Islamist rebel group in Aleppo. “The regime is sending supplies by the airport, so that is what we will destroy next.”
In the remote desert region of Deir Ezzour, home to well-armed tribes that straddle the border with Iraq, rebel fighters also overran the military base at Mayadeen on the Euphrates River, giving them control over most of the river valley, stretching from the regional capital to the border crossing at Al Bou Kamal.
Two of the region’s three oil fields are now in rebel hands, with trucks lining up to buy $5 barrels of the light crude, a smoky but reliable fuel, as winter sends temperatures plummeting and government supplies dwindle to nothing.
Baily said Syria is now facing a de facto partition between tribes in the east, Kurds in the northwest, Islamist rebels in Aleppo and Idlib, and regime loyalists in Damascus and the Alawite heartlands of the west. This leaves the recently united political opposition, based outside Syria, with the challenge of gaining legitimacy inside the country.
“The rebels are in snowball process, strengthening with each base and arms depot they capture,” she said. “As the country fragments, the most likely scenario is that the regime is ground down into a well armed militia.”
In Damascus, Tense Anticipation of Strongest Push Yet by Rebels
By ANNE BARNARD
Published: December 1, 2012
A quiet tension prevailed downtown, but security checkpoints were proliferating and there were reports that President Bashar al-Assad was preparing loyal divisions to defend the city, the capital and heart of his power.
Military analysts warned that it was impossible to know whether a decisive battle for Damascus was beginning, especially as Syrians lost access to the Internet for 53 hours, limiting the flow of information, before it was restored Saturday. But they said that a government fight to defend its core could be the fiercest and most destructive phase yet of the 20-month conflict.
“We’re waiting for the big battle to begin,” said Emile Hokayem, an analyst based in Bahrain for the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
For decades, the Assad family has settled loyal military families, many from its minority Alawite sect, in the western outskirts of Damascus, where the presidential palace sits on a plateau overlooking the city. The current fighting suggested that the government was trying to insulate those areas, along with the city center and airport, from the semicircle of urban sprawl curving from northeast to southwest, where rebels have strengthened their position in recent days, overrunning a string of small bases.
Analysts say that Mr. Assad, knowing that losing Damascus could be a decisive blow, has been conserving his best and most loyal troops and much of his artillery for a battle there.
Jumblatt urges Syria’s Druze to join the revolution
November 29, 2012
Progressive Socialist Party leader MP Walid Jumblatt condemned on Thursday the bombing that targeted the Jaramana suburb of Damascus , Syria on Wednesday, accusing the Syrian regime of president Bashar al Assad of orchestrating it with aim of eliminating the Syrian revolution by stirring sectarian tensions in the country.