Posted by Joshua on Tuesday, May 29th, 2007
I am heading for Syria tomorrow, where I will spend June and July. I hope to continue blogging from Damascus and other Syrian cities.
This news roundup covers mostly the accusations that Syria is behind the Fatah al-Islam disturbances and the articles covering Syria's elections. It also covers diverse stories concerning Syria.
One reader wants to know if I think Syria is behind the Fatah al-Islam Group. I don't know. The two most repeated arguments made by the Lebanese that Syria is giving directives to the Sunni extremist group holed up in the norther Palestinian refugee camp are that its leader, Shaker al-Absi, was held in a Syrian prison before being released two and a half years ago and thus may have been recruited to Syria's cause while in Prison. The Lebanese point to the fact that he was not turned over to Jordan, where he was wanted, but allowed to return to his previous home in Lebanon, where he rejoined a pro-Syrian faction of Palestinians, Fatah Intifada, with whom he had trained in his youth.
The plot becomes truly bizarre and difficult to fathom, when Absi broke away from Fatah Intifada to create his own group, Fatah Islam. Lebanese analysts claim this is presumably because he was directed to "pretend" to do this in order to add an extra layer of deniability and distance himself from Syria before entering on his suicide campaign on Syria's behalf.
The second argument is that the fighting comes only days before the UN Security Council is scheduled to vote on a resolution to establish an international tribunal to try suspects in the murder of Rafiq al-Hariri and has been timed by Syria to frighten Lebanese into calling off the vote.
It is not clear why Abssi would work for Syria, a country that jailed him and which is responsible for killing his son-in-law.
There are a number of reasons why Syria might have neglected to turn Abssi over to Jordan and instead allow him to return to Lebanon.
1. Syria had terrible relations with both the US and Jordan at the time of Abssi's release from prison in Syria, thus Damascus authorities would not have wanted to reward either country. Syria had broken off all cooperation on intelligence sharing with the US on al-Qaida matters by that time.
2. Syria may have been happy to allow al-Qaida elements entrance into Lebanon because of the bad relations existing between the two countries following the Hariri murder and the passage of UN resolution 1559. Neither of these reasons would suggest that Abssi is or was controlled by Syria. It is hard to imagine how Syria could control such a man or such an organization of die hard jihadists. It is also not clear that either Jordan or the US tried to extradite him from Lebanon, despite knowing that he was there and within reach of Lebanese security forces.
The following 3 quotes are from the last comment section
T_desco said: Edit
Sloppy work by Mitchell Prothero:
“After Syria released from prison a former associate of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al-Qaeda’s leader in Iraq, a few weeks later (sic) a group calling itself Fatah al-Islam emerged under his leadership … .”
Now this is what Shaker al-Absi’s brother Abdelrazzaq, “an orthopedic surgeon who lives in Jordan”, told AFP in a telephone interview:
“”I last saw him two and a half years ago when he was released from prison in Syria. We went there to congratulate him,” he said.”
And we also know that al-Absi arrived in Shatila in June.
Al-Qaida threatens Asad in a new audio tape: “You Nussairi, we will not allow you to complete a second term in office” according to “Abu Jandal Al-Dimashqi”, the leader of Jama’t Al-Tawheed wa el-Jihad fi Bilad el-sham.
A “senior American security source” recently told The Sunday Times that “Al-Qaeda is trying very hard to seize a foothold in Syria”:
Al-Qaeda chief urges Iraqis to export jihad
THE deputy leader of Al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has urged supporters in Iraq to extend their “holy war” to other Middle Eastern countries.
In a letter sent to the leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq in the past few weeks, Zawahiri claims that it is defeating US forces and urges followers to expand their campaign of terror.
He conjures a vision of an Islamic state comprising Lebanon, Palestine and Syria, where Al-Qaeda has already gained its first footholds.
The goal of an Islamic “greater Syria”, first outlined by Zawahiri two years ago, is detailed in the letter amid growing concern about the activities of new groups under Al-Qaeda’s influence in the countries concerned.
A senior American security source said he was aware of the letter and Al-Qaeda’s growing emphasis on spreading jihad through a volatile region.
The source said Zawahiri, a Sunni, was determined to prevent Lebanon falling into the hands of the Shi’ite Hezbollah movement, which has tried to bring down the government.
“Al-Qaeda is trying very hard to seize a foothold in Syria,” the American source added.
The Sunday Times
Note that the information about “Al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Suri” believed to have been arrested “in Syria” is probably wrong. Mustafa Setmariam Nasar was arrested in Pakistan and is now in Guantanamo (but perhaps there are several “Al-Qaeda leader’s” using that name?).
There seems to be a flurry of statements attributed to al-Qa’ida in recent days. This was reported by Ynetnews yesterday:
Al-Qaeda: Help Fatah al-Islam attack Israel
A statement attributed to al-Qaeda’s leadership has been released on the internet calling for “every Muslim” to support Fatah al-Islam, the Palestinian Islamist group engaged in a bloody conflict with Lebanese troops.
According to the statement, Fatah al-Islam is under attack in Lebanon because it is seeking “a confrontation” with Israel, and all Muslims are therefore obliged to support the group.
The message was released by the Global Islamic Media Front, an al-Qaeda mouthpiece which distributes statements by the international terror organization’s leaders and field commanders.
And today the New York Times published this important article detailing the modus operandi of al-Qa’ida linked networks in the region (including inside Syria):
Militants Widen Reach as Terror Seeps Out of Iraq
The article also shows, in my opinion, how important it would be to return to the kind of close cooperation with Syria in security matters that existed right after 9/11.
The following passage may be of interest for the Hariri case:
“In Somalia and Algeria, for example, recent suicide bombings have been accompanied by the release of taped testimonials by the bombers, a longtime terrorist practice embraced by insurgents in Iraq” (my emphasis).
After the recent suicide bombing in Algiers, the pictures of the three alledged bombers appeared on the Web almost immediately, together with a tape that was played on al-Jazeera.
In light of this, the quick release of the Abu Adass tape doesn’t seem so unusual anymore.
However, a word of caution – at least part of the reason why there are suddenly so many reports about al-Qa’ida in the region could be a deliberate shift in White House rhetorics, as Seymour Hersh noted recently:
“I do know that within the last month, maybe four, four-and-a-half weeks ago, they made a decision that because of the totally dwindling support for the war in Iraq, we go back to the al-Qaeda card, and we start talking about al-Qaeda. And the next thing you know, right after that, Bush went to the Southern Command — this was a month ago — and talked, mentioned al-Qaeda twenty-seven times in his speech. He did so just the other day this week — al-Qaeda this, al-Qaeda that.”
Interview on Democracy Now!, May 24th, 2007
Certainly related to this new PR strategy, yet also interesting:
Bush declassifies intelligence that asserts bin Laden ordered more attacks outside Iraq
AP, May 22, 2007
The New York Times has this: "Shakir al-Abssi, was an associate of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia who was killed last summer. In an interview with The New York Times earlier this month, Mr. Abssi confirmed reports that Syrian government forces had killed his son-in-law as he tried crossing into Iraq to collaborate with insurgents.
Mark Mackinnon, in this good article, brought to our attention by T-Desco, describes Absi and his cause. He writes that Absi is "a fanatically devout former Libyan air force pilot who is almost certain to choose death over surrender in the standoff at the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp.
Even before he founded Fatah al-Islam last year, Shakir al-Abssi was a well-known militant who grew up fighting in the refugee camps of Jordan and Lebanon and dreaming of "liberating" the Palestinian territories. The last place he lived before he established his base at Nahr al-Bared is testament to that: a grungy three-room building furnished only with bunk beds, uncomfortable chairs and a messy desk in Shatila, a Palestinian refugee camp near Beirut.
Mr. al-Abssi, who returned to Lebanon last summer after a prolonged absence, lived in these Spartan accommodations for several months after being assigned by Fatah Intifada chiefs in Syria to take over the local leadership of the Syrian-backed group dedicated to violent resistance against Israel.
Shortly afterward, he founded the breakaway Fatah al-Islam, the radical Salafist group now locked in the deadly showdown with government forces at Nahr al-Bared in the north of the country.
The 51-year-old Mr. al-Abssi is remembered on these grimy, narrow streets as a physically fit man with greying hair who wore a mustache and, occasionally, a short beard. He was a popular and respected figure, renowned for his religiosity.
"He is modest and forgiving. You can do anything you want to him and he will forgive you, but if someone insulted God in his presence, he might kill them," said Ibrahim Abu Mohammed, the security chief for Fatah Intifada in Shatila.
He said that when Mr. al-Abssi arrived last June to take over command, he brought with him 200 battle-hardened veterans of the Iraq war hailing from countries around the region. There were some Palestinians and Lebanese among them, but locals – judging primarily by the men's appearance and accents – say others were from Jordan, Syria, North Africa and the Persian Gulf states.
The new men trained separately from the rest of Fatah Intifada, an arrangement that none could question because of Mr. al-Abssi's status as a senior commander. Then late last year, Mr. al-Abssi and his men made their move, heading north to take over Fatah Intifada's headquarters in Nahr al-Bared and seizing the guns and ammunition stored there.
Mr. Abu Mohammed says the arsenal that Fatah al-Islam acquired from Fatah Intifada included a store of 120-millimetre mortars and multibarrelled rocket launchers, as well as an "uncountable" number of Kalashnikov rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. The militant group has bragged that it has enough weaponry to hold out for nine months in its standoff with the Lebanese army.
"They will fight to the last drop of blood," Mr. Abu Mohammed said. "They are religious people. They want to meet God, to die as martyrs in Islam."
The seizure of the weapons and infrastructure was a grand, carefully planned heist. "Because he was the leader of Fatah Intifada in Beirut and the north, he was able to move his people from Beirut to [Nahr al-Bared] without people suspecting anything," said Abu Ayed al-Shalan, the Palestinian Liberation Organization co-ordinator in Shatila.
He said he knew Mr. al-Abssi as a "calm, religious man" who had helped prepare the camps defences for a potential assault during Israel's attack on Lebanon last summer.
He shook his head like a man who had been fooled. "We can't believe that all the things that happened this week are linked to him."
With Nahr al-Bared already under its effective control, Fatah al-Islam made its presence known to the rest of the country in February when it allegedly bombed two buses near Beirut, killing three people. The group's spokesman, Abu Salim Taha, says Fatah al-Islam still seeks to eventually liberate the Palestinian territories from Israeli control, but the group's first target is the pro-Western government of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. The country, he said, should be ruled by Islamic sharia law, not "atheist courts."
Mr. al-Abssi's new group has more in common with Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network and its global jihad than with the traditional Palestinian "resistance" movements he previously served. In an interview earlier this year with The New York Times, he said that his dream was to create a global Islamic government. He said that the U.S. invasion of Iraq made American citizens anywhere legitimate targets.
"It is our right to hit them in their homes as they hit us in our homes," he was quoted as saying. "We are not afraid of being named terrorists."
Mr. al-Abssi's journey to Nahr al-Bared was a long and circuitous one. Born in the Palestinian city of Jericho, he fled as a child with his family to Jordan after Israel seized the West Bank in 1967.
The family later relocated to Lebanon and Mr. al-Abssi grew up in Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, which plucked him from medical school and trained him as a pilot. He joined the Syrian-backed Fatah Intifada when it broke away from the mainstream movement in 1983 and rose to become an officer in a special unit charged with planning attacks on mainland Israel.
In the late 1980s, he travelled to Libya, another backer of Palestinian militant groups, and served in the country's air force during the latter years of its prolonged war with neighbouring Chad. Afterward, he moved to Syria where he lived relatively quietly while making frequent trips to Jordan, where he reportedly met Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born militant who was later to become one of the world's most notorious people as the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, where he was killed last year.
Mr. al-Zarqawi and Mr. al-Abssi apparently found common cause. They were jointly charged and sentenced to death in absentia by a Jordanian court for the 2002 killing of American diplomat Lawrence Foley in Amman. After the killing, Mr. al-Abssi was arrested by the Syrian authorities, but never handed over to Jordan. Instead, he was jailed for three years for membership in a banned Islamist group, and released last year.
While Lebanon's Western-backed government has alleged that Syria is behind Fatah al-Islam, Mr. Abu Mohammed said that Damascus was furious at the creation of Mr. al-Abssi's group. He said Fatah Intifada had been preparing an attack to retake their headquarters in Nahr al-Bared by force, but was asked by residents not to use force in the densely populated refugee camp.
Some Lebanese analysts, however, poured scorn on the idea that Fatah al-Islam had been able to enter the country from Syria and to secure the weapons and headquarters of a Syrian-backed Palestinian faction without the tacit approval of Damascus.
"I'm not saying this is a group financed and armed by the Syrians, it's more subtle than that, but clearly this was something the Syrians set up and appear to have been preparing for some time," said Michael Young, opinion page editor of The Daily Star an English-language newspaper in Beirut.
Other Palestinian groups say they have no knowledge one way or the other about Syria's alleged involvement with Mr. al-Abssi and Fatah al-Islam, but say the group's battle with the Lebanese army is damaging the reputation of Palestinians and doing little to help their cause of liberating the territories occupied by Israel.
"The members of this group are Islamic terrorists, not Palestinians," Mr. al-Shalan, the PLO man, said in his office in Shatila, a place still scarred by the 1982 massacre of refugees by Christian militiamen allied with Israel. It's a dark episode in the history of both Lebanon and the Palestinians who live here that many are recalling as the standoff in the Nahr al-Bared camp appears headed toward a bloody end.
Faced with a surrender-or-die ultimatum from the Lebanese army, Mr. Taha said yesterday that Fatah al-Islam was planning to go out shooting.
Jonathan Nassim of Bilad ash-Sham blog gives these two perspectives from Lebanon. He begins:
I spoke today with two well informed sources in Beirut, who had different points of view on the situation in Lebanon.
The first source held that though Fatah al-Islam were given the go-ahead by Syria to enter Lebanon, thus serving Syrian strategic interests, they are not Syrian puppets. Syria are no longer in control of the Palestinian camps, and once inside, Fatah al-Islam developed its own strategy, which can broadly be described as Jihadist.
The Lebanese authorities knew of their existence and tolerated them. Furthermore, as Hezbullah's (perceived and actual) strength increased in the south, Sunnis in the north were made to become aware of the threat they posed, and were happy to have well armed Sunnis nearby, and this fact was accepted and exploited by the Hariri’s – whether this meant funding or playing on their presence in election time, as the Hezbullah threat was played up. What we are seeing now is the failure of this accommodation, that has ‘blown up in their face’. Partial evidence for this theory, the source said, is that the Ain Alaq bus bombing suspects were known to the Lebanese authorities, but at no point did they co-ordinate with Fatah (proper) and arrest them….
Robert Fisk in "The Road to Jerusalem (via Lebanon)," sheds a bit more light on the group. Unlike Michael Young, Fisk is not enammored of the March 14 Coalition and is suspicious of claims that the group is controlled by Syria. Fisk writes:
Chaker al-Absi told Lebanese journalists last year that his movement "was founded on the Koran and holy law" and that it was a "reformist movement created to bring an end to corruption and to brandish in the sky over Jerusalem the banner which says 'There is only one God but God'."
And he added that "we are neither allied to a regime or any group existing on this earth."
It is too simple to claim that this is Syria's work. Syria may have an interest is watching this destabilisation, even – through its security networks – assisting these groups with logistics. But other organisations might have found common interest; the Iraqi insurgents, for example, even the Taliban, perhaps equally small groups in the Palestinian occupied territories. That's how these things work in the Middle East, where there is no such thing as responsibility – only a commonality of interests. Perhaps the Americans might have learnt something about this if they had not two years ago insulted the Syrians for allowing fighters into Iraq – at which point, the Syrians halted all military and intelligence co-operation with the US.
Anthony Shadid's article on militants in Tripoli of last year was precient. It is worth rereading it in the light of recent fighting. "Smoke of Iraq War 'Drifting Over Lebanon': In Political and Social Life, Returned Fighters Inspire Climate of Militancy."
Farah Stockman, "US unit created to pressure Iran, Syria disbanded," Boston Globe | May 26, 2007
WASHINGTON — The Bush administration has dismantled a special committee that was established last year to coordinate aggressive actions against Iran and Syria, State Department officials said this week.
The interagency group, known as the Iran Syria Policy and Operations Group, met weekly throughout much of 2006 to coordinate actions such as curtailing Iran's access to credit and banking institutions, organizing the sale of military equipment to Iran's neighbors, and supporting democratic forces that oppose the two regimes.
State Department and White House officials said the dissolution of the group was simply a bureaucratic reorganization, but many analysts saw it as evidence of a softening in the US strategy toward the two countries. It comes as the Bush administration has embarked on a significant new effort to hold high-level meetings with Iran and Syria.
Khaddam hired the good offices of Sandra Charles (C & O Resources) to lobby for him and obtain access for a high profile visit he'd like to make to Washington. Also see other details at Friday-Lunch-Club.
New French FM says Paris will continue to snub Syria, Ha'aretz – Tel Aviv, Israel
PARIS – France's new foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, said Friday that Paris would continue to snub Syria because it did not believe Damascus respected …
Nothing much new here. The only suspence is waiting to see what the percentage given will be.
Ammar Abdul Hamid's Tharwa Community writes that
Close to 75 protestors representing various opposition currents held a protest rally in front of the Syria Embassy in Washington, D.C. on Saturday, May 26. Protestors called for a popular boycott of the presidential referendum scheduled to be held on the following day.
Here are photos of the demonstration taken by Seth Wikas of WINEP.
DAMASCUS, Syria — Inside the tent, the trappings of a modern election campaign were on display: jingles playing, flags waving, confetti coating the floor, and posters of President Bashar al-Assad hanging near the stage.
Outside, however, Syria's realities were evident. Government security officers manhandled anyone trying to come in and blocked reporters from covering the rally, which was financed by one of Syria's most powerful oligarchs. The sparseness of the crowd at the start of the campaign on May 11 hinted at growing fear of the future and apathy about Syrian politics.
Only a year ago, Mr. Assad faced so many troubles that some Syrians began questioning his political survival. His troops had been forced out of Lebanon, his government faced accusations of collusion in the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri, and the Bush administration had imposed sanctions that affected everything from the fleet of Boeings in Syria's national airline to medical equipment. Waning oil reserves hinted at economic collapse, and the European Union delayed signing a much-needed trade agreement.
But as he prepares for a so-called national referendum in which he is certain to be overwhelmingly re-elected for a second seven-year term, Mr. Assad seems very much in control, with his rivals isolated, his critics increasingly in prison or fearing retribution, and international pressure eased. He has consolidated power around his immediate family and rewarded loyalists. And he has continued to reap the benefits of Washington's troubles in the region. In Lebanon, the anti-Syrian March 14 movement, which helped force Syria out, has seen its political fortunes plummet, mired in unrest…..
"Assad’s rule has brought small changes to Syria, but critics say shortcomings remain," By ZEINA KARAM (Thanks to
DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — On the surface, Syria looks starkly different than it did a few years ago: Cafes and restaurants, private universities and banks have sprung up, with large construction sites signaling even more development to come.
But as the c …
"Iraqi Refugees Turn to the Sex Trade in Syria," by Katherine Zoepf – a sad story that we will hear more of.
A new Guide to Syria on the web in French by Sylvia Chiffoleau: Guide de Syrie-sur-Web: Réalisé par Sylvia Chiffoleau (GREMMO-UMR 5195), ce guide vise à introduire aux ressources d’Internet concernant l’actualité de la Syrie.
Yves Gonzalez Quijano has a wonderful blog, "Culture & Politique arabes." His latest post is on Syrian art and well worth the read. (In French)