Commentary on the economic , geopolitical and simply fascinating things going on. Served occasionally with a side of snark.
Monday, May 5, 2014
Syria Updates May 7 , 2014 -Rebel Infighting Spreading to Southern Syria After Commander’s Kidnapping Al-Qaeda Faction Plans to Try Secular Rebel in Rebel-Run Court ........ Having funded , trained and armed Jihadists fighters in Syria , now the narrative becomes those enabler nations now fear blowback ! Ironic to note the radical jihadists pledge to come after Jordan , Saudi Arabia , Canada , the US - nations who have been instrumental to their evergrowing role and present power in Syria. And the increasing in- fighter between the different camps of jihadists shows the enablers have lost control of their proxy army ( if they ever truly had control .) Syrian citizens - whether islamic or christian or kurd are caught in the cross hairs as usual in these situations.
The northern and eastern portions of Syria are now battlefields on multiple fronts, with rebel factions fighting against one another non-stop, and this “war within a war” often becoming more severe than the civil war itself.
That situation seems set to spread to Syria’s southern front now as well, with soaring tension among rebel factions in Deraa, along the border with Jordan, after a weekend kidnapping by al-Qaeda’s Jabhat al-Nusra of Ahmad Naameh, a top commander in the secular Free Syrian Army (FSA).
Tribal leaders in the area have been trying to negotiate his release, so far without success, and Nusra is said to be planning to try him in a rebel court for “crimes” committed prior to his defection from the military.
It is noteworthy both because rebel infighting has so far spared the Jordan border, from which the US is funneling weapons, but also because most previous infighting has seen Jabhat al-Nusra and the other factions fighting against al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), and this points to tension within that ramshackle alliance.
You can’t really send weapons to one rebel faction in Syria without them being spread amongst many groups. This reality has been a constant in the nation, where entering any faction’s territory or using any faction’s border crossing usually requires “tribute” in the form of some weapons, but the US has continued to insist its own gear only goes to “carefully vetted” groups.
Unsurprisingly, that gear doesn’t stay with those groups very long, and a US pilot program to send anti-tank weapons to a handful of rebel factions is now resulting in a flurry of videos from all over the rebel spectrum showing off their shiny new US-made TOW missiles.
US warnings to the groups not to spread the arms around seem to be for naught, and the leader of one of the groups known to be a US recipient, the Syrian Revolutionary Front, openly brags about its close ties with al-Qaeda’s Jabhat al-Nusra, and its long history of sharing arms with them.
Though US officials downplay the risks, it seems only a matter of time until Nusra and other al-Qaeda affiliates start showing up with US weapons of their own, and even if this doesn’t necessarily run afoul of a US policy goal of keeping the war going as long as possible, the stark visual of US arms in al-Qaeda’s hands is likely to be an embarrassment.
A massive bomb was detonated beneath a military checkpoint in the northwestern Idlib Province of Syria today, killing 30 soldiers outside of the strategically important town of Maarat al-Numaan.
While bomb attacks against checkpoints are nothing new, in this case the rebels apparently dug a tunnel underneath the area where the checkpoint was located, packing it full of explosives and remotely detonating it.
The rebels involved issued a video and images reportedly of the attack, showing an explosion in the distance as the rebel fighters celebrated. Syria’s government has yet to confirm the toll, though that is not unusual in such situations.
Maarat al-Numaan has been a heavily contested city because of its strategic location along a highway connecting the capital city of Damascus with the northern city of Aleppo.
Syrian Rebels Are Withdrawing From The Heart Of The Revolution
Mourners chant slogans, wave the Syrian national flag and carry the coffin of one of the victims killed in Tuesday's mortar shells that struck the Badr el-Din Hussaini complex in the mainly Shi'ite Muslim district of Shaghour in central Damascus, during their funeral April 30, 2014.
BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian rebels started withdrawing from the heart of Homs city on Wednesday, leaving an early center of the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad and handing him a symbolic victory less than a month before his likely re-election.
Activists said two buses carrying the first of many hundreds of fighters left the besieged city center, heading for rebel-held areas of northern Homs province - an evacuation arranged under a deal between insurgents and forces loyal to Assad.
The rebels had held out in the Old City district and several other areas despite being under-supplied, outgunned and subjected to more than a year of siege.
Their evacuation comes after months of gains by Assad's forces, backed by his Lebanese militant ally Hezbollah, along a strategic corridor of territory linking the capital Damascus with Homs and his Alawite heartland on the Mediterranean.
Their final withdrawal from the center of the city, known as the "capital of the revolution" when protests first erupted against Assad in 2011, would consolidate his military control ahead of a June 3 presidential election.
Assad is widely expected to be the runaway victor in the vote which his opponents have dismissed as a charade.
They say no credible election can be held in a country fractured by ongoing civil war, with swathes of territory outside government control, 6 million people displaced and another 2.5 million refugees abroad.
The Homs evacuation is part of deal between Assad's forces and rebel fighters under which the overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim rebels also agreed to ease their siege of two northern Shi'ite towns, Nubl and al-Zahraa.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said rebels opened the roads to allow aid into the two towns on Wednesday morning at the same time as the first buses collected the departing rebel fighters from Homs.
A total of 1,200 fighters are expected to leave Homs in stages, carefully synchronized with the aid delivery and the release of several captives held by the rebels near Nubl and Zahraa.
Provincial governor Talal Barazi was quoted by state news agency SANA as saying Wednesday's operation would clear Homs of gunmen and weapons, and would be applied across the whole of Homscity.
As well as their stronghold in the Old City neighborhoods, rebels also still have a presence in the Al-Waer suburb on the city's northwestern outskirts.
More than 150,000 people have died in Syria's civil war. Millions more have fled their homes and the government has lost control of swathes of territory across the north and east. Fighting regularly kills more than 200 people a day.
World View: Ambitious al-Qa'ida-type groups now control - or are free to operate in - an enormous area
It is only a matter of time before jihadis in al-Qa'ida-type groups that have taken over much of eastern Syria and western Iraq have a violent impact on the world outside these two countries. The road is open wide to new attacks along the lines of 9/11 and 7/7, and it may be too late to close it.
Those who doubt that these are the jihadis' long-term intentions should have a look at a chilling but fascinating video posted recently by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis), formerly al-Qa'ida in Iraq. It shows a group of foreign fighters burning their passports to emphasise their permanent commitment to jihad. Many of the passports thrown into the flames have grass-green covers and are Saudi; others are dark blue and must be Jordanian. Some of the fighters show their faces while others are masked. As each one destroys his passport, sometimes tearing it in half before throwing it into the fire, he makes a declaration of faith and a promise to fight against the ruler of the country from which he comes.
A Canadian makes a short speech in English before switching to Arabic, saying: "It is a message to Canada, to all American powers. We are coming and we will destroy you." A Jordanian says: "I say to the tyrant of Jordan: we are the descendants of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi [the Jordanian founder of al-Qa'ida in Iraq killed by US aircraft in 2006] and we are coming to kill you." A Saudi, an Egyptian and a Chechen make similar threats.
The film is professionally made, and was probably shot somewhere in northern or eastern Syria. It is worth looking at carefully, and keeping in mind that these are not an isolated band hiding in desert wastes or mountain caves. Isis and Jabhat al-Nusra, the official affiliate of al-Qa'ida, now control, or can easily operate in, a great swathe of territory from the Tigris to the Mediterranean, and from the Jordanian border to southern Turkey.
Threats, such as those made by the group burning their passports, are creating something near panic among Iraq's neighbours, who were slow to take on board last year that Syrian armed opposition had come to be dominated by al-Qa'ida or its clones. A report by the International Crisis Group (ICG), "The Rising Cost of Turkey's Syrian Quagmire", published last week, cites a Turkish official saying: "The armed al-Qa'ida element will be a problem for the Turks. As a secular country, we do not fit with their ideology. What happens if they can't get what they want in Syria? They will blame Turkey and attack it." Bear in mind that the thousands of foreign jihadis who have poured into Syria and Iraq mostly got there by crossing the 510-mile-long Turkish-Syrian border. The head of an influential Turkish think tank is quoted by ICG as saying that "When Turkey starts arresting them [jihadis], which it will do, we know what will happen. There will be bombs all over Turkey."
Jordan is also showing signs of extreme nervousness over support being given to the Syrian armed opposition, just across its border in southern Syria. American, Saudi and Jordanian intelligence have been working on creating a "southern front" around Daraa, the southern city where the Syrian revolt began, a front supposedly made up of moderate, secular fighters, who are both anti-Assad and anti-jihadi. This is deceptive, since an important force in such operations would be Jabhat al-Nusra which, on this front, is reportedly acting in coordination with a Jordanian, Saudi and US intelligence joint operations room in Amman.
But the Jordanians have got cold feet over the idea of a southern offensive launched from their territory. They are no longer as confident as they were in 2011 and 2012 that President Assad is bound to lose. They worry about an estimated 2,000 Jordanian jihadis in Syria, and what happens when they return to Jordan. There was a mysterious Jordanian airforce attack destroying vehicles entering Jordan from Syria on 16 April in which the Syrian government denied any involvement. The Jordanians also forbade an opposition offensive at Daraa timed to coincide with a rebel assault in Aleppo.
Even the US State Department's annual report on terrorism, issued last week, has noted that al-Qa'ida-type groups are getting stronger. Its image of al-Qa'ida in the past has been along the lines of a bureaucratic entity somewhat similar to the State Department itself. It therefore takes heart from the belief that because of organisational and leadership losses "AQ's core leadership has been degraded, limiting its ability to conduct attacks." The word "core" is useful here since it can mean either "a central command" or simply "at the centre of". In practice, al-Qa'ida since 2001 has primarily been an ideology and a method of operating, not a cohesive organisation. The State Department has finally noted this, speaking of "the rise of increasingly aggressive and autonomous AQ affiliates and like-minded groups".
In reality, the situation is worse than the State Department admits, since over the last year Isis has taken over much of Sunni Iraq. It levies taxes in cities such as Mosul and Tikrit and has substantial control in Fallujah and along the Euphrates valley, through western Iraq and eastern Syria up to the Turkish border. It has captured the Fallujah dam on the Euphrates, and can flood or deny water to areas further south; at Baiji on the Tigris, north of Baghdad, it has blown up an oil pipeline, polluting the river which had been used, after treatment, to supply drinking water to Baghdad. On the western outskirts of Baghdad at Abu Ghraib, Isis has held a military parade and the famous prison was hastily evacuated. A comforting theory explaining the surge in Isis's strength in Iraq is that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki exaggerated its power to frighten Shia voters before last Wednesday's parliamentary election. He thereby diverted attention from his administration's appalling record of corruption and incompetence by focusing on the danger of a Sunni counter-revolution. The outcome of the election will show if this strategy had worked.
Unfortunately, all the signs are that the political and military incapacity of the Iraqi government is all too real. Its armed forces are said in Baghdad to have suffered 5,000 casualties including 1,000 dead in fighting in Anbar province in the last four months. Whole battalions are reported to have melted away because the men were not being paid, or they have not received supplies of food and ammunition. According to one report, even the job of army divisional commander can be bought for $1m with the assumption that whoever takes the job can show a profit by making $50,000 a month through protection money and levies on vehicles passing checkpoints.
After the election the government may try to repeat the US strategy of successfully using the Sunni tribes against al-Qa'ida groups such as Isis. The difficulty is that for the moment Sunni communities hate the Iraqi army and security forces more than they do al-Qa'ida.
The ongoing “war within a war” between different Syrian rebel factions has picked up steam this weekend in Deir Ezzor Province, along Syria’s eastern border with Iraq.
The fighting is between al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and the al-Qaeda faction Jabhat al-Nusra. Nusra has the approval of the parent al-Qaeda organization, but AQI has been disavowed as “too brutal.”
Fighting gripped several cities across the province, with at least 62 fighters killed and a large number wounded. The two sides had recently fought over the city of al-Bukamal, which AQI eventually took, and gives the faction an effectively contiguous corridor from Aleppo to the outskirts of Baghdad.
The fighting this time around was in the towns of Busayra, Abhra, and al-Zir, and between the three locations, some 60,000 civilians have reportedly had to flee, adding to an enormous refugee crisis.
QAMISHLI, Syria – Malki Hana says his men are afraid of cameras. “Most of them are army defectors and they may easily get in trouble,” says this commander of a mostly unknown armed group in Syria.
From his headquarters in Derik, 700 km northeast of Damascus, Hana, 34, briefs IPS on his militia comprising almost exclusively members of Syria’s Christian community.
“We started to organize ourselves as the regime pulled out from the northeast and the Kurds took over the region. Sutoro – ‘protection’ in Syriac language – is our alternative to the chaos gripping the country,” says the commander, a former mechanic.
In July 2012 Syrian Kurds took control of regions in the north of the country where they are compact. So far they’ve managed to keep distance from both the government and the armed opposition.
Hana speaks of a “fluid collaboration” with Kurdish security forces. “We have just 100 fighters Derik but we are in full coordination with the Asayish – the Kurdish police – and we even conduct joint operations.”
Translators are necessary. “We do not speak Kurdish and many of them do not speak Arabic because they are Kurds from Turkey,” he says. His mother tongue is Syriac, a variant of the ancient Aramaic of northern Mesopotamia.
Prewar census figures suggested an Assyrian Christian population about 10 percent of the total population of 23 million.
The east has been a safe haven for Christians – especially those fleeing the war in neighboring Iraq. But many parts of Syria have turned into a lethal trap for non-Muslim minorities.
The United Nations says more than two million Syrians have fled the country since March 2011. It is uncertain how many of them have been Christians.
Many Christians have reportedly sided with the Damascus regime of President Bashar Assad during the crisis, but there are discordant voices within the community.
Among these is the Syriac Union Party (SUP) established in 2005. It remained underground until the new scenario in the northeast allowed them to surface in places like Qamishli, 600 km northeast of Damascus.
SUP chair Isoue Geouryie laments that many of his kin have vowed for “security” rather than “rights”.
“Both Hafez Assad (former president and father of the current president) and his son denied us our legitimate rights because they did not even recognize the existence of the Syriac people in Syria,” Geouryie tells IPS.
He says he has no fear of reprisals even though many of his party members are in prison.
Easter processions in Qamishli are famous all over Syria. But the political situation here is unparalleled: government forces are still in control of the airport and the city center, where portraits of the Assads, including a large statue of Hafez, remain untouched. The suburbs and the rest of the northeastern Jazeera region remain under Kurdish control.
Geouryie says he prefers the latter. “One of the most important steps that we have recently taken was to declare our autonomy and release a social contract that recognizes our (Syriac) language as co-official along with Kurdish and Arabic.”
In late January this year, Jazeera declared its own autonomous provincial government which includes Kurdish, Arab and Syriac representatives.
Geouryie sees the Sutoro as “a necessary and legitimate body” although he draws a line between “those who work hard alongside the Kurds, and those who still support the regime.”
At the militia headquarters in the west of Qamishli, local commander Luey Shamaaon puts the full number of Sutoro militiamen “around 400”. He confirms the existence of a fellow Christian group aligned with Assad.
This split came seven months ago. “The regime arrested several of our men but we managed to exchange them for some guards we captured at their checkpoints,” recalls this 33-year-old Syriac. He insists that the “real” Sutoro is his group, “and not the others.”
According to local information, Christian militias allegedly loyal to Assad boast a different logo and identify themselves on their uniforms and their vehicles as “Sootoro”. Given the constant refusal of the Syrian government to grant a visa to this reporter, the only way into Qamishli was after crossing the border from the Iraqi Kurdish region without consent from Damascus. IPS was therefore unable to check such information about other Christian militias independently.
“Of course we have contact with them but only at a personal level. When I take off my uniform I can talk politics with anyone, and in a most civilized way,” a Sutoro militiaman who didn’t want to disclose his name told IPS.
Despite the ongoing conflict, it is evident in downtown Qamishli that ties remain in place among the local Christian community with differing loyalties.
Lara, a 21-year-old Christian university student says at one of the many Internet cafes in town that she feels comfortable with the Sutoro and their Kurdish allies.
“Were it not for the YPG (Kurdish acronym for ‘People’s Protection Units’ run by Kurds), Islamists would have wiped us out all long ago,” she tells IPS. Al-Qaeda linked groups, many of them entering the area through the Turkish border, have maintained a siege on the region since autumn 2012.
Other Christians at the cafe distance themselves from the Sutoro. “Sutoro has appointed itself as a defense body for the Christians but none of us asked them to do so,” says Maryam. “As far as I know, Assad’s forces are the only legitimate armed forces in Syria.”
She is struggling to chat online with a relative in Sweden. “Most of my family is there now,” she adds with a sad smile.