[Midden-Oosten] Amid recent gains, Syrians discuss road to revolution's victory

Jeff meisner op xs4all.nl
Di mei 5 21:47:14 CEST 2015


Syria's Rebels on Winning Streak—In Alliance With Al Qaeda

   Important victories may presage major
   changes in the fortunes of the anti-regime
   fighters. They may also encourage al Qaeda's
   clients to break ranks. A twisted tale.

GAZIANTEP, Turkey—The thumbs-up a top rebel commander flashes at me as he 
returns to this Turkish border town from the front-lines of northern Syria's 
battlefields speaks volumes.

There has been little for Syrian insurgents to cheer about in recent months. 
Even a few weeks ago this man was downcast and appeared adrift and unable to 
imagine an end to a war that has claimed the lives of 6,000 of his men.

But a new Islamist alliance of brigades backed by al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat 
al Nusra is moving ahead aggressively against the forces of President Bashar 
al-Assad and the emboldened insurgents, fresh from two significant 
battlefield gains, say that the four-year-long civil war is entering a new 
and critical phase—one that didn't appear likely, or even possible, as 
recently as February.

And as the gains pile up, talk is intensifying within Jabhat al Nusra, and 
especially among the group's Syrian commanders and fighters, of breaking 
with al Qaeda—a move they hope might entice the West to support this 
offensive and impose a no-fly zone across northern Syria.

The capture of the cities of Idlib and, last weekend, Jisr al-Shughour had 
major symbolic significance. This is where the armed rebellion against Assad 
began in June 2011, after Assad's security forces fired on a funeral 
demonstration. And it has boosted the fighters' morale. The newly confident 
Sunni rebel militias are focusing now on objectives to the south, seeking to 
block Syrian government supply lines from the regime's coastal stronghold of 
Latakia. That would force the Assad regime to supply it's remaining forces 
in the province of Idlib and the city of Aleppo only from Damascus.

Such is the rebels' soaring confidence that they talk of taking the war out 
of northwest Syria and positioning themselves either to put pressure on 
Latakia or strike south towards Hama, affording them the opportunity to 
threaten the Syrian capital and coordinate more with rebel militias in the 
southern and eastern suburbs of Damascus.

>From the despair and anger of December and January, when Assad's forces 
appeared a skirmish away from encircling rebel-held districts in Aleppo and 
severing insurgent supply lines to Turkey, the transformation is remarkable. 
Back then, plagued by infighting and demoralized by the US-led coalition's 
focus on the jihadists of the self-styled Islamic State, Syrian rebels were 
directionless and pessimistic about their chances of toppling Assad. I met 
many fighters who were throwing in the towel and deciding they had had 
enough after four years of struggle.

Fighters blamed the West, the Sunni monarchies of the Gulf Arab states and 
Turkey for their plight, seeing their refusal to supply more advanced 
weaponry as a betrayal and evidence of duplicity by Washington. They argued 
the Americans preferred for Assad to remain in power, and accused President 
Barack Obama of buying into Assad's argument that his ouster would result in 
the caliphate of the Islamic State enlarging to include the whole of 
Syria—that either he is the ruler of Syria or Abu Bakr al Baghdadi will be.

Western-backed militias saw their arms supplies and cash from Washington 
reduced significantly or in some cases cut altogether. U.S. officials argued 
this was performance-related or punishment for their fighting alongside 
hardcore Islamist brigades and al Nusra. Rebel commanders suspected the cuts 
were designed to force rebels to leave their brigades and enlist in the 
U.S.-planned train-and-equip program for the raising of a Syrian rebel proxy 
force to take on the Islamic State, still widely known as ISIS.

Anger at the West and the Gulf states hasn't subsided. Rather, it has turned 
to disdain.

Inspiring this new-found coordination among the rebel militias that have 
made such gains is the realization that they can't rely on anyone but 
themselves. Their attitude, emphasized to me by several rebel commanders and 
fighters I have spoken with over the past week, is that the World has let 
them down and so it is up to them now.

Western analysts have given credit for the capture of Idlib and Jisr 
al-Shughour to ramped-up support from Riyadh, Doha and Ankara. But the 
commanders here insist their recent gains, including the capture of Idlib, 
which is only the second provincial capital lost by Assad in this war, are 
not the result of outside assistance.

"What did we get from them?" sneers a rebel commander with Jaish al Fata, or 
the Army of Conquest, which is what the new rebel alliance began calling 
itself on March 28. "The Turks speak a thousand lies. Most of our weapons 
are those we seized from government forces or arms that were supplied by the 
Gulf a year and half ago. We got nothing from the Gulf or Turkey ahead of 
this offensive. These are our victories, no one else's," he insists. He 
asked he not to be identified by name for this article.

Islam Alloush, a spokesman for Jaysh al Islam, a rebel brigade that has good 
ties with the Saudis (who helped negotiate the formation of the militia 
originally as a counter to Jabhat al Nusra), confirms there has been no 
recent input of arms from outside. Asked if his brigade received new 
supplies from the Saudis, he says: "No we have not seen anything like that."

And Abu Jaseem, the commander of the First Regiment, a semi-autonomous 
militia within Liwa al Tawhid brigade, told me over a dinner of chicken and 
rice and many cigarettes that he has had no arms supplies from Gulf sponsors 
since late 2013. "The weapons we use are those we have captured from Assad's 

Another insurgent commander who participated in the assault on Idlib says 
more advanced weapons supplied by the Americans, including TOW anti-tank 
missiles, are being used by brigades fighting with Jaish al Fata.

Some of these weapons had been supplied last year by the U.S. and were 
seized from two Washington-backed militias, Harakat al Hazm and the Syria 
Revolutionaries Front, which collapsed earlier this year after infighting 
with jihadists and Islamists. Other American-supplied weaponry is being used 
in the current offensive by militias still backed by Washington, including 
Division 13 and Fursan al Haq, which are cooperating with the new Islamist 
alliance but are not formally part of its command structure.

Is it possible, likely or credible that Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nusra 
will split with its parent organization? The success of the offensive in 
Idlib is adding impetus to the debate within Jabhat al Nusra about precisely 
that subject. Several rebel commanders and Syrian opposition figures say it 
is highly likely that al Nusra will soon break apart formally, roughly along 
the lines of local vs. foreign fighters, with the former opting out of the 
infamous terrorist affiliation.

"I think it will happen soon," says Muhamed Nabih Osman, who oversees a 
charitable association for former Assad prisoners. "You have to understand 
that al Nusra consists of two very different parts and that one part, mostly 
local fighters, are not interested in global jihad."

Sitting in a nondescript office in central Gaziantep, the gray-haired former 
electrical engineer who was imprisoned for 14 years by Assad in the 
notorious Tadmor jail in the deserts of eastern Syria, says most Nusra 
fighters see Assad as the enemy and not the West. He dismisses Western 
accusations that the ideology of most in the new Islamist alliance is 
anti-democratic and hostile to minorities.

"The West is living in detached world of philosophical ideas," the former 
engineer says, speaking slowly and methodically. "They want us to conform to 
their ideas but we can disagree with them without being extremists. 
Thousands of people are getting killed and they are worried about what 
happens after Assad and they want to teach us about democracy and women's 
rights. They don't provide safe havens or no-fly zones for the civilians who 
are being slaughtered in droves. All they worry about is who controls Syria 
after. Syrians will." Osman emphasizes he is not a member of any armed group 
but says he knows the main players in al Nusra and another powerful Islamist 
militia, Ahrar al Sham, and speaks with them regularly.

In recent weeks al Nusra has been recovering from the emergence of its 
jihadist rival ISIS, and has been attracting significant numbers of fighters 
again, many of them defectors from moderate and Islamist insurgent militias. 
Last November a convergence between al Nusra and the Islamic State appeared 
more likely, with efforts being made by some al Qaeda veterans to lay the 
groundwork for an alliance of convenience between the arch-rivals. A major 
meeting between leaders from both groups was held in a farmhouse west of 
Aleppo. Shortly after, ISIS fighters were dispatched to help—at least in a 
symbolic way—al Nusra fighters in battles against Western-backed bridges in 

But local fighters—who likely make up 80 percent of al Nusra—have been 
opposed to deal-making with ISIS and have been critical of the harsh 
governance methods used by some of their pro-ISIS comrades in territory 
controlled by al Nusra. In the ongoing internal debate al Nusra Emir 
Mohammed al Jawlani has so far not shown his hand, but rebel sources say he 
appears to be tilting towards a break with al Qaeda, which is being 
advocated strongly by Abu Maria al Qahtani, the commander of Nusra in Deir 
ez Zour.

And rebel commanders say the break-with-Al- Qaeda scenario has gained 
momentum since the deaths of Nusra military chief Abu Hamam al Shami and 
three other al Qaeda leaders last March in a Syrian airstrike on the village 
of Habeet near the border with Turkey. All four leaders killed were al Qaeda 

Qatari officials have been urging al Nusra's leadership for weeks to 
rebrand, to sever ties with al Qaeda, and to form a new entity aligned 
ideologically with Islamist rebel brigades, according to rebel commanders. 
It may also be—with or without a green light from Washington— that the 
Qataris have been hinting that an al Nusra break with al Qaeda would improve 
the chances of persuading Western powers to impose a no-fly zone on northern 
Syria, something the Turks as well as Gulf Arabs are pressing for and the 
rebels say would deprive Assad of his one crucial battlefield 

"Al Nusra commanders and fighters keep on saying they will happily break 
with al Qaeda, if that is a precondition for a no-fly zone," says a Tawid 
field commander who enjoys good ties with al Nusra.

Whatever al Nusra finally decides, rebel commanders clearly believe the 
offensive in Idlib has the makings of the beginning of the end for Assad. 
They are not saying the end will be quick in coming but for the first time 
in months appear as convinced they can win as they did when they stormed 
into Aleppo more than two years ago and seized nearly half of Syria's 
commercial capital.

Much of their sudden confidence can be put down to buoyancy that a 
battlefield victory brings. U.S. officials argue Idlib just marks another 
twist in the seesawing war that has left more than 200,000 dead and ten 
million Syrians displaced. But the map now looks different from at the end 
of last year. In retrospect insurgent commanders now agree Aleppo was a 
false dawn and that the northern rebel brigades got bogged down in the city 
at enormous cost in terms of morale and casualties when they should have 
been more mobile and picking off smaller and winnable prizes such as Idlib 
or Hama.

Few commanders I have spoken with in the last few days believe the new 
Islamist alliance should now turn towards Aleppo. Even commanders based in 
Aleppo think that would be a strategic mistake. "No, the focus should now be 
on Latakia," says the First Regiment emir Abu Jaseem over our 
chicken-and-rice dinner in an apartment on the outskirts of Gaziantep.

A slight dark-skinned 43-year-old, Abu Jaseem argues that striking towards 
Latakia, populated mostly by members of Assad's minority Alawi Muslim sect, 
an offshoot of Shia Islam, would send a symbolic, unsettling message to the 
regime's supporters—namely that the war is coming in earnest to their 
traditional homeland and that they should give up the idea that they can 
carve out a coastal Alawi rump state around Latakia and Tartous if the war 
goes against Assad and the rebels ever manage to seize Damascus.

What rebel commanders have noticed in recent weeks is that disputes appear 
to be flaring among Assad's defenders when Alawi villages and towns are 
attacked: Syrian army regulars are at odds with the mostly Alawi 
self-protection forces grouped in the National Defense Forces and also with 
Shia volunteers from Iran and Lebanon's radical Shia movement Hezbollah.

In Idlib in the final days of the rebel assault insurgents attacked Alawi 
villages outside the city, mainly as a feint, and when they did so it 
triggered sharp disagreements between the NDF commanders, who argued they 
should rush to defend the Alawi settlements, and regular army commanders, 
who wanted to stay put. With rebel gains, friction and in one case clashes 
between Alawi militiamen and army regulars flared elsewhere in northern 
Syria, too.

At the dinner, another rebel commander who fought alongside Jaish al Fata in 
Idlib and is in the process of moving most of his militia from Aleppo to 
join the Islamist alliance disagrees with striking at Latakia and argues the 
strike should be towards Hama and then on to Damascus to assist the southern 
rebels, although he acknowledges that the war will not finally end until the 
mainly Alawi coastal cities of Tartous and Latakia have fallen.

Seizing Hama, he says, would also be of great symbolic value. "This was 
where Assad's father killed thousands," he adds, referring to crushing of a 
Muslim Brotherhood uprising in 1982. "The son is driven by what his father 
did and has always believed he can emulate his father—capturing Hama would 
demonstrate he can't."

The debate playing out at the dinner is one the top field commanders of the 
Islamist alliance are having now—west to the coast or south towards Hama and 
then Damascus. Before they make a final decision there remains unfinished 
business nearer at hand. Jaish al Fata forces are now attacking the villages 
of Ariha and Mastouma south of Idlib and Ankawi and Ghab south of Jisr al 
Shughour in order to sever the M4 highway linking Latakia to Idlib and 
Aleppo. These attacks are forcing Syrian government units to defend a 
30-mile W-shaped line—a precarious military position.

The rebels' firm belief is that by switching the axis of the northern 
theater away from Aleppo they have managed to transform the war. If they can 
notch up more gains with few casualties, the new Islamist alliance appears 
likely to remain and not go the way of previous alliances that fell apart in 
a matter of weeks amid rebel infighting. "I think it will last," says 
Mohammed, a rebel commander who once worked at the center of a rebel 
alliance in Aleppo. "I have not seen this level of coordination and trust 

While U.S. officials seem ready to dismiss this as another false dawn, one 
former American ambassador isn't so skeptical. "Despite constant Western 
media assessments that Assad's situation is secure, the reality is that the 
Syrian war is one of attrition," according to a paper by former U.S. 
Ambassador to Damascus Robert Ford at the Washington-based Middle East 
Institute. "And minority regimes usually do not fare well in prolonged wars 
of attrition."

Sitting over dinner, Abu Jaseem pulls on yet another cigarette and says that 
once again fighters are discussing what the future of Syria will be when 
this long nightmare of fighting and blood and friends dying in your arms 
finally is over. "Syria will be a Muslim country," he says, adding 
hopefully, "But not too Islamic."

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