Saturday, June 28, 2014

Obama's Syrian deflection: giving weapons to a group in decline.

AP Photo
AP Photo/Uncredited

BEIRUT (AP) -- The Syrian rebels that the U.S. now wants to support are in poor shape, on the retreat from the radical al-Qaida breakaway group that has swept over large parts of Iraq and Syria, with some rebels giving up the fight. It is not clear whether the new U.S. promise to arm them will make a difference.
Some, more hard-line Syrian fighters are bending to the winds and joining the radicals.
The Obama administration is seeking $500 million to train and arm what it calls "moderate" factions among the rebels, a far larger project than a quiet CIA-led effort in Jordan that has been training a few hundreds fighters a month. But U.S. officials say it will take a year to get the new program fully underway. The U.S. also faces the difficult task of what constitutes a "moderate" rebel in a movement dominated by Islamist ideologies.
Opposition activists complain that after long hesitating to arm the rebellion to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad - their main goal - the United States is now enlisting them against the Islamic State out of its own interests. They have long argued that the group, which aims to create a radical Islamic enclave bridging Syria and Iraq, was only able to gain such power in Syria because more moderate forces were not given international support.
"This decision is a year and a half too late," said Ahmad Ramadan, a senior member of the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition opposition group. "Had it not been for Obama's hesitation all along, this wouldn't be happening in Iraq today nor would there be this proliferation of extremist factions in Syria," he added.
Meeting with Syrian opposition leader Ahmed al-Jarba in the Saudi city of Jeddah on Friday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry made clear the priority in helping the rebels was to fight the Islamic State - with hopes that their battlefield successes in Syria could dilute their insurgency's power in Iraq.
The moderate opposition in Syria "has the ability to be a very important player in pushing back against ISIL's presence and to have them not just in Syria, but also in Iraq," Kerry said. A senior State Department official traveling with Kerry later said the secretary did not mean to imply that Syrian rebels would actually cross the border to fight in Iraq. The official was not authorized to brief reporters by name and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Al-Jarba, who leads a coalition in exile that only has nominal authority over some rebels on the ground, welcomed the aid, and appealed for more. But in Syria, opposition activists were skeptical.
The aid "will only worsen the crisis," said an activist in the northern city of Aleppo, using his nickname Abu Bishr for his own protection. "They want Syria to enter a new war" between rebels and extremists. "This will not help at all."
As the Islamic State has blitzed across much of northern and western Iraq this month, its fighters have also advanced in Syria against other rebels. They now hold most of the Euphrates River valley in eastern Syria. They have tightened their siege on the one major hold-out city in that region, Deir el-Zour.
In the past two weeks, they have also captured a string of villages in the northern province of Aleppo. Islamic State's fighters in Syria have been boosted by advanced weapons, tanks and Humvees captured in Iraq and then transported to Syria.
In a significant development, beleaguered Nusra Front fighters surrounded by Islamic State forces in the town of Boukamal on the border with Iraq defected this week and joined the Islamic State. That effectively handed the town over to the Islamic State, which controls the Iraqi side of the crossing.
The Syrian uprising began in March 2011 with largely peaceful protests against the Assad family, which has ruled Syria for more than four decades. After the government brutally cracked down on the protest movement, many Syrians took up arms to fight back. As the uprising shifted into civil war, the Western-backed Free Syrian Army emerged, a loose term for a collection of self-formed brigades and defectors from Assad's military that fight under a nationalist banner.
But Islamic fighters became the dominant force in the armed opposition, ranging from religious-minded Syrians calling for rule by Shariah law to more extreme al-Qaida-inspired ideologies. Foreign jihadis flooded into the conflict.
The Islamic State, which was at the time Iraq's branch in al-Qaida, barged into the Syria war in 2012, sending its forces and joined by foreign jihadis. At first, many rebels welcomed its experienced fighters. But they quickly turned on each other in violent clashes as other rebels accused Islamic State of using particularly brutal tactics and of trying to take over the opposition movement for their own transnational goals.
Even other Islamic extremist factions among the rebels fought the Islamic State, including the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front, which the U.S. has declared a terrorist group. Al-Qaida's central leadership booted the Islamic State out of its network, blaming it for clashing with other groups.
But the rebels are being eroded by the war-within-a-war with the Islamic State.
"The Syrian opposition is exhausted," said Adam al-Ataribi, a spokesman for the Mujahedeen Army, a small group fighting alongside other rebels against the extremists.
An opposition activist based in the northern town of Marea said the FSA has lost more people fighting against the Islamic State in the past year than it has against Assad's forces. "There is a steady attrition within rebel ranks," he said.
More hardline rebels currently fighting the Islamic State could follow in joining it.
"ISIL is currently the top dog with the most money in the jihadi universe. Siding with them would seem like a rational choice, at least temporarily," said Bilal Saab, a senior fellow for Middle East Security at the Atlantic Council's Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.
Activists say other fighters in the nationalist-minded opposition are just abandoning the fight altogether due to frustration and disillusionment. Judging how many is difficult, but several activists in Syria speaking to the AP saw it as a growing trend.
"We have no reliable information on how many fighters have quit the FSA, but the view on the ground is that attrition is high," said Sam Whitt, principle investigator for the Voices of Syria project, which tracks public opinion from inside the Syrian civil war through survey interviews.
Abdullah, a 27-year-old former FSA fighter, said that when the Islamic State overran his hometown of al-Bab in northern Syria in the spring, killing two of his friends in the rebel ranks, he decided to quit and leave.
"The whole world has abandoned us. I realized that our uprising has been hijacked by others, and that nothing will be settled unless there is an agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia," he said, speaking via Skype from Turkey and referring to the main patrons of Assad and the rebels, respectively.
"That's not worth dying for."

Official Al Qaeda Rebel Unit in Syria Joins ISIL

A Syrian rebel group closely aligned with al Qaeda’s official central leadership has switched sides and is now supporting an ultra-violent offshoot, following the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant’s blitzkrieg attack on Iraq, according to U.S. officials and reports from the region.
A local unit of the Al Nusra Front—the official rebel group of al Qaeda in Syria—agreed to back the ISIL on Wednesday.
The merger of one portion of al Nusra with ISIL is being viewed by government intelligence analysts and others as a troubling indicator that the inner battle between the two groups may be shifting in ISIL’s favor.
Sebastian Gorka, a counterterrorism specialist and military theorist at the Marine Corps University, said the defection of the Nusra group to ISIL, also known as ISIS, is very significant.
“ISIS and al Nusra have fought each other in the past,” Gorka said. Nusra’s swearing loyalty to ISIL “is a clear sign that ISIS is now more important than the original al Qaeda,” he said.
“With this act, in theory all al Nusra territory is now under ISIS control,” Gorka said. “This makes the de facto establishment of a proto-caliphate territory straddling Iraq and Syria a real possibility and underlines the absurdity of the Obama administration’s push to fund and train the rebels in Syria.”
President Obama acknowledged Thursday that ISIL attacks in Iraq are one sign that, contrary to his earlier remarks, international terrorists are gaining strength.
“They’re gaining strength in some places, but we’ve also got a lot better at protecting ourselves,” Obama told ABC News.
Obama campaigned for reelection in 2012 declaring al Qaeda was on the “path to defeat” and asserting the United States would end the war on terrorism launched after the 2001 attacks.
ISIL, a fanatical terrorist group led by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, now controls large sections of central Iraq. The group has declared that its goal is the creation of an Islamic caliphate throughout the region.
It initially set up al Nusra but broke off ties in February. Its numbers are not known, but estimates range from 5,000 to 10,000 fighters.
The Nusra-ISIL joining took place June 25 at the Syrian border town of Albu Kamal, a central location on ISIL’s link between its forces in Syria and Iraq.
The merger also is a boost to ISIL’s efforts to gain control of eastern Syria, an area that has seen widespread fighting between the two al Qaeda-linked groups.
ISIL is continuing to move captured weapons and military vehicles from Iraq to Syria following the military operation against central Iraq that began in early June.
The ISIL, an ultra-violent Islamist group that has conducted mass executions and beheadings while imposing Islamic law, is using its newfound power to gain greater support in both Syria and Iraq and elsewhere in the region.
The group is seeking to create an Islamic state throughout the region that would impose harsh Sharia law. Al Qaeda central has sought to take a slightly less extreme stance as a way to attract more supporters. Both groups are designated foreign terrorist organizations by the State Department.
The Britain-based Syrian opposition figure Rami Abdulrahman told reporters June 25 that the Nusra group in Albu Kamal had “pledged loyalty” to ISIL.
“They are rivals, but both groups are jihadist and extremists,” he said. “This move will create tension now with other rebel groups, including Islamists, in the area.”
ISIL also posted a photo on one of its short-lived Twitter accounts showing the commander of the local Nusra Front group shaking hands with an ISIL leader.
Syrian airstrikes against ISIL positions along the Iraqi border were carried out this week in an effort to try and weaken the group.
Bill Roggio, a terrorism analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said there is no question that the ISIL incursion into Iraq, and its subsequent gains of both territory and equipment, have helped it gain traction among jihadists throughout the region.
However, Roggio cautioned that the gains in support made by ISIL from its lightning strikes in Iraq has not altered the fundamental divide between the group and central al Qaeda.
“The defection of Al Nusra at Albu Kamal is due to the current situation on the border,” he said in an interview. “All the official branches of al Qaeda have come out in support of [Ayman] al Zawahiri and central al Qaeda. There’s been no major defections.”
Pro-al Qaeda forces have criticized ISIL in recent days for the group’s collaborating with former Saddam Hussein military and political leaders in the recent incursion.
According to an ISIL fighter, Abu Bakr al Janabi, ISIL collaborated with former Saddam military personnel, including former commander Izzat al Duri and groups affiliated with the former Baathist regime in Baghdad, during the recent takeover of areas in Iraq. Janabi told Kuwait’s Al Ray newspaper that working with the Baathists was justified since both are fighting a common enemy.
In a related development, the North African al Qaeda affiliate, Al Qaida in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), also reportedly pledged alignment with ISIL on June 25.
The AQIM statement was posted as a video and disseminated on Twitter. In the video, an AQIM terrorists states that “we declare to Muslims in general and all the honest mujahideen on all fronts that we saw the righteousness in the ideology of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.”
“Their ideology does not bargain over religion and does not fear anyone’s criticism,” it stated. “Their ideology implemented sharia as a reality and denounced all the borders set by tyrants on maps. … We believe that the most important thing the Islamic State did, after spreading monotheism, is implementing the Sharia.”
The loyalty shift highlights the growing rift between al Qaeda central, currently headed by Ayman al Zawahiri, and the more radical ISIL.
Zawahiri has issued several statements in recent weeks seeking to patch the differences. However, ISIL has rejected the overtures and its bold incursion into Iraq has given it greater military and ideological strength, analysts say.
In other Iraq developments, the Iraqi government announced that its forces had taken full control over the Bayji oil refinery and that ISIL fighters at the plant had been defeated.
However, ISIL militants took over an Iraqi oilfield at Ujayl in the northwestern part of the town. Oil production was reportedly halted after ISIL took control over large sections of Tikrit.
Fighting between ISIL and Iraqi security forces continued Friday after Baghdad military forces raided the University of Tikrit and reportedly killed scores of ISIL terrorists.
Clashes were also reported between ISIL and Iraqi forces north of Baghdad northeast of Baqubah.
ISIL fighters conducted a vehicle parade through the northern Iraqi city of Al Hawija, southwest of Kirkuk, which included a reported 300 military vehicles and non-military pickup trucks bearing the ISIL banner carried by masked fighters.

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