Archive for October, 2013

Syrian rebels capture post near Jordan border

September 28, 2013

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian rebels including members of an al-Qaida-linked group captured Saturday a military post on the border with Jordan after four days of fighting, an activist group said.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 26 soldiers were killed in the battle as well as a number of rebels, including seven foreign fighters. The post served in the past as the customs office on the border with Jordan. It was turned into an army post years ago.

The post is on the outskirts of the southern city of Daraa where the uprising against President Bashar Assad’s regime began in March 2011. The uprising later turned into a civil war that killed more than 100,000 people, according to the U.N.

Rebels control multiple areas along the borders with Jordan, Iraq, Turkey and Lebanon as well as the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Also Saturday some U.N. inspectors left their hotel in Damascus in one vehicle to an unknown location, according to an Associated Press photographer at the scene.

The U.N. said Friday its team of weapons experts currently in Syria will investigate seven sites of alleged chemical attacks in the country, four more than previously known. The announcement came hours before the U.N. Security Council voted unanimously to secure and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile.

The team initially visited Syria last month to investigate three alleged chemical attacks this year. But just days into the visit, the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Ghouta was hit by a chemical strike, and the inspectors turned their attention to that case. The inquiry determined that the nerve agent sarin was used in the Aug. 21 attack, but it did not assess who was behind it.

The U.S. says more than 1,400 people were killed in the attack while activists gave a smaller number but still in the hundreds. The UN team of investigators expects to finalize its activities in the country by Monday, a U.N. statement said.

On Thursday, the world’s chemical weapons watchdog adopted a U.S.-Russian plan that lays out benchmarks and timelines for cataloging, quarantining and ultimately destroying Syria’s chemical weapons, their precursors and delivery systems.

The Security Council resolution enshrines the plan approved by Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, making it legally binding. The agreement allows the start of a mission to rid Syria’s regime of its estimated 1,000-ton chemical arsenal by mid-2014, significantly accelerating a destruction timetable that often takes years to complete.

A draft of the OPCW decision obtained by The Associated Press calls for the first inspectors to be in Syria by Tuesday.

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UN votes to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons

September 28, 2013

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The U.N. Security Council voted unanimously Friday night to secure and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile, a landmark decision aimed at taking poison gas off the battlefield in the escalating 2 1/2-year conflict.

The vote after two weeks of intense negotiations marked a major breakthrough in the paralysis that has gripped the council since the Syrian uprising began. Russia and China previously vetoed three Western-backed resolutions pressuring President Bashar Assad’s regime to end the violence.

“Today’s historic resolution is the first hopeful news on Syria in a long time,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the council immediately after the vote, but he and others stressed that much more needs to be done to stop the fighting that has left more 100,000 dead.

“A red light for one form of weapons does not mean a green light for others,” the U.N. chief said. “This is not a license to kill with conventional weapons.” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the “strong, enforceable, precedent-setting” resolution shows that diplomacy can be so powerful “that it can peacefully defuse the worst weapons of war.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stressed that the resolution does not automatically impose sanctions on Syria. The resolution calls for consequences if Syria fails to comply, but those will depend on the council passing another resolution in the event of non-compliance. That will give Assad ally Russia the means to stop any punishment from being imposed.

As a sign of the broad support for the resolution, all 15 council members signed on as co-sponsors. For the first time, the council endorsed the roadmap for a political transition in Syria adopted by key nations in June 2012 and called for an international conference to be convened “as soon as possible” to implement it.

Ban said the target date for a new peace conference in Geneva is mid-November. Whether the council can remain united to press for an end to the conflict remains to be seen. “We know despite its clear usefulness, one resolution alone will not save Syria,” France’s Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said after the vote.

Syria’s U.N. Ambassador Bashar Ja’afari accused unnamed nations of already giving the resolution a negative interpretation and trying to “derail it from its lofty purposes.” And Republican senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who have been harshly critical of Obama’s policy on Syria, dismissed the resolution as “another triumph of hope over reality.” It “contains no meaningful or immediate enforcement mechanisms, let alone a threat of the use of force for the Assad regime’s non-compliance,” they said in a statement that was highly skeptical that Russia would ever approve a threat of force for non-compliance.

The vote came just hours after the world’s chemical weapons watchdog adopted a U.S.-Russian plan that lays out benchmarks and timelines for cataloging, quarantining and ultimately destroying Syria’s chemical weapons, their precursors and delivery systems.

The Security Council resolution enshrines the plan approved by Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, making it legally binding. The agreement allows the start of a mission to rid Syria’s regime of its estimated 1,000-ton chemical arsenal by mid-2014, significantly accelerating a destruction timetable that often takes years to complete.

Kerry said the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile will begin in November and be completed as called for by the middle of next year. “We expect to have an advance team on the ground (in Syria) next week,” OPCW spokesman Michael Luhan told reporters at the organization’s headquarters in The Hague, Netherlands immediately after its 41-member executive council approved the plan.

The OPCW plan gives Damascus a week to provide detailed information on its arsenal, including the name and quantity of all chemicals in its stockpile; the type and quantity of munitions that can be used to fire chemical weapons; and the location of weapons, storage facilities and production facilities. All chemical weapons production and mixing equipment should be destroyed no later than Nov. 1.

The Security Council resolution does not assign blame for any chemical attack. Some Western countries had wanted the draft to demand that the perpetrators of chemical weapons attacks be referred to the International Criminal Court to be prosecuted for war crimes. Diplomats said this was discussed, but Russia objected.

As a result, the draft says only that the Security Council “expresses its strong conviction that those individuals responsible for the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic should be held accountable.”

The recent flurry of diplomatic activity followed the Aug. 21 poison gas attack that killed hundreds of civilians in a Damascus suburb, and by President Barack Obama’s threat of U.S. strikes in retaliation.

After Kerry said Assad could avert U.S. military action by turning over “every single bit of his chemical weapons” to international control within a week, Russia quickly agreed. Kerry and Lavrov signed an agreement in Geneva on Sept. 13 to put Syria’s chemical weapons under international control for later destruction, and Assad’s government accepted.

Tough negotiations, primarily between Russia and the United States, followed on how Syria’s stockpile would be destroyed. The U.N. resolution’s adoption was assured when the five veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council — Russia, China, the United States, France and Britain — signed off on the text on Thursday.

Russia and the United States had been at odds over the enforcement issue. Russia opposed any reference to Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which allows for military and nonmilitary actions to promote peace and security.

The final resolution states that the Security Council will impose measures under Chapter 7 if Syria fails to comply, but this would require adoption of a second resolution. It bans Syria from possessing chemical weapons and condemns “in the strongest terms” the use of chemical weapons in the Aug. 21 attack, and any other use. It also would ban any country from obtaining chemical weapons or the technology or equipment to produce them from Syria.

Kerry stressed that the resolution for the first time makes a determination that “use of chemical weapons anywhere constitutes a threat to international peace and security,” which sets a new international norm.

The resolution authorizes the U.N. to send an advance team to assist the OPCW’s activities in Syria. It asks Secretary-General Ban to submit recommendations to the Security Council within 10 days of the resolution’s adoption on the U.N. role in eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons program.

“Syria cannot select or reject the inspectors,” Kerry said. “Syria must give those inspectors unfettered access to any and all sites and any and all people.” The resolution requires the council to review compliance with the OPCW’s plans within 30 days, and every month after that.

In an indication of the enormity of the task ahead, the OPCW appealed for donations to fund the disarmament, saying it will have to hire new weapons inspectors and chemical experts. To that end, Britain’s foreign minister announced after Friday’s vote that the UK would donate $3 million to OPCW Syria Trust fund.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told the Security Council that China was also prepared to help fund the disarmament mission. Meanwhile, a group of U.N. inspectors already in Syria investigating the alleged use of chemical weapons said Friday they are probing a total of seven suspected attacks, including in the Damascus suburb where hundreds were killed last month. That number was raised from three sites previously.

The OPCW destruction plan calls on Syria to give inspectors unfettered access to any site suspected of chemical weapons involvement, even if Syria’s government did not identify the location. That gives the inspectors unusually broad authority.

Associated Press writers Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands, Toby Sterling in Amsterdam, Amir Bibawy at the United Nations and Albert Aji in Damascus contributed to this report.

Syrian rebel groups break with exiled opposition

September 25, 2013

BEIRUT (AP) — Nearly a dozen of Syria’s powerful rebel factions, including one linked to al-Qaida, formally broke with the main opposition group in exile Wednesday and called for Islamic law in the country, dealing a severe blow to the Western-backed coalition.

The new alliance is a potential turning point, entrenching the schism within the rebellion and giving President Bashar Assad fuel for his long-stated contention that his regime is battling Islamic extremists in the civil war.

The Turkey-based Syrian National Coalition — the political arm of the Free Syrian Army rebel group — has long been accused by those fighting inside Syria of being a puppet promoted by the West and Gulf Arab states supporting the Syrian rebellion.

Wednesday’s public rejection of the coalition’s authority will likely be extremely damaging for its future in Syria, particularly at a time when the U.S. and Russia are pushing for peace talks. “If the groups involved stand by this statement, I think this could be a very big deal — especially if it develops into a more-structured alliance instead of just a joint position,” said political analyst Aron Lund.

“It basically means that some of the biggest mainstream Islamist forces within the so-called FSA are breaking up with the political leadership appointed for them by the West and Gulf states, to cast their lot with more hard-line and anti-Western Islamists,” he said.

The announcement came less than two weeks after the coalition elected an interim prime minister, Ahmad Touma, charging him with organizing governance in opposition-held territories that have descended into chaos and infighting.

In a joint statement, 11 rebel groups that are influential in Aleppo province in the north, including Jabhat al-Nusra, which is listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department, said they rejected the authority of the Syrian National Coalition as well as Touma’s appointment.

A video on the Internet showed Abdel-Aziz Salameh, political chief of the Liwaa al-Tawheed brigade that is particularly strong in the northern city of Aleppo, reading the statement. “These forces call on all military and civilian forces to unite under a clear Islamic framework based on Sharia law, which should be the sole source of legislation,” the signatories said.

Ominously, the rebel groups’ statement was titled “Communique No. 1,” a term used in Arab countries following military coups that suggests the creation of a new leadership body. It said the rebels do “not recognize” any future government formed outside Syria, insisting that forces fighting inside the country should be represented by “those who suffered and took part in the sacrifices.”

The statement highlighted the growing irrelevance of the coalition and its military arm headed by Gen. Salim Idris, who leads the Supreme Military Council supported by the West, amid increasing radicalization in Syria. The group is seen by many as being out of touch.

Veteran opposition figure Kamal Labwani, a member of the coalition, said the U.S. decision to back away from military intervention in retaliation to the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack near Damascus and the perceived Western indifference to Syrian suffering was turning fighters in Syria into “monsters.”

“We as a coalition are very removed from the ground now. There is no geographic spot we can enter in the liberated areas. The situation is worse than you can ever imagine,” he said. Najib Ghadbian, the Syrian National Coalition’s U.N. representative, acknowledged in an interview with AP Television News that there was a “growing rift” between the mainstream FSA and extremist groups. He said Idris had cut short a trip to Paris to deal with the rebel announcement.

The U.S. decision had created “a lot of frustration,” he added. “The longer we wait, the more … difficult it is going to become,” Ghadbian said in New York. “Nothing is going to be, in fact, left to save of Syria.”

For many rebels, the realization that even a chemical weapons attack would not trigger military intervention by the West has led to more radicalization. Last week, al-Qaida militants expelled FSA fighters from a town near the Turkish border after some of the worst clashes between the two sides. An al-Qaida commander in the north was assassinated by FSA fighters a day later.

Wednesday’s statement came hours after a delegation from the coalition, headed by Ahmad al-Jarba, met U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in New York. It also came as a team of experts arrived in Damascus to continue investigating allegation on the use of chemical weapons in the civil war.

The U.S. and Russia have been pushing for a peace conference in Geneva. One opposition figure said the rebel announcement breaking from the coalition may be related to concerns it may agree to go to the talks.

“It is part of political jostling for representation ahead of any talks,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the he was not authorized to talk about the discussions under way in New York.

Al-Jarba met Wednesday with U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi in New York. Al-Jarba said the coalition expressed readiness to attend talks in Geneva aimed at establishing a transitional government with full executive powers and a clear timetable for an agreement that those in Assad’s regime responsible for war crimes against civilians would be held accountable and not be part of a future democratic Syria.

“The time has come to end the conflict in Syria,” said al-Jarba, according to a coalition statement. It was not immediately clear if the coalition was relinquishing its previous demand that Assad step down ahead of such talks.

A U.S. official said the United States and its allies were discussing the rebel announcement, adding it’s too early to tell what the impact will be. Another U.S. official said the U.S. and its allies are increasingly concerned by infighting between the FSA and al-Qaida militants in northern and eastern Syria.

Both spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss Kerry’s meetings. The opposition has long been hobbled by divisions between those in exile and the disparate rebel groups fighting Assad’s regime in Syria’s civil war, which has killed over 100,000 since March 2011.

The insurgency has increasingly drawn jihadis from all over the world, further adding to the West’s reluctance to get militarily involved in the Syrian conflict or send advanced weapons to the rebels. There is growing concern among moderates that the dominant role the extremists are playing is discrediting the rebellion.

Among the signatories of Wednesday’s statement are the Islamist-leaning Ahrar al-Sham and Liwaa al-Islam brigades, both powerful rebel factions with large followings on the ground, as well as the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front. Three of them — the Liwaa al-Tawheed, the Liwaa al-Islam, and the Suqour al-Sham — have until now been part of the Free Syrian Army, considered to be the Coalition’s military wing.

Growing rebel infighting may further complicate the work of U.N. chemical weapons inspectors who face enormous challenges on the ground, including maneuvering between rebel- and government-controlled territory.

A team of experts arrived Wednesday in Damascus to continue investigating what officials from the world organization have described as “pending credible allegations” of the use of chemical weapons. The visit of the six-member team, led by Swedish expert Ake Sellstrom, follows a report by the inspectors after a previous trip. The report said the nerve agent sarin was used in an Aug. 21, attack near Damascus.

The U.S. and its allies say Assad’s regime was behind the attack that killed hundreds of people. Damascus and its ally, Moscow, blame the rebels for the attack. The U.N. experts will be investigating three alleged uses of chemical weapons earlier this year and seeking information on three alleged incidents last month.

U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said the mission will discuss with the Syrian government “information that it may possess regarding allegations it reported on the use of chemical weapons” in incidents on Aug. 22, 24 and 25.

He said the inspectors will visit the village of Khan al-Assal near Aleppo to probe a March 19 incident, as well as two other sites. The inspectors identified them in last week’s report as Sheik Maqsood and Saraqueb.

Also Wednesday, activists said Kurdish gunmen captured the village of Hmaid in the northeastern province of Hassakeh after heavy fighting with members of al-Qaida’s Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and Nusra Front. It came nearly an hour after Kurdish gunmen took the nearby village of Dardara.

Omar Mushaweh, a spokesman for Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood group which is part of the coalition, blasted the rebel statement and said the infighting is dividing the rebellion at a critical time. “The only one who benefits from these side wars is the regime,” he said.

Associated Press writer Mathew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.

Syrian rebel groups slam Western-backed opposition

September 25, 2013

BEIRUT (AP) — More than a dozen key Syrian rebel groups said Wednesday that they reject the authority of the Western-backed opposition coalition, as U.N. inspectors returned to the country to continue their probe into chemical weapons attacks.

In a joint statement, 13 rebel groups including a powerful al-Qaida-linked faction but also more mainstream forces slammed the Turkey-based Syrian National Coalition, saying it no longer represents their interests.

The statement reflects the lack of unity between the political opposition, based in exile, and the disparate rebel groups fighting President Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria’s civil war, which has killed over 100,000 people so far. It also highlights the growing irrelevance of the Coalition and its military arm headed by Gen. Salim Idris, who heads the Supreme Military Council supported by the West, amid increasing radicalization on the ground in Syria.

The rebel groups’ statement was titled “Communique No. 1,” a term used before in Arab countries following military coups that suggests the creation of a new leadership body. A video released on the Internet showed Abdel-Aziz Salameh, political chief of the Liwaa al-Tawheed brigade that is particularly strong in the city of Aleppo, reading the statement.

Syria’s rebel movements vary greatly in their levels of internal organization, and it was not possible to immediately verify whether the other signatories’ leader or fighters on the ground had approved the statement. But there were no immediate reports that any of them had rejected it.

The signatories called on all military and civilian forces “to unite under a clear Islamic framework based on Shariah law, which should be the sole source of legislation”— an apparent reference to the al-Qaida faction’s aspirations to create an Islamic state in Syria.

It said the rebels do “not recognize” any future government formed outside Syria, insisting that forces fighting on the ground should be represented by “those who suffered and took part in the sacrifices.”

But the rebels themselves are also deeply divided, with many groups blaming jihadis and al-Qaida militants in their ranks for the West’s reluctance to intervene militarily in Syria or give them the advanced weapons they need. There is also growing concern that the dominant role the extremists are playing is discrediting the rebellion.

Yet the jihadis, including members of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, an al-Qaida offshoot, have been some of the most effective forces on the battlefield, fighting alongside the Western-backed Free Syrian Army to capture military facilities, strategic installations and key neighborhoods in cities such as Aleppo and Homs.

Among the signatories are the Islamist-leaning Ahrar al-Sham and Liwaa al-Islam brigades, both powerful rebel factions with large followings on the ground, as well as the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front. Three of them — the Liwaa al-Tawheed, the Liwaa al-Islam, and the Suqour al-Sham — have until now been part of the Free Syrian Army, considered to be the Coalition’s military wing.

Abdelbaset Sieda, a senior member of the Coalition, said the group learnt about the rebel statement from the media, adding that contacts were under way to determine how to deal with it. Growing rebel infighting may further complicate the work of U.N. chemical weapons inspectors who face enormous challenges on the ground, including maneuvering between rebel- and government-controlled territory. A team of experts arrived in Damascus on Wednesday to continue investigating what officials from the world organization have described as “pending credible allegations” of the use of chemical weapons in Syria’s civil war.

The visit of the six-member team, led by Swedish expert Ake Sellstrom, follows a report by the inspectors after their previous trip in September, which said nerve agent sarin was used in an Aug. 21, attack near the capital, Damascus.

The U.S. and its allies say Assad’s regime was behind the attack, and Washington said it killed 1,400 people. Syrian activist groups gave significantly lower death tolls, but still in the hundreds. Damascus blames the rebels for the attack, and Russia, a close ally of Assad, said the U.N. report did not provide enough evidence to blame the Syrian government. It has also demanded that U.N. inspectors probe other attacks that allegedly included chemical agents.

The United States and Russia brokered an agreement for Syria to give up its chemical weapons but U.N. diplomats say they are at odds on details of a Security Council resolution spelling out how it should be done and the possible consequences if Syria doesn’t comply.

In a speech at the U.N. on Tuesday, President Barack Obama challenged the Security Council to hold Syria accountable if it fails to live up to its pledges. “If we cannot agree even on this,” Obama said, “then it will show that the United Nations is incapable of enforcing the most basic of international laws.”

A statement by the U.N. on Tuesday said the inspectors will use their new visit to gather evidence from the alleged chemical weapons attack on March 19 on the village of Khan al Assal outside the city of Aleppo, which was captured by the rebels in July.

Wednesday’s rebel announcement, carried by the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, came almost two weeks after the SNC, the main Western-backed opposition coalition, in Turkey elected Ahmad Saleh Touma as the opposition’s interim prime minister.

Syrian rebels have been deeply divided and clashes between rival groups over the past months left hundreds of people dead, mostly in northern and eastern Syria. Rebels also say they have been demoralized and disenchanted with the West ever since Obama backed away from military strikes against Damascus over the Aug. 21 attack.

Syria’s conflict has taken on increasingly sectarian tones in the past year, pitting predominantly Sunni Muslim rebels against members of Assad’s minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

Aid group: Syrian children at risk of malnutrition

September 24, 2013

BEIRUT (AP) — As Syria’s civil war rages into its third year, millions of children in the country are at risk of malnutrition and face severe food shortages, an international aid organization has warned.

Save the Children said four million Syrians — more than half of them children — are unable to produce or buy enough food. Thousands are trapped in battle zones in and around Syria’s major cities, such as Aleppo in the north and in the central city of Homs, cut off from access to all but the bare minimum foodstuffs needed to survive, the U.S.-based group said in a dramatic report released Monday.

Food shortages are compounded by an explosion in prices of basic staples, the group said, adding that one in 20 children in areas around the capital of Damascus is severely malnourished. Ever since the conflict erupted in March 2011, leading aid groups have demanded that the warring sides — Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces and the rebels fighting to overthrow his regime — enable access to civilians trapped in the fighting. More than 100,000 people have been killed in the conflict and millions have been uprooted from their homes.

But their calls have consistently met obstacles. “The world has stood and watched as the children of Syria have been shot, shelled and traumatized by the horror of war,” said Roger Hearn, Save the Children’s regional director for the Middle East. “The conflict has already left thousands of children dead, and is now threatening their means of staying alive.”

The United States and Russia brokered an agreement for Syria to give up its chemical weapons but U.N. diplomats say they are at odds on details of a Security Council resolution spelling out how it should be done and the possible consequences if Syria doesn’t comply.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Tuesday that U.N. chemical weapons inspectors would return to Syria as soon as Wednesday. In Damascus, however, a government official said the issue of the inspectors’ return to Syria and its timing was “still under discussion.” The official spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

On their previous trip to the country, the U.N. team led by Swedish expert Ake Sellstrom complied a report that said nerve agent sarin was used in the Aug. 21 attack near Damascus. The U.S. and its allies say Assad’s regime was behind the attack, which according to Washington killed 1,400 people. Activist groups say the death toll was significantly lower, but still in the hundreds.

Damascus blames the rebels for the attack, and Russia, a close ally of Assad, said the U.N. report does not provide enough evidence to blame the Syrian government. It has also demanded that U.N. inspectors probe other attacks that allegedly included chemical agents.

“We are pleased that our call for U.N. inspectors to return to Syria to investigate other episodes has brought results,” Ryabkov told the Russian parliament Tuesday, according to state news agency RIA Novosti. He did not elaborate.

On Monday, the opposition Syrian National Coalition accused government forces of tightening their months-long siege in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, where the August attack took place. “Assad’s forces are starving people to death in those areas,” the coalition claimed. “Famine looms in the horizon as more than two million people remain under siege.”

At the U.N., the head of the organization’s World Food Program demanded Monday that a potential cease-fire agreement include access for aid workers. Ertharin Cousin told The Associated Press that an agreement, which will be discussed at the start of the annual U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday, envisions a cessation of hostilities so chemical experts trying to bring Syria’s stockpile under international control can travel across the country, including to many conflict areas where WFP and other humanitarian workers have been unable to bring in desperately needed aid.

WFP is currently feeding 3 million people inside Syria and 1.2 million in neighboring countries. Cousin said the goal is to step up supplies so that 4 million internally displaced people and 1.5 million refugees are getting food by the end of October.

Associated Press writer Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this report.

Commander of al-Qaeda in Iraq and Syria has been killed

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Abu-Abdallah al-Libi, a top commander of al-Qaeda front group The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), has been killed on Sunday in Idlib in northwestern Syria, Al Arabiya television reported.

The Free Syrian Army denied responsibility for Libi’s death.

The militant group is posing growing challenges for the armed opposition fighting to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power and aspire to build a democratic civilian system in the country.

This week the extremist group took control of the Syrian town of Aziz, on the border with Turkey.

Syrian Youth activists had launched an online campaign entitled “ISIS doesn’t represent me.”

“I hope Azaz turns into ISIS’ burial ground,” said one activist posting on Twitter, according to AFP.

“They failed against the Americans in Afghanistan, and against the Iranians in Iraq. Now they are here to bully the Syrians, who are fighting a criminal regime,” said another.

Imposition

An online activist said he feared ISIS would try to impose Islamic law in Azaz.

“Sharia law would only be imposed to allow the killing of people, and we don’t want that,” he said.

Another activist echoed a common claim that ISIS is working hand in glove with Assad’s regime, and was mirroring its methods by “attacking field hospitals, detaining doctors and killing activists.”

Activists said the battle for Azaz began when jihadists broke into a field hospital, searching for a German doctor.

Another version of Wednesday’s events says the fighting broke out when a Northern Storm rebel stepped in to defend a German journalist from being kidnapped by ISIS.

The FSA regained control of the town after heavy clashes. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported Azaz was calm by Thursday, Al Arabiya television reported.

Source: al-Arabiya.

Link: http://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/middle-east/2013/09/22/-Leader-of-al-Qaeda-in-Iraq-and-Syria-has-been-killed.html.

Hundreds of Syria rebels pledge loyalty to Qaeda groups

Reuters

Saturday, Sep 21, 2013

BEIRUT – Hundreds of rebels have pledged allegiance to al Qaeda-affiliated forces in northern and eastern Syria, activists and Islamist sources said on Friday, strengthening the group’s control in the region.

Not only individual fighters, but entire units have joined the small but powerful al Qaeda-linked groups – the Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) – in recent days, according to the sources inside Syria.

“This is a sign the radical groups are still growing in power. This region could fall to the jihadists,” said an activist in the eastern town of Raqqa, who asked not to be identified. “We may see this become a trend.”

Clashes have been intensifying between Nusra or ISIL and the less effective but more moderate forces that make up the majority of opposition fighters, especially in opposition-held territory along Syria’s northern and eastern borders.

At least two entire rebel brigades are said to have joined the Nusra Front in the opposition-held province of Raqqa, which borders Turkey. One of the groups, the Raqqa Revolutionaries, has about 750 fighters in total, according to a source close to Islamist forces who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Another group, the God’s Victory Brigade, said in a statement on Facebook that all of its leaders and fighters had pledged loyalty to Nusra Front.

“God’s Victory Brigade, which is comprise of 15 battalions, had pledged its allegiance to the Nusra Front, giving complete submission (to it) in times of hardship and of ease,” it said.

A video uploaded by activists from Raqqa on Friday showed a massive convoy of fighters on cars and trucks with artillery and machine guns as they waved black flags. The video’s title said it showed a newly unified force of Nusra fighters and other rebel battalions who had recently pledged loyalty.

Western forces have been wary of giving further support or weapons to opposition forces who are not only plagued by internal divisions, but the rising influence of al Qaeda groups.

Sporadic clashes between harder-line Islamists and more moderate rebels are increasingly frequent and activists fear that is weakening the two-and-a-half-year revolt against President Bashar al-Assad. The uprising began as peaceful protests against four decades of Assad family rule but has degenerated into a war that has killed more than 100,000.

While some tensions stem from contrasting ideological outlooks, most rebel-on-rebel fighting is more about control of territory and the spoils of war.

Some activists said the new Islamist loyalty pledges were timed to combat increasing hostility from rival rebel groups, including the Supreme Military Council, the armed wing of the opposition’s Western-backed umbrella leadership abroad.

Many Syrian rebels are attracted to radical units because they are generally more effective than the moderate forces that have Western backing but receive only halting military aid.

Islamists have steady, private sources of funding and incorporate experienced militants, many of them from abroad, who have fought US forces in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Source: AsiaOne.

Link: http://news.asiaone.com/news/world/hundreds-syria-rebels-pledge-loyalty-qaeda-groups.

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