Archive for July, 2014

Syria rebels advance towards Hama military airport


BEIRUT – Syrian rebels pressed on with a fresh advance in the central province of Hama, as they bid to take out its military airport, a rebel commander and a monitor said Tuesday.

“The rebels are now nine kilometers (six miles) away from Hama military airport, which they want to put out of action,” said Syrian Observatory for Human Rights director Rami Abdel Rahman.

A rebel leader in the area, who gave his name as Hassan, said Hama military airport was important because “that is where the regime makes its barrel bombs, and warplanes take off from there to carry out air strikes on (opposition-held) areas across Syria”.

Barrel bombs have killed hundreds of civilians, especially in rebel areas of the divided northern city of Aleppo, in recent months.

According to the Observatory, rebels and their Al-Qaeda ally, the Al-Nusra Front, took over a major checkpoint north of Hama city, which is firmly under regime control, on Monday night.

The takeover of the checkpoint at Tarabih comes on the back of Sunday’s capture of a weapons depot in the area.

“The regime has suffered several defeats in Hama province in recent days,” said Abdel Rahman.

As they have advanced, rebels have cut off the road linking Hama city, the provincial capital, to a string of regime-controlled Christian and Alawite villages in the west of the province, he added.

According to Hassan, the regime is sending reinforcements.

“They are stepping up their troop presence here, which will limit the regime’s capabilities in other areas, such as Aleppo”, said the rebel commander.

As for the military airport: “We are already striking it with Grad missiles”, said Hassan.

The air force has used deadly barrel bombs, which are being manufactured in Hama military airport, to strike opposition-controlled areas across Syria for many months.

In Aleppo alone, air strikes including barrel bomb attacks have since December killed hundreds of civilians including children, and forced thousands of families to flee, as the regime has unleashed a massive aerial offensive there.

Rights groups have hit out at the regime for its use of barrel bombs, which they describe as failing to discriminate between civilian and military targets.

Syria’s war has killed more than 170,000 people and forced nearly half the population to flee their homes.

Source: Middle East Online.


Jihadists advance amid escalation in Syria anti-regime offensive


BEIRUT – The extremist Islamic State (IS) on Sunday seized an army position in the northeast Syrian city of Hasakeh, amid a major escalation in the jihadist offensive against regime bases, a monitor said.

On another front in Syria’s complex civil war, rebels seeking President Bashar al-Assad’s ouster captured a weapons depot in Hama province, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Just south of Hasake city, “IS jihadists took over the army Regiment 121 at Maylabiyeh, after fierce clashes with regime troops”, said the Britain-based Observatory, adding that the battle lasted three days.

On twitter, supporters of IS, which first emerged in Syria’s war in spring 2013, celebrated the army position’s “liberation” at the hands of the jihadists.

The latest advance comes a day after IS took over Division 17 in Raqa province. According to the Observatory, at least 85 regime troops were killed during the IS takeover, among them more than 50 who were executed after their capture.

But also on Saturday, the regime recaptured the Shaar gas field in Homs province. The field had fallen into IS’ hands nearly two weeks ago, and the jihadists killed some 270 guards, pro-regime paramilitary and civilian employees there.

While IS has escalated its offensive against the regime in some parts of Syria in the past fortnight, it has been at open war against rebels seeking President Bashar al-Assad’s ouster since January.

On another front, rebels in Hama province captured Khattab and Rahbeh villages, taking over arms depots there, said Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman.

Rebels, he added, are now “advancing towards Hama military airport”, which is a key army position and home to one of the country’s most feared prisons.

Amateur video posted by activists on YouTube showed some of the weapons seized by the rebels in Hama, among them rockets, ammunition and mortars.

The Observatory meanwhile said the toll from a Saturday car bomb in Atme, on the Turkish border, rose to seven, among them an Islamist rebel commander.

Another seven were killed in a separate car bomb on Saturday in Azaz, also on the Turkish border, the group said.

Syria’s war has killed more than 170,000 people in three years, and forced nearly half the population to flee their homes.

Source: Middle East Online.


Jabhat al-Nusra, IS compete for foreign fighters

Mohammed al-Khatieb

July 18, 2014

ALEPPO, Syria — Jabhat al-Nusra did not deny the authenticity of the audio recording attributed to its leader Abu Mohammad al-Golani, in which he announced that he is seeking to establish an Islamic emirate in the areas where his militants are deployed. However, a statement issued on July 12 by the Manara al-Bayda, Jabhat al-Nusra’s media channel, implicitly affirmed the authenticity of the recording and announced clearly that Jabhat al-Nusra is “seeking to establish an Islamic emirate,” adding, “We have yet to declare its establishment.”

According to the Aleppo Media Center, Jabhat al-Nusra’s leadership and militants held a high-profile meeting to discuss the restructuring of the organization. During the meeting, the attendants were surprised to see Golani unveil his face and promise his soldiers that they would establish an Islamic emirate.

The statement ended all doubts about the authenticity of the audio recording. The similarities between the wording of the statement and Golani’s speech were striking, with Golani saying, “We will not allow any person to reap the fruits of your jihad, whatever happens to us.”

Jabhat al-Nusra is trying to pull the rug from under the feet of its jihadist rival, the Islamic State (IS, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham), especially following the great losses inflicted upon Jabhat al-Nusra in the last battles of Deir ez-Zor. Jabhat al-Nusra wants to attract “migrants” — or foreign militants who came to Syria for jihad — and put them to work under its leadership. IS’ striking announcement of the establishment of an Islamic caliphate led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on June 30 has galvanized foreign fighters and led them to join IS, which concerns Jabhat al-Nusra.

According to a source close to Jabhat al-Nusra, who spoke to Al-Monitor on the condition of anonymity, “The announcement of the caliphate differs largely from the announcement of the emirate.” He continued, “[The] emirate is established in the areas where militants are deployed. The caliphate, however, is general.”

An important point raised by the source was that the “[establishment of the] emirate does not compel the other factions on the ground to pledge allegiance to the emir. The caliphate state, however, requires all militants to work under the umbrella of the caliphate.”

He continued, “Jabhat al-Nusra does not want to clash with the other opposition factions with which it shares control over the liberated areas in Syria, especially because it is only a single faction that doesn’t seem to be the strongest among the scores of groups in Syria, such as the Islamic Front, the Mujahideen Army and Ajnad al-Sham. In addition, there are the large number of factions affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, such as the Hazem Movement, Syrian Revolutionaries Front and others. These are deployed along with Jabhat al-Nusra in Aleppo, north of Idlib, Daraa and south of the Rif Damascus governorate.

However, what was striking is that the Manara al-Bayda statement specified a period of 10 days to establish “a role for the judiciary, security stations and the provision of public services to replace the ‘legitimate committees,’ which Jabhat al-Nusra share with other factions to manage the affairs of the liberated areas.” The announcement by Jabhat al-Nusra affirmed that it had withdrawn from the Sharia Council in the rebel-held areas of Aleppo on July 8.

In addition, Jabhat al-Nusra owns an independent services institution called the Public Management for Services. It has been operating since last December in the rebel-held areas in Aleppo, providing residents with water, electricity and other services. It also provides flour for bakeries and fixes the daily damage that befalls the electricity and water networks caused by the continued bombardment of barrel bombs that Aleppo has been suffering for seven months.

Although Jabhat al-Nusra is not accepted by many opposition currents, it nevertheless enjoys a significant popular base that has to an extent helped them to establish the emirate. The residents of Aleppo trust Jabhat al-Nusra because of its militants, who are known for being fierce and determined in their battles against the regime. Moreover, the way it held corrupt brigades accountable for its actions, including militias that rob, extort money and exploit the state of war and its chaos, has led many to support the organization.

Othman, a resident in the al-Mayssar neighborhood in Aleppo, said, “Jabhat al-Nusra sacrificed a lot in its war against the regime and Baghdadi’s state. I think that it has the right to declare the Islamic emirate after hundreds of martyrs fell.”

Safwan, who is still in college and works in the aid field, offered Al-Monitor another point of view, saying, “The fighters have no right to determine the shape of the state, and I don’t think that the time is right to declare the establishment of states and emirates.”

Safwan added, “All efforts should be concentrated on bringing this murderous regime down. When this has been accomplished, the shape of a new state will be determined through ballot boxes, while partisanship and the division of forces will only benefit [President] Bashar al-Assad.”

Despite the poor sound quality, Golani’s audio recording raises many important issues. Golani identified his enemies by saying, “This emirate, my brothers, will take exception with whomever wishes bad things for Muslims. These will be comprised of the regime, the exaggerators, the criminals and the [Kurdistan Workers Party].”

Jabhat al-Nusra is trying to compete with IS to attract jihadis from around the world by announcing its Islamic emirate after IS stole the spotlight with the announcement of the Islamic caliphate.

The possibility of clashes with the opposition factions seems low, especially since Jabhat al-Nusra has good ties with the majority of the factions.

A rebel leader, who wished to remain anonymous, told Al-Monitor that a clash with Jabhat al-Nusra was unlikely in the wake of the declaration of an emirate. According to him, Jabhat al-Nusra is part of Syrian society as the majority of its members and leaders are Syrian. He said, “We had already agreed to only fight Assad’s regime and the corrupted.”

He noted that the potential announcement of the Islamic emirate does not mean the establishment of a state for Jabhat al-Nusra, saying, “There is no region in Syria that Jabhat al-Nusra is controlling alone. Thus, I do not think that our relations will be affected by this announcement.”

Source: al-Monitor.


Gloves come off between Syrian regime, Islamic State

Edward Dark

July 21, 2014

ALEPPO, Syria — The Islamic State (IS), arguably the most dangerous and brutal terrorist group in modern history, now controls more than a third of Syria, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a prominent opposition nongovernmental organization. The group’s stunning victories in Iraq have been repeated in Syria, though to a lesser extent and to even less media attention. IS now controls nearly all of the oil-rich eastern province of Deir ez-Zor, with regime forces controlling only a few pockets. Crucially, after ousting its rival, the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, from the provincial capital, IS is now face to face with regime forces, the two sitting opposite one another on the front lines that divide this largely devastated city.

The undeclared truce between the regime and IS seems to have run its course after both sides achieved all they could in their marriage of convenience. Nothing better illustrates this than the devastating assault launched by IS on the al-Shaer gas field in Homs on July 16 that may have left up to 300 regime troops and civilian employees dead. Meanwhile, the regime continues to launch airstrikes on IS headquarters and training camps in Raqqa, an indication that the gloves are now definitely off.

As IS consolidated its grip on Deir ez-Zor, after a humiliating rout of Jabhat al-Nusra that saw its leader, Safwan al-Hant, captured and killed July 14 while trying to escape disguised as a woman — his own men having reportedly turned him over after defecting — it quickly turned its expansionist intentions elsewhere. IS has also resurfaced in rebel-controlled areas near Damascus, including the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp, and threatens to derail fragile and painstakingly negotiated local cease-fires and agreements.

It is also launching its own campaign in Ghouta against the Islamic Front, headed by the Saudi-backed Jaish al-Islam, whose leader, Zahran Alloush, said that fighting IS is more important than fighting the regime.

IS has not yet attacked regime positions in Aleppo. It is likely waiting for an opportune moment — either after the regime roots out rebels or when it has other fronts under control and can send substantial reinforcements. It is guaranteed, however, that a confrontation is coming soon.

First Lt. Majed, an officer in the Syrian army who has been stationed in Aleppo for a while, spoke with Al-Monitor about the imminent showdown between the regime and IS. “We are ready for them, and we are prepared. We have some of our best military units now in Aleppo that have specifically been trained to combat them and have experience with the tactics they use. And of course, we have our friends, too,” he added with a smile, meaning Hezbollah and Iraqi militias.

The Syrian regime will find in IS a much tougher opponent than the rebel factions it has been fighting. IS fighters are well trained, well armed, ideologically motivated and disciplined — a far cry from some of the ragtag, corrupt and chronically undersupplied militias the Syrian army had previously faced. That IS could make short work of some of the toughest rebel groups on the ground, including Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic Front, must have the regime worried, at least insofar as it would mean even heavier reliance on already overstretched elite foreign troops and militias.

Aleppo remains a prized target for IS, as it would provide the group contiguity of the territory under its control, which stretches across Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor right into Iraq, as well as an enormous cache of financial and human resources. IS has also been engaged in fierce battles with the Kurdish enclaves in the north, as it attempts to wrest control of the strategic border regions. Kobani, in Aleppo province, seems to be firmly fixed in its sights as the group begins its slow sweep from the east.

When asked about a time frame for victory, the Syrian lieutenant was vague. “No one knows. It could be months or years, but we are committed. It’s either us or them. You have seen what those dogs did to people in Iraq. They will do the same here. We won’t allow it,” he said. Majed was referring to the ethnic cleansing and pogroms against religious groups in Iraq, mostly Shiites and Christians, something that would strike a nerve with Majed, as he is a member of the Alawite sect, the Shiite offshoot to which President Bashar al-Assad and many high-ranking regime military and civilian officials also belong.

The lieutenant said that he expected the IS battle in Aleppo “very soon” and that IS would find it tougher going in Aleppo due to the lack of support for the group and the many opponents it faces in the area. “Here it is easier [for the regime’s fighters] than in the east. Here IS has less support, and more enemies. They have Kurds to contend with, as well as other local groups opposed to them. We will drive them out of here soon, just after we finish with the other terrorists [local rebels].”

The Syrian regime had always used “terrorists” as a blanket term with which to label any who oppose it. It now seems that the regime’s version of reality will come true. Indeed, the only forces left fighting against it will be Islamic extremists. If, however, the fortunes of IS continue, the regime might discover that it has bitten off more than it can chew.

Source: al-Monitor.


Assad army loses hundreds of lives to worst massacre in Syria conflict history


BEIRUT – ISIS have killed 270 Syrian regime fighters, civilian security guards and staff since seizing a gas field in Homs province, most of whom were executed, a monitoring group said Saturday.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported that a woman accused of adultery was stoned to death by the Islamic State (IS) in the northern city of Raqa, in the second such case in as many days.

The Observatory described Thursday’s takeover of the Shaar field as “the biggest” anti-regime operation by the IS since the jihadist group rose to prominence last year among rebel groups in the Syrian conflict.

The watchdog said it had documented “the death of 270 people killed in the fighting or executed” since the takeover of the field in central Syria.

“A large majority of the men killed were executed at gunpoint after being taken prisoner following the takeover of the camp,” said Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman.

“Eleven of the dead were civilian employees, while the rest were security guards and National Defense Forces members,” he added.

On Saturday, regime forces, a day after launching a counter-attack, had “re-taken large areas of Shaar”, according to Abdel Rahman. “Fighting is continuing around the gas field”.

The counter-attack had left at least 40 IS militants dead, while 11 soldiers had been killed and 10 others who were injured had been taken to hospital in Homs, said the Observatory, which relies for its information on a network of activists and medics on the ground.

The fate of nearly 100 people who worked at the site remained unknown, according to earlier figures released by the Observatory.

The Syrian government did not officially confirm the deaths, but supporters of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime posted photographs of the dead.

One pro-regime Twitter user said: “Thirty martyrs were brought to Homs hospital from the Shaar gas field… Homs is still bleeding.”

He also branded the killings as a “massacre”, and posted pictures of the dead.

Gruesome footage apparently recorded by ISIS at the gas field and distributed via YouTube showed dozens of bodies, some of them mutilated, strewn across a desert landscape.

One video shows an ISIS member posing with the bodies as he speaks in German interspersed with religious terms in Arabic, seemingly celebrating the killings.

On Friday night on a main square in Raqa, ISIS stoned to death a woman they accused of adultery, the Observatory said, citing residents of their stronghold.

“Because residents refused to take part in the stoning, the IS fighters themselves executed the woman,” it said, adding that they pulled up a lorry filled with rocks for the killing.

ISIS also stoned a young woman to death for adultery in Raqa on Thursday. Abdel Rahman identified her as a 26-year-old widow.

According to a local activist, who said that the public stoning took place in a square in the Raqa provincial town of Tabqa, residents are “terrified but do not dare react to such barbaric methods”.

The IS, which proclaimed a “caliphate” straddling Syria and Iraq last month, has also taken over Syria’s oil-rich Deir Ezzor province.

Deir Ezzor borders Homs province as well as Iraq, where ISIS is involved in a major Sunni militant offensive that has seen large swathes of territory fall out of the Baghdad government’s control.

Source: Middle East Online.


ISIS seize Syria gas field from Syrian forces


BEIRUT – ISIS killed at least 115 Syrian regime fighters, civilian security guards and employees when they seized a gas field in Homs province, a monitoring group said Friday, updating an earlier toll.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights described Thursday’s takeover of the Shaar field as “the biggest” anti-regime operation by the Islamic State (IS) since it emerged in the Syrian conflict last year.

The Observatory also said the fate of another 250 people who worked at the site but went missing during the fighting remains unknown.

“The number of people, most of them security guards and members of the (paramilitary) National Defense Forces, killed in the IS attack on the Shaar gas field in Homs province has risen to at least 115,” said Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman.

Earlier, the watchdog gave a toll of at least 90 killed.

The government did not officially confirm the deaths, but supporters of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime posted photographs of the dead, and branded their killings as a “massacre”.

“Eleven of the dead were civilian employees, while the rest were security guards and National Defense Forces members,” Abdel Rahman said.

The Observatory had initially reported 25 of the killed were civilians, but later revised its toll downwards.

Abdel Rahman also said the men were killed “after they had been taken prisoner”, and that “the fate of more than 250 others, civilians and fighters, remains unknown”.

One pro-regime Twitter user said: “Thirty martyrs were brought to Homs hospital from the Shaar gas field… Homs is still bleeding.”

He also branded the killings as a “massacre”, and posted pictures of the dead.

Gruesome footage apparently recorded by the jihadists at the gas field and distributed via YouTube showed dozens of bodies, some of them mutilated, strewn across a desert landscape.

One video shows a jihadist posing with the bodies as he speaks in German interspersed with religious terms in Arabic, seemingly celebrating the killings.

Abdel Rahman meanwhile condemned the deaths.

“The Observatory condemns summary execution as a war crime, regardless of which side it is committed by in the Syrian conflict,” he said.

“Summary execution is a war crime — whether of civilians or combatants. They are prisoners of war and must not be executed.”

The Islamic State, which proclaimed a “caliphate” straddling Syria and Iraq last month, has also taken over Syria’s oil-rich Deir Ezzor province.

Deir Ezzor borders Homs province as well as Iraq, where the jihadist group has spearheaded a major Sunni militant offensive that has seen large swathes of territory fall out of the Baghdad government’s control.

Source: Middle East Online.


Syria Kurds impose military service amid civil war

July 17, 2014

BEIRUT (AP) — Syria’s Kurds have imposed compulsory military service for their men to help ward off a push by Islamic extremists in the predominantly Kurdish areas in northern Syria, Kurdish officials said Thursday.

The move reflects rising anxiety among Syrian Kurds who fear the ongoing offensive by the Islamic State group in their region may potentially reverse gains made by their ethnic minority in the past three years.

Amid the chaos of the civil war in Syria, the Kurds — a long ostracized community — have made unprecedented gains, carving out their own semi-autonomous territory in northern Syria as overstretched government troops abandoned the region to focus on defending Damascus, President Bashar Assad’s seat of power.

The Syrian conflict started in March 2011 with Arab Spring-inspired protests against Assad’s rule but escalated into a civil war after his forces launched a brutal crackdown on dissent. In November, the Syrian Kurds — who had long tried to stay out of the fight — declared their own civil administration in areas under their control, dividing it into the regions of Afrin, Kobani and Jazeera.

Subsequently, Kurdish fighters known as the People’s Protection Units successfully pushed out jihadis from a string of towns and captured long stretches of territory along the borders with Turkey and Iraq.

But things changed this month, after militants from the Islamic State seized territories straddling the Iraq-Syria border where they declared a self-styled caliphate. Using advanced weaponry they seized from Iraqi forces, the Islamic fighters launched an offensive against the Syria’s northern Kurdish region of Kobani, also known as Ayn Arab, capturing several predominantly Kurdish villages.

The latest round of fighting between the Syrian Kurds and the jihadis, which broke out on July 2, has left dozens of people dead on both sides according to activists. Hundreds of Kurds have flocked from neighboring Turkey to help their brethren, the activists said.

“The Islamic State is reinforcing its positions around us and there are clashes. They are shelling us with tanks,” said Kobani-based Kurdish journalist Barzan Isso. Juan Mohammed, a spokesman for the local administration in the Kurdish city of Qamishli, said the region of Jazeera — the largest of the three Syrian Kurdish territories in size and population — adopted the draft law this week.

The law, which requires that all adult males serve in “self-defense” duty for six months, was approved during a meeting by the legislative council that acts as Jazeera’s local parliament on Sunday. Isso and Kurdish activist Mustafa Osso confirmed the law went into effect this week after it was published in the official Gazette.

The long-run battles between the Syrian Kurds and the Islamic militants have added another layer to the complex Syrian civil war, which has also seen bitter infighting among Sunni rebel factions and a bloody rivalry between the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front and their former allies of the Islamic State.

On Thursday, Syrian government forces pounded the central town of Morek in an attempt to wrest it from rebels, two activist groups said. Military helicopters dropped barrels packed with explosives on the city overnight, said the Local Coordination Committees. More than 20 bombs were dropped by aircraft on the town on Wednesday, reported the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Morek is one of three towns that lie on a strategic highway linking central and northern Syria. Rebels, linked mostly to Islamic groups, have been holding the town for the past four months. Forces loyal to Assad appear to be trying to seize Morek to supply the Wadi Deif military base, which is further to the north.

The Observatory said at least 15 people, including four civilians, were killed in the fighting Wednesday. Over the past year, Assad’s forces have been steadily seizing territory from the rebels. Despite the relentless civil war, Assad was inaugurated for a third term in office in a lavish ceremony Wednesday.

The Syrian conflict has killed at least 170,000 people, a third of them civilians, and displaced some nine million people, a third of the country’s pre-war population.

Aleppo rebels caught between Islamic State and regime

Edward Dark

July 11, 2014

ALEPPO, Syria — “I have to be honest. It is not looking good,” Aleppan Liwa al-Tawhid commander Abu Hammoud told Al-Monitor when asked about the rebels’ preparedness for assaults on Aleppo by the Syrian regime and the Islamic State (IS, formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham).

“Our fear now is without reinforcements and more weapons we will lose Aleppo [city] to the regime, and the [countryside] to the Islamic State,” he said.

Like a helpless lamb fought over by wolves, Aleppo is the major prize of north Syria, and any side that manages to capture the former industrial hub will almost certainly guarantee eventual victory in this long and bloody conflict. The regime and the opposition know this well, as does IS, which also has its eyes on the prize as it plots to expand the territory of its new caliphate and diversify it economically, bolstering it with large population centers. IS has been in Aleppo before and had a fleeting, tantalizing taste of what lucrative gains can be made by controlling it.

The regime’s forces, backed by various local and foreign militias, have made dramatic gains in the last 10 days, taking the strategic Sheikh Najjar industrial zone to the northeast and planning an imminent push into the infantry school and the Handarat camp. Controlling them would mean that rebel-held parts of Aleppo city would be completely besieged and cut off from their main supply routes in the countryside. It is a strategy previously used successfully by the regime in Homs and Damascus, where it yielded results in the form of localized cease-fires and settlements. At the moment, it seems that unless something dramatic changes on the ground, the regime will manage to accomplish this feat and the rebels are quite helpless to stop it. This point was driven home by the opposition Syrian National Coalition as it met recently in Istanbul to elect a new president and warn of the impending fall of Aleppo to regime forces.

Both sides continue to call up reinforcements in the buildup to what will likely be a major showdown. A concern for the rebels: The Liwa Dawud battalion sent to back them up from Idlib has defected and joined IS and may well head their assault in the northern part of Aleppo province. This is now a major concern of the rebel leadership. As the IS menace draws nearer, smaller rebel factions might choose to side with the stronger force and spare themselves a messy and brutal annihilation.

Aleppo’s rebel factions have made attempts to build a unified elite force of 600 men to salvage and protect what areas they still control against both the regime and IS. It’s unclear yet whether such a force is any more than ink on paper or whether it will be effective at all, as previous such attempts have been less than successful. In a rather ominous development, Jabhat al-Nusra, the officially sanctioned al-Qaeda affiliate and one of the strongest rebel factions operating in Aleppo, has withdrawn from the rebel Sharia Council it helped create. The Sharia Council was responsible for running affairs in rebel areas, as well as arbitrating in disputes between factions. It’s still unclear yet what this move will mean, but many see it as a sign of a weakened organization, driven out of its strongholds in Deir ez-Zor by IS, becoming increasingly paranoid and isolated.

IS continues to push slowly but steadily from its eastern strongholds in Manbij and al-Bab. Its next major assault on the northern countryside will most likely begin with the border town of Azaz, as was the case in September 2013.

The embattled Aleppo rebels are becoming desperate and their leadership nervous. Their losses and setbacks on the battlefield have taken a heavy toll on their morale and cohesiveness on the front lines, which were never really all that steady to begin with, given the fractious and often bickering nature of the various rebel groups.

The two major rebel groups left operating in Aleppo are the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated and Qatari-backed Liwa al-Tawhid and the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra. They bear the brunt of defending the various front lines around Aleppo province and inside the city itself.

The Aleppo rebels find themselves in a vice, caught between advancing regime forces and a resurgent IS. With regional and global powers jittery by the meteoric rise of IS in Iraq, funds, weapons and men are increasingly harder to come by. The persistent refrain of the rebels since the beginning of the conflict has been: Send us more and better weapons. It’s unclear, however, if they would actually make a difference at this stage, and the likelihood that they would fall into the hands of IS is very real, not to mention that any nation sending arms to Aleppo’s rebels would also be de facto directly arming al-Qaeda’s official wing in Syria.

Unless there is a dramatic change of fortune for the rebels on the ground, it’s likely that the regime will besiege Aleppo city in the coming weeks, and then force settlements and cease-fires on any remaining rebels still garrisoned inside, as was its successful strategy in Damascus and Homs.

IS will likely push into the north and east countrysides, routing rebels from their strongholds and establishing its authority via rigid and barbaric law, “cleansing” them of any resistance to its rule, marking the end for Aleppo’s rebels.

If Liwa al-Tawhid’s two strongholds of Tall Rifat and Marea fall to IS, then the group is effectively finished. Jabhat al-Nusra will fare no better, as its string of crushing defeats in Deir ez-Zor at the hands of IS means that it has lost many of its men, including those who defected to IS, and important financial resources. The remaining smaller local rebel groups will either be assimilated by IS or completely destroyed.

With the vultures circling overhead, the unhappy residents — what’s left of them — of this once magnificent metropolis now ponder their fate and that of their beloved city. Regardless of which group wins, this city will never be the same again. It will take a decade or more to rebuild and get back on its feet, and maybe a generation or two until the bitter social rifts can heal. But that’s what the Aleppans long for: the end of the war by any means possible, and by whomever.

Source: al-Monitor.


Islamic militants on offensive against Kurds

July 10, 2014

BEIRUT (AP) — Islamic militants using weapons they recently seized in neighboring Iraq intensified an offensive against Kurdish areas in northern Syria as they fight to expand the territory under their control, activists said Thursday.

The clashes came as a Syrian watchdog group said the death toll in Syria’s three-year conflict has climbed to 171,000, reflecting the relentless bloodletting in a civil war that appears no closer to being resolved. Nearly half of the dead were civilians, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Members of the Islamic State group and Kurdish fighters have been fighting each other for a year, but the Kurds were usually the instigators until earlier this month when the balance of power appears to have tipped in favor of the Sunni extremists because of the large amounts of weapons they brought from Iraq into Syria.

Islamic State fighters captured several Kurdish villages and killed dozens of fighters in the area this week, according to activists. The clashes come after the Islamic State group seized territories straddling Syria and neighboring Iraq and declared a self-styled Islamic caliphate. Most of the land was seized in June during a push across Iraq. They captured large amounts of weapons left behind by Iraqi troops including U.S.-made armored personnel carriers, Humvees and artillery.

Kurdish official Nawaf Khalil said members of the Islamic State group are trying to capture an area near the Turkish border that would link it with their positions in eastern Syria. He and other activists said the fighting is concentrated in the region of Kobani, also known as Ayn Arab.

Mustafa Osso, a Turkey-based Kurdish activist who has wide contacts in northern Syria, says the aim of the offensive is to take the entire Kobani area. Osso says those standing against the Islamic State group are mostly members of the People’s Protection Units, the armed wing of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party.

“We have called for support from Kurds around the world,” said Khalil, an official with the party. Osso said jihadi fighters are using mortar shells and artillery captured earlier in Iraq in their attacks on Kurdish areas.

Both Khalil and the Observatory said some of the dead Kurdish fighters were charred without suffering any bullets or shrapnel wounds. The Observatory said the burned bodies “have made doctors suspicious about the type of weapons used.”

On Wednesday, Islamic State group captured three villages near Kobani and pressed forward toward the border town. Kurds are the largest ethnic minority in Syria, making up more than 10 percent of the country’s prewar population of 23 million. They are centered in the impoverished northeastern province of Hassakeh, wedged between the borders of Turkey and Iraq.

Also Thursday, the UN Refugee Agency announced that it began an airlift operation to deliver emergency relief items from Damascus to 50,000 people in Hassakeh. Syria’s conflict that began in March 2011 has led to the displacement of nearly a third of its prewar population of 23 million.

The Britain-based Observatory said in a statement Thursday that 171,000 people have been killed, raising the death toll from the 160,000 it announced in mid-May. It said the dead included 39,036 government forces, 24,655 pro-government gunmen, 15,422 opposition fighters, 2,354 army defectors and more than 500 Lebanese fighters from the Hezbollah militant group that is backing Syrian President Bashar Assad. The rest were mostly civilians.

Meanwhile, the government sent more elite forces to the contested northern city of Aleppo as troops try to besiege rebel-held neighborhoods in the country’s largest city. Aleppo, once Syria’s commercial center, has been carved up since an opposition offensive began in mid-2012.

Aleppo is the last large urban area that Syrian rebels hold after losing territory to government forces in other parts of Syria over the past year. Government troops backed by Lebanese Hezbollah fighters have been steadily seizing control of the city’s entrances in recent days, according to activists in the city.

El-Bahra elected new Syrian opposition leader


ISTANBUL – The Syrian National Coalition, the main exiled opposition group seeking the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad, on Wednesday elected Saudi-based Syrian opposition figure Hadi el-Bahra as its new president.

“Hadi el-Bahra was elected president of the coalition with 62 votes,” the coalition said in a statement on its Facebook page after the early morning vote at the meeting in the Black Sea resort of Sile outside Istanbul in Turkey.

His nearest rival, Mowafaq Nayrabiyeh, won 41 votes, it added.

El-Bahra will have the task of keeping alive the campaign to unseat Assad amid territorial gains by the regime and the rise of the radical jihadist group Islamic State, which the coalition vehemently opposes.

He succeeds Ahmad Jarba, who headed the coalition from July 2013 but failed in efforts to unite the opposition and obtain significant Western military support.

El-Bahra was born in Damascus in 1959, and spent most of his adult life in Saudi Arabia, where he managed several hospitals and businesses.

He headed the opposition delegation to the failed Geneva 2 talks between the opposition and the regime in Switzerland earlier this year.

The Syrian opposition has been riven by internal conflicts linked to disputes between its main foreign sponsors, notably Saudi Arabia and its influential Gulf Arab neighbor Qatar.

But its members are now trying to reach a consensus and end the feuding.

Source: Middle East Online.