Archive for March, 2017

ANALYSIS: Why Jabhat Fateh al-Sham is lashing out at rebel allies

Thursday 26 January 2017

Al-Qaeda’s former affiliate in Syria has thrown itself into a violent, desperate attempt to impose its will on other rebel groups, but its actions can only polarize and damage the hopes of the Syrian revolution, according to analysts.

Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, the group formerly known as the Nusra Front, this week unleashed its fury on other groups it said were “conspiring” to undermine it by co-operating with the government of President Bashar al-Assad in peace talks in Astana.

It comes as JFS has in the past few weeks failed in a bid to create a new rebel coalition, and found itself isolated and facing a multi-front offensive: Russian, US and Syrian attacks on its positions, exclusion from ceasefire deals – and local JFS commanders are reported to believe that local rebels are now providing coordinates for the strikes.

Its response has been severe: in one day of fighting on Wednesday on the fringes of Aleppo province, JFS attacked with sufficient force to destroy Jaish al-Mujahideen, a group allied with the Free Syrian Army and armed by the US, which had withstood months of bombardment by Assad during the battle for the provincial capital.

But analysts say while JFS had proved its unquestioned military prowess, such action has fractured an already weak rebel front with no guarantee of boosting its own position.

Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, Jihad-Intel Research Fellow at the Middle East Forum, said JFS has grown steadily aware that some rebel groups were actively opposed to its presence in Idlib, the last bastion of rebel power after the fall of Aleppo.

“I think part of this is rooted in JFS’ perception of a conspiracy against it with the broader attempts to isolate the group,” he told Middle East Eye. “There wasn’t really rebel unity in Idlib to begin with.”

The retreat of some groups from Aleppo into Idlib had hardened that perception, he said.

“I have no doubt about the broader attempts to isolate JFS as being a US strategy. And to an extent, you can perceive the effect in the wider [rebel] reluctance to offer JFS condolences for casualties in air strikes.”

The presence of al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in the Syrian opposition has long been the most contentious factor in the country’s six-year civil war.

Reactions to the militant group have ranged from outright opposition to sometimes reluctant cooperation with many other rebels recognizing Nusra, or JFS, as one of the most potent and experienced fighting forces in the country.

JFS began its assault on Tuesday, primarily targeting a base belonging to Jaish al-Mujahideen, a Free Syrian Army group which has previously received CIA support. Clashes then spread to numerous other sites in Syria including opposition strongholds such as Maraat al-Numan, Kafranbel, Saraqeb and Ariha.

Clashes broke out last week between JFS and their erstwhile allies Ahrar al-Sham and other rebel group and unlike previous disputes, appear to have escalated. On Thursday, Ahrar al-Sham, one of the larger forces in the region, said six groups had joined in the face of the JFS onslaught.

On Tuesday, Ahrar al-Sham released a statement criticizing JFS for their attacks on other groups “without any justification or legitimate reason” and said it would help their “enemies” in isolating JFS from the other rebel groups.

“We will join our brothers in the rest of the factions… to prevent JFS (or others) columns to go and attack Muslims and harass them and wrongfully take their blood and money,” read the statement.

Though the statement appeared largely defensive, Syria analyst Charles Lister said on Twitter that Ahrar al-Sham were threatening a “full declaration of war”.

Labib al-Nahhas, a media representative for the group later warned JFS on Twitter that it “either completely joins the revolution or it is a new Islamic State”.

In turn, JFS said in a statement accusing other rebels of involvement in “conspiracies” and being backed by “foreign projects”.

“We attempted to make a coalition, with the open hearts of friendship… even though writers and fatwas said it would be ‘suicide’ to form a coalition with us”, read the statement, released on Tuesday.

“After the coalition failed, bombing by the international coalition began, and we were targeted in several locations. Leaders were also targeted. The message from this is clear: we were first sidelined, and then targeted, while other rebel groups were building close relations with the US”

“We call for the establishment of a single, united Sunni force, both political and military… We stress the importance of working fast and cooperatively to achieve this goal.”

By midday on Wednesday Jaish al-Mujahideen had been effectively destroyed and their bases and weapons confiscated by JFS.

The roots of the fighting

The current round of fighting appears to have been largely sparked off due to an on-going dispute over the presence of another militant group, Jund al-Aqsa, who were absorbed into JFS’s ranks in October.

While Jund al-Aqsa had historically been linked to al-Qaeda, many other rebel groups accused them of being a front for IS and questioned the decision by JFS to allow them to join. This eventually escalated to the point where, after alleging numerous violation by Jund al-Aqsa, Ahrar al-Sham launched an operation to “annihilate” the group at the weekend.

Though JFS announced on Monday that they had expelled Jund al-Aqsa, the damage appears to have been done and violence continued unabated between JFS and other rebel groups, particularly those with representatives currently participating in the Astana negotiations.

Another Ahrar al-Sham spokesperson suggested that JFS attacks on rebels indicated their “external agendas” while prominent JFS leadership figures Abu Hassan al-Kuwaiti and Abu Sayyaf al-Jawfi reportedly quit the organisation over the violence.

These incidents do not mark the first time that JFS has attacked other rebel groups – previously, it had effectively crushed both the Syrian Revolutionaries Front and the US-trained Hazm Movement in northern Syria, while in March 2016 mass protests erupted against JFS after it attacked and kidnapped members of the FSA’s 13th Division.

However, while SRF and Hazm were unpopular organisations heavy links to the US, Jaish al-Mujahideen are much more popular and therefore, according to Lister, could have a much bigger impact.

Following the clashes, rebel groups appear to have started setting out their alliances in different camps. Jaish al-Mujahideen are reportedly in negotiations to join the more powerful Ahrar al-Sham, while the Sham Front, Faylaq al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam also fell on side with the group.

Conversely Nour al-Din al-Zenki appears to have thrown its lot in with JFS.

What then, does this mean for the future of Syria’s rebels?

Hassan Hassan, an associate fellow at Chatham House, said the infighting was not a rerun of 2014, where rebel factions including what was then Nusra united to turn on Islamic State fighters and kick them out of Idlib and Aleppo.

JFS’ actions meant rebels were in fact heading for further fragmentation while JFS consolidated its power: “JFS as an overlord.”

Haid Haid, also an associate fellow at Chatham House, added that JFS was undoubtedly powerful and no one, at this stage, was prepared to directly oppose them.

“JFS has been able to prove once again that they are able to eliminate any threat they might want to and no one will stop them,” he told Middle East Eye.

And any counter plan to eliminate the group, was a long way off.

“Jaish al-Mujahideen and others don’t want to have this fight because they don’t want to do this alone – they know that others were not ready to fight alongside them against JFS.

Haid added that JFS had specifically blamed Jaish al-Mujahideen for providing the US coalition with their location for air strikes and “that’s why they’re being targeted”.

He said that despite the threats against JFS from and other rebel groups, they had largely stood by while JFS eliminated Jaish al-Mujahideen – many groups wanted to see JFS gone, but there was no united front against them.

“Many groups want to see that, but the problem is how to do that – they are not able to start fighting JFS until they see a political solution to the conflict in Syria,” he said.

“They will hope that the international community will have a clear strategy to weaken and eliminate JFS, but at this point it’s quite difficult to imagine what kind of strategy that would be.”

For now, rebels opposed to JFS need to bide their time and re-asses their options.

Tamimi said that there were effectively two paths open to the rebels this stage: get closer to Turkey, which is prosecuting a campaign in northern Syria and considers JFS a “terrorist group”, or get closer to JFS themselves.

“Each option has its pitfalls,” he said. “Neither can achieve the original goal of the revolution at this point, but Turkey is more likely to ensure the survival of more mainstream factions.”

Source: Middle East Eye.

Link: http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/why-jabhat-fateh-al-sham-fighting-other-rebels-syria-1902636393.

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Syrian rebels flock to Ahrar amid fighting with former al-Qaeda group

Thursday 26 January 2017

Syrian Islamist rebel group Ahrar al-Sham said on Thursday six other rebel factions had joined its ranks in northwestern Syria in order to fend off a major assault by a powerful jihadist group.

The hardline Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, once allied with al-Qaeda and formerly known as the Nusra Front, attacked Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups west of Aleppo this week, accusing them of conspiring against it at peace talks in Kazakhstan this week.

Ahrar al-Sham, which presents itself as a mainstream Sunni Islamist group, sided with the FSA groups and said Fateh al-Sham had rejected mediation attempts.

The Ahrar statement said that any attack on its members was tantamount to a “declaration of war”, and it would not hesitate to confront it.

Ahrar al-Sham is considered a terrorist group by Moscow and did not attend the Russian-backed Astana peace talks.

But it said it would support FSA factions that took part if they secured a favorable outcome for the opposition.

Rebel factions Alwiyat Suqour al-Sham, Fastaqim, Jaish al-Islam’s Idlib branch, Jaish al-Mujahideen and al-Jabha al-Shamiya’s west Aleppo branch said in a statement they had joined Ahrar al-Sham.

The Ahrar al-Sham statement also mentioned a sixth group, the Sham Revolutionary Brigades, and “other brigades” had joined alongside these five.

The attack by Fateh al-Sham had threatened to wipe out the FSA groups which have received backing from countries opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, including Gulf Arab states, Turkey and the United States.

While Jabhat Fateh al-Sham has often fought in close proximity to FSA rebels against Assad, it also has a record of crushing foreign-backed FSA groups.

Source: Middle East Eye.

Link: http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/syrian-rebels-flock-ahrar-al-sham-amid-fighting-al-qaeda-linked-group-863457440.

Ex-Qaeda affiliate battles rebels in north Syria

2017-01-24

IDLIB – Al-Qaeda’s former affiliate in Syria battled a range of rebel groups in the north of the country on Tuesday, as the government and opposition wrapped up new peace talks.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor, said the clashes began early in the day with an attack by former Al-Qaeda affiliate Fateh al-Sham Front on a base belonging to the Jaish al-Mujahideen faction.

Fateh al-Sham, previously known as Al-Nusra Front, is listed internationally as a “terrorist” group, despite formally renouncing its affiliation with Al-Qaeda in 2016.

But it has also been a key partner at times for rebel groups in Syria, and it leads a powerful alliance that controls all of Syria’s Idlib province.

Despite the ties, tensions have occasionally flared between the jihadist group and other rebel forces, which accuse Fateh al-Sham of seeking hegemony.

The morning attack prompted further clashes which continued Tuesday afternoon along the border between Idlib province and northern Aleppo province, Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said.

Rockets fired during the fighting killed five members of a family, most of them children and women, he added.

The monitor said Fateh al-Sham had seized territory from rebel groups in Aleppo, while rebels advanced against the jihadist group in Idlib.

There was no official statement from either side on what sparked the clashes, which came after days of tension in Idlib and Aleppo provinces, including infighting between other rebel groups.

But Fateh al-Sham has been hit in recent weeks by a series of deadly air strikes, most believed to have been carried out by the US-led coalition fighting jihadists.

Abdel Rahman said the group appeared to believe that local rebels were providing coordinates for the air strikes.

The latest clashes come as Syria’s government and rebel groups conclude fresh peace talks in the Kazakh capital Astana, building on a ceasefire in force since December 30.

Fateh al-Sham is excluded from the ceasefire and has rejected the negotiating process, creating fresh tensions with opposition groups.

The powerful Ahrar al-Sham faction, a close ally of Fateh al-Sham in Idlib, declined to take part in the talks, saying it wanted to avoid isolating the former Al-Qaeda affiliate.

But on Tuesday, its fighters were battling the group, and a leading Ahrar al-Sham official warned Fateh al-Sham that it was “at a crossroads”.

“It either completely joins the revolution or it is a new Daesh,” said Labib al-Nahhas on Twitter, using an Arabic acronym for IS.

Syria’s civil war has killed more than 310,000 people and displaced millions from their homes since it started in March 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=81055.

In midst of Aleppo wreckage, a Syrian family returns home

January 22, 2017

ALEPPO, Syria (AP) — The street looks as if it was hit by an earthquake and the bombed-out building in a former rebel-held northeastern neighborhood of Aleppo is deserted — except for the second-floor apartment where Abdul-Hamid Khatib and his family are staying.

There is no electricity or running water. The apartment windows are covered with nylon sheets and a hole caused by a shell in the sitting room wall is closed with a piece of metal, pierced by the exhaust pipe for the wood-burning heater.

Khatib and his family are the only occupants of the six-story building and they keep its main gate locked with a metal chain, fearing looters. At night, they fumble around the two-bedroom apartment with candles.

But the family has nowhere else to go. The 56-year-old blacksmith had been jobless for months and could not afford to continue paying rent. He was worried their apartment in Aleppo’s Ansari neighborhood would be completely looted if they stayed away.

“A few days ago a man who brought some stuff over told me, ‘Is it possible that you live here?’ I said where can we go? At least this is our house and no one will ask us to leave,” said Hasnaa, Khatib’s wife.

Life and war have been very unkind to the Khatib family. The eldest son Mohammed was killed in the bombardment of east Aleppo in 2013 and their granddaughter Hasnaa, 4, was killed a year later by a bullet as she played on the balcony of her parents’ apartment. Their son Mahmoud died at work of severe burns while welding a metal container filled with gas.

Since rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Assad stormed east Aleppo in July 2012, the family had to leave the house twice to move to safer areas, before returning back home. But in August 2016, when government forces intensified their offensive on east Aleppo, an airstrike near their home forced them to flee for the third time.

“It was so dangerous and our kids were terrified so we could not tolerate it anymore. We used to tell the gunmen to move away from here but they would not listen to us,” Abdul-Hamid said. In late December, government forces and their allies took control of east Aleppo, bringing the whole city under state control in the biggest victory for Assad since the country’s conflict began in March 2011.

The Khatib family — like many of east Aleppo’s residents — were taken to shelters in the village of Jibrin, just south of Aleppo, where they spent a week before returning to their hometown during the first week of January.

Having little money left to rent an apartment, they returned to their abandoned home in Ansari and fixed it as much as possible. They found many of their belongings looted including the refrigerator, stove, a microwave and seven gas cylinders. When asked who was behind the looting, Khatib blamed both rebels and pro-government gunmen.

The couple now lives in the apartment with their daughter Rasha, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren, Abdul-Hamid and Rimas. Their apartment appears in relatively good shape compared with nearby housing units. The buildings on either side of theirs are uninhabitable. Most buildings in their area are either a pile of metal and stones, or so damaged they’re no longer suitable to live in. Their home now attracts attention from curious passersby as it’s the only apartment on the street with washed laundry hanging from the balcony and wood smoke coming from the heater.

Thousands of other families from east Aleppo have returned to their homes because they have nowhere else to go. Others come in every day to look at their homes and take whatever they can carry with them — especially those in heavily damaged buildings. One neighboring family came to check on their home about 50 meters away and found it could collapse at any moment.

Despite everything, Abdul-Hamid Khatib is optimistic that the situation in his city can only get better. But his wife, Hasnaa, wishes they had fled Syria and joined the nearly four million refugees who settled in neighboring countries, mostly Lebanon and Turkey.

“I feel life was so unjust to me. Although I am alive, I feel as if I am dead,” she said, sitting on a plastic chair in her living room.” I wish we left at the beginning of the crisis, even if we had to stay in the street.”

Almost 180,000 Syrian refugee babies born in Turkey

January 20, 2017

As many as 177,568 babies have been born to Syrian refugees in Turkey over almost six years.

Sources in the Turkish health ministry told Anadolu news agency that about three million Syrians who are subject to the law of temporary protection benefit from health services free of charge across the country’s public hospitals.

According to the same sources, Turkey has established 65 specialized health centers to provide medical services for Syrian refugees while the health ministry will establish an additional 500 centers across the country.

During the period from April 2011 till the end of September last year, Turkish hospitals and health centers have treated millions of cases for the almost three million Syrian refugees living on Turkish soil.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20170120-almost-180000-syrian-refugee-babies-born-in-turkey/.

IS advances on terrified citizens of Syria’s Deir Ezzor

2017-01-18

DEIR EZZOR – As the Islamic State group closes in on Syria’s Deir Ezzor, residents said they are terrified of falling victim to the mass killings for which the jihadists have become infamous.

Besieged by IS since early 2015, the government-held third of Deir Ezzor city is home to an estimated 100,000 people.

Since Saturday, IS has steadily advanced in a fresh assault on the city, sparking fears among residents of widespread atrocities.

“Civilians in the city are terrified and anxious, afraid that IS will enter the city since they accuse us of being ‘regime thugs’,” said Abu Nour, 51.

He spoke by phone from inside the city, roughly one kilometer (less than one mile) from approaching IS forces.

Deir Ezzor sits in the oil-rich eastern province of the same name, most of which is controlled by IS.

Abu Nour said that residents were haunted by previous abductions and mass executions carried out by IS in the broader province.

“The way they killed them is stuck in people’s minds here,” he said.

IS is notorious for using particularly gruesome methods to kill military rivals and civilians alike, including beheading, lighting them on fire, or launching rockets at them from just meters (feet) away.

As the group advanced on ancient city Palmyra in 2015, it killed dozens of civilians, accusing them of being regime loyalists, then staged mass executions of government troops in the city’s theater.

According to one activist group, IS has already begun executing Syrian soldiers it took captive during the clashes in Deir Ezzor.

IS executed 10 soldiers “by driving over them with tanks”, said Omar Abu Leila, an activist from Deir Ezzor 24, which publishes news on the city.

“If IS seizes regime-held neighborhoods, it could carry out massacres. This is a huge source of concern for us,” he said.

– ‘Hunger will ravage us’ –

In its push for Deir Ezzor, the jihadist group has launched salvos of rockets on the neighborhoods it besieged.

“Shells have rained down on us for five days,” Umm Inas, another resident, said by phone.

“There’s very little movement in the street because people are afraid of these shells, which spare no one,” the 45-year-old said.

She warned the humanitarian situation was getting increasingly dire, after the World Food Program said on Tuesday it could no longer carry out air drops over the city because of the fighting.

“If the situation continues like this, hunger will ravage us. The air drops were our only lifeline,” Umm Inas said.

The WFP has been dropping humanitarian aid into Deir Ezzor since April 2016, and the government-held area is the only place in Syria where the agency has permission for the drops.

In the past, government and Russian warplanes have also delivered desperately needed humanitarian aid to the city via air drops.

A medical source in the city said more than 100 civilians had been wounded in the recent fighting, and some were taken north to the Kurdish-majority city of Qamishli.

“Some intractable cases were flown to Qamishli because they need special treatment that isn’t available in Deir Ezzor,” the source said.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=80942.

Key Syria rebel group opts out of Astana peace talks

2017-01-18

DAMASCUS – Key Syrian rebel group Ahrar al-Sham said on Wednesday it will not take part in peace talks between the regime and opposition factions in the Kazakh capital next week.

The group decided not to participate in the negotiations in Astana that start on Monday due to “the lack of implementation of the ceasefire” in force since December 30 and ongoing Russian air strikes over Syria, it said in a statement.

Ahrar al-Sham was among rebel groups that signed the ceasefire deal brokered by regime supporter Russia and rebel backer Turkey last month.

The truce has largely held across Syria although fighting has persisted in some areas, allowing Russia, Turkey and regime supporter Iran to organize the peace talks in Astana.

Ahrar al-Sham said “the regime’s offensive against our people in Wadi Barada”, an area 15 kilometers (10 miles) northwest of Damascus that is the capital’s main source of water, was among the reasons it would not attend the talks.

Assad’s forces have pressed an assault to retake the area from rebels after mains supplies were cut last month, leaving 5.5 million people in Damascus and its suburbs without water.

Ahrar al-Sham said however that it was giving its support to other rebel groups represented at the Astana talks.

Mohammad Alloush, a prominent figure of the Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam) faction, will in Astana head a “military delegation” of around eight people, backed by nine legal and political advisers from the High Negotiations Committee umbrella group.

Russia started air strikes in support of Assad’s regime in 2015.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=80945.