› The Free Syrian Army doesn’t exist | War in Context
Aron Lund writes: Is the FSA losing influence in Syria? How many people are in the FSA? Is the FSA receiving enough guns from the West, or too many? Will the FSA participate in elections after the fall of Bahar el-Assad? What is the ideology of the FSA? What’s the FSA’s view of Israel? Is Jabhat el-Nosra now bigger than the FSA? What does the FSA think about the Kurds? Who is the leader of the FSA? How much control does the central command of the FSA really have over their fighters?
All these and similar questions keep popping up in news articles and op-ed chinstrokers in the Western media, and in much of the Arabic media too.
They all deal with important issues, but they disregard an important fact: the FSA doesn’t really exist.
The FSA was created by Col. Riad el-Asaad and a few other Syrian military defectors in July 2011, in what may or may not have been a Turkish intelligence operation. To be clear, there’s no doubting the sincerity of the first batch of fighters, or suggest that they would have acted otherwise without foreign support. But these original FSA commanders were confined to the closely guarded Apaydın camp in Turkey, and kept separate from civilian Syrian refugees. Turkish authorities are known to have screened visitors and journalists before deciding whether they could talk to the officers. While this is not in itself evidence of a Turkish intelligence connection, it does suggest that this original FSA faction could not, how shall we say, operate with full autonomy from its political environment.
From summer onwards, new rebel factions started popping up in hundreds of little villages and city neighborhoods inside Syria, as an ever-growing number of local demonstrators were provoked into self-defense. The most important recruiting tool for this nascent insurgency was not the FSA and its trickle of videotaped communiqués on YouTube. Rather, it was Bashar el-Assad’s decision to send his army on a psychotic rampage through the Syrian Sunni Arab countryside. As the corpses piled up, more and more civilians started looking for guns and ammo, and the rebel movement took off with a vengeance.
While the new groups almost invariably grew out of a local context, and organized entirely on their own, most of them also declared themselves to be part of the FSA. They adopted its logotype, and would often publicly pledge allegiance to Col. Riad el-Asaad. As a branding operation, the FSA was a extraordinary success – but in most cases, the new ”FSA brigades” had no connection whatsoever to their purported supreme commander in Turkey. In reality, what was emerging was a sprawling leaderless resistance of local fighters who shared only some common goals and an assemblage of FSA-inspired symbols. [Continue reading…]
› US training Syrian rebels in Jordan: report | Al Akhbar
Americans are training Syrian anti-government fighters in Jordan, the German weekly Der Spiegel said on Sunday, quoting what it said were participants and organizers.
Spiegel said it was not clear whether the Americans worked for private firms or were from the army but said some wore uniforms. The training focused on use of anti-tank weaponry.
Some 200 men have already received such training over the past three months and there are plans in the future to provide training for a total 1,200 members of the “Free Syrian Army” in two camps in the south and the east of the country, the report said.
Britain’s Guardian newspaper also reported that US trainers were assisting Syrian rebels in Jordan. British and French instructors were also participating in the US-led effort, The Guardian said on Saturday, citing Jordanian security sources.
Jordanian intelligence services are involved in the program, which aims to build around a dozen units totaling some 10,000 fighters to the exclusion of radical Islamists, Spiegel reported.
“The Jordanian intelligence services want to prevent Salafis (radical Islamists) crossing from their own country into Syria and then returning later to stir up trouble in Jordan itself,” one of the organizers told the paper.
The reports could not be independently verified.
A spokesman for the US Defense Department declined immediate comment on the Spiegel report. The French foreign ministry and Britain’s foreign and defense ministries also had no comment.
› Rebels 'take control of key north Syria airbase' | BBC
Hundreds of FSA fighters - led by the jihadist groups al-Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham and the Islamic Vanguard - have besieged Taftanaz Military Airport in Idlib province since early November.
Helicopters based at the sprawling facility, which lies near the motorway between the capital Damascus and the second city of Aleppo, have been used to bomb rebel-held areas in the north and deliver vital supplies to government forces struggling to halt rebel advances.
Rebel fighters broke into the airbase on Wednesday night after days of fighting, and by Thursday had seized control of more than half of it.
On Friday morning, the Local Co-ordination Committees (LCC), an opposition activist network, reported that the FSA was now in full control.
› Syrian rebels alter strategy as aid stays at arm's length | UPI.com
Syrian rebels have abandoned plans to try to overwhelm the forces of President Bashar Assad and will focus on a war of attrition, members of the opposition say.
The strategy changed after the rebel coalition failed to receive increased military aid, even after getting diplomatic recognition, The Guardian reported Saturday.
Supplies are drying up as Western governments resist arming the rebels, says a Syrian businessman who has helped fund the opposition. Arab countries that have provided equipment are sending less each week.
Consequently, the businessman said, rebel forces no longer see Assad being defeated in a grand sweep through the country. Rather, they are planning their battles one at a time, besieging military bases and capturing weapons.
In the past two months, Western nations including the United States have declared the rebel coalition “the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people,” but have pinned contributions to proof the coalition controls rebel forces and that none of the aid will go to Islamist groups.
Many Syrians have declined to openly support the rebels out of uncertainty over who might win, The New York Times reported.
In some cases, Assad’s crackdown has made protest much riskier. However, there’s also a suspicion the rebellion is spawning warlords and creating cycles of revenge that could be difficult to eliminate, the newspaper said.
› Kurds Fight Islamist Rebels In Syria, Threaten Independence In Iraq | The Agonist
An important and under-reported story from last week:
I’m rather befuddled by how many Middle East watchers are paying all their attention to the new regional petit-Napoleon, Egypt’s Morsi, and to the aftermath of the eight-day conflict in Gaza, while there’s a smouldering powederkeg in the region they’re ignoring.
I wrote about Kurdish unity moves in Syria the other day, and about the Iraqi Arab-Kurdish standoff recently. These two Kurdish issues are now taking on a synergy that threatens to upset everyone’s plans.
› Bin Laden in Syria | Belén Fernández
To ex-members of the anti-imperialist left propelled into the arms of NATO by the Libyan war last year, the conflict now devastating Syria pits the regime of Bashar al-Assad against “the Syrian people.”
Thanks to this brilliantly clear dichotomy, anyone less than gung ho about providing weapons and other forms of support to the Free Syrian Army instantly becomes complicit in mass murder, having forsaken humanity in favor of lazy contrarianism and clichéd Sixties rhetoric.
Assad is entirely deserving of popular wrath, though the Manichean Syrian-people-versus-government distinction excludes Syrian citizens who support Assad despite technically qualifying as people.
Other incongruities arise from “the Syrian people” not being all Syrian. As the New York Times reported back in July:
The evidence is mounting that Syria has become a magnet for Sunni extremists, including those operating under the banner of Al Qaeda. An important border crossing with Turkey that fell into Syrian rebels’ hands last week, Bab al-Hawa, has quickly become a jihadist congregating point.
Of course, Assad has disingenuously endeavored to cast all opposition to his rule as the work of foreign terrorists. But the blanket application of “the people” designation by Assad’s detractors is potentially just as problematic. Should the category “the Afghan people” have been applied to Osama bin Laden in 1986?
Given bin Laden’s post-freedom fighting trajectory, this analogy may seem crass, alarmist, blasphemous. But it does offer a reminder as to what can happen when the enemy-of–my-enemy-is-my-friend formula is pursued with no consideration of the consequences that might follow the elimination of the mutual enemy.
The presence of bin Laden’s progeny among the anti-Assad militants should meanwhile expose the recklessness of cheerleading the FSA as the embodiment of the Syrian people, especially if Syria ends up serving as another training ground for jihadist warfare—something that will naturally affect other people too.
› Syrian Rebels Accused of War Crime
A new video from the Syria conflict that circulated via the Internet on Thursday showed antigovernment fighters armed with rifles kicking and summarily executing a group of prisoners, apparently soldiers or militiamen, in what human rights activists called evidence of a war crime and another indication that both sides were increasingly committing atrocities.
The video, which could not be authenticated independently but still attracted the attention of Amnesty International and other rights groups, appeared to have been made in Saraqeb, a town in Idlib Province in northern Syria that has been the scene of particularly brutal fighting between rebels and loyalists in the 20-month-old conflict.
In the video, 10 prisoners are shown being forced by their captors to lie next to or atop one another in what remained of a largely destroyed structure that may have been a military checkpoint. The antigovernment fighters, whose precise identity or affiliation were not clear, yell “Allah Akhbar!” or “God is great!” as they kick and herd the prisoners into a pile. Then they open fire.
If some of the foreign fighters in Aleppo were callow, others such as Abu Salam al Faluji boasted extraordinary experience. Abu Salam, a rugged Iraqi with a black keffiyeh wrapped around his head, said he had fought the Americans in Falluja when he was a young man. Later he joined al-Qaida in Iraq and spent many years fighting in different cities before moving to Syria to evade arrest. These days he was a commander of the one of the muhajiroun units. … The irony was not lost on Abu Salam how the jihadis and the Americans – bitter enemies of the past decade – had found themselves fighting on the same side again.
Syria: the foreign fighters joining the war against Bashar al-Assad
› Syria: the foreign fighters joining the war against Bashar al-Assad | Ghaith Abdul-Ahad
The amazing Ghaith Abdul-Ahad risked his life, several times, literally, in Aleppo, Syria, to report on the fight against Assad and the fractious FSA.
Soldiers! Soldiers!” The man hissed his warning as he hurried past, two bullets from a government sniper kicking up dust from the dirt road behind him.
It was enough for Abu Omar al-Chechen. His ragtag band of foreign fighters, known as “muhajiroun brothers”, was huddled in the doorway of a burned-out apartment building in the university district of Aleppo. One of the brothers – a Turk – lay dead in the road around the corner and a second brother lay next to him, badly wounded and unable to move. They had been unable to rescue him because of the sniper.
Abu Omar gave an order in Arabic, which was translated into a babble of different languages – Chechen, Tajik, Turkish, French, Saudi dialect, Urdu – and the men retreated in orderly single file, picking their way between piles of smouldering rubbish and twisted plastic bottles toward a house behind the front line where other fighters had gathered.
Their Syrian handler stood alone in the street clutching two radios: one blared in Chechen and the other in Arabic. Two men volunteered to stay and try to fetch the young injured man.
The fighters sat outside the house in the shade of the trees, clutching their guns and discussing the war. Among them was a thin Saudi, dressed in a dirty black T-shirt and a prayer cap, who conversed in perfect English with a Turk sitting next to him. He had arrived the week before and was curious about how the jihad was being reported abroad.
“What do the foreign news organisations and the outside world say about us?” he asked. “Do they know about the fighting in Aleppo? Do they know that we are here?”
Hundreds of international fighters have flocked to Syria to join the war against Bashar al-Assad’s government. Some are fresh-faced idealists driven by a romantic notion of revolution or a hatred for the Assads. Others are jihadi veterans of Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan.
To reach the wars in those countries, foreign fighters had to cross borders with forged passports and dodge secret services. The frontline in Syria is easier to reach via a comfortable flight to southern Turkey and a hike across the border.
According to the Saudi, it was an easy walk from Turkey to the small Syrian town of Atmeh. There, in a hilly landscape flecked with olive groves, the recruits were received by a Syrian who runs a jihadi camp and organised into fighting units. Each team was assigned an Arabic speaker and given 10 days’ basic training, the point of which was not to learn how to shoot but to learn to communicate and work together.
The fighters were then dispersed among the different jihadi organisations, including Ahrar al-Sham (“the Free Men of Syria”) and Jabhat al-Nusra (“the Front for the Aid of the People of the Levant”). Some, like Abu Omar’s Chechens, were allowed to form their own units and simply referred to as the muhajiroun, or “immigrants”. The Syrians refer to the internationals collectively as the “Turkish brothers”.
Read the whole piece.
› Are Iran's drones coordinating attacks in Syria?
From the skies over Syria’s opposition strongholds, activists and fighters know the ominous whine of a pilotless aircraft can signal the imminent thunder of rocket strikes.
A GlobalPost investigation suggests that drones, used by Syria’s military in action for the first time, were supplied to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime by Iran, a proliferation of the technology pioneered by the US and a violation of the international arms embargo on Tehran.
Gathering testimony from security officials, leaked cables, eyewitnesses, weapons experts and diplomats, there is mounting evidence that the Assad regime has used Iranian-supplied drones to coordinate lethal attacks on civilians and rebel fighters in Syria, including the bombardment of a media center in Homs that killed a renowned American journalist earlier this year.
See also (from 1 month ago): Syrian Rebels Put Captured Iranian Drones on YouTube | Danger Room
› America’s Support for Syrian Rebel War Crimes
The fact that the Syrian rebels have committed war crimes has been found and publicized repeatedly for anyone willing to hear it. In May, a United Nations investigation found that rebel militias were committing atrocities along with Syrian government forces. Again in August, the UN “identified both parties as guilty of war crimes.” Human rights organizations like Amnesty International, along with good, hard reporting have revealed a systematic practice among the rebel groups of murder, torture, and brutal massacres.
Now again, Human Rights Watch exposes practices of torture and executions by Syrian rebel forces and urges investigations and pressure for these crimes to stop:
Armed opposition groups have subjected detainees to ill-treatment and torture and committed extrajudicial or summary executions in Aleppo, Latakia, and Idlib, Human Rights Watch said today following a visit to Aleppo governorate. Torture and extrajudicial or summary executions of detainees in the context of an armed conflict are war crimes, and may constitute crimes against humanity if they are widespread and systematic.
Opposition leaders told Human Rights Watch that they will respect human rights and that they have taken measures to curb the abuses, but Human Rights Watch expressed serious concern about statements by some opposition leaders indicating that they tolerate, or even condone, extrajudicial and summary executions. When confronted with evidence of extrajudicial executions, three opposition leaders told Human Rights Watch that those who killed deserved to be killed, and that only the worst criminals were being executed.
Yet, US policy remains aiding and abetting the Syrian rebels. As Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch said, “Those assisting the Syrian opposition have a particular responsibility to condemn abuses.”
Actually, that has already occurred. In early August, White House spokesman Jay Carney was forced to condemn such acts when asked about them. “We strongly condemn summary executions by either side in Syria. We condemn actions like that,” he said, displaying no intention by the administration to try to put a stop to it or to pull support from such unscrupulous groups. Public condemnations are an easy public relations strategy of deflecting responsibilities for the crimes the US supports.
To reiterate, the US is working with allies in the Arab Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar to send the Syrian rebels weapons, intelligence, and other equipment. Our NATO ally Turkey is harboring and even training members of the Free Syrian Army, as our military and intelligence officials are stationed on the Turkish-Syrian border to aid the rebels. It is widely known and even officially acknowledged that the Syrian rebels have a large and growing contingent of al-Qaeda fighters in their ranks. Rather than deter US funding, this has merely prompted the Obama administration to claim, incredibly, that they’re going through a vetting process to ensure aid doesn’t reach the al-Qaeda-linked rebels. But the process is made up of untrustworthy, third-party sources and intelligence officials have recently told the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times that the truth is that the US doesn’t know who is getting the money and weapons.
And anyways, it would seem, from reports like this one from Human Rights Watch, that even rebels that don’t boast membership in al-Qaeda are committing serious crimes. US policy in this regard is both immoral and strategically bankrupt.
In relevant news, Al-Qaeda is now a US ally in Syria
› Syria Rebels Declare Civilian Aircraft Legitimate Targets
Interested in increasing its influence in the region, France is reportedly considering sending rebel factions in northern Syria artillery as well as anti-aircraft guns. They have already confirmed plans to provide funds to several rebel blocs, though not the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
The timing for the anti-aircraft weaponry report couldn’t be worse. Earlier today, the Free Syrian Army announced that they now consider civilian aircrafts to be “legitimate military targets” and say they will attack any airplanes flying over Syria after this weekend.
Several international airlines have already announced that they are withdrawing from Damascus airport, but 14 others remain. The FSA insisted that while they intend to shoot down civilian planes, it would be the regime “and its Russian allies” that are to blame for the resultant deaths.
Several of the Gulf nations that have been arming the rebels have openly resisted sending anti-aircraft weapons to the groups, fearing that this sort of shift might happen. The French government has yet to comment, but this must inevitably force a rethink of any plans they might have for shipping such weapons.
(Source: jayaprada, via randomactsofchaos)
› Inside Daraya - how a failed prisoner swap turned into a massacre | Robert Fisk
The massacre town of Daraya is a place of ghosts and questions. It echoed with the roar of mortar explosions and the crackle of gunfire yesterday, its few returning citizens talking of death, assault, foreign “terrorists”, and its cemetery of slaughter haunted by snipers.
The men and women to whom we could talk, two of whom had lost loved ones on Daraya’s day of infamy four days ago, told a story different from the version that has been repeated around the world: theirs was a tale of hostage-taking by the Free Syria Army and desperate prisoner-exchange negotiations between the armed opponents of the regime and the Syrian army, before President Bashar al-Assad’s government forces stormed into the town to seize it back from rebel control.
Officially, no word of such talks between the enemies has been mentioned. But senior Syrian officers told The Independent how they had “exhausted all possibilities of reconciliation” with those holding the town, while residents of Daraya said there had been an attempt by both sides to arrange a swap of civilians and off-duty soldiers – apparently kidnapped by rebels because of their family ties to the government army – with prisoners in the army’s custody. When these talks broke down, the army advanced into Daraya, six miles from the centre of Damascus.
Being the first Western eyewitness into the town yesterday was as frustrating as it was dangerous. The bodies of men, women and children had been moved from the cemetery where many of them were found; and when we arrived in the company of Syrian troops at the Sunni Muslim graveyard – divided by the main road through Daraya – snipers opened fire at the soldiers, hitting the back of the ancient armoured vehicle in which we made our escape. Yet we could talk to civilians out of earshot of Syrian officials – in two cases in the security of their own homes – and their narrative of last Saturday’s mass killing of at least 245 men, women and children suggested that the atrocities were far more widespread than supposed.
One woman, who gave her name as Leena, said she was travelling through the town in a car and saw at least 10 male bodies lying on the road near her home. “We carried on driving past, we did not dare to stop, we just saw these bodies in the street,” she said, adding that Syrian troops had not yet entered Daraya.
Another man said that, although he had not seen the dead in the graveyard, he believed that most were related to the government army and included several off-duty conscripts. “One of the dead was a postman – they included him because he was a government worker,” the man said. If these stories are true, then the armed men – wearing hoods, according to another woman who described how they broke into her home and how she kissed them in a fearful attempt to prevent them shooting her own family – were armed insurgents rather than Syrian troops. [++]