Monday March 31, 2014, no177
Weekly information and analysis bulletin specialized in Arab Middle Eastern affairs prepared by neworientnews.com
Editor in chief Wassim Raad
New Orient Center for Strategic policies
An American plan for a long war against Syria
By Ghaleb Kandil
The objective of the efforts deployed by the United States, with NATO, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, is to bleed Syria and prevent its recovery, since that alliance has realized that the fall of the regime and the overthrow of President Bashar al-Assad are impossible.
The way to intensify the war against Syria was at the center of discussions of President Barack Obama in Saudi Arabia on Saturday. The statements of U.S. officials who accompanied Obama showed that both parties have agreed to increase the U.S. aid to armed groups in Syria, described as "moderate" by Washington. It is in fact the Islamic Front and the Front al-Nosra, affiliated with Al-Qaeda, whose leader, Abu Mohammad al- Joulani, saw his name removed from the American terrorist list.
Some members of the U.S. delegation reported a training camp project for 600 rebels per month organized by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan and Turkey (the involvement of Turkey no longer needs public statements). The sources said Obama reiterated his refusal to deliver anti-aircraft missiles to the rebel groups. However, the Saudi intelligence services have given the insurgents in recent months, probably with the consent and the support of the U.S. sophisticated weapons, which have recently been used in Qalamoun battles. Large quantities of these weapons have been found in warehouses in this region.
The United States, in cooperation with its allies, want to cause a long war of attrition in Syria, by forming new armed groups, like the Contras in Nicaragua, which were supported and reconstituted despite successive defeats against Sandinista forces. Efforts are being made to send more men and weapons in Syria, to prolong the war and destruction. The monthly training project proves the existence of a long term plan, mainly based on assassinations and sabotage, in order to impede the advance of the Syrian army in the field, as well as the recovery of the Syrian state. This training plan is designed to compensate the return to state of thousands of ex-rebels, through reconciliation and presidential amnesties, and the reversal of migration flows of foreign extremists.
It is in this context that comes the direct involvement of Turkey in the Syrian war. After the last visit of Recep Tayyeb Erdogan to Tehran, Turkish media reported that Ankara had agreed with the Iranian side that priority should be to fight against terrorism in Syria. But it appeared that the realities on the ground were the opposite. Turkey has in fact planned and organized the terrorist groups attack against the Syrian town of Kassab (north of Latakia), whose inhabitants are survivors of the Armenian Genocide. The purpose of this attack is to open a new front to disrupt the organization of the forthcoming presidential elections in Syria.
But despite these efforts of United States and its allies, Syria is capable of resisting for a long time, thanks to popular support for the armed forces and the state and the support of its regional and international allies.
Michel Suleiman, Lebanese President
«I regret some parties’ decision not to participate in tomorrow’s session…I hope they will join in subsequent sessions. We must resume our discussion of the defense strategy based on the scenario that we have submitted to the dialogue committee (...) All the terrorist acts against army soldiers and members of the ISF will not prevent these forces from implementing the cabinet’s decision to preserve security and stability, no matter the sacrifices.»
Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah Secretary general
«If takfiris achieve victory in Syria, we would all be eliminated in Lebanon, not just the resistance. From the beginning we said we wanted a political solution, whereas the Arab League wanted to topple Assad. Did it need three years of destruction for the Arab League to make a decision it should have done from the beginning? Now after three years of armament, incitement and sabotage, they are putting together terrorist lists and putting the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham and other takfiri groups on them. What is happening in Syria is no longer about reform and democracy. The armed takfiris are now fighting each other, and thousands of victims have paid the price. Hezbollah intervened in the conflict for the first time in Ghouta, in order to protect the shrine of Zeinab, prophet Muhammad’s granddaughter. Turkey says that it has the right to protect a shrine in Syria from ISIS fighters. Why is Turkey allowed to do this and not us? Our stance in Syria is political, not military. We intervened late. I'm not going to tell you (Lebanese opponents) to come fight with us in Syria, but to re-evaluate your stance. We didn't bow down to this (opposition) campaign because it poses a strategic existential threat to Syria, Lebanon and Palestine (...) The three-way equation (the army, the people and the Resistance) established Lebanon as an important player in the region. You who speak about the failure of the three-way equation, but tell me how you succeeded in protecting Lebanon? Some have a problem with the Resistance because its fighters are Shia, but did you use to support them when they were secular fighters? Ever since the foundation of the Zionist entity, there has been a debate on the resistance. This resistance will remain solid, with its head hung high, protecting its people and its nation. Regarding the national dialogue, I don't want to declare a stance, but this way of thinking will impact Hezbollah's decision to participate in the national dialogue. But Hezbollah's decision won't affect its allies' decision.»
Talal Arslan, MP and Lebanese democratic party leader
«The invitation to Dialogue session is not in keeping with the priorities of the current situation in Lebanon as far as the suggestion of a national defense strategy is concerned. The national defense strategy should not be limited to promoting the idea of disarmament. The priority, in our opinion, is to study production of a new political system that guarantees a comprehensive national defense strategy to protect Lebanon and bring about full sovereignty for the country inside its territory, countering any potential aggression from Israel. Any dialogue session is distinguished by its continuity and follow-up of the subject of discussion. This can only happen after the presidential deadline has been met and a new president has been elected. Based on the above we announce that we will not be attending tomorrow’s national dialogue session in Baabda.»
General Jean Kahwaji, Lebanese Armed Forces commander
«The army arrested more than 85 percent of [the assailants] involved in the explosions that targeted the army and security forces, and is tracking the movement of those who remain at large. The army knows the identities, the targets, the places of residence and the financing sources of the fugitives, and is working to arrest them. The army will not yield to any threat, and will not remain silent to any assault. Every aggressive act will be reciprocated and [the army] will immediately retaliate. The army will not yield to any threat, and will not remain silent to any assault. Every aggressive act will be reciprocated and [the army] will immediately retaliate.»
Amin Gemayel, Kataeb party leader
«Lebanon is completely absent from the international arena due to the confusion in the state institutions, which makes the external countries lose confidence in Lebanon. We are in urgent need to hold the presidential election as soon as possible, because it would revitalize the role of the institutions and put Lebanon back on the table of international meetings. We hope that Berri will be successful in managing this period wisely and firmly and help elect the president before May 25.»
Suleiman Franjieh, Marada Movement leader
«I will not participate in any round of the presidential elections without Aoun’s approval. We and the Lebanese people consider him the strongest representative. I do not care about Progressive Socialist Party leader MP Walid Jumblatt’s approval, my strength would get me elected. I do not know if Speaker Nabih Berri will nominate Aoun but we have made our decision to support him, and do not believe that March 14 will approve. If a consensus is not reached between March 8 and March 14, I have zero chances [of becoming president]. If a regional and international settlement is reached, March 14 would elect me as president, even before March 8. It would bother me if Geagea becomes president, but I admit that he is a strong leader.»
A suicide bomber killed himself and at least three soldiers when he detonated a car bomb at a Lebanese army checkpoint in the border town of Ersal on Saturday, Lebanese media said. The Lebanese National News Agency reported that at least four soldiers were wounded in the blast. "A suicide bomber detonated his car in front of a Lebanese army checkpoint at Aqabet al-Jurd in the Arsal area," an official told AFP. "There were at least seven soldiers at the checkpoint," the official added. The attack was claimed on Twitter by a little-known group calling itself Liwa Ahrar al-Sunna in Baalbek - Arabic for the Brigades of the free Sunnis. "The next few days will see several jihadis and blessed attacks like this one. This is only the beginning," the group said, adding that the army would be among its targets. It said the attack was to avenge the death of Sami al-Atrash, a suspect wanted in connection with car bombings. Atrash was killed during a Lebanese army raid on his house in Ersal on Thursday. Liwa Ahrar al-Sunna also claimed a March 16 car bombing in eastern Lebanon that killed two people. The same attack was also claimed by Al-Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda's Syria affiliate, with both groups saying it was in revenge for the fall of Yabrud. The explosives-laden car used on Saturday evening was a black Kia, the NNA reported. Security forces cordoned off the area as rescue teams arrived on the site of the attack by military helicopter, due to its remote location. Residents of the eastern city of Baalbeck cut off the highway to the northern Bekaa Valley and burned tired in solidarity with the army to condemn the blast, the NNA added. On Saturday, the army made further raids in Ersal, where they have set up checkpoints this month.
Units from the Lebanese Armed Forces and the Internal Security Forces raided the house and garages of Sami Atrash, who was killed fleeing the army earlier this week, and seized twenty cars. The National News Agency reported that the security forces found car parts and stolen vehicles, which are now being inspected by the army. Sami Al-Atrash, a Lebanese man wanted for several offenses, died of wounds inflicted as he was pursued by the Lebanese Armed Forces on Thursday. Atrash was wanted for firing rockets at towns in the Beqaa, preparing booby-trapped cars, detaining citizens, providing aid to Syrian rebel fighters, participating in the killing of four civilians in Arsal’s Wadi Rafeq, killing soldiers in Arsal’s Wadi Hamid, and plotting to target an LAF officer.
President Barack Obama on Friday defended his administration's decision not to use military force in Syria, saying that the United States has its limits. The US leader's comments came in an interview taped ahead of his visit to Saudi Arabia, which was angered by his 11th-hour decision last year to pull back from strikes against the Syrian regime over its use of chemical weapons in the country's civil war. "It is, I think, a false notion that somehow we were in a position to, through a few selective strikes, prevent the kind of hardship we've seen in Syria," Obama told broadcaster CBS in Rome. "It's not that it's not worth it," he added. "It's that after a decade of war, the United States has limits." Obama went on to suggest that the US military would not have been able to have much impact without committing itself long-term. "Our troops who have been on these rotations and their families and the costs, and the capacity to actually shape in a sustained way an outcome that was viable without us having a further commitment of perhaps another decade, those are things that the United States would have a hard time executing," he said. "And it's not clear whether the outcome, in fact, would have turned out significantly better." Obama told King Abdullah that "he believes that our strategic interests remain very much aligned" with those of the kingdom, a US administration official told reporters.
As Safir (Lebanese Daily close to March-8 coalition)
Nabil Haitham (March 27, 2014)
The Lebanese Forces leader, Samir Geagea, has defined what should be, according to him, the characteristics of the next president, brandishing the slogan of a "strong president." There are nevertheless some people within the March-14 coalition that do not consider that Geagea candidacy cancels the other candidates in the same political camp. In return, LF supporters report that other candidates from March-14 recognize the supremacy of Geagea and, therefore, the need for his candidacy. These same supporters defend the following principle: since the March-8 highlights Michel Aoun candidacy, it is impossible for March-14 to deal with independent candidates, or even a partisan candidate, but approaching the center, as Amine Gemayel.
The ball is now in the court of the Future Movement, especially Saad Hariri, since his honeymoon with Geagea seems to have resumed after the tensions that accompanied his meeting with Aoun.
An Nahar (Lebanese Daily close to March-14 coalition)
Rosanna Bou Mounsef (March 27, 2014)
According to people who have recently visited capitals Western, officials interviewed expressed concerns about the security in Lebanon, amid involvement of Lebanese parties in the Syrian conflict. These fears are fueled by terrorist acts recently in Lebanon. This is what makes them say that the security issue is becoming the top concern, above all else, including the socio- economic conditions. Hence the impression they seem to have retained their trips abroad: this issue is likely to prompt debate on the presidential election.
Al Joumhouria (Lebanese Daily close to March-14 coalition)
(March 29, 2014)
Maronite Patriarchate speaker Walid Ghayad said that the meeting held on Friday by Bkirki for the top Maronite leaders aimed at pressuring Speaker Nabih Berri into calling a parliament session to elect a new president. “The meeting of Maronite leaders aims at forming a Maronite pressure force [to push] Speaker Nabih Berri to open the parliament and call a plenary session to elect a president as soon as possible,” Ghayad told Al-Joumhouria Saturday. “The meeting also aims at pressuring the MPs to carry out their duties [and attend the session],” he added.
Ghayad said that the meeting was “positive, and the participants agreed to provide the quorum for the parliamentary session.”
The Bkirki spokesperson also said that Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, who did not attend the meeting in person, approved the final statement issued following the meeting.
Geagea had sent representatives to Bkirki to meet with the patriarch before the meeting, he added.
Ghayad said that the meeting did not discuss any possible candidates for the presidential election.
“The leaders agreed to keep their meetings open, according to the development of circumstances, although every leader has his own point of view on how to hold the election.”
On Friday evening, Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Rai met with Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun, Marada Movement leader Suleiman Franjieh, and Kataeb Party leader Amin Gemayel.
Geagea did not attend the meeting for security reasons. However, he approved of the statement issued Friday night.
Al Hayat (Lebanese Daily close to Saudi Arabia, March 30, 2014)
Maronite Patriarch Cardinal Beshara Boutros Rai called Christian leaders to run for the presidential elections. “I hope that the presidential election session will be held as soon as possible and that quorum will be reached and whoever wins, wins,” sources told Al-Hayat Sunday. Rai reportedly made these comments during a meeting with Christian leaders Michel Aoun, Amin Gemayel, and Suleiman Franjieh in Bkirki on Friday night. However, Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea was unable to attend for security reasons. Meanwhile, Bishop Samir Mathloum stressed that the Bkirki meeting was positive.
"Rai is satisfied with the way preparations for holding the presidential elections on time are going," said Mathloum. The bishop also said that "there are no talks about a consensual president," adding that the election will likely be "clear and democratic."
Al Akhbar (Lebanese Daily close to the Lebanese Resistance)
Maysam Rizk (March 29, 2014)
While most political factions in Lebanon seem occupied with the upcoming presidential race, others in the country are waging a different battle. In fact, four candidates from the Future Movement have their eyes on the office of the prime minister, which will be up for grabs following the election of a new president.
The candidates are: current Prime Minister Tammam Salam, former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, Interior Minister Nouhad al-Machnouk, and Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi.
Described as provocative ministers, both Machnouk and Rifi are exercising their powers as if they are staying in office forever. People working with them revealed that both ministers are deploying a lot of effort on the job, which they described as “normal” considering the developments in the country. Others pointed out that “both ministers are practicing for the race to succeed Prime Minister Tammam Salam, because it is impossible for former Prime Minister Saad Hariri to return to the country before the end of the Syrian crisis.”
Lebanon has officially entered the two month constitutional period to elect a new president, and although most political factions seem occupied with the race to the Baabda Palace, others are waging a parallel battle for the Grand Serail.
This undeclared battle within the Future Movement ranks started after receiving information confirming that former Prime Minister Saad Hariri won’t be returning to the country any time soon. According to sources within the Future Movement, “It is crazy to think that Hariri would return before ensuring the right conditions are present on all political, financial and security levels.” However, unlike the many candidates for the presidential race, the race to the office of the prime minister seems restricted to: Salam, Siniora, Rifi and Machnouk. According to analysts affiliated with the Future Movement, Machnouk seems the favored candidate.
As the Salam government is only expected to last until the presidential elections, members of the Future Movement, mainly those considering themselves qualified candidates, are racing to the office of the prime minister. Will Salam be reelected? Will Siniora be nominated? Will political and security developments lead to different nominees?
Some in the Future Movement rule out the possibility of renominating Salam. According to them, “the Beik has been given all what he is entitled of… he has been given a moral compensation and Saeb Salam’s political heritage has been revived.”
Meanwhile, the Future Movement is still facing many challenges “because a great majority of Sunnis are being dragged toward extremism and bearing arms.” However, sources revealed that “the movement seeks to fully recover the office of the prime minister,” because Prime Minister Salam “is not 100 percent affiliated with Hariri, he is first an independent figure.”
Does it mean that Salam will be ruled out of the race? Well not exactly, “he will try to succeed in his mission as prime minister in a way to keep his adversaries content without clashing with his allies. In fact, Salam did just that in the period that preceded the government’s formation,” even though “the Future Movement has not quite forgotten yet its discontent with Salam after his threat to quit following the obstacles during the negotiations about the ministerial declaration.”
Although Fouad Siniora remains a permanent candidate, his chances depend on political circumstances. “Siniora has a better chance in case there is a will to clash with the other side, but his chances diminish when a settlement is in place,” Future sources said. Some say that Siniora’s role has faded and he is now representing a movement within the Future Movement, and that he is considered the biggest provocation for his party’s adversaries. However, a source in the Future Movement’s political bureau denied this assumption, stressing that “there is a need for someone like Siniora inside the Movement, that role is bigger than him being prime minister. The Future Movement cannot afford to lose a person who is dynamic and who has so many plans.” Basically “Siniora has not abandoned his work despite some differences with Prime Minister Hariri about the political agenda.”
Meanwhile, sources in the Future Movement say that “Prime Minister Salam is entitled to defend his post,” just as “Siniora has the right to recover his old post.” However, both men don’t have much of a chance against Rifi and Machnouk “mainly because both are waging their battles from inside two crucial ministries.”
Closely monitored by the Future Movement, Rifi is waging his battle differently than Machnouk; he behaves as if he hasn’t been appointed a minister yet. Through his decisions and political stances, Rifi seeks to prove himself “as a spearhead… as a hawk that no one can stop from flying.” He joined the government for only one reason “to confront Hezbollah and to ward off it expansion.”
According to sources from the Future Movement “Rifi’s actions agree with the ambitions of most Sunnis and Future Movement affiliates. On the one hand, he maintains an extremist language that all Future officials are compelled to adopt due to the predominance of Islamic movements, and on the other he makes himself appear as a fighter in civilian clothes.” Together, all these factors made Rifi a serious rival to Salam and Siniora.
However, Interior Minister Nouhad al-Machnouk is apparently the favored candidate to succeed Salam. Since his first day in office, the interior minister had his upcoming battle figured out.
Machnouk never rests, sending political messages in all directions. Sources in the Future Movement say that he is adopting a smarter method than Rifi’s. As the Future Movement stresses on “its battle against Takfiris and against Hezbollah,” Machnouk adopts “a stern political address but also seeks settlements with allies and adversaries.” Machnouk is able to go to Beirut’s southern suburbs, issue a statement against Hezbollah then join coordination committees along Hezbollah officials. He visits Samir Geagea in Maarab, then heads to Aoun’s house in Rabieh, asks for an appointment with Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, and then meets with MP Walid Jumblatt. Thus, Machnouk seeks to insure to his adversaries that though he stands by his political positions “as an interior minister, he can stand at the same distance from all parties.”
To his allies, Machnouk stresses that he can be “severe in expressing the Future Movement’s positions without allowing it to stand in the way of his contacts with the other side.”
Though this still remains an undeclared battle, a stiff competition is going on between the four candidates. Each nominee “is flexing his muscles so he can reach his goals,” however, the surprise element is still possible but as long as Hariri is absent, everyone is a candidate until proven otherwise.
Al Akhbar (March 29, 2014)
The United States and its allies sound like a broken record when they claim to only “support moderate rebels” in Syria. This support, however, requires finding these moderate rebels first, a difficult if not impossible mission.
Syria: If the nature of the Free Syrian Army’s name was ambiguous since its inception in 2011, it is clear today that it is nothing but a label for media consumption. In fact, it never constituted an umbrella group and it did not succeed in creating real leadership that would direct the activities of armed groups present on the ground. Hundreds of groups claimed to be part of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Announcing their FSA affiliation was a mere pathway to receiving foreign support. Funders - most notably Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait’s Salafis - were keen on the Islamist identity of the groups receiving support without requiring them to announce it publicly.
In 2013, the picture became clearer. The Islamist discourse became public and most groups organized under the rubric of new fronts that are predominantly jihadist in nature. Groups that used to claim affiliation with the FSA united with hardline groups that never once raised the FSA flag. An example would be the Tawhid Brigade joining ranks with Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham Movement in creating the Islamic Front which became the third part in a tripartite alliance of opposition forces along with al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). If al-Nusra Front and ISIS’s extremist credentials are well-known, the Islamic Front is no less extreme, especially the Ahrar al-Sham Movement which can be described as the Syrian al-Qaeda.
The FSA’s general staff divides the Syrian battlefield into five battle fronts. The southern front in Damascus, its countryside, Daraa and Suwaida. The eastern front in Raqqa, Deir al-Zor and Hasaka. The western front in Latakia and Tartous. The central front in Homs and Hama and the northern front in Aleppo and Idlib. We will now place these fronts under a more critical lens to look for the moderate groups.
In addition to al-Nusra Front and Jaysh al-Islam, who are affiliated with the Islamic Front, the southern front of the FSA’s offensive is teaming up with small jihadist groups such as the Green Battalion which is believed to be al-Qaeda-affiliated even though it is not well-known in the media. Saudi jihadists have a very strong presence within the group. It has pledged allegiance to the leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and its leaders boast that they were the first to use “immersion” operations, i.e. immersing oneself into the enemy - in Syria.
There is also the al-Baraa Brigade which claimed the kidnapping of Iranian pilgrims “because they are Shia” and the Glories of Islam Gathering which consists of five Islamist groups that allied together last October. The statement announcing their formation said that the gathering was established “for the sake of closing ranks and developing jihadist activities.” In the same month, four groups created what they called Jaysh al-Sunna wa al-Jamaa which vowed to “keep on fighting to uphold the word of God and overthrow the Iranian sponsored regime.”
All the organizations adopt the same discourse, including ones that have remained independent in the Damascus countryside such as Suquour al-Sham Battalion, Ansar al-Islam Gathering, Sham al-Rasoul Brigade and Sheikh al-Islam ibn Taymiyyah Battalion.
In 2013, the picture became clearer and their Islamist discourse became public.
In Daraa too, the Islamist groups are dominant. Such as the Muthanna bin Haritha Battalion, which defines itself as defeater of the Safavid Persians, al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar Brigade which includes foreign jihadists, the Yarmouk Band which was formed last month gathering under its Islamic banner 14 groups that pledged to “liberate Daraa from the clutches of the Alawi occupation,” under the slogan “And God is predominant over His affairs but most of the people do not know.” There are also brigades and battalions in the region that have pledged allegiance to al-Nusra Front such as al-Musayfira Martyrs’ Brigade.
In Quneitra, there is Ahfad al-Rasul (the Prophet’s Grandchildren) Brigade which is fighting under the banner of the Syrian Revolutionaries Front. The group, which the FSA’s general staff touted its moderate Islamist credentials, is the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade formed in August 2012 under the leadership of Bashar al-Zoubi upon merging seven smaller groups. In March 2013, this brigade held members of an international peacekeeping force captive as they were passing in the demilitarized zone “because they are crusaders.”
The most prominent groups on this front are the Islamic Front and ISIS, who exercise exclusive control over Raqqa, while al-Nusra Front challenges their control in Deir al-Zour and the oil fields and is trying to control al-Khabur Basin in Hasaka. There is also the Kurdish Islamist Front which includes a 1,000 fighters and is primarily interested in fighting “infidel” Kurdish groups.
The front with the least amount of armed groups. These groups are confined to the northern Latakia countryside and they are all jihadist groups such as al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, Ansar al-Sham and Junoud al-Sham. The latter is a group whose fighters are predominantly Chechen and is not related to the organization Jund al-Sham. There is also Sham al-Islam Movement, a jihadist movement whose fighters are mostly Moroccan.
This front, chronologically speaking, came in second in terms of the influx of immigrant jihadists and is still number one in terms of numbers. There, the opposition power is divided between ISIS, al-Nusra Front, Jaysh al-Mujahideen and the Islamic Front. The main components of the Islamic Front in this area are al-Tawhid Brigade and Ahrar al-Sham Movement. There was a recent announcement about new groups joining the Islamic Front in Aleppo such as Aasifat al-Shamal Brigade and Ahrar Surya Brigade. Both groups are accused of stealing, making the Islamic Front in that area a bizarre mix of hardliners and thieves.
Jaysh al-Mujahideen also takes the same hardline approach. It is the one that declared in communique number two that “the jihadists of al-Nusra Front are our brothers.” It also called on “the immigrants in ISIS to defect and join the ranks of their brothers, the honest mujahideen garrisoned at the Syrian border against the Alawi Assad regime.” One of this group’s most recent accomplishments is detaining Christian opposition activist Marcell Shehwaro and forcing her to sign a pledge promising to wear a veil. When it was formed, Jaysh al-Mujahideen included the biggest group in the region that hid behind a mask of secularism, namely, the Nineteenth Band in the Free Syrian Army.
In Idlib, Jaysh al-Sham al-Islami enjoys a strong presence. It was formed from the union of several groups last February and it upholds the slogan “Towards a Rashidun (righteously guided) Islamic Caliphate.”
It was one of the first areas in Syria to welcome jihadists through Lebanese territories. Al-Haq Brigade, affiliated with the Syrian Islamic Front, and al-Nusra Front are the two most prominent groups in the area. There is also Mujahideen al-Sham Brigade that is affiliated with the Islamic Front. While Jund al-Sham, which was the strongest group in al-Husn region collapsed, al-Faruq Brigades are still present. The group was initially known as al-Faruq Battalions and it achieved great fame through the support of the Muslim Brotherhood and its “Saudi brothers.” Al-Faruq Brigades fought with such sectarian spirit arguing that the shedding of Alawi blood is permissible. The group is now divided into Faruq al-Shamal, Faruq al-Islami, the Independent Omar al-Faruq Brigade and Hama Faruq Battalion. None of them however have abandoned the motto of shedding Alawi blood.
A somewhat weak group in the area is the Revolution Shields which was formed in August 2012 with the support of the Muslim Brotherhood. Its fighters do not exceed a thousand and until recently, the Brotherhood had promoted the group as a moderate Islamist alliance, and had pinned hopes on it. But placing the Muslim Brotherhood on the Saudi terrorist list ousted the Revolution Shields from the game.
The same did not happen to the National Unity Battalions, a group that has not actually fought since its inception in August 2012 and the number of its fighters range between 1,500 and 2,000 deployed on a number of fronts within battalions that have non-Islamic names such as Yusuf al-Azmi and Abdul Rahman al-Shahbandar. The National Unity Battalions is not an effective group and it does not have strong foreign ties or a prominent face to lead it, unlike the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, which is under the leadership of Jamal Maarouf, and is expected to absorb the National Unity Battalions into its own ranks soon.
Al Akhbar (March 28, 2014)
Radwan Mortada and Rameh Hamieh
Sami al-Atrash has been killed. The young Ersali man, who is also known as al-Karrouj, was fatally shot as the army raided a home in Ersal where he was hiding on Thursday.
The news of the raid passed quietly. No angry, political, or even religious reactions were generated. The news of Atrash’s death passed as though nothing happened, with the exception of some tension in the town following the shootout that accompanied the raid. Although a statement by the Lebanese army said that Atrash had been killed during an exchange of gunfire with the suspect, close associates of the deceased man claimed that he was executed although he displayed no resistance – a claim often made following each raid by the Lebanese army.
People in the town told Al-Akhbar that Atrash was a resident of Masharee al-Qaa and was not known in Ersal, and that he had moved to the town after the start of the crisis in Syria where he worked in smuggling and dealing in arms.
According to information obtained exclusively by Al-Akhbar from sources close to Atrash’s cell, the man was recently taking precautions in his movements, avoiding appearing in the town except when absolutely necessary. Atrash, according to sources, was recently based between Flita and the wilderness surrounding Ersal.
The sources said that the raid took place following a tip from an informant in Ersal. The army reportedly also arrested three members of the same family, named as Ali, Nasser, and Mohammed Izz al-Din, nearly half an hour before the raid on Sami al-Atrash’s hideout.
In this regard, a security source revealed that the security services detected suspicious movements by Atrash and his cell in the town ten days ago. The security services proceeded to prepare an ambush for the suspects, but Atrash discovered it on Thursday afternoon, and went into hiding in a house in the area.
As the army raided the house in question, Atrash and his men opened fire at the soldiers. A firefight ensued, and Atrash was shot in the chest. He later died of his wounds at the Dar al-Amal Hospital. The security source said that the raid also led to the arrest of four Lebanese and eight Syrian suspects, pointing out that Atrash was one of the most dangerous fugitives wanted by the security services.
Sami al-Atrash’s name entered the world of terrorism less than a year ago, alongside several individuals from his village in the Bekaa Valley. This happened when then-Defense Minister Fayez Ghosn issued his famous statement, disclosing information about the group led by Ibrahim Qasim al-Atrash, which was involved in preparing and carrying out car-bomb attacks.
Sami was a member of the group led by Omar, who was killed on October 11, 2013, along with Samer Houjeiri, when an explosive-rigged car they were driving near Ersal was attacked. Sami, Omar, and five other individuals were named as suspects involved in preparing car bombs to detonate them in Beirut’s southern suburb. But some in Ersal deny these accusations and say they are fabricated by the security services.
According to the information available to the security services, the suspects are commanded by Ibrahim al-Atrash, a man in his fifties with close to ties with al-Nusra Front and the Abdullah Azzam Brigades in Greater Syria. The same information indicates that Sami al-Atrash was a major field operative, and that the most dangerous members of the cell were Ibrahim al-Atrash and Sameh al-Baridi.
In addition to these names, another prominent suspect is Ubada al-Houjeiri, son of Sheikh Mustafa Houjeiri. The young man, according to security reports, is involved in the murder of two army officers in February 2013, and the four men killed in the Wadi Rafeq ambush.
Ubada was named as a suspect in the kidnapping of journalists, most recently a Danish and a Palestinian reporter who were released for a ransom of $400 thousand. Bear in mind that the officers of the Information Branch delivered the ransom to Mustafa, the kidnapper’s father, who acted as a mediator.
It may be worth noting that Mustafa Houjeiri, despite rumors that he had left Ersal to the wilderness areas surrounding it with the army’s entry to the town, has been spotted in Ersal, and was seen praying in the mosque where he used to deliver sermons.
After Omar Ahmed al-Atrash and Hussein Ammoun, Sami al-Atrash has now been killed. Before him, his cousin Omar Ibrahim al-Atrash was arrested on charges of transporting suicide bombers, followed by the arrest of Naim Abbas, one of the major terrorist operatives involved in the preparation of car bombs.
The members of the group that the Defense Ministry said were involved in the bombings in Dahiyeh and the northern Bekaa are falling one by one. The security services confirm that these suspects are the most dangerous in the terrorist underworld, but the suspects, or at least a majority of them, deny the charges made against them, including the leader of the group Ibrahim al-Atrash, who only admitted to one charge before the courts, namely, fighting the Syrian regime inside Syria.
Officially, the members of the group named earlier stand accused of “preparing explosive-rigged cars; firing rockets and mortars at Lebanese towns and villages; holding citizens hostage; taking part in the murder of four civilians in Wadi Rafeq in June 2013; murdering soldiers in the Hammid Valley; and planning to kill an officer using an explosive device.”
AFP (France-Press Agency, March 29, 2014)
Syrian troops made fresh gains in the strategic Qalamun area near the Lebanese border Saturday, seizing two villages from rebels, a military source told AFP.
"The army took control this morning of the villages of Ras al-Maarra and Flita, after bombing the last groups of armed terrorists there," the source said.
President Bashar al-Assad's troops, backed by fighters from Lebanon's Shiite movement Hezbollah, have been waging a crushing battle against rebel positions in Qalamun, north of Damascus, since November.
They scored a strategic victory in mid-March when they overran Yabrud, a former opposition bastion in the area.
Since then, they have focused on Flita, Ras al-Maarra and other villages in a bid to seal off the border and stop rebels from bringing in weapons and fighters from Lebanon.
At the same time, Hezbollah has said its goal in backing Assad's troops was to stop a flow of car bombs into Lebanon that it said were being prepared in Yabrud.
The military source said the latest advance "is a new step towards closing off the border with Lebanon."
Though the takeover of Flita and Ras al-Maarra has not completely sealed off the border, "any success... helps seal the border more tightly, at least at the main crossing points that [the rebels use] to transport vehicles," he added.
The latest advance comes a day after the air force dropped highly destructive barrel bombs on Flita, and after the head of the rebel Military Council Ahmad Nawaf Durra was killed in fighting, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The Los Angeles Times (March 28, 2014)
Patrick J. McDonnell
On the ragged fringes of the Old City, aid workers, clerics and government troops stood vigil, awaiting a U.N. convoy evacuating women, children and the aged from the besieged ancient quarter of a town known to many as ground zero in the Syrian civil war.
But the buses disgorged a very different class of passengers: scores of young men, haggard and sallow-faced, blankets draped over their shoulders and fear evident in their eyes. They shuffled uncertainly under the hostile gaze of Syrian troops and intelligence officers toward a makeshift processing center in a run-down banquet hall.
The men, who turned themselves in last month, were remnants of Homs' rebel defenders, once the spearhead of the insurgency, now bedraggled and half-starved. They were placing their fate in the hands of their most bitter foe, the forces of President Bashar Assad. "What do you think they will do with us?" one after another of the dispirited men asked in hushed tones.
As the Syrian conflict enters its fourth year, one thing is clear: The U.S.-backed rebels are losing the war. Assad's army, once dismissed as inadequately equipped, ill-prepared for guerrilla fighting and of suspect loyalty, is chalking up victory after victory.
Unlikely as it once seemed — and as unpalatable as it may be to U.S. policymakers and their allies — Assad could well end up the sole Middle East leader to remain in power after coming under threat from the so-called Arab Spring revolts.
Assad has survived in large part because of disarray in the rebel ranks, including the rise of Islamist militants hostile to Syria's tradition of tolerant Islam; a steady flow of military and financial aid from Moscow and Tehran; and a revived Syrian military bolstered by local militiamen and Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon. The latter have proved a major asset, routing rebels close to the porous Lebanese border and providing a disciplined, well-trained force to take pressure off the overstretched military.
Assad has also benefited from a sense of war-weariness that has prompted many insurgents to lay down their arms and civilians to turn against the struggle. Barring an unexpected development, such as Assad's death or direct foreign intervention, it's hard to fathom how the opposition can turn things around.
Last summer, U.S. warplanes seemed poised to strike Damascus, the capital and Assad's seat of power, a threat averted at the eleventh hour when he agreed to relinquish his chemical weapons stockpiles. Now Assad is confident enough that he is widely expected to run for a third seven-year term this summer, in an election condemned by the opposition as a fraud.
Great swaths of Syria, especially to the north and east, remain out of government hands. For Assad, retaking such far-flung territories will be problematic as long as arms and fighters flow in from the Turkish and Iraqi frontiers.
Yet much of this land is now under the sway of Al Qaeda-affiliated groups or other extremist Sunni Islamist factions disavowed by the United States and its allies. In such areas, rebel brigades are battling one another — a war within a civil war between Western-backed rebel factions and radical Islamists.
In essence, Syria has been transformed into a many-sided geopolitical board game, with Iran, Russia and Shiite Hezbollah fighters arrayed against the U.S., Israel, Saudi Arabia and Sunni Islamist fighters from around the world, each pursuing their own strategic interests as death and destruction mount.
"Syria has become a playground for international and ideological Islamist conflict," said Jamil Salou, a pro-opposition media activist based in Turkey.
Though Syria's majority Sunni population has been the backbone of the rebellion against Assad — a member of the minority Alawite sect — many secular Sunnis, and middle-class Syrians of all sects, appear aghast at the prospect of an Islamist takeover.
"We're not for Assad, but we all prefer this government over the Islamists, that's for sure," said Bassel, a young Sunni banker encountered in the upscale Abu Rummaneh district of Damascus, which is often a target of indiscriminate rebel shelling. "How could we live with them? That would be the end of Syria."
Essential to the government's resurgence has been its well-armed military. Long trained for a traditional land war with Israel, it is becoming increasingly adept at fighting an insurgency.
The government's strategy has been to focus on protecting Damascus and the major corridor north to Homs and west to the Mediterranean coast, a pro-Assad stronghold. The once-perilous route has become more secure in recent months, an indication that the approach has worked.
An extensive series of checkpoints in Damascus has cut down on car bombings. Troops are no longer ferried through dangerous areas in unarmored buses. Recent ambushes of opposition formations suggest that intelligence gathering may also be improving.
Meanwhile, the opposition, which still proclaims that victory is within reach, has no answer to the government's air power, which has been especially devastating in the northern city of Aleppo, once home to more than 2 million.
Syrian military commanders say the heavy shelling that precedes entry by the infantry is a time-honored war strategy.