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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.

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.

Scottish lawmakers back independence referendum call

March 28, 2017

EDINBURGH, Scotland (AP) — Scottish lawmakers voted Tuesday to seek a new referendum on independence, presenting the British government with an unwelcome distraction as it prepares to push the European Union exit button.

The Edinburgh-based legislature voted 69-59 to ask the U.K. government to sanction an independence vote that would be held within the next two years. Outside, several dozen independence supporters bearing Scottish and EU flags broke into cheers and tears of joy as they heard the news.

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who asked lawmakers to authorize her to request the referendum, says Scots must be given the chance to vote on their future before Britain leaves the European Union.

British Prime Minister Theresa May plans to launch the U.K’s two-year process of exiting the EU on Wednesday by triggering Article 50 of the bloc’s key treaty. Britain as a whole voted to leave the bloc in a referendum last year, but Scots voted by a large margin to stay.

“Scotland’s future should be in Scotland’s hands,” Sturgeon told lawmakers before the vote. Scottish voters rejected independence in a 2014 referendum that Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party called a once-in-a-generation vote. But Sturgeon says Brexit has altered conditions dramatically.

She says there should be a new plebiscite on independence between fall 2018 and spring 2019, when details of Britain’s divorce terms with the bloc are clear. Sturgeon said that whatever the final terms, Brexit would mean “significant and profound” change for Scotland.

“That change should not be imposed upon us,” she said. “We should have the right to decide the nature of that change.” May, whose government must approve the referendum for it to be legally binding, says the time is not right. She says all parts of the U.K. — England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — must pull together to get the best-possible deal with the EU.

Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson agreed, saying Tuesday that Scots do not want “the division and rancor of another referendum campaign.” The Scottish parliament had been due to vote on Sturgeon’s referendum demand last week, but the session was adjourned after Wednesday’s extremist attack in London.

Sturgeon’s referendum call was backed by the governing Scottish nationalists and the Greens, and opposed by the Conservative and Labour parties. It’s unclear what could break the stalemate between Edinburgh and London. British officials have indicated they would not agree to another independence referendum until Britain’s EU exit is over and done with — a process that could take longer than two years.

David Mundell, the British government’s Scotland minister, said the U.K. government would not be “entering into negotiations on whether there should be another independence referendum during the Brexit process.”

“It’s not appropriate to have a referendum whilst people do now know what the future relationship between the U.K. and the EU will be,” he said. Sturgeon said after the vote that she would “seek sensible and constructive discussion” with the British government later this week.

“I hope the United Kingdom government will respect the view of parliament,” she said. “This is simply about giving people in Scotland a choice.” Should that fail, Sturgeon promised to inform the parliament of next steps after its Easter break next month.

In Edinburgh, supporters of Scottish independence urged Sturgeon to forge ahead. Scott Murray, a 71-year-old music tutor, said the vote for Brexit had changed everything. “I think we should have another referendum,” Murray said. “I feel that we are divorced from what happens in the south of England and we should be our own country and stand on our own two feet.”

But plumber Brian Hamilton, 45, said he’d be happier if members of the Scottish National Party government “got on with their day jobs” rather than focusing on Europe. “They say they speak for the people of Scotland, but they don’t speak for the people of Scotland because they are not representing me whatsoever,” he said.

Lawless reported from London.

Poles celebrate EU on bloc’s 60th anniversary with march

March 25, 2017

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Thousands of Poles marched through Warsaw on Saturday, waving European Union and Polish flags in a show of support for the troubled European project as leaders in Rome marked the 60th anniversary of its founding treaty.

The rally in Warsaw, which was held under the slogan “I Love You, Europe,” was also a strong expression of disapproval for the nationalist and Euroskeptic government in Warsaw, which was recently involved in a bitter standoff with the bloc.

Thousands of people began their demonstration by singing European anthem “Ode to Joy” followed by the Polish national anthem before marching to the Royal Castle in historic town center. Government critics fear that the government policies could ultimately result in Poland leaving the EU.

“We will not let ourselves be led out of Europe,” Ryszard Petru, the head of the opposition Modern party, told those gathered. He also said that the ruling Law and Justice party’s stance on Europe doesn’t reflect the will of the nation, which is overwhelmingly pro-EU. Recent opinion polls put support for the EU by Poles at around 80 percent.

The Polish government denies that leaving the EU is its aim and insists that it instead simply wants reforms and wants to keep the bulk of power with national governments, not in Brussels. The recent tensions centered around stiff opposition by the conservative Polish government to the re-election of Donald Tusk, a former Polish prime minister, as head of the European Council. Tusk has long been a bitter political rival of Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the head of the ruling Law and Justice party and the most powerful politician in Poland.

Before the EU meeting in Rome, Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo had also threatened not to endorse the declaration. But on the eve of the summit she backed away from the position and signed it on Saturday.

EU puts pen to paper on unity pledge during 60th anniversary

March 25, 2017

ROME (AP) — With Britain already heading out the door, the 27 remaining European Union nations on Saturday sought to keep the bloc moving forward by enshrining a pledge to give member nations more freedom to form partial alliances and set policy when unanimity is out of reach.

They marked the 60th anniversary of their founding treaty as a turning point in their history in the knowledge that British Prime Minister Theresa May will officially trigger divorce proceedings from the bloc next week, a fact that European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker called “a tragedy.”

Desperately trying to portray that sustained unity is the only way ahead in a globalized world, being able to walk away from a summit without acrimony was already a sort of victory. “We didn’t have a major clash or conflict, contrary to what many thought,” Juncker said.

EU Council President Donald Tusk said that sustained unity was the only way for the EU to survive. “Europe as a political entity will either be united, or will not be at all,” he told EU leaders at a solemn session in precisely the same ornate hall on the ancient Capitoline Hill where the Treaty of Rome founding the EU was signed on March 25, 1957.

To move ahead though, the leaders recognized that full unity on all things will be unworkable. “We will act together, at different paces and intensity where necessary, while moving in the same direction,” said the Rome Declaration signed by the 27 nations.

The EU has often done that in practice in the past, with only 19 nations in the eurozone and not all members participating in the Schengen zone of borderless travel. It has already extended to social legislation and even divorce rules among EU nationals.

So German Chancellor Angela Merkel sought to assuage fears that it would lead to a further unraveling of unity. “The Europe of different speeds does not in any way mean that it is not a common Europe,” Merkel said after the ceremonies. “We are saying here very clearly that we want to go in a common direction. And there are things that are not negotiable,” highlighting the EU freedom of movement, goods, people and services.

In a series of speeches, EU leaders also acknowledged how the bloc had strayed into a complicated structure that had slowly lost touch with its citizens, compounded by the severe financial crisis that struck several member nations over the past decade.

Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, who was hosting the summit, said that over the past dozen years the EU’s development had stalled. “Unfortunately, we stopped” he said, and “it triggered a crisis of rejection.”

At the same time though, the summit in sun-splashed springtime Rome, where new civilizations were built on old ruins time and again, there also was a message of optimism. “Yes, we have problems, yes there are difficulties, yes there will be crisis in the future, but we stand together and we move forward,” Gentiloni said. “We have the strength to start out again.”

At the end of the session, all 27 leaders signed the Rome Declaration saying that “European unity is a bold, farsighted endeavor.” “We have united for the better. Europe is our common future,” the declaration said.

UK set to file for EU divorce, triggering 2 years to Brexit

March 29, 2017

LONDON (AP) — Britain is set to formally file for divorce from the European Union, ending a 44-year relationship following the decision made by U.K. voters in a referendum nine months ago. Prime Minister Theresa May is due to tell House of Commons Wednesday afternoon that she has invoked Article 50 of the EU’s key treaty, the trigger for a two-year countdown to Britain’s exit.

At the same time, Britain’s EU envoy, Tim Barrow, will hand-deliver a letter from May, which she signed Tuesday at her 10 Downing St. office, to EU Council President Donald Tusk. May’s office says she will tell lawmakers that the U.K. is embarking on a “momentous journey” and should unite to forge a “global Britain.”

Britain and the EU have two years to unpick a tapestry of rules, regulations and agreements stitched over more than four decades since Britain joined what was then the European Economic Community in 1973.

EU officials are due to circulate draft negotiating guidelines within days, and bloc leaders — minus May — will meet April 29 to adopt a common position. Britain says it’s not turning its back on its neighbors and wants to remain friends. May has said that the U.K. will become “stronger, fairer, more united and more outward-looking” and will seek “a new, deep and special partnership with the European Union.”

But many British businesses fear the impact of leaving the EU’s vast single market of some 500 million people. Senior British officials say they are confident of striking a close new free-trade relationship with the bloc — but a successful outcome to the complex and emotionally fraught negotiations is far from certain.

Brexit has profound implications for Britain’s economy, society and even unity. The divisive decision to leave the EU has given new impetus to the drive for Scottish independence, and undermined the foundations of Northern Ireland’s peace settlement.

It’s also a major blow to the EU, after decades of expansion, to lose one of its largest members. Anti-EU populists including French far-right leader Marine Le Pen hope the impulses that drove Britain to turn its back on the EU will be repeated across the continent.

Belarus’ police arrest protesters at banned demonstration

March 25, 2017

MINSK, Belarus (AP) — Police in the Belorussian capital have begun wide-scale arrests protesters who had gathered for a forbidden demonstration that they hoped would build on a rising wave of defiance of the former Soviet republic’s authoritarian government.

About 700 people had tried to march along Minsk’s main avenue, but were blocked by a cordon of riot police wielding clubs and holding shields. After a standoff, arrests began. “They’re beating the participants, dragging women by the hair to buses. I was able to run to a nearby courtyard,” demonstrator Alexander Ponomarev said.

There were no immediate figures on how many people were taken into custody. Earlier, police raided the office of the human-rights group Vesna. About 30 of its activists were detained, said Oleg Gulak of the Belorussian Helsinki Committee.

In the days preceding the demonstration, more than 100 opposition supporters were sentenced to jail terms of three to 15 days, Vesna reported before the raid. Prominent opposition figure Vladimir Neklayev reportedly was pulled off a train by police during the night while trying to travel to Minsk.

Belarus has seen an unusually persistent wave of protests over the past two months against President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled since 1994. After tolerating the initial protests, authorities cracked down. Lukashenko this week alleged that a “fifth column” of foreign-supported agitators was trying to bring him down.

Saturday’s demonstrators shouted slogans including “shame” and “basta (enough)” and deployed the red-and-white flag that is the opposition’s symbol. The flag was first used by the short-lived independent Belorussian People’s Republic in 1918 and again after independence from the Soviet Union, but was replaced in 1995 after Lukashenko gained power.

In his 23 years as president, Lukashenko has stifled dissent and free media and retained much of the Soviet-style command economy. The protests this year initially focused on his unpopular “anti-parasite” law that calls for a $250 tax on anyone who works less than six months a year, but doesn’t register with the state labor exchange. But the protests broadened into general dissatisfaction with his rule, which some critics have characterized as Europe’s last dictatorship.

Protests attracted hundreds on Saturday in Brest and Grodno, two other large cities. No arrests were immediately reported.

Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this report.

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