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Short of allies, Syria’s rebels are down but not out

June 01, 2017

GAZIANTEP, Turkey (AP) — They are veterans of Syria’s rebellion, trying for years to bring down President Bashar Assad. But these days they’re doing little fighting with his military. They’re struggling to find a place in a bewildering battlefield where several wars are all being waged at once by international powers.

Syria’s civil war has become a madhouse of forces from Turkey, the United States, Syrian Kurds, the Islamic State group, al-Qaida as well as Assad’s allies Russia, Iran, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Iraqi and Afghan Shiite militias — all with their own alliances and agendas.

Syrian rebel factions, battered by defeats and as divided as ever, reel around trying to find allies they can trust who will ensure their survival. “We have become political dwarfs, fragmented groups which hardly have control over the closest checkpoint, let alone each other,” said Tarek Muharram, who quit his banking job in the Gulf to return home and join the rebellion in 2011.

Over the years he fought alongside several different rebel groups, including ones backed by the United States. Now he has now joined the alliance led by the al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. Rebel leaders have limited options — none of them good. They can line up behind Turkey, which is recruiting factions to fight its own war in Syria against Syrian Kurds primarily, as well as Islamic State militants.

Or they can ally themselves with al-Qaida’s affiliate, the strongest opposition faction. It leads a coalition that is still battling Assad and dominates the largest cohesive rebel territory, encompassing the northwestern province of Idlib and nearby areas.

Or they can try to go it alone. Despite differences with Washington, all of them hope for support from the United States. But they feel it has abandoned them after deciding to arm and finance Kurdish-led militias to fight IS.

They see an enemy in IS but also potentially in the Kurds, who have carved out their own territory across northern Syria. Now in the fight against IS, the Kurds could capture Sunni Arab-majority regions like Raqqa and Deir el-Zour, to the alarm of the mainly Sunni Arab rebels.

The Associated Press spoke to a series of veteran rebels who move between Syria and Turkey and found them desperate for resources and support but intent on fighting for years to come.

THE TATTOOED FIGHTER

Nothing blurs Muharram’s vision and determination to fight Assad. Not the loss of his beloved Aleppo. Not the hours he and his comrades now spend in a small apartment in the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep, watching TV and smoking, waiting for the next battle.

The fall of Aleppo was a watershed moment. It cost the rebels there their strongest base, their resources, their homes. Uprooted, they needed new allies. “We had reached a dead end,” said the 39-year-old Muharram. So he and his group, Noureddine el-Zinki, which was once backed by the U.S., joined al-Qaida’s alliance.

The move caused many of his group to break away. But for Muharram, anything else would have required too many concessions. Turning to Turkey or US would mean becoming “a mercenary fighting whomever the sponsor wants, whatever the dollar dictates.” He would have had to take part in Russian-backed negotiations, “giving up the revolution’s principles … and accepting Assad for a longer period,” he said.

Muharram said he has his personal differences with al-Qaida. He pointed out that he doesn’t always pray, for example, and he smokes. He sports a wolf-head tattoo on his arm, something militants frown on.

But he said the al-Qaida-led alliance has kept its weapons pointed in the right direction, against Assad. He and the 50 men he commands would drop their guns rather than be pushed to fight it. The alliance has financial clout and can provide services in its territory. It has the resources of Idlib’s and neighboring rural parts of Aleppo province to sustain the fight without relying on outsiders — farmland, water wells, supplies of fuel and weapons. Its fighters are mainly locals and well-disciplined, and the few foreign fighters including Afghans and Chinese don’t interfere in residents’ affairs, unlike the foreign jihadis of IS.

Both Turkey and the Kurds so far avoid a fight with al-Qaida-linked militants. But if Turkey is tempted to move against the alliance, Muharram said, it has pressure cards, including a border crossing with Turkey and territory near a Kurdish enclave, a potential thorn in Ankara’s side.

The fight to remove Assad is far from over, he said. “The revolution will end with a ballot box. There is no legitimacy for a new Syria without elections.”

THE REBEL WITHOUT A LAND

He defended his hometown of Daraya outside Damascus for years under a bloody, destructive siege by Assad’s troops. But finally resistance collapsed, and last summer he and his fellow fighters were forcibly displaced north to Idlib.

It was a humiliating and disorienting move for Capt. Saeed al-Nokrashi and the 700 men in his faction, Shuhada al-Islam, part of the U.S-backed Free Syrian Army umbrella. Idlib was strange territory, and dangerous — not because of Assad’s forces or airstrikes, but because of Idlib’s overlords, the al-Qaida-linked group.

The militants immediately kidnapped some of his best fighters. “This was to pressure us to join them, and if we do, they will protect us,” al-Nokrashi said, speaking at his home in the southern Turkish town of Reyhanli and holding his 6-year-old son, born during the Daraya fighting.

The fighters were eventually freed. But the incident highlighted the more complicated world they were in. “We were insulated in Daraya,” he said. “Our confrontation was only with the regime. Now the choices are many.”

The threats are, too. The Islamic State group is a concern, as are the Syrian Kurdish forces, who he said are trying to “create a separate state in the north.” Then there are pro-Assad Iran and Shiite militias.

“Syria can’t be one unified state except by expelling all those parties,” al-Nokrashi said. His fighters are languishing in Idlib. They struggle to make ends meet and are focused on their families, reunited after long separations during the siege. Some have opened food shops, bringing the Damascus area’s cuisine to Idlib.

A few of his fighters joined al-Qaida-linked group. The others have to deal with its pervasive security agencies that monitor all factions closely — “just like the regime’s security agencies,” said al-Nokrashi, a former Syrian army officer.

Al-Nokrashi tried turning to diplomacy. He attended one session of the Russia-backed talks in the Kazakhstan capital Astana, where rebel commanders were received with much fanfare and sat briefly in the same room as the government delegation. He became disillusioned and boycotted the following meeting.

But he may have found his refuge. In recent weeks, the U.S., Turkey and Western and Gulf countries backed a new attempt at a coalition against Assad known as the Northern Front Operation Room. So far, 17 factions have joined, al-Nokrashi said.

The alliance has yet to fight a battle, but he’s hopeful. “I feel there are lessons learned … from previous mistakes.”

THE AL-QAIDA HUNTER

He drives around Turkish seaside city of Iskenderun with another car of Syrian bodyguards and aides behind, fearing attack even here.

Lt. Col. Ahmed al-Saoud, commander of the U.S.-backed Division 13, has been living almost permanently in Turkey since al-Qaida’s affiliate attacked him and his group in Syria last year. When he tried to return home in April, an ambush by the group’s fighters was waiting for him. He survived, but one of his commanders was killed.

Al-Saoud’s claim to fame has been his relentless fight against the radical group, which has tried to gain a foothold in his hometown, Maaret Numan, in Idlib. His anti-extremist stance got him arrested by IS in 2013, until protests forced the militants to release him — a sign of his support base in the area.

Al-Saoud, a defector from Assad’s military, has received Western aid from the start. He feels let down that the U.S. is throwing its weight behind Kurdish militias. “We can’t be temporary allies for a certain stage and then they drop or back me as they please,” al-Saoud said.

What particularly miffed him, he said, is when U.S. troops deployed to create a buffer between Kurdish fighters and Turkish troops in northern Syria. “Aren’t we worthy of defending?” he said. He fears U.S. support will only deepen the Kurds’ determination for self-rule, leading to the division of Syria, in the process boosting support among Sunni Arabs for al-Qaida.

During a recent AP visit to his home in Turkey, al-Saoud was constantly on the phone with his commanders back home, who in his absence are trying to understand shifting alliances and battlegrounds. In one call, he reassured a commander bewildered by the Americans working with the Kurds. Another complained how hard it is to negotiate with Islamist factions, which are also trying out alliances to counter the power of al-Qaida.

Al-Saoud also has joined the Northern Front Operation Room. But he is skeptical. It is led by Islamist factions, minimizing the role of more secular groups like his. He fears the coalition will cost him his direct contact with the Americans and his independence, pull him from the fight against al-Qaida and diminish his prestige — his “charisma,” as he puts it.

Moreover, he sees it as imposed by outside powers that can’t agree among themselves, dooming it to fail. “Unify your vision, then pick a leader for a unified (rebel) front,” he said. “My aim is a Syria free of Assad and of terrorism,” he said. “We will remain the popular face of this fight.”

Clashes in Damascus after surprise rebel assault

2017-03-19

DAMASCUS – Heavy clashes rocked eastern districts of the Syrian capital on Sunday as rebels and jihadists tried to fight their way into the city center in a surprise assault on government forces.

The attack on Damascus comes just days before a fresh round of UN-brokered peace talks in Geneva aiming to put an end to Syria’s six-year war.

Rebels and government troops agreed to a nationwide cessation of hostilities in December, but fighting has continued across much of the country, including in the capital.

Steady shelling and sniper fire could be heard across Damascus on Sunday as rebel factions allied with former Al-Qaeda affiliate Fateh al-Sham Front launched an attack on regime positions in the city’s east.

The attack began early Sunday “with two car bombs and several suicide attackers” on the Jobar district, said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.

Rebels then advanced into the nearby Abbasid Square area, seizing several buildings and firing a barrage of rockets into multiple Damascus neighborhoods, Abdel Rahman said.

Government forces responded with nearly a dozen air strikes on Jobar, he added.

Syrian state television reported that the army was “thwarting an attack by terrorists” with artillery fire and had ordered residents to stay inside.

It aired footage from Abbasid Square, typically buzzing with activity but now empty except for the sound of shelling.

Correspondents in Damascus said army units had sealed off the routes into the square, where a thick column of smoke was rising into the cloudy sky.

Several schools announced they would close through Monday, and many civilians cowered inside in fear of stray bullets and shelling.

– ‘From defensive to offensive’ –

Control of Jobar — which has been a battleground for more than two years — is divided between rebels and allied jihadists and government forces.

According to the Observatory, the Islamist Faylaq al-Rahman rebel group and the Fateh al-Sham Front — known as Al-Nusra Front before it broke ties with Al-Qaeda — are present in Jobar.

Government forces have long sought to push the rebels out of the district because of its proximity to the city center in Damascus.

But with Sunday’s attack, Abdel Rahman said, “rebels have shifted from a defensive position in Jobar into an offensive one”.

“These are not intermittent clashes — these are ongoing attempts to advance,” he said.

The Observatory said rebels had launched the attack as a way to relieve allied fighters in the nearby districts of Barzeh, Tishreen and Qabun from government attacks.

“Nine regime forces and at least 12 Islamist rebels were killed” in those districts over the last 24 hours, the Observatory said.

More than 320,000 people have been killed since Syria’s conflict erupted six years ago with protests against Assad’s rule.

After a government crackdown, the uprising turned into an all-out war that has drawn in world powers on nearly all sides.

On Sunday, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman threatened to destroy Syria’s air defense systems after they fired ground-to-air missiles at Israeli warplanes on Friday.

Syria’s army said it shot down an Israeli jet and hit another as they were carrying out early morning strikes near the famed desert city of Palmyra.

Israel denied any planes were hit and said it was targeting weapons bound for Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement, which is backing Assad in Syria.

The United Nations has sponsored peace talks to end the conflict since 2012, to no avail.

Government representatives and opposition figures are set to meet for a fourth round of negotiations on March 23 in Switzerland.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=82139.

Russian-backed evacuation of last rebel-held Homs district begins

2017-03-18

HOMS – Hundreds of rebels and civilians left the last opposition-held district of Homs on Saturday under a controversial Russian-supervised deal to bring Syria’s third city under full government control.

The evacuation of Waer, a northwestern district of the city that has been under siege by the army for years, is the latest in a series of “reconciliation” deals struck by the government that the rebels say amount to starving them out.

It comes ahead of a new round of UN-brokered talks that open in Geneva on Thursday in an attempt to end the conflict that has killed more than 320,000 people and driven millions from their homes.

Thousands are expected to leave Waer in the coming weeks in the final phase of the evacuation agreement, which had stalled in recent months.

An AFP correspondent saw a first wave of three green buses carrying civilians including children as well s dozens of fighters, their rifles slung over their shoulders.

Throughout the day, people lined up to load their luggage onto the buses under the watchful eye of Russian military police.

“Russia is a guarantor of the Waer agreement’s implementation and will monitor its execution,” said the Russian colonel overseeing the operation.

“Russian forces came to Syria for this — to help their friends and allow people to live safely in this country again.”

Moscow is a decades-old ally of the Damascus regime, and in September 2015 launched an air campaign in support of President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

That backing has helped government forces recapture swathes of territory, including the whole of second city Aleppo as well as the famed desert city of Palmyra.

– 12,000 expected to leave –

Three waves of rebels and their families have already left Waer under an agreement first reached in December 2015, but evacuations have since stalled.

In a new deal reached last week, government and rebel representatives agreed that up to 100 Russian troops would deploy inside Waer to oversee the final phase of evacuations.

Between 400 and 500 people are expected to leave on Saturday, Homs governor Talal Barazi said.

“Syrian police, Russian military police and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent will protect the convoys and accompany them from Homs onto Aleppo province,” Barazi said.

Syrian state television reported about a dozen buses had left so far.

Under the agreement, evacuees will be bused to opposition-held parts of Homs province, the rebel-held town of Jarabulus on the Syrian-Turkish border or the northwestern province of Idlib.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates that a total of 12,000 people, 2,500 of them rebels, will leave under the deal.

Over the past month, government forces have stepped up their bombardment of the district, killing dozens of people, the Britain-based monitoring group said.

No aid has reached Waer in at least four months. A UN convoy attempted to reach the district in February but it was seized by gunmen who diverted the assistance to a government-held area.

The government has agreed “reconciliation” deals for several rebel-held areas, and touts such agreements that grant safe passage to surrendering fighters as key to ending six years of war.

But rebels say they are forced into such deals by siege and bombardment, and the UN has sharply criticized them.

The most notorious of the agreements was the December evacuation of the rebel-held east Aleppo after months of government siege.

The UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria earlier this month said the deal “amounts to the war crime of forced displacement of the civilian population” because it had left civilians with “no option to remain.”

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=82127.

Syrian rebels announce capture of flashpoint town from IS

2017-02-23

AL-BAB – Turkish-backed Syrian rebels said Thursday they had fully captured the town of Al-Bab from the Islamic State group, marking a key defeat for the jihadists after weeks of heavy fighting.

As Ankara said its allies now had “near complete control”, the rebel announcement came on the opening day of peace talks between the Syrian opposition and regime in Geneva.

Al-Bab, just 25 kilometers (15 miles) south of the Turkish border, was the last IS stronghold in the northern Syrian province of Aleppo.

“We are announcing Al-Bab completely liberated, and we are now clearing mines from the residential neighborhoods,” said Ahmad Othman, a rebel commander.

“After hours of fighting, we chased out the last remaining IS rank and file that were collapsing after the fierce shelling of their positions,” he added.

Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Isik said rebels had “near complete control” of Al-Bab.

“When the search and combing operations are over, we will be able to say that Al-Bab has been completely cleared of Daesh (IS) elements,” he said, quoted by state-run Anadolu Agency.

Isik reaffirmed that Turkey was now ready to join any operation by international coalition forces to take the Syrian city of Raqa, the extremist group’s de-facto capital.

Anadolu had earlier reported that rebels had surrounded the town to “break” IS’s will but had held off on storming the center “with the aim of preventing civilian casualties”.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, however, said IS fighters were still present in parts of the town and that rebels were in control of less than half of it.

Rebels launched an offensive to capture Al-Bab last year with the support of Turkish ground troops, artillery and air strikes.

Al-Bab was IS’s last remaining stronghold in Aleppo province, after a US-backed alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters seized the town of Manbij in August.

The jihadist group still controls a scattering of smaller villages and towns in the province.

– ‘Tall task’ ahead –

Field commanders from two other rebel factions in the town also claimed the capture of Al-Bab.

“Yesterday (Wednesday), we captured the city center, which was IS’s security zone… The jihadists collapsed, and this morning around 6 am (0400 GMT) we completed the operation,” said Saif Abu Bakr, who heads the Al-Hamza rebel group.

Abu Jaafar, another rebel field commander, said he expected clearing up operations would be wrapped up within hours.

“Dozens of IS fighters were killed and we evacuated more than 50 families from inside Al-Bab,” Abu Jaafar said.

Turkey sent troops into Syria in August last year in an operation it said targeted not only IS but also US-backed Kurdish fighters whom it regards as terrorists.

The battle for Al-Bab has been the bloodiest of the campaign with at least 69 Turkish soldiers killed there.

The town was also seen as a prize by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, who had advanced to just 1.5 kilometers (one mile) from Al-Bab in recent weeks.

“Al-Bab is important, insofar as its taking from IS will deprive the group of a tax base and an area where it was able to congregate and plot attacks against Syrians and the West,” said Aaron Stein, a senior fellow at the US-based Atlantic Council.

“For Turkey, the mission, as was defined back in 2016, is now complete: Turkish forces have forced IS from the border and cut the overland route between the two Kurdish cantons” in northern Syria, he said.

Syria’s Kurds have managed autonomous administrations in swathes of the country’s north since 2012, and Al-Bab falls between the “cantons” of Kobane and Afrin.

“However, Turkey will now have to grapple with the questions of prolonged occupation of a foreign country and help to oversee the transition to civilian rule, a tall task for any foreign military,” Stein added.

More than 310,000 people have been killed since Syria’s conflict broke out in March 2011 with protests against Assad that spiralled into all-out war.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=81645.

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.

Ex-Qaeda affiliate battles rebels in north Syria

2017-01-24

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Middle East Online.

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

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