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Islamist blitzkrieg in Syria: Jihadists wiping out moderate rebels

Published time: September 19, 2013 16:15
A Free Syrian Army fighter mans an anti-aircraft gun in al-Ghouta region in the eastern rural suburbs of Damascus, August 17, 2013. (Reuters/Mohamed Abdullah)

Al-Qaeda-linked jihadists in Syria have begun an offensive against former allies, wrestling moderate FSA rebels out of the controlled areas. With the US assault on Syria postponed, radical Islamists are seeking ultimate authority to fight Assad.  

The latest news coming from the north of Syria suggests that a series of clashes between the former allies have already left a number of casualties and a change of the operational situation in the Syrian civil war.

The FSA leaders have recently acknowledged that clashes between their brigades and Islamist rivals have reached boiling point.

Last weekend, the very same day Russia’s FM Sergey Lavrov and the US Secretary of State John Kerry hammered out an agreement on Syria’s chemical weapons disarmament, the clashes between FSA associates and the most notorious jihadist groups operating in Syria, the al-Nusra front and the ISIL, were reported by the Daily Beast. 

Islamists attacked first, by blowing up the brother of a commander of the Allahu Akbar Brigades, a local FSA group. In retaliation the group launched a counter offensive, killing four jihadists.

On Wednesday militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) seized the town of Azaz controlled by the anti-Assad Storm of the North Brigade, affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, some five kilometers from the Syrian-Turkish border. Five FSA fighters reportedly died in clashes, with over 100 people taken hostage.

“The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has seized complete control of Azaz. They are in control of the town's entrances,” Abu Ahmad, an activist inside Azaz, told the AFP news agency. 

The shootout in Azaz began after ISIL gunmen attempted to detain a German doctor who has been working as a volunteer at a private hospital in Azaz, accusing him of taking photos of their positions. The doctor managed to escape and is safe now, Rami Abdul-Rahman told the Associated Press, the head of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. But as a result of the clashes FSA’s Northern Storm Brigade has had to withdraw from Azaz.

The ultimate goal of the jihadists must be a crossing at Bab Al Salama on the Syrian-Turkish border, currently controlled by the FSA. The Bab Al Salama is one of the few still operable crossings used by the Syrian opposition to deliver weapons, fighters and humanitarian aid from neighboring Turkey.

Local activist Abu Louay al-Halabi told Al Jazeera that “By taking Azaz, the Islamic State is a step closer to controlling the crossing. Its objective seems to be taking over the whole countryside north of Aleppo.”

In yet another shootout, fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group clashed with FSA’s Rasoul group rebels and drove them out of the town of Raqqah in Syria’s north last Wednesday, reported Lebanon’s Daily Start last week. In this town that fell out of Assad’s control last March, the jihadists stick to the same modus operandi – they detonated a car bomb killing two FSA commanders. 

After a fierce fight at Rasoul group headquarters, the FSA militants had to withdraw to Turkish territory.

A Free Syrian Army fighter fires his weapon in Ashrafieh, Aleppo, September 18, 2013. (Reuters/Muzaffar Salman)

Islamic extremists launch their own war

While last weekend Russia and the United States reached a deal on a framework that will see the removal and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons by mid- 2014, Islamic extremists in Syria made it clear they are not interested in soothing the conflict.

In fact, extremists have taken the Lavrov-Kerry deal to strip Damascus of chemical weapons as a clear signal to act.

Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri announced that Islamist militants must avoid any alliances with other rebel forces supported by the west and the Gulf Arab states.

“I warn my brothers and people in Syria of unity and jihad and against coming close to any of these groups,” said Zawahri as quoted by Reuters.

The news came as no surprise, particularly after the publication last week of the defense consultancy IHS Jane's report about almost half of the rebel forces fighting against the Syrian government being either hardline Islamists or open jihadists with strong Al-Qaeda links.

Already in July it had become obvious that there was a coolness between most active jihadists and FSA fighters, when a senior figure of the rebel Free Syrian Army was executed by Al-Qaeda-linked militants during negotiations.

Since the CIA and US special operational troop’s instructors have been coaching Syrian rebels at bases in Jordan and Turkey since November 2012, it is an open question which sides the graduates of such courses have taken by now.

IHS Jane's report insists there are 100,000 fighters opposing President Bashar Assad’s forces at the moment, of which no less than 45,000 are Islamic extremists that are actually the spearhead of the anti-Assad forces.

A Free Syrian Army fighter fires his weapon during what the FSA said were clashes with forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Idlib, September 9, 2013. Picture taken September 9, 2013. (Reuters/Muhammad Qadour)

Total jihad approaching

While the Pentagon continues to insist its plans include equipping and training only “moderate” Syrian rebel forces, the CIA reportedly has got an official blessing to monitor the arming of the Syrian rebels. 

The mantra about arming only moderate rebels has been sounding for months now, but since Islamist fighters have now finally become the backbone of the rebel’s forces, it raises the question about the final beneficiary of the US’s reported $400 million aid to the Syrian rebels.

The sudden acts of aggression of jihadists in Syria, attacking relatively moderate FSA fighters, are strangely coinciding with Russia conducting negotiations with both sides of the Syrian conflict in order to bring the warring parties behind to the negotiation table.

Al-Qaeda associates might really succeed in squeezing FSA moderates out of Syria which would automatically put Russia in an awkward position of conducting useless negotiations, with a Syrian opposition swiftly losing its remaining political clout. But that would also mean that the US could only supply weapons directly to Al-Qaeda jihadists as the only remaining force capable of opposing President Bashar Assad.

In that case Moscow would be left with only one imperative: to support the legitimate government of democratically elected President Bashar Assad in order to prevent the Middle East from sliding into the uncontrollable chaos of total jihad. 

In turn, if Washington really wants to topple President Assad, it would have to make a choice between either officially declaring its support for Al-Qaeda and its global expansion agenda, or joining Moscow and battle Islamic extremists in the Middle East.

Ivan Fursov, RT

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.