Monday 30 July 2012
Qamishlo people out yesterday.
With as many as two million people affected by the ongoing conflict in Syria, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon today renewed his call on all parties to put an end to armed violence and prevent further bloodshed.
In the wake of his first field visit, during which he witnessed heavy shelling, the acting head of UN observers in Syria today met with Government officials and called for an end to the fighting that has wracked the Middle Eastern country, in addition to voicing concern about ongoing combat taking place in the city of Aleppo.“It was a good opportunity for me to discuss UNSMIS activities in the coming 20 days. I stressed the need for all sides to end the bloodshed – Syrians killing Syrians – and for all sides to commit to political dialogue,” the UN Military Adviser, Lieutenant General Babacar Gaye, told a press conference in the Syrian capital, Damascus.
“I explained to the Government that our activities will be focused around the mandated task of resolution 2059. We will be monitoring the level of violence and the use of heavy weapons in Syria” he added. “We will also be assessing if there is readiness and, if possible, progress for local confidence-building measures and national dialogue. This, of course, hinges on UNSMIS being provided the space, security and access to fulfil its mandate.”
Lieutenant General Gaye took over the leadership of the UN Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) last week, following the departure of Major-General Robert Mood.
Around half of the military observers serving with UNSMIS have been sent home, with the Mission operating on a reduced basis in a reduced number of locations. The move follows the Security Council’s recent extension of UNSMIS’ mandate – under resolution 2059 – for a final period of 30 days, with any further renewals possible only if it can be confirmed that the use of heavy weapons has ceased and a reduction in violence by all sides is sufficient to permit UNSMIS to implement its mandate.
Established in April, the Mission had suspended its regular patrols due to the escalating violence, in which over 10,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed and tens of thousands displaced since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began some 16 months ago. Over recent days, there have been reports of an escalation in violence in many towns and villages, as well as Damascus and Aleppo, Syria’s second-biggest city.
On Sunday, Lieutenant General Gaye took part in his first field visit since assuming the acting leadership of UNSMIS, paying a visit to the cities of Homs and ar-Rastan to assess the situation, including the use of heavy weapons. While there, he also met with the provincial Governor and members of the Free Syrian Army to try to “gauge their readiness for local engagement and dialogue.”
“During my visit to Homs, I was personally able to witness heavy shelling, from artillery and mortars, ongoing in the neighbourhoods of the city,” Lieutenant General Gaye said. “Ar-Rastan was heavily damaged by an intensive shelling campaign and fierce fighting. There were damaged tanks left on the side of the streets; public infrastructure, such as bridges, was destroyed; and homes on the main roads inside the town were largely damaged.”
He added, “I did see families, women and children in some inner neighbourhoods of the town, in addition to a few shops open, selling food.”
In his remarks to reporters, the acting UNSMIS chief also expressed his concerns about Aleppo, which, according to reports, has been subjected to intense fighting between Government and opposition forces over recent days.
“My observers there have reported an upsurge in the violence, with helicopters, tanks and artillery being used,” Lieutenant General Gaye said. “I call on the parties, again as stated by the Joint Special Envoy, to exercise restraint and avoid further bloodshed – it is imperative that both sides respect international humanitarian law and protect civilians.”
UNSMIS is tasked with monitoring the cessation of violence in Syria, as well as monitoring and supporting the full implementation of the six-point peace plan put forward by the Joint Special Envoy for the UN and the League of Arab States for the Syrian Crisis, Kofi Annan.
That plan calls for an end to violence, access for humanitarian agencies to provide relief to those in need, the release of detainees, the start of inclusive political dialogue, and unrestricted access to the country for the international media.
Meanwhile, the UN refugee agency today said it had received reports of around 200,000 people fleeing the fighting in Aleppo, with many of those people displaced within other parts of Syria, which has made humanitarian access to them difficult.
“They are very few who reached Turkey… this could have a number of reasons. It might be very difficult to pass the roads leading to Turkey. So it’s very difficult to say right now what the people of Aleppo are going through. As soon they cross we will be talking to them,” a spokesperson for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Melissa Fleming, said today.
She also noted the difficulties involved in estimating the number of refugees, as the total number reflects only those people who come forward and register or ask for assistance.
[local time] 22:16 Monday’s death toll has increased to 98, Al-Arabiya quoted activists as saying.
22:03 Syrian ally Iran has warned their common neighbor Turkey that it will meet a harsh response should Ankara carry out any strikes inside Syrian territory, a pro-Damascus daily reported on Monday.
20:45 The Free Syrian Army said it controlled 60% of Aleppo, Al-Jazeera reported.
20:38 Monday’s death toll has increased to 85, Al-Arabiya quoted activists as saying.
20:21 A UN convoy carrying unarmed observers came under attack in Syria, but none were injured, UN leader Ban Ki-moon told reporters Monday.
17:55 A charity that cares for thousands of Syrians who fled violence said on Monday that the first official camp to house the refugees in neighboring Jordan falls short of international standards.
17:04 Britain said on Monday that a Syrian diplomat in London quit and is no longer willing to represent regime, AFP reported.
16:46 Monday’s death toll increased to 44, Al-Arabiya quoted activists as saying.
16:26 Syrian forces shelled Daraa, Al-Arabiya quoted activists as saying.
16:24 Syrian regime forces’ warplanes shelled the town of Deir Hafer in the Aleppo district, Al-Arabiya quoted activists as saying.
14:58 The new head of the UN observer mission in Syria said on Monday that he saw heavy shelling in the central city of Homs and major damage to the nearby town of Rastan during his first visit into the field.
14:24 Al-Jazeera television reported that its Aleppo-based correspondent was wounded Monday in the flashpoint city and transferred to a hospital in Turkey for treatment.
14:19 Syria’s rebels distributed on Monday a “national salvation draft” proposal for a political transition in the country, bringing together military and civilian figures for a post-Bashar al-Assad phase.
13:43 Syrian forces on Monday killed 27 people, Al-Arabiya television quoted the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights as saying.
13:21 Another brigadier general has defected from Syria’s army to join the ranks of opposition fighters, pushing the total number of rebel generals based in Turkey to 28, a diplomatic source said Monday.
12:56 Turkey has sent a convoy of tanks, weapons and ground-to-air missile batteries to the border with Syria, adding to its already fortified defenses around the frontier, Anatolia news agency reported Monday.
12:41 Syria has closed its embassy in Australia, officials said Monday, two months after Canberra expelled the country’s top diplomat over one of the worst massacres of the more than year-long conflict.
12:33 A series of attacks across Syria on Monday killed at least five people, a watchdog said, as the army and rebels clashed fiercely in and around Aleppo in a raging battle to control the northern city.
12:10 Russia’s differences with the West on Syria are not as great as they appear, as both agree on the need to prevent civil war, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said in an interview published Monday.
11:48 Twelve police officers in Syria’s Latakia defected and fled to Turkey, Al-Arabiya quoted a Turkish official as saying on Monday.
11:39 French freelance reporter Pierre Torres who was reported to have been wounded in Aleppo denied to AFP on Monday that he was hurt, saying he was safe and still operating from near the northern Syrian city.
10:37 Syrian rebels seized a strategic checkpoint northwest of Aleppo on Monday after a 10-hour battle, securing them free movement between the northern city and Turkey, an AFP journalist said.
10:33 A YouTube video purportedly filmed on Monday in the town of Anadan north of Aleppo shows two tanks and a military vehicle belonging to regime forces seized by the rebel Free Syrian Army.
9:56 The Syrian army on Monday overran part of the rebel-held Salaheddin district of Aleppo, the country’s most populous city, a security source in Damascus told AFP.
9:01 France, which is taking over the UN Security Council’s rotating presidency in August, will call an emergency ministerial meeting on Syria, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Monday.
8:08 Syrian state TV on Sunday night said that regime troops recaptured the flashpoint Aleppo district of Salaheddin after days of intense fighting, but rebels rejected the claim, Reuters reported.
7:58 A YouTube video purportedly filmed on Sunday shows a group of rebels announcing the formation of the “military and political council in the Syrian coast” region stretching from Tartus to Latakia. Rebel groups have not been active in the regime hold-out areas along the country’s Mediterranean coast.
7:54 A YouTube video purportedly filmed on Sunday in Aleppo shows rebels attacking a building housing “shabiha.”
7:52 A YouTube video purportedly filmed on Sunday in Aleppo shows a Syrian regime militant surrendering to rebels after the building he was in was blown up.
7:35 US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Sunday that the assault on his own population in Aleppo would be a nail in his coffin.
7:31 Syrian National Council chief Abdel Basset Sayda is on a visit to Iraqi Kurdistan in a bid to convince Kurdish leaders to join the opposition, an official from a Syrian Kurdish group said.
7:29 A man employed at Syria’s embassy in Berlin will be tried for allegedly passing on information relating to opponents of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Germany’s federal court told the DPA news agency Sunday.
7:26 French freelance reporter Pierre Torres, who filed copy for several media networks including Agence France-Presse, was wounded in Aleppo on Sunday as Syrian troops pushed an assault on rebels, a colleague said.
7:20 MORNING LEADER: Around 200,000 civilians have fled fighting in Syria’s most populous city Aleppo and many more were trapped, the UN said Sunday as a government offensive against rebels entered a second day. Meanwhile, the Syrian National Council accused the government of preparing to carry out “massacres” in the northern city and pleaded for heavy weapons to enable rebels to meet the regime onslaught.
Syrian government forces step up their assault on rebel-held areas of the second city, Aleppo, using artillery, ground forces and helicopter gunships.
Syrian government forces have been continuing their assault with artillery, ground forces and helicopter gunships on rebel-held areas of the second city, Aleppo.
Officials said one area, Salah al-Din, had been recaptured, but rebels said the battle there was still going on.
UN observers have reported an upsurge in violence in the city, the new head of their mission Babacar Gaye said.
He added that he had personally seen heavy shelling in the city of Homs.
Lt-Gen Gaye also said he had witnessed serious damage from shelling and fighting in the nearby town of Rastan.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon later reported that Gen Gaye’s convoy had been attacked at the weekend.
In other developments:
- Greece is to quadruple the number of guards on its border with Turkey to pre-empt a possible influx of Syrian refugees, AP quotes Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias as saying
- The al-Jazeera media network says one of its journalists, Ankara-based correspondent Omar Khashram, has been wounded by shrapnel in Aleppo and evacuated to Turkey for treatment
- Syria’s most senior diplomat in London, Charge d’Affaires Khaled al-Ayoubi, says he has left his post and is no longer willing to represent a regime that has “committed such violent and oppressive acts against its own people”, a UK Foreign Office statement says
‘Not one metre’
Government forces launched a ground assault on Aleppo on Saturday after a week of sporadic shelling and sorties by fighter jets.Rebels are now thought to have a direct route from Aleppo to the Turkish border
With fighting into its third day, UN observers and witnesses reported fire from mortars, tanks and helicopter gunships.
Fighting has focused on the Salah al-Din neighbourhood in Aleppo’s south-west, where the rebels had embedded themselves.
Syrian state television showed footage from the city and interviewed soldiers who said they had taken complete control of Salah al-Din late on Sunday.
On Monday, officials in Damascus again said they had “purged” the area.
But activists have denied that the quarter has been overrun by the army, saying rebels are still in control.
The head of the Free Syrian Army in Aleppo, Col Abdel Jabbar al-Oqaidi, told the AFP news agency the government “had not progressed one metre”.
Heavy shelling and clashes have also been reported in the Sakhur quarter on the north-east side of the city centre, where another attack by government forces appeared to be under way.
And an AFP reporter said rebels had captured a checkpoint at Anadan, 5km (three miles) north-west of Aleppo, seizing government armoured vehicles.
Correspondents say that controlling the checkpoint would give the rebels a direct route between Aleppo and the Turkish border.
Meanwhile UN humanitarian chief Baroness Valerie Amos said that, according to Red Cross and Syrian Arab Red Crescent estimates, some 200,000 people had fled fighting in Aleppo.
She said others were trapped in the city and needed urgent help.
“I call on all parties to the fighting to ensure that they do not target civilians and that they allow humanitarian organisations safe access.”
She said many people had fled their homes to take shelter in schools and other public buildings.
The BBC’s Ian Pannell, in the Aleppo area, says residents are facing food shortages and power cuts.
He says the rebels are outgunned by the army, but they are fighting an effective guerrilla war in the streets.
Speaking of the attack on Gen Gaye’s convoy, Ban Ki-moon said no-one had been injured, as personnel were protected by the vehicles’ armour.
Mr Ban was initially understood to have said that the convoy had been attacked by “army tanks”, but according to an official transcript of his remarks, he actually spoke of “armed attacks”.
He also said the UN was “still waiting” for the Syrian government to honour its commitment to end armed violence.
Mr Ban expressed particular concern about the impact of shelling and heavy weapons such as helicopters in Aleppo.
He also called on the government to renounce any possibility of using weapons of mass destruction, including chemical weapons and to ensure that stockpiles were kept secure.
Last week Damascus said it would not use chemical weapons inside Syria, but did not rule out their use in the event of an attack by foreign powers.
The fighting comes as the UN Security Council remains chronically divided over Syria, with Russia blocking attempts by Western nations to ramp up pressure on President Bashar al-Assad.
France is due to take over the presidency of the Security Council this week, and Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has pledged to continue pushing the issue.
He called Mr Assad an “executioner” and said he would ask for a ministerial level meeting of Security Council members before the end of the week.
“We must try everything,” he said on French radio, “even though Russia and China have blocked resolutions on three separate occasions.”
Meanwhile Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said there could be room for compromise.
In an interview with The Times newspaper, he said the positions of Russia, the US and UK were not as different as is sometimes suggested.
Where Syrians are fleeing
Turkey: 43,387 Anxious Turks wait for endgame
Jordan: 36,824 Jordan’s desert refugee camp
Lebanon: 31,596 Defiance at Lebanon frontier
Iraq: 8,445 Iraq pressurised by tribal ties
Internally displaced: One million
- Pannell: Battle for Aleppo ragesWatch
- Diplomat quits London post
- Fear and hunger in Aleppo
- In pictures: Battle for Aleppo
- Jordan opens Syria refugee camp
The Syrian military has stepped up its campaign to drive rebels out of Aleppo, where fighters said they were holding firm, vowing to turn the country’s largest city into the “grave of the regime”.
Opposition activists denied a government declaration that its forces had recaptured the Salaheddine district, in southwest Aleppo, straddling the most obvious route for Syrian troop reinforcements coming from the south.
Hospitals and makeshift clinics in rebel-held eastern neighborhoods were filling up with casualties from a week of fighting in the city, a commercial hub drawn into the 16-month-long revolt against President Bashar al-Assad.
“Some days we get around 30, 40 people, not including the bodies,” said a young medic in one clinic. “A few days ago we got 30 injured and maybe 20 corpses, but half of those bodies were ripped to pieces. We can’t figure out who they are.”
The opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 40 people, 30 of them civilians, were killed in Syria on Monday. Two rebel fighters died in Salaheddine.
Outgunned rebel fighters, patrolling in flat-bed trucks flying green-white-and-black “independence” flags, said they were holding out in Salaheddine despite a battering by the army’s heavy weapons and helicopter gunships.
A fighter jet flew overhead, a reminder of the overwhelming military advantage still enjoyed by government forces.
“BASHAR’S FORCES WILL BE BURIED”
“We always knew the regime’s grave would be Aleppo,” said Mohammed, a young fighter, fingering the bullets in his tattered brown ammunition vest.
“Damascus is the capital, but here we have a fourth of the country’s population and the entire force of its economy. Bashar’s forces will be buried here.”
So far, however, the government’s superiority on the ground means rebels have had little success in holding on to urban territory. The rebels made a major push into Damascus two weeks ago, but were driven out.
The Syrian government has said it has recaptured Salaheddine. Reuters journalists in Aleppo have not been able to reach the neighborhood to verify who holds it.
The army’s assault on Salaheddine echoed its tactics in Damascus earlier this month when it used its overwhelming firepower to mop up rebel fighters district by district.
Assad’s forces are determined not to let go of Aleppo, where defeat would be a serious strategic and psychological blow.
Military experts believe the rebels are too lightly armed and poorly commanded to overcome the army, whose artillery pounds the city at will and whose gunships control the skies.
“Yesterday they were shelling the area at a rate of two shells a minute. We couldn’t move at all,” a man calling himself a spokesman for the “Aleppo Revolution” said on Monday. “It’s not true at all that the regime’s forces are in Salaheddine.”
Warfare has stilled the usual commercial bustle in this city of 2.5 million. Vegetable markets are open but few people are buying. Instead, crowds of sweating men and women wait nearly three hours to buy limited amounts of heavily subsidized bread.
In a city where loyalties have been divided, with sections of the population in favor of the Assad government, some seemed wary of speaking out in the presence of the fighters, many of whom have been drafted in from surrounding areas.
Asked about his allegiances, one man waiting at a police station that had been badly damaged by shellfire said: “We are not with anyone. We are on the side of truth.”
Asked whose side that was, he replied: “Only God.”
Others stopped members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and asked them to do something about the supply of bread and petrol.
Rebel fighters remain in control of swathes of the city, moving around those areas armed with assault rifles and dressed in items of camouflage clothing in an edgy show of confidence.
They were emboldened to strike at Aleppo and central Damascus by a July 18 explosion that killed four of Assad’s top security officials.
BIG POWERS DIVIDED
With big powers divided, the outside world has been unable to restrain Syria’s slide into civil war.
The only international military presence is a small, unarmed U.N. observer mission. A convoy carrying the head of the mission was attacked on Sunday and only the vehicles’ armor prevented injuries, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Monday.
He gave no further details of the attack. U.N. officials said on condition of anonymity that the convoy of five vehicles was hit by small arms fire in Talibisa, some 17 km (10 miles) from Homs, in what they said was an opposition-held area.
Moscow has supported Assad and has shown no sign of abandoning him, blaming the West and Arab countries for stoking the revolt by backing the opposition. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said on Twitter: “Situation is really critical in Aleppo. It is clear that biased media by all means try to do work for the opposition when the latter fails.”
France said it would ask for an urgent meeting of the U.N. Security Council to try to break the diplomatic deadlock on Syria, but gave no indication that Russia and China would end their longstanding policy of blocking measures against Assad.
In London, Syria’s most senior diplomat resigned because he could no longer represent a government that committed such “violent and oppressive acts” against its own people, the British Foreign Office said. Charge d’affaires Khaled al-Ayoubi joins a growing list of senior Syrian defectors.
Amid growing concern about security on its frontier, Turkey sent at least four convoys of troops, missile batteries and armored vehicles to the border with Syria.
There has been no indication that Turkish forces will cross the border, and the troop movements may just be precautionary in the face of worsening violence in Syria.
Syrian charge d’affaires in London resigns 10:18am EDT
The Syrian chargé d’affaires in London, Khaled al-Ayoubi, has resigned, the British Foreign Office said on Monday.
“Mr al-Ayoubi has told us that he is no longer willing to represent a regime that has committed such violent and oppressive acts against its own people, and is therefore unable to continue in his position,” the Foreign Office said in a statement.
Al-Ayoubi was the most senior Syrian diplomat serving in London, it added.
“His departure is another blow to the Assad regime. It illustrates the revulsion and despair the regime’s actions are provoking amongst Syrians from all walks of life, inside the country and abroad.
“We urge others around Bashar Al-Assad to follow Mr al-Ayoubi’s example,” the Foreign Office said.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad withdrew Syria’s ambassador to London in March.
- Turkish military convoys deploy at Syrian border 11:57am EDT
As they stood outside the commandeered government building in the town of Mohassen, it was hard to distinguish Abu Khuder’s men from any other brigade in the Syrian civil war, in their combat fatigues, T-shirts and beards.
But these were not average members of the Free Syrian Army. Abu Khuder and his men fight for al-Qaida. They call themselves the ghuraba’a, or “strangers”, after a famous jihadi poem celebrating Osama bin Laden’s time with his followers in the Afghan mountains, and they are one of a number of jihadi organisations establishing a foothold in the east of the country now that the conflict in Syria has stretched well into its second bloody year.
They try to hide their presence. “Some people are worried about carrying the [black] flags,” said Abu Khuder. “They fear America will come and fight us. So we fight in secret. Why give Bashar and the west a pretext?” But their existence is common knowledge in Mohassen. Even passers-by joke with the men about car bombs and IEDs.
According to Abu Khuder, his men are working closely with the military council that commands the Free Syrian Army brigades in the region. “We meet almost every day,” he said. “We have clear instructions from our [al-Qaida] leadership that if the FSA need our help we should give it. We help them with IEDs and car bombs. Our main talent is in the bombing operations.” Abu Khuder’s men had a lot of experience in bomb-making from Iraq and elsewhere, he added.
Abu Khuder spoke later at length. He reclined on a pile of cushions in a house in Mohassen, resting his left arm which had been hit by a sniper’s bullet and was wrapped in plaster and bandages. Four teenage boys kneeled in a tight crescent in front of him, craning their necks and listening with awe. Other villagers in the room looked uneasy.
Abu Khuder had been an officer in a mechanised Syrian border force called the Camel Corps when he took up arms against the regime. He fought the security forces with a pistol and a light hunting rifle, gaining a reputation as one of the bravest and most ruthless men in Deir el-Zour province and helped to form one of the first FSA battalions.
He soon became disillusioned with what he saw as the rebel army’s disorganisation and inability to strike at the regime, however. He illustrated this by describing an attempt to attack the government garrison in Mohassen. Fortified in a former textile factory behind concrete walls, sand bags, machine-gun turrets and armoured vehicles, the garrison was immune to the rebels’ puny attempt at assault.
“When we attacked the base with the FSA we tried everything and failed,” said Abu Khuder. “Even with around 200 men attacking from multiple fronts they couldn’t injure a single government soldier and instead wasted 1.5m Syrian pounds [£14,500] on firing ammunition at the walls.”
Then a group of devout and disciplined Islamist fighters in the nearby village offered to help. They summoned an expert from Damascus and after two days of work handed Abu Khuder their token of friendship: a truck rigged with two tonnes of explosives.
Two men drove the truck close to the gate of the base and detonated it remotely. The explosion was so large, Abu Khuder said, that windows and metal shutters were blown hundreds of metres, trees were ripped up by their roots and a huge crater was left in the middle of the road.
The next day the army left and the town of Mohassen was free.
“The car bomb cost us 100,000 Syrian pounds and fewer than 10 people were involved [in the operation],” he said. “Within two days of the bomb expert arriving we had it ready. We didn’t waste a single bullet.
“Al-Qaida has experience in these military activities and it knows how to deal with it.”
After the bombing, Abu Khuder split with the FSA and pledged allegiance to al-Qaida’s organisation in Syria, the Jabhat al Nusra or Solidarity Front. He let his beard grow and adopted the religious rhetoric of a jihadi, becoming a commander of one their battalions.
“The Free Syrian Army has no rules and no military or religious order. Everything happens chaotically,” he said. “Al-Qaida has a law that no one, not even the emir, can break.
“The FSA lacks the ability to plan and lacks military experience. That is what [al-Qaida] can bring. They have an organisation that all countries have acknowledged.
“In the beginning there were very few. Now, mashallah, there are immigrants joining us and bringing their experience,” he told the gathered people. “Men from Yemen, Saudi, Iraq and Jordan. Yemenis are the best in their religion and discipline and the Iraqis are the worst in everything – even in religion.”
At this, one man in the room – an activist in his mid-30s who did not want to be named – said: “So what are you trying to do, Abu Khuder? Are you going to start cutting off hands and make us like Saudi? Is this why we are fighting a revolution?”
“[Al-Qaida's] goal is establishing an Islamic state and not a Syrian state,” he replied. “Those who fear the organisation fear the implementation of Allah’s jurisdiction. If you don’t commit sins there is nothing to fear.”
Religious and sectarian rhetoric has taken a leading role in the Syrian revolution from the early days. This is partly because of the need for outside funding and weapons, which are coming through well-established Muslim networks, and partly because religion provides a useful rallying cry for fighters, with promises of martyrdom and redemption.
Almost every rebel brigade has adopted a Sunni religious name with rhetoric exalting jihad and martyrdom, even when the brigades are run by secular commanders and manned by fighters who barely pray.
“Religion is a major rallying force in this revolution – look at Ara’our [a rabid sectarian preacher], he is hysterical and we don’t like him but he offers unquestionable support to the fighters and they need it,” the activist said later.
Another FSA commander in Deir el-Zour city explained the role of religion in the uprising: “Religion is the best way to impose discipline. Even if the fighter is not religious he can’t disobey a religious order in battle.”
Al-Qaida has existed in this parched region of eastern Syria, where the desert and the tribes straddle the border with Iraq, for almost a decade.
During the years of American occupation of Iraq, Deir el-Zour became the gateway through which thousands of foreign jihadis flooded to fight the holy war. Many senior insurgents took refuge from American and Iraqi government raids in the villages and deserts of Deir el-Zourx.
Osama, a young jihadi from Abu Khuder’s unit with a kind smile, was 17 in 2003 when the Americans invaded Iraq, he said. He ran away from home and joined the thousands of other Syrians who crossed the porous border and went to fight. Like most of those volunteers, at first he was inspired by a mixture of nationalistic and tribal allegiances, but later religion became his sole motivation.
After returning to Syria he drifted closer to the jihadi ideology. It was dangerous then, and some of his friends were imprisoned by the regime, which for years played a double game, allowing jihadis to filter across the borders to fight the Americans while at the same time keeping them tightly under control at home.
In the first months of the Syrian uprising, he joined the protesters in the street, and when some of his relatives were killed he defected and joined the Free Syrian Army.
“I decided to join the others,” he said. “But then I became very disappointed with the FSA. When they fought they were great, but then most of the time they sat in their rooms doing nothing but smoke and gossip and chat on Skype.”
Fed up with his commanders’ bickering and fighting over money, he turned to another fighting group based in the village of Shahail, 50 miles west of Mohassen, which has become the de facto capital of al-Qaida in Deir el-Zour. More than 20 of its young men were killed in Iraq. In Shahail the al-Qaida fighters drive around in white SUVs with al-Qaida flags fluttering.
The group there was led by a pious man. He knew a couple of them from his time in Iraq. One day, the group’s leader – a Saudi who covered his hair with a red scarf and carried a small Kalashnikov, in the style of Bin Laden – visited Mohassen. He gave a long sermon during the funeral of a local commander, telling the audience how jihad was the only way to lead a revolution against the infidel regime of Bashar al-Assad, and how they, the Syrians, were not only victims of the regime but also of the hypocrisy of the west, which refused to help them.
“They were committed,” said Osama. “They obeyed their leader and never argued. In the FSA, if you have 10 people they usually split and form three groups.” The jihadis, by contrast, used their time “in useful things, even the chores are divided equally”.
Osama joined the group. “He [the Saudi] is a very good man, he spends his days teaching us. You ask him anything and he will answer you with verses from the Qur’an, you want to read the Qur’an you can read. You want to study bomb-making he will teach you.”
In the pre-revolutionary days when the regime was strong it would take a year to recruit someone to the secret cause of jihad. “Now, thanks to God, we are working in the open and many people are joining in,” said Osama.
In Shahail we interviewed Saleem Abu Yassir, a village elder and the commander of the local FSA brigade. He sat in a room filled with tribal fighters and machine-guns. The relationship with al-Qaida had been very difficult, he said, with the jihadis being secretive and despising the FSA and even calling them infidel secularists. But now they had opened up, co-operating with other rebel groups.
“Are they good fighters?” he threw the question rhetorically into the room. “Yes, they are, but they have a problem with executions. They capture a soldier and they put a pistol to his head and shoot him. We have religious courts and we have to try people before executing them. This abundance of killing is what we fear. We fear they are trying to bring us back to the days of Iraq and we have seen what that achieved.”
Osama had told me that his group was very cautious about not repeating the Iraq experience – “they admit they made a lot of mistakes in Iraq and they are keen to avoid it”, he said – but others, including a young doctor working for the revolution, were not convinced. The opposition needed to admit Al-Qaida were among them, and be on their guard.
“Who kidnapped the foreign engineers who worked in the nearby oilfield?” he asked. “They have better financing than the FSA and we have to admit they are here.
“They are stealing the revolution from us and they are working for the day that comes after.”
Syria unrest: Assad forces continue onslaught in Aleppo: 30 Jul 2012: Battle for Syria’s second city intensifies as Assad regime claims it has stamped out rebel assault in Damascus …