Exposing the Ba’ath Party connection with ISIS

It’s been a while since I posted any new content on this blog so apologies in advance. I have posted this content several times on my Facebook page but due to a request I’m reposting it here on my blog. Enjoy

04/18/2015

The Terror Strategist

Secret Files Reveal the Structure of Islamic State

By Christoph Reuter

AP/ Raqqa Media Center

An Iraqi officer planned Islamic State’s takeover in Syria and SPIEGEL has been given exclusive access to his papers. They portray an organization that, while seemingly driven by religious fanaticism, is actually coldly calculating.

    

Aloof. Polite. Cajoling. Extremely attentive. Restrained. Dishonest. Inscrutable. Malicious. The rebels from northern Syria, remembering encounters with him months later, recall completely different facets of the man. But they agree on one thing: “We never knew exactly who we were sitting across from.”

In fact, not even those who shot and killed him after a brief firefight in the town of Tal Rifaat on a January morning in 2014 knew the true identity of the tall man in his late fifties. They were unaware that they had killed the strategic head of the group calling itself “Islamic State” (IS). The fact that this could have happened at all was the result of a rare but fatal miscalculation by the brilliant planner. The local rebels placed the body into a refrigerator, in which they intended to bury him. Only later, when they realized how important the man was, did they lift his body out again.

Samir Abd Muhammad al-Khlifawi was the real name of the Iraqi, whose bony features were softened by a white beard. But no one knew him by that name. Even his best-known pseudonym, Haji Bakr, wasn’t widely known. But that was precisely part of the plan. The former colonel in the intelligence service of Saddam Hussein’s air defense force had been secretly pulling the strings at IS for years. Former members of the group had repeatedly mentioned him as one of its leading figures. Still, it was never clear what exactly his role was.

But when the architect of the Islamic State died, he left something behind that he had intended to keep strictly confidential: the blueprint for this state. It is a folder full of handwritten organizational charts, lists and schedules, which describe how a country can be gradually subjugated. SPIEGEL has gained exclusive access to the 31 pages, some consisting of several pages pasted together. They reveal a multilayered composition and directives for action, some already tested and others newly devised for the anarchical situation in Syria’s rebel-held territories. In a sense, the documents are the source code of the most successful terrorist army in recent history.

Until now, much of the information about IS has come from fighters who had defected and data sets from the IS internal administration seized in Baghdad. But none of this offered an explanation for the group’s meteoric rise to prominence, before air strikes in the late summer of 2014 put a stop to its triumphal march.

For the first time, the Haji Bakr documents now make it possible to reach conclusions on how the IS leadership is organized and what role former officials in the government of ex-dictator Saddam Hussein play in it. Above all, however, they show how the takeover in northern Syria was planned, making the group’s later advances into Iraq possible in the first place. In addition, months of research undertaken by SPIEGEL in Syria, as well as other newly discovered records, exclusive to SPIEGEL, show that Haji Bakr’s instructions were carried out meticulously.

Bakr’s documents were long hidden in a tiny addition to a house in embattled northern Syria. Reports of their existence were first made by an eyewitness who had seen them in Haji Bakr’s house shortly after his death. In April 2014, a single page from the file was smuggled to Turkey, where SPIEGEL was able to examine it for the first time. It only became possible to reach Tal Rifaat to evaluate the entire set of handwritten papers in November 2014.

This document is Haji Bakr’s sketch for the possible structure of the Islamic State administration.

“Our greatest concern was that these plans could fall into the wrong hands and would never have become known,” said the man who has been storing Haji Bakr’s notes after pulling them out from under a tall stack of boxes and blankets. The man, fearing the IS death squads, wishes to remain anonymous.

The Master Plan

The story of this collection of documents begins at a time when few had yet heard of the “Islamic State.” When Iraqi national Haji Bakr traveled to Syria as part of a tiny advance party in late 2012, he had a seemingly absurd plan: IS would capture as much territory as possible in Syria. Then, using Syria as a beachhead, it would invade Iraq.

Bakr took up residence in an inconspicuous house in Tal Rifaat, north of Aleppo. The town was a good choice. In the 1980s, many of its residents had gone to work in the Gulf nations, especially Saudi Arabia. When they returned, some brought along radical convictions and contacts. In 2013, Tal Rifaat would become IS’ stronghold in Aleppo Province, with hundreds of fighters stationed there.

It was there that the “Lord of the Shadows,” as some called him, sketched out the structure of the Islamic State, all the way down to the local level, compiled lists relating to the gradual infiltration of villages and determined who would oversee whom. Using a ballpoint pen, he drew the chains of command in the security apparatus on stationery. Though presumably a coincidence, the stationery was from the Syrian Defense Ministry and bore the letterhead of the department in charge of accommodations and furniture.

What Bakr put on paper, page by page, with carefully outlined boxes for individual responsibilities, was nothing less than a blueprint for a takeover. It was not a manifesto of faith, but a technically precise plan for an “Islamic Intelligence State” — a caliphate run by an organization that resembled East Germany’s notorious Stasi domestic intelligence agency.

This blueprint was implemented with astonishing accuracy in the ensuing months. The plan would always begin with the same detail: The group recruited followers under the pretense of opening a Dawah office, an Islamic missionary center. Of those who came to listen to lectures and attend courses on Islamic life, one or two men were selected and instructed to spy on their village and obtain a wide range of information. To that end, Haji Bakr compiled lists such as the following:

List the powerful families.Name the powerful individuals in these families.Find out their sources of income.Name names and the sizes of (rebel) brigades in the village.Find out the names of their leaders, who controls the brigades and their political orientation.Find out their illegal activities (according to Sharia law), which could be used to blackmail them if necessary.

The spies were told to note such details as whether someone was a criminal or a homosexual, or was involved in a secret affair, so as to have ammunition for blackmailing later. “We will appoint the smartest ones as Sharia sheiks,” Bakr had noted. “We will train them for a while and then dispatch them.” As a postscript, he had added that several “brothers” would be selected in each town to marry the daughters of the most influential families, in order to “ensure penetration of these families without their knowledge.”

The spies were to find out as much as possible about the target towns: Who lived there, who was in charge, which families were religious, which Islamic school of religious jurisprudence they belonged to, how many mosques there were, who the imam was, how many wives and children he had and how old they were. Other details included what the imam’s sermons were like, whether he was more open to the Sufi, or mystical variant of Islam, whether he sided with the opposition or the regime, and what his position was on jihad. Bakr also wanted answers to questions like: Does the imam earn a salary? If so, who pays it? Who appoints him? Finally: How many people in the village are champions of democracy?

The agents were supposed to function as seismic signal waves, sent out to track down the tiniest cracks, as well as age-old faults within the deep layers of society — in short, any information that could be used to divide and subjugate the local population. The informants included former intelligence spies, but also regime opponents who had quarreled with one of the rebel groups. Some were also young men and adolescents who needed money or found the work exciting. Most of the men on Bakr’s list of informants, such as those from Tal Rifaat, were in their early twenties, but some were as young as 16 or 17.

The plans also include areas like finance, schools, daycare, the media and transportation. But there is a constantly recurring, core theme, which is meticulously addressed in organizational charts and lists of responsibilities and reporting requirements: surveillance, espionage, murder and kidnapping.

For each provincial council, Bakr had planned for an emir, or commander, to be in charge of murders, abductions, snipers, communication and encryption, as well as an emir to supervise the other emirs — “in case they don’t do their jobs well.” The nucleus of this godly state would be the demonic clockwork of a cell and commando structure designed to spread fear.

From the very beginning, the plan was to have the intelligence services operate in parallel, even at the provincial level. A general intelligence department reported to the “security emir” for a region, who was in charge of deputy-emirs for individual districts. A head of secret spy cells and an “intelligence service and information manager” for the district reported to each of these deputy-emirs. The spy cells at the local level reported to the district emir’s deputy. The goal was to have everyone keeping an eye on everyone else.

Those in charge of training the “Sharia judges in intelligence gathering” also reported to the district emir, while a separate department of “security officers” was assigned to the regional emir.

Sharia, the courts, prescribed piety — all of this served a single goal: surveillance and control. Even the word that Bakr used for the conversion of true Muslims, takwin, is not a religious but a technical term that translates as “implementation,” a prosaic word otherwise used in geology or construction. Still, 1,200 years ago, the word followed a unique path to a brief moment of notoriety. Shiite alchemists used it to describe the creation of artificial life. In his ninth century “Book of Stones,” the Persian Jabir Ibn Hayyan wrote — using a secret script and codes — about the creation of a homunculus. “The goal is to deceive all, but those who love God.” That may also have been to the liking of Islamic State strategists, although the group views Shiites as apostates who shun true Islam. But for Haji Bakr, God and the 1,400-year-old faith in him was but one of many modules at his disposal to arrange as he liked for a higher purpose.

The Beginnings in Iraq

It seemed as if George Orwell had been the model for this spawn of paranoid surveillance. But it was much simpler than that. Bakr was merely modifying what he had learned in the past: Saddam Hussein’s omnipresent security apparatus, in which no one, not even generals in the intelligence service, could be certain they weren’t being spied on.

Expatriate Iraqi author Kanan Makiya described this “Republic of Fear” in a book as a country in which anyone could simply disappear and in which Saddam could seal his official inauguration in 1979 by exposing a bogus conspiracy.

There is a simple reason why there is no mention in Bakr’s writings of prophecies relating to the establishment of an Islamic State allegedly ordained by God: He believed that fanatical religious convictions alone were not enough to achieve victory. But he did believe that the faith of others could be exploited.

In 2010, Bakr and a small group of former Iraqi intelligence officers made Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the emir and later “caliph,” the official leader of the Islamic State. They reasoned that Baghdadi, an educated cleric, would give the group a religious face.

Bakr was “a nationalist, not an Islamist,” says Iraqi journalist Hisham al-Hashimi, as he recalls the former career officer, who was stationed with Hashimi’s cousin at the Habbaniya Air Base. “Colonel Samir,” as Hashimi calls him, “was highly intelligent, firm and an excellent logistician.” But when Paul Bremer, then head of the US occupational authority in Baghdad, “dissolved the army by decree in May 2003, he was bitter and unemployed.”

Thousands of well-trained Sunni officers were robbed of their livelihood with the stroke of a pen. In doing so, America created its most bitter and intelligent enemies. Bakr went underground and met Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Anbar Province in western Iraq. Zarqawi, a Jordanian by birth, had previously run a training camp for international terrorist pilgrims in Afghanistan. Starting in 2003, he gained global notoriety as the mastermind of attacks against the United Nations, US troops and Shiite Muslims. He was even too radical for former Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. Zarqawi died in a US air strike in 2006.

Although Iraq’s dominant Baath Party was secular, the two systems ultimately shared a conviction that control over the masses should lie in the hands of a small elite that should not be answerable to anyone — because it ruled in the name of a grand plan, legitimized by either God or the glory of Arab history. The secret of IS’ success lies in the combination of opposites, the fanatical beliefs of one group and the strategic calculations of the other.

Bakr gradually became one of the military leaders in Iraq, and he was held from 2006 to 2008 in the US military’s Camp Bucca and Abu Ghraib Prison. He survived the waves of arrests and killings by American and Iraqi special units, which threatened the very existence of the IS precursor organization in 2010, Islamic State in Iraq.

For Bakr and a number of former high-ranking officers, this presented an opportunity to seize power in a significantly smaller circle of jihadists. They utilized the time they shared in Camp Bucca to establish a large network of contacts. But the top leaders had already known each other for a long time. Haji Bakr and an additional officer were part of the tiny secret-service unit attached to the anti-aircraft division. Two other IS leaders were from a small community of Sunni Turkmen in the town of Tal Afar. One of them was a high-ranking intelligence officer as well.

In 2010, the idea of trying to defeat Iraqi government forces militarily seemed futile. But a powerful underground organization took shape through acts of terror and protection rackets. When the uprising against the dictatorship of the Assad clan erupted in neighboring Syria, the organization’s leaders sensed an opportunity. By late 2012, particularly in the north, the formerly omnipotent government forces had largely been defeated and expelled. Instead, there were now hundreds of local councils and rebel brigades, part of an anarchic mix that no one could keep track of. It was a state of vulnerability that the tightly organized group of ex-officers sought to exploit.

Attempts to explain IS and its rapid rise to power vary depending on who is doing the explaining. Terrorism experts view IS as an al-Qaida offshoot and attribute the absence of spectacular attacks to date to what they view as a lack of organizational capacity. Criminologists see IS as a mafia-like holding company out to maximize profit. Scholars in the humanities point to the apocalyptic statements by the IS media department, its glorification of death and the belief that Islamic State is involved in a holy mission.

But apocalyptic visions alone are not enough to capture cities and take over countries. Terrorists don’t establish countries. And a criminal cartel is unlikely to generate enthusiasm among supporters around the world, who are willing to give up their lives to travel to the “Caliphate” and potentially their deaths.

IS has little in common with predecessors like al-Qaida aside from its jihadist label. There is essentially nothing religious in its actions, its strategic planning, its unscrupulous changing of alliances and its precisely implemented propaganda narratives. Faith, even in its most extreme form, is just one of many means to an end. Islamic State’s only constant maxim is the expansion of power at any price.

The Implementation of the Plan

The expansion of IS began so inconspicuously that, a year later, many Syrians had to think for a moment about when the jihadists had appeared in their midst. The Dawah offices that were opened in many towns in northern Syria in the spring of 2013 were innocent-looking missionary offices, not unlike the ones that Islamic charities have opened worldwide.

When a Dawah office opened in Raqqa, “all they said was that they were ‘brothers,’ and they never said a word about the ‘Islamic State’,” reports a doctor who fled from the city. A Dawah office was also opened in Manbij, a liberal city in Aleppo Province, in the spring of 2013. “I didn’t even notice it at first,” recalls a young civil rights activist. “Anyone was allowed to open what he wished. We would never have suspected that someone other than the regime could threaten us. It was only when the fighting erupted in January that we learned that Da’ish,” the Arab acronym for IS, “had already rented several apartments where it could store weapons and hide its men.”

The situation was similar in the towns of al-Bab, Atarib and Azaz. Dawah offices were also opened in neighboring Idlib Province in early 2013, in the towns of Sermada, Atmeh, Kafr Takharim, al-Dana and Salqin. As soon as it had identified enough “students” who could be recruited as spies, IS expanded its presence. In al-Dana, additional buildings were rented, black flags raised and streets blocked off. In towns where there was too much resistance or it was unable to secure enough supporters, IS chose to withdraw temporarily. At the beginning, its modus operandi was to expand without risking open resistance, and abduct or kill “hostile individuals,” while denying any involvement in these nefarious activities.

The fighters themselves also remained inconspicuous at first. Bakr and the advance guard had not brought them along from Iraq, which would have made sense. In fact, they had explicitly prohibited their Iraqi fighters from going to Syria. They also chose not to recruit very many Syrians. The IS leaders opted for the most complicated option instead: They decided to gather together all the foreign radicals who had been coming to the region since the summer of 2012. Students from Saudi Arabia, office workers from Tunisia and school dropouts from Europe with no military experience were to form an army with battle-tested Chechens and Uzbeks. It would be located in Syria under Iraqi command.

Already by the end of 2012, military camps had been erected in several places. Initially, no one knew what groups they belonged to. The camps were strictly organized and the men there came from numerous countries — and didn’t speak to journalists. Very few of them were from Iraq. Newcomers received two months of training and were drilled to be unconditionally obedient to the central command. The set-up was inconspicuous and also had another advantage: though necessarily chaotic at the beginning, what emerged were absolutely loyal troops. The foreigners knew nobody outside of their comrades, had no reason to show mercy and could be quickly deployed to many different places. This was in stark contrast to the Syrian rebels, who were mostly focused on defending their hometowns and had to look after their families and help out with the harvest. In fall 2013, IS books listed 2,650 foreign fighters in the Province of Aleppo alone. Tunisians represented a third of the total, followed by Saudi Arabians, Turks, Egyptians and, in smaller numbers, Chechens, Europeans and Indonesians.

Later too, the jihadist cadres were hopelessly outnumbered by the Syrian rebels. Although the rebels distrusted the jihadists, they didn’t join forces to challenge IS because they didn’t want to risk opening up a second front. Islamic State, though, increased its clout with a simple trick: The men always appeared wearing black masks, which not only made them look terrifying, but also meant that no one could know how many of them there actually were. When groups of 200 fighters appeared in five different places one after the other, did it mean that IS had 1,000 people? Or 500? Or just a little more than 200? In addition, spies also ensured that IS leadership was constantly informed of where the population was weak or divided or where there were local conflict, allowing IS to offer itself as a protective power in order to gain a foothold.

The Capture of Raqqa

Raqqa, a once sleepy provincial city on the Euphrates River, was to become the prototype of the complete IS conquest. The operation began subtly, gradually became more brutal and, in the end, IS prevailed over larger opponents without much of a fight. “We were never very political,” explained one doctor who had fled Raqqa for Turkey. “We also weren’t religious and didn’t pray much.”

When Raqqa fell to the rebels in March 2013, a city council was rapidly elected. Lawyers, doctors and journalists organized themselves. Women’s groups were established. The Free Youth Assembly was founded, as was the movement “For Our Rights” and dozens of other initiatives. Anything seemed possible in Raqqa. But in the view of some who fled the city, it also marked the start of its downfall.

True to Haji Bakr’s plan, the phase of infiltration was followed by the elimination of every person who might have been a potential leader or opponent. The first person hit was the head of the city council, who was kidnapped in mid-May 2013 by masked men. The next person to disappear was the brother of a prominent novelist. Two days later, the man who had led the group that painted a revolutionary flag on the city walls vanished.

“We had an idea who kidnapped him,” one of his friends explains, “but no one dared any longer to do anything.” The system of fear began to take hold. Starting in July, first dozens and then hundreds of people disappeared. Sometimes their bodies were found, but they usually disappeared without a trace. In August, the IS military leadership dispatched several cars driven by suicide bombers to the headquarters of the FSA brigade, the “Grandsons of the Prophet,” killing dozens of fighters and leading the rest to flee. The other rebels merely looked on. IS leadership had spun a web of secret deals with the brigades so that each thought it was only the others who might be the targets of IS attacks.

On Oct. 17, 2013, Islamic State called all civic leaders, clerics and lawyers in the city to a meeting. At the time, some thought it might be a gesture of conciliation. Of the 300 people who attended the meeting, only two spoke out against the ongoing takeover, the kidnappings and the murders committed by IS.

One of the two was Muhannad Habayebna, a civil rights activist and journalist well known in the city. He was found five days later tied up and executed with a gunshot wound to his head. Friends received an anonymous email with a photo of his body. The message included only one sentence: “Are you sad about your friend now?” Within hours around 20 leading members of the opposition fled to Turkey. The revolution in Raqqa had come to an end.

A short time later, the 14 chiefs of the largest clans gave an oath of allegiance to Emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. There’s even a film of the ceremony. They were sheiks with the same clans that had sworn their steadfast loyalty to Syrian President Bashar Assad only two years earlier.

The Death of Haji Bakr

Until the end of 2013, everything was going according to Islamic State’s plan — or at least according to the plan of Haji Bakr. The caliphate was expanding village by village without being confronted by unified resistance from Syrian rebels. Indeed, the rebels seemed paralyzed in the face of IS’ sinister power.

But when IS henchmen brutally tortured a well-liked rebel leader and doctor to death in December 2013, something unexpected happened. Across the country, Syrian brigades — both secular and parts of the radical Nusra Front — joined together to do battle with Islamic State. By attacking IS everywhere at the same time, they were able to rob the Islamists of their tactical advantage — that of being able to rapidly move units to where they were most urgently needed.

Within weeks, IS was pushed out of large regions of northern Syria. Even Raqqa, the Islamic State capital, had almost fallen by the time 1,300 IS fighters arrived from Iraq. But they didn’t simply march into battle. Rather, they employed a trickier approach, recalls the doctor who fled. “In Raqqa, there were so many brigades on the move that nobody knew who exactly the others were. Suddenly, a group in rebel dress began to shoot at the other rebels. They all simply fled.”

A small, simple masquerade had helped IS fighters to victory: Just change out of black clothes into jeans and vests. They did the same thing in the border town of Jarablus. On several occasions, rebels in other locations took drivers from IS suicide vehicles into custody. The drivers asked in surprise: “You are Sunnis too? Our emir told me you were infidels from Assad’s army.”

Once complete, the picture begins to look absurd: God’s self-proclaimed enforcers on Earth head out to conquer a future worldly empire, but with what? With ninja outfits, cheap tricks and espionage cells camouflaged as missionary offices. But it worked. IS held on to Raqqa and was able to reconquer some of its lost territories. But it came too late for the great planner Haji Bakr.

Haji Bakr stayed behind in the small city of Tal Rifaat, where IS had long had the upper hand. But when rebels attacked at the end of January 2014, the city became divided within just a few hours. One half remained under IS control while the other was wrested away by one of the local brigades. Haji Bakr was stuck in the wrong half. Furthermore, in order to remain incognito he had refrained from moving into one of the heavily guarded IS military quarters. And so, the godfather of snitching was snitched on by a neighbor. “A Daish sheik lives next door!” the man called. A local commander named Abdelmalik Hadbe and his men drove over to Bakr’s house. A woman jerked open the door and said brusquely: “My husband isn’t here.”

But his car is parked out front, the rebels countered.

At that moment, Haji Bakr appeared at the door in his pajamas. Hadbe ordered him to come with them, whereupon Bakr protested that he wanted to get dressed. No, Hadbe repeated: “Come with us! Immediately!”

Surprisingly nimbly for his age, Bakr jumped back and kicked the door closed, according to two people who witnessed the scene. He then hid under the stairs and yelled: “I have a suicide belt! I’ll blow up all of us!” He then came out with a Kalashnikov and began shooting. Hadbe then fired his weapon and killed Bakr.

When the men later learned who they had killed, they searched the house, gathering up computers, passports, mobile phone SIM cards, a GPS device and, most importantly, papers. They didn’t find a Koran anywhere.

Haji Bakr was dead and the local rebels took his wife into custody. Later, the rebels exchanged her for Turkish IS hostages at the request of Ankara. Bakr’s valuable papers were initially hidden away in a chamber, where they spent several months.

A Second Cache of Documents

Haji Bakr’s state continued to work even without its creator. Just how precisely his plans were implemented — point by point — is confirmed by the discovery of another file. When IS was forced to rapidly abandon its headquarters in Aleppo in January 2014, they tried to burn their archive, but they ran into a problem similar to that confronted by the East German secret police 25 years earlier: They had too many files.

Some of them remained intact and ended up with the al-Tawhid Brigade, Aleppo’s largest rebel group at the time. After lengthy negotiations, the group agreed to make the papers available to SPIEGEL for exclusive publication rights — everything except a list of IS spies inside of al-Tawhid.

An examination of the hundreds of pages of documents reveals a highly complex system involving the infiltration and surveillance of all groups, including IS’ own people. The jihad archivists maintained long lists noting which informants they had installed in which rebel brigades and government militias. It was even noted who among the rebels was a spy for Assad’s intelligence service.

“They knew more than we did, much more,” said the documents’ custodian. Personnel files of the fighters were among them, including detailed letters of application from incoming foreigners, such as the Jordanian Nidal Abu Eysch. He sent along all of his terror references, including their telephone numbers, and the file number of a felony case against him. His hobbies were also listed: hunting, boxing, bomb building.

IS wanted to know everything, but at the same time, the group wanted to deceive everyone about its true aims. One multiple-page report, for example, carefully lists all of the pretexts IS could use to justify the seizure of the largest flour mill in northern Syria. It includes such excuses as alleged embezzlement as well as the ungodly behavior of the mill’s workers. The reality — that all strategically important facilities like industrial bakeries, grain silos and generators were to be seized and their equipment sent to the caliphate’s unofficial capital Raqqa — was to be kept under wraps.

Over and over again, the documents reveal corollaries with Haji Bakr’s plans for the establishment of IS — for example that marrying in to influential families should be pushed. The files from Aleppo also included a list of 34 fighters who wanted wives in addition to other domestic needs. Abu Luqman and Abu Yahya al-Tunis, for example, noted that they needed an apartment. Abu Suheib and Abu Ahmed Osama requested bedroom furniture. Abu al-Baraa al Dimaschqi asked for financial assistance in addition to a complete set of furniture, while Abu Azmi wanted a fully automatic washing machine.

Shifting Alliances

But in the first months of 2014, yet another legacy from Haji Bakr began playing a decisive role: His decade of contacts to Assad’s intelligence services.

In 2003, the Damascus regime was panicked that then-US President George W. Bush, after his victory over Saddam Hussein, would have his troops continue into Syria to topple Assad as well. Thus, in the ensuing years, Syrian intelligence officials organized the transfer of thousands of radicals from Libya, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia to al-Qaida in Iraq. Ninety percent of the suicide attackers entered Iraq via the Syrian route. A strange relationship developed between Syrian generals, international jihadists and former Iraqi officers who had been loyal to Saddam — a joint venture of deadly enemies, who met repeatedly to the west of Damascus.

At the time, the primary aim was to make the lives of the Americans in Iraq hell. Ten years later, Bashar Assad had a different motive to breathe new life into the alliance: He wanted to sell himself to the world as the lesser of several evils. Islamist terror, the more gruesome the better, was too important to leave it up to the terrorists. The regime’s relationship with Islamic State is — just as it was to its predecessor a decade prior — marked by a completely tactical pragmatism. Both sides are trying to use the other in the assumption that it will emerge as the stronger power, able to defeat the discrete collaborator of yesterday. Conversely, IS leaders had no problem receiving assistance from Assad’s air force, despite all of the group’s pledges to annihilate the apostate Shiites. Starting in January 2014, Syrian jets would regularly — and exclusively — bomb rebel positions and headquarters during battles between IS and rebel groups.

In battles between IS and rebels in January 2014, Assad’s jets regularly bombed only rebel positions, while the Islamic State emir ordered his fighters to refrain from shooting at the army. It was an arrangement that left many of the foreign fighters deeply disillusioned; they had imaged jihad differently.

IS threw its entire arsenal at the rebels, sending more suicide bombers into their ranks in just a few weeks than it deployed during the entire previous year against the Syrian army. Thanks in part to additional air strikes, IS was able to reconquer territory that it had briefly lost.

Nothing symbolizes the tactical shifting of alliances more than the fate of the Syrian army’s Division 17. The isolated base near Raqqa had been under rebel siege for more than a year. But then, IS units defeated the rebels there and Assad’s air force was once again able to use the base for supply flights without fear of attack.

But a half year later, after IS conquered Mosul and took control of a gigantic weapons depot there, the jihadists felt powerful enough to attack their erstwhile helpers. IS fighters overran Division 17 and slaughtered the soldiers, whom they had only recently protected.

What the Future May Hold

The setbacks suffered by IS in recent months — the defeat in the fight for Kurdish enclave Kobani and, more recently, the loss of the Iraqi city of Tikrit, have generated the impression that the end of Islamic State is nigh. As though it, in its megalomania, overreached itself, has lost its mystique, is in retreat and will soon disappear. But such forced optimism is likely premature. The IS may have lost many fighters, but it has continued expanding in Syria.

It is true that jihadist experiments in ruling a specific geographical area have failed in the past. Mostly, though, that was because of their lack of knowledge regarding how to administer a region, or even a state. That is exactly the weakness that IS strategists have long been aware of — and eliminated. Within the “Caliphate,” those in power have constructed a regime that is more stable and more flexible than it appears from the outside.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi may be the officially named leader, but it remains unclear how much power he holds. In any case, when an emissary of al-Qaida head Ayman al-Zawahiri contacted the Islamic State, it was Haji Bakr and other intelligence officers, and not al-Baghdadi, whom he approached. Afterwards, the emissary bemoaned “these phony snakes who are betraying the real jihad.”

Within IS, there are state structures, bureaucracy and authorities. But there is also a parallel command structure: elite units next to normal troops; additional commanders alongside nominal military head Omar al-Shishani; power brokers who transfer or demote provincial and town emirs or even make them disappear at will. Furthermore, decisions are not, as a rule, made in Shura Councils, nominally the highest decision-making body. Instead, they are being made by the “people who loosen and bind” (ahl al-hall wa-l-aqd), a clandestine circle whose name is taken from the Islam of medieval times.

Islamic State is able to recognize all manner of internal revolts and stifle them. At the same time, the hermitic surveillance structure is also useful for the financial exploitation of its subjects.

The air strikes flown by the US-led coalition may have destroyed the oil wells and refineries. But nobody is preventing the Caliphate’s financial authorities from wringing money out of the millions of people who live in the regions under IS control — in the form of new taxes and fees, or simply by confiscating property. IS, after all, knows everything from its spies and from the data it plundered from banks, land-registry offices and money-changing offices. It knows who owns which homes and which fields; it knows who owns many sheep or has lots of money. The subjects may be unhappy, but there is minimal room for them to organize, arm themselves and rebel.

As the West’s attention is primarily focused on the possibility of terrorist attacks, a different scenario has been underestimated: the approaching intra-Muslim war between Shiites and Sunnis. Such a conflict would allow IS to graduate from being a hated terror organization to a central power.

Already today, the frontlines in Syria, Iraq and Yemen follow this confessional line, with Shiite Afghans fighting against Sunni Afghans in Syria and IS profiting in Iraq from the barbarism of brutal Shiite militias. Should this ancient Islam conflict continue to escalate, it could spill over into confessionally mixed states such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and Lebanon.

In such a case, IS propaganda about the approaching apocalypse could become a reality. In its slipstream, an absolutist dictatorship in the name of God could be established.

Original source: SPIEGEL ONLINE 2016

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The Boys From Banyas

banyas19/07/2012  Rehanli, Turkey By Mohammed Basith Awan.

Peering out the window of a fifth story 3 bedroom flat in the Turko-Syriac border town of Rehanli, I approached some of the young men who seemed to be exclusive inhabitants of this strange guest house, which has a clear view of the Syrian border (and indeed Syria itself) and asked them if they wanted to be interviewed. They eventually agreed but refused to be videoed. This may seem a little confusing (young men are very rarely camera shy), but when one considers that they have lived their whole lives under what can only be described as a truly totalitarian dictatorship of a minority which has oppressed the majority Sunni population mercilessly and factors in the horrors of opposing the regime in Syria, it is all too easy to understand why my video interview turned to an audio/written interview with all but three men present. Eventually they began to tell their story: “You see those mountains, the minarets of the Masjid in the Distance are all in Syria and we are in the blessed land of Shaam (Greater Syria/The Levant).”

For reasons unbeknown to me, almost all the people sharing this home with me seem to be young men from a town called Banyas. The young men lovingly describe a small, picturesque coastal town with a more moderate climate than the sweltering one we found ourselves suffering under in Reyanli (a Turkish border town, with a massive influx of Syrian refugees). When prompted to describe life before the revolution, a now familiar and ugly picture is painted; one of discrimination, “The Alawi’s always seemed to get the jobs, qualified or not” one man explained. Furthermore, the population lived in constant fear of being spirited away by the security services, a reality all too true for one man, Anas, a sailor from the town. “My uncle was arrested as dissident of the regime, after being ratted out by someone from the town and I and a group of young people were arrested with him. The conditions of his subsequent incarceration are no less hellish: “I was placed in a political prison for 9 months without trial. After they had decided I was innocent, I was released and my life was ruined. I am a sailor, and I lost my job, I was ostracized in society, which was a great injustice because I was treated like a criminal even though I was completely innocent.”

Osama Kudo, who grew up in Saudi but is a Syrian national, explains his story: “My father left the country, due to political persecution. Every time I visited the country, I would inevitably be interrogated by the security services; they would ask me questions like, “Where is your father? Do you agree with his views? What do you think about the President?”. “How would you answer?” I asked. “Of course I would tell them what they wanted to hear. You see these young men, most of them have left the room because they are still scared of the regime, because of the killing and torture they have witnessed in their home town, this is why they will not speak to you now”. The impact of a people being so afraid of a regime, that even now, during the revolution and while outside the country, it could stop them from speaking out, is something that really reverberated within me at that moment. It was initially difficult to understand, as I really didn’t have terms of reference for what it was like to live under the yolk of such a regime outside history lessons about totalitarian ones, such as Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Russia. It suddenly made more sense in this context. This was real life, not some dusty historical occurrence and until the revolution, it was the only life they knew. The tone of the room grew much brighter when I pressed them on the impact of the revolution on their lives. “Before, the revolution, I didn’t care much about politics, I didn’t think much about my country”, explained Osama. “But, now I am free! I am free to speak what I feel in my country, I am free. We don’t want Bashar, we want to live free! We want Syria how we want, like other people in other free countries, a good government, a good regime, that looks after the people. Now, after the revolution has begun, I am really interested in politics, I really care about my country, I would sacrifice my soul for my country”. The lone brave young man added, “We want freedom, we want weapons, freedom is like a dream for me, we just want Bashar to go!” A last comment was added, which truly touched me, was given by Tariq, my roommate in the house, “Tell the people that our faith gives us solace, we are patient until the end”.

Abdul-Jabbar’s Story

Destroyed houses in Killi

by M. B. Awan

The village of Killi lies in the north-west of Syria, near the Turkish border and has been free from the control of the Assad regime for well over a year. The overwhelming first impression gained from Killi and its’ people is that of euphoria over being free, symbolised by the nightly demonstrations which occur after the night prayers (taraweeh) in Ramadan. It was on one jubilant night after those demonstrations that the dark, human side to the price of freedom the people of Syria have and are having to pay was demonstrated to me by a brave and remarkable young man, Abdul Jabbar Abdul Kareem.

 

I was invited by a local teacher, whom had become a close friend of mine to his Uncle’s house. The aforementioned uncle had been imprisoned and tortured by Hafiz al-Assad, Bashar’s father in 1982 and his son had just been released by the Assad regime earlier that evening. A large crowd of locals had gathered in order to congratulate the family and hear the young man, Abdul Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s story. Abdul Jabbar looked like the average twenty-something that you would meet in any part of the world. He spoke about how they took him and tortured him. After most of the significant members of the gathering had left, I was granted an interview.

 

Abdul Jabbar, somewhat atypically for a victim of torture, was in good spirits and was remarkably composed when explaining what happened:

“I am a resident in Kelly and someone (probably in his place of work) informed the government about me, spreading lies, such that I was a terrorist, etc. I travel to Aleppo for work on a daily basis, so one day several months ago I was stopped at a checkpoint when my details came up on a wanted list. The army immediately seized and began to beat me, accusing me of being a terrorist; no questions were asked. I was then arrested and taken to a Military Security facility in Aleppo.”

 

There they kept him for 12 days. He was interrogated and tortured there for 1 hour, beaten, verbally abused (they cursed Allah, his God and his religion) and accused him of all sorts of crimes: that he was a terrorist, that he was a violent member of the revolution. He told the truth, despite being tortured, that he was innocent of everything he was accused of. After that he was transferred to an even worse stage of torture in Idlib (one of the main cities in the north of Syria), which all seemed to be planned to break him, in order to get him admit some crimes so they could torture him further. Once inside the military interrogation facility in Idlib, the torture and the conditions were far worse as was evident from the indignation in his face as he recounted this part of the story. Here he stayed for approximately 17 days (Abdul Jabbar is not exactly sure, because he didn’t see sunlight during this time). Two of those days were spent in a 1-metre square cell with four men. General population was little better; in dungeon like conditions; a room approximately 50 metres squared with 110 people inside. There was no natural light, one toilet and no running water. They were given water and bread twice a day. Fleas, lice and skin irritation were rampant due to the unhygienic conditions. He was blindfolded and led out for interrogation twice for 2-hour periods. The first time an officer in the army was present and the placed him in a reverse hanging position and accused him of various crimes (which he denied). The police then proceeded to beat him, verbally abuse his God, his family (mother, wife, daughters, sisters, etc.) and then let him hang in a painful stress position, while drinking alcohol and mocking him. This happened twice, although the second one seemed to consist mostly of a beating (he showed me where his hands had bled due to the pressure of the cuffs applied to him). Eventually, he was released when they determined that they had no evidence of any crime.

 

Even though he was an active participant of a truly popular revolution before his most recent dose of the Assad regime’s concept of justice, he is now even more determined to aid a revolution, which seeks to free the Syrian people from the shackles of a tyrant who has terrorised his population in the vein of his father since he took office in 2000.

Rebels cling on to Qusayr

A Syrian army soldiers holds up his weapon during a battle against opposition fighters in the city of Qusayr, in Syria's central Homs province: Syria: rebels cling on to Qusayr

A Syrian army soldiers holds up his weapon during a battle against opposition fighters in the city of Qusayr, in Syria’s central Homs province Photo: AFP/GETTY

By , Beirut and Magdy Samaan and Richard Spencer in Cairo

6:00PM BST 28 May 2013

A major assault by Syrian regime troops and fighters from the Lebanese Shia militia Hizbollah has failed to dislodge rebels from the key town of Qusayr, 10 days after it began, accounts and videos from both sides suggest.

The Assad regime predicted a speedy victory after it attempted to storm Qusayr near the Lebanese border a week last Sunday, claiming to have almost immediately taken 80 per cent of the town.

Videos posted from the rebel side in recent days suggest that in fact they are now tied down in the east side of Qusayr and on the outskirts elsewhere. Accosrding to their own and Hizbollah accounts, the attack was stymied by Syrian rebels who booby-trapped the town’s entrances and emerged from tunnels to ambush attackers who thought they had fought their way to the centre.

“The revolutionary fighters are still holding the town, except the area of the security buildings on the east side, which represents around 20 per cent,” a rebel spokesman, Hadi al-Abdullah, said from inside the town. “We are still standing despite the tight siege. The Hizbollah fighters are not familiar with the entrances and exits, and that allowed us to trap them in ambushes.”

His account appeared to be corroborated by recent videos taken of regime frontlines in recognisable areas and posted online.

Parts of his account have been also confirmed by interviews given by Hizbollah to journalists in Lebanon.

The fight for Qusayr has become a key battle, with the regime determined to cut off what has been used as a supply way-point from a Sunni district of north-east Lebanon for rebels operating throughout Homs province.

Gen Selim Idris, the head of the Revolutionary Military Council, yesterday warned Hizbollah that it had “24 hours to withdraw from Syria” saying they would “take all measures to hunt Hizbollah, even in hell”.

Earlier, three Lebanese soldiers were killed near the border close to Qusayr, while nine rockets fired in two days at a Hizbollah-controlled town in Lebanon, Hermel, killed one woman and injured seven others.

Inside Qusayr, rebels are prepared to admit that Hizbollah and the regime have made some slow advances. Omar al-Homsi, a defected regime soldier fighting with the opposition, said he had heard regime troops arresting residents as they moved from house to house over intercepted walky-talky messages.

Hadi al-Abdullah said two FSA fighters and two civilians were killed on Tuesday morning, but added that for the first time a gap in the encirclement of the town had opened up, allowing them to evacuate several hundred non-combatants.

Nonetheless, there remains up to 20,000 civilians inside the town, according to other rebels. Video shows a number of children, including a baby, being treated for shellfire injuries.

The rebels are now relying on relief from a force of men sent down from Aleppo. But just as the pro-Assad forces are stuck on the outskirts of town, the rebel reinforcements are stuck on the outer perimeter of the regime’s encirclement.

“There are FSA battalions trying to enter the city but they still can’t,” Hadi al-Abdullah said. “There is no presence of Asaad troops in Qusayr – they withdrew completely three days ago. Now Hizbollah is in complete charge of operations.”

Tough Times in Crucial Border Town Qusayr

Image

By Erika Solomon

BEIRUT | Thu May 30, 2013 10:20am BST

(Reuters) – Syrian rebels pleaded for military and medical aid in the embattled border town of Qusair on Thursday, saying they were unable to evacuate hundreds of wounded under an onslaught from government forces backed by Lebanese Hezbollah fighters.

President Bashar al-Assad launched an offensive to capture Qusair two weeks ago in what many see as a bid to cement a hold on territory from the capital Damascus up to his Alawite community heartland on the Mediterranean coast.

“We have 700 people wounded in Qusair and 100 of them are being given oxygen. The town is surrounded and there’s no way to bring in medical aid,” said Malek Ammar, an opposition activist in the besieged town.

Rebels in Qusair sent out an appeal for support using social media outlets, saying the town near the Syrian-Lebanese border – straddling supply lines critical to both sides in Syria’s civil war – could be devastated.

“If all rebel fronts do not move to stop this crime being led by Hezbollah and Assad’s traitorous army of dogs…, we will soon be saying that there was once a city called Qusair,” the statement said.

Syria’s two-year old conflict began as a peaceful protest movement but evolved into an armed insurrection after a violent security crackdown on demonstrators. More than 80,000 people have been killed and the violence is now stoking political and sectarian tensions in neighbouring countries.

Shi’ite Muslim Hezbollah is believed to have committed hundreds of guerrilla fighters, many of them with battle experience from a 2006 war with Israel, to help its ally Assad secure Qusair.

BOMBARDMENT

Fighters in Qusair said they were hearing at least 50 shells crashing every hour. Hezbollah and Syrian government forces appeared to be advancing more quickly after seizing the nearby Dabaa air base on Wednesday.

The Qusair fighting has intensified already simmering sectarian tensions. The rebels are mostly from Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority while minorities have largely backed Assad, himself from the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam.

Rebel units from different parts of Syria have said for days that they have sent fighters to support the opposition in Qusair, but rebels inside say none have made it into the town.

You Tube videos published by several units suggest some brigades have arrived around the outskirts of Qusair, a town of 30,000, but not advanced further.

Ahmad Bakar, a doctor in a hospital near Qusair, posted on appeal on Facebook for rebels to rush to help.

“We need immediate intervention from outside battalions. I swear to God no supplies have gotten through to us and we need a route to be opened to evacuate the wounded an civilians.”

Thousands of civilians are believed to have fled Qusair before the offensive began – Assad’s forces distributed leaflets by plane saying they would be attacking the town.

Some activists estimate Qusair’s civilian population was at about 20,000 when the offensive began.

“What we need them to do is come to the outskirts of the city and attack the checkpoints so we can get routes in and out of the city. Most of Qusair is surrounded,” said the activist Ammar, speaking by Skype from the town.

Among those who have come to try to help Qusair are fighters from radical Sunni Islamist groups such as Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra, which is linked to al Qaeda.

Sunni rebel groups have threatened to commit sectarian revenge massacres in Shi’ite and Alawite towns both in Lebanon and Syria in retaliation for Hezbollah’s participation in the Qusair attack. They see the battle-hardened Hezbollah’s role as critical to Assad’s battlefield strength.

(Editing by Mark Heinrich)

source:

http://uk.reuters.com/article/2013/05/30/uk-syria-crisis-qusair-idUKBRE94T08Y20130530

EU Lifts Arms Embargo, Russia Keeps Supplying Arms as the Killing Goes On

ImageRussia says it will go ahead with deliveries of S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Syria, and that the arms will help deter foreign intervention.

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said the missiles were a “stabilising factor” that could dissuade “some hotheads” from entering the conflict.

Russia also criticised an EU decision not to renew an arms embargo on Syria.

Meanwhile, the BBC has heard evidence that 200 people were killed in a massacre in western Syria this month.

Opposition activists said they had documented the civilian deaths in al-Bayda and Baniyas after government troops and militias entered the towns.

Continue reading the main story

Analysis

image of Jim MuirJim MuirBBC News

While the lifting of the EU arms embargo is theoretically good news for the fractious Syrian opposition, it is clearly going to be some time before it has any effect on the battlefield balance. Its authors hope the decision itself will send a strong enough signal to the Assad regime that it is time to hand over power.

That is extremely unlikely. It is hard facts on the ground that count, for a regime that has shown every sign of determination to fight to the end to stay in power. While European arms supplies remain for the moment theoretical, the step has stirred an angry reaction – possibly even an escalation – from the Russians.

They’ve said the move has jeopardised efforts to convene a peace conference, and that they plan to honour a prior contract to supply Syria with advanced S-300 air defence missiles. Israel sees that as a threat to its own security, and has warned that it “would know what to do.”

As the Syrian conflict deepens, the stakes are clearly getting higher by the day. But for the rebels at least the eventual possibility of carefully-controlled arms deliveries is there, in what looks like being a bloody, long-haul struggle.

‘We know what to do’

Mr Ryabkov said the contract for the S-300 missile systems had been signed several years ago.

“We consider these supplies a stabilising factor and believe such steps will deter some hotheads from considering scenarios that would turn the conflict international with the involvement of outside forces,” he was quoted as telling journalists.

Russia’s envoy to Nato, Aleksandr Grushko, said Moscow was acting “fully within the framework of international law”, in delivering the arms.

“We are not doing anything that could change the situation in Syria,” he said. “The arms that we supply are defensive weapons.”

The BBC’s Jim Muir in Beirut says the Russian statement could be seen as an escalation. He says there had been reports that Moscow was holding back on delivering the arms, in exchange for an Israeli commitment not to carry out further air raids over Syria.

Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon said the Russian missile systems had not yet left Russia.

“I hope they will not leave, and if, God forbid, they reach Syria, we will know what to do,” he said.

Russia has repeatedly blocked efforts to put more pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Along with the US, it has been leading efforts to organise an international peace conference on Syria next month.

The Syrian opposition has not said whether to attend the conference, and was locked in talks in Istanbul, Turkey, as an unofficial deadline to decide on its attendance passed.

‘Clear signal’

On Monday, the EU said member states would be able to decide their own policy on sending arms to Syria, after foreign ministers were unable to reach the unanimous decision required to extend the current arms embargo past Saturday.

However, in a declaration announced after 12 hours of talks, it agreed not to “proceed at this stage with the delivery” of equipment.

The EU’s Foreign Affairs Council is to review this position before 1 August, in light of fresh developments to end the conflict including the ongoing US-Russia peace initiative.

The EU embargo, first imposed in May 2011, applies to the rebels as much as the Syrian government.

Britain and France had been pressing for the ability to send weapons to what they call moderate opponents of President Assad, saying it would push Damascus towards a political solution to the two-year conflict.

Syria’s Russian-made military

  • Nearly 5,000 tanks; 2,500 infantry fighting vehicles; 2,500 self-propelled or towed artillery units
  • 325 Tactical aircraft; 143 helicopters
  • Nearly 2,000 air defence pieces
  • 295,000 active personnel; 314,000 reserve personnel

Statistics: IISS

Other EU states had opposed sending arms.

A spokesman for UK Prime Minister David Cameron said the decision sent an unambiguous message to President Assad.

“We are sending a signal loud and clear to the regime and being very clear about the flexibility we have if the regime refuses to negotiate,” he said.

George Jabboure Netto, a spokesman for the opposition Syrian National Council said the dropping of the arms embargo was a “step in the right direction”, though a spokesman for another grouping, the Syrian National Coalition, said the move might be “too little too late”.

Mr Ryabkov said Russia was disappointed by the decision. “This directly harms the prospects of convening an international conference,” he said.

More than 80,000 people have been killed and 1.5 million have fled Syria since the uprising against Mr Assad began in 2011, according to UN estimates.

Syrian opposition calls upon rebel fighters to save embattled Qusair

 

Syrian National Coalition urges disparate groups of fighters to head to city under assault from Assad and Hezbollah forces

Qusair

Syrian civilians search for survivors in Qusair after what activists said was shelling by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. Photograph: Reuters

Syria‘s main opposition alliance has urged fighters from around the country to reinforce a rebel-held city under attack by government troops and Hezbollah militants.

The Syrian National Coalition (SNC) sought to bolster on Wednesday embattled rebel fighters in Qusair, who for a fourth day in a row came under fierce assault from forces loyal to the Assad regime. The city, which is near the border with Lebanon, lies at the heart of a government offensive to secure a strip of land running from the capital, Damascus, to the Mediterranean coast.

The Iranian-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah has been fighting alongside Syrian regime forces in the city and surrounding areas in Homs province for weeks.

Forces from outside Syria aim to destroy Qusair and rebels should join the fight to rescue the city, George Sabra, acting head of the SNC, said. He also urged Lebanese authorities to respect Syria’s sovereignty and prevent foreign gunmen from crossing the border to fight in the civil war.

The SNC has no control over the assorted groups of rebels fighting in Syria, and it was unclear what impact, if any, Sabra’s appeal would have.

But an amateur video released by the Aleppo Media Centre showed what it said were dozens of members of al-Tawhid Brigade from the northern city heading to Qusair to help. The rebels were driving pickup trucks, cars and trucks, some of them mounted with anti-aircraft guns.

Opposition fighters in Qusair were holding out on Wednesday, but appeared to be under increasing strain as government tanks, artillery and warplanes pounded the city.

An official from the Homs governor’s office said about 80% of Qusair was in government hands. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, added that troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad had discovered tunnels that linked areas of the city, and that the fighting was now concentrated in the north-west Qusair where the “terrorists” were still entrenched. His comments could not be independently verified because Damascus bans independent media access to much of Syria.

Rami Abdul-Rahman, who heads the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights activist group, said Assad forces and Hezbollah units were bombarding Qusair with rockets on Wednesday. A group of rebels trying to reach the city from the nearby town of Ind Shamseen were ambushed by Syrian troops, killing at least two, he said.

A video released by activists on Tuesday showed destruction in several areas in the city as well as heavy damage to the minaret of its grand mosque. The videos appeared genuine and corresponded with Associated Press’s reporting of the events depicted.

Hezbollah’s role in the fighting has increased up tensions in Lebanon, which has been on edge of conflict since the Syrian war began in 2011. Lebanon and Syria share a complex web of political and sectarian ties and rivalries.

Supporters of Hezbollah funeral in SidonSupporters of Hezbollah and relatives of Saleh Ahmed Sabagh, a member of the group, carry his coffin through Sidon, southern Lebanon, on Wednesday. Photograph: Ali Hashisho/Reuters

In an hour-long standoff on Wednesday, dozens of supporters of hardline Sunni cleric Ahmad al-Assir blocked the road leading to a cemetery in the southern city of Sidon to prevent the burial of a Hezbollah fighter who died recently in Qusair.

There was fighting in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli between supporters and opponents of Assad as well on Wednesday. Lebanese security officials said at least 10 people, including two soldiers, have been killed and more than 100 wounded since Sunday in Tripoli.

source:

  • Associated Press in Beriut
  • guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 22 May 2013 18.45 BST