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THE MUSINGS OF A TRADITIONAL SOUTHERN DEMOCRAT

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Saturday, September 27, 2014

Syria Airstrikes Roil Rebel Alliances - Protests Held Across Syria in Opposition to Strikes Against Islamic State Militants

From The Wall Street Journal:

Thousands of civilians and rebels across Syria protested allied airstrikes against extremist militants that continued on Friday, underscoring the challenge the U.S.-led campaign faces in dealing with complex ties among rival rebel factions.
 
The attacks are leading to confusion on the ground and new complications for American policy makers, as they try to navigate the tensions between the more moderate Syrian rebels they back and extremist ones.
 
Many of these moderate Syrian rebels—a linchpin of the Obama administration's Syria strategy to better train and arm the opposition—accuse the U.S. of excluding them from the West's strategy on Syria and of undercutting their efforts to oust President Bashar al-Assad.
 
The risks were underscored by the Friday protests, with demonstrators raising anti-American banners—a notable departure from when activists pleaded for international intervention in the early days of the Syrian conflict.
 
The unrest stemmed largely from the U.S. decision this past week to target not only the extremist Islamic State militant group in Syria, but also a second cluster of fighters, what American officials call the Khorasan group.
 
When U.S. missiles and bombs were fired at sites used by Khorasan this week as part of the offensive against Islamic State forces, American officials said the strikes were intended to disrupt an imminent Khorasan terror plot directed at the West.
 
To many Syrians, however, the Khorasan militants are indistinguishable from the Nusra Front rebel group, which opposes both President Assad and the foreign fighters of the Islamic State militant force. Further, many U.S.-backed moderate rebels are allied with Nusra, which, despite its al Qaeda affiliation is seen by many other rebels as a preferable, homegrown rebel movement.
 
So, many of these Syrian rebels say they view the U.S.-led campaign as a misdirected attack on forces the population supports for protecting the country's Sunni majority from mainly Shiite-linked government forces when the international community failed to intervene over 3½ years.
 
Meanwhile, many of these people charged, regime military units and their allies—including the militant Hezbollah group—got a pass.
 
The emerging dynamic shows how the volatile mix of jihadists and shifting alliances in Syria can have cascading and unpredictable consequences, making even the most limited U.S. mission in Syria complex.
 
"Khorasan" refers to a geographic region comprising parts of Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Group members are top al Qaeda operatives who arrived in Syria a year or more ago as part of an initiative to bolster Nusra Front's transnational jihadist profile and help it better compete with the Islamic State militants, said Charles Lister, a visiting fellow with the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar who tracks militant groups in the region.
 
Khorasan is more of a network than a formal organization, U.S. officials say, that rests within Nusra Front. The two entities have different goals, but both are al Qaeda components and work closely to leverage each other's strengths.
 
U.S. officials are debating the degree to which Khorasan foreign militants respond to direct orders from al Qaeda's leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, as they develop what American officials say are terrorist plots outside of the region.
 
One U.S. official said the Khorasan group's makeup is fluid and estimated its size as more than a handful and less than a few dozen. Nusra Front, led by Abu Muhammad al-Julani, is estimated to have 5,000 to 6,000 mostly Syrian fighters, according to Rand Corp.
 
Khorasan benefits from operating in the haven that Nusra Front has carved out in Syria, and it has tapped some Nusra talent for certain specialist expertise, the U.S. official said. Nusra Front benefits from tactical training by Khorasan and it gains additional cachet of working with al Qaeda's top operatives.
 
Even though they have different goals, there is some cross pollination between the two groups. "They are there at the pleasure of the Nusra Front," said another U.S. official of Khorasan. "But there are some guys who also participate in the Khorasan group."
 
The assessment of American counterterrorism officials differs markedly from perceptions in the region.
 
In Syria, the Khorasan group moniker means little. It is "a label created by officials in the U.S. and has no recognition within Jabhat al-Nusra or al Qaeda circles," Mr. Lister said, referring to the Nusra Front.
 
But the arrival of these al Qaeda transplants from outside of Syria has prompted a major evolution within Nusra Front, he said. The organization is "increasingly beginning to represent more of a transnationally minded organization, with an explicit intention to establish Islamic Emirates in Syria," he said.
 
Nusra Front's recent capture of 45 United Nations peacekeepers, whom it later released, may be an indication of that shift, Mr. Lister said.
 
The gap between the U.S. and local Syrians over the significance of the Khorasan group is deeply complicating the U.S. offensive in Syria.
 
The airstrikes meant for Khorasan group also hit Nusra Front, according to Syrians in the areas that were hit. Despite U.S. officials's stated efforts to interrupt "imminent" plots against the U.S. and Europe, Syrians said they know nothing about Khorasan and that the targets struck were Nusra Front, as well as two families in a housing complex who were killed. The U.S. says it is investigating reports of civilian casualties.
 
Jihadists also reported in Twitter posts that a Nusra Front sniper, Abu Yousuf al-Turki, had been killed in the strikes, the SITE Intelligence Group reported.
 
The perception of such attacks on Nusra risks alienating moderate opposition forces with which the U.S. is trying to work, said Shadi Hamid a fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of "Temptations of Power," a book on Islamist movements.
 
"A major gap has opened up between the U.S. and our supposed local allies in Syria," he said.
 
Illustrating the complicated sectarian dynamics the U.S.-led airstrikes must navigate, most ground commanders backed by the U.S. coordinate operations with Nusra Front against the Assad regime and Islamic State militants, Mr. Lister said.
 
On Tuesday, nearly a dozen of the FSA's most powerful groups signed a declaration denouncing the strikes, demanding they target the Syrian regime, too. In a heated meeting with the Syrian opposition in Istanbul Thursday, U.S. officials demanded an explanation for the statement condemning the American-led coalition, an opposition official said.
 
"They said 'friends don't speak against friends,' " said an opposition official with knowledge of the meeting. "We told them, 'true friendship means coordination.' " The meeting was confirmed by a second opposition official.
 
The U.S. State Department had no comment.
 
Whatever the distinction between the two groups, the Khorasan-Nusra relationship provides al Qaeda with a unique and dangerous Syria-based force that allows it to plan attacks both locally and internationally, say U.S. officials and counterterrorism specialists.
 
"Nusra is the local or regional power and Khorasan is the international strike force," said Bruce Hoffman, a professor at Georgetown University who specializes in counterterrorism. "What's fundamentally worrisome is that al Qaeda has the luxury of wielding both."
 
On Friday, at the headquarters of the Western-backed Free Syrian Army, in Reyhanli, Turkey, officials frantically called rebel leaders inside Syria to determine whether U.S. or Syrian government military strikes hit various towns, killing civilians and the fighters alike.
 
"That's the problem with the lack of coordination," said Husam Almarie, a spokesman for the FSA's northern effort. "We don't know who is hitting Syria, and it's our country."

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