Syria: The Army of Islam; Saudi Arabia’s finest export.

Recent developments regarding “rebel” groups inside Syria have shed further light on the ideologies and political aims of the militants waging war upon the Syrian state.

On the 24th September, under the moniker of the “Islamist Alliance”, 11 of the largest and most recognisable rebel brigades – a mix of supposed “moderate Islamists” such as Liwa al-Tawhid, the largest “FSA”-branded brigade in Aleppo, alongside more hardline Salafi/Jihadi brigades such as Ahrar al-Sham, and Al Qaeda ideologues Jahbat al-Nusra – released a joint statement denouncing the western-backed expatriates of the “National Coalition” (NC), along with its equally impotent military arm, the “Supreme Military Council” (SMC). Following this statement of intent, on the 29th of September, up to 50 rebel groups operating primarily in the area of Damascus merged to form Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam). The Damascus merger also included a wide-ranging demographic of militant groups, from the supposed “moderate”, to overt Salafist hardliners. Jaish al-Islam is dominated by Liwa al-Islam, a large rebel group formerly of “FSA” branding, and led by Saudi-backed Zahran Alloush. Liwa al-Islam were also a signatory to the aforementioned statement of denunciation toward the western-backed political opposition.

These announcements have effectively put-to-bed the western propagated myth that was the “Free Syrian Army”. Militant groups the west ostensibly touted as “secular moderates” yearning for “freedom and democracy” from a tyrannical regime; have now openly declared their Salafi/Jihadi fundamentalist ideology, with the ultimate aim of creating a Syrian state ruled by Islamic law.

Already, these announcements are being portrayed as an attempt by Saudi Arabia – yes, ever tolerant and inclusive Wahhabi-preaching Saudi Arabia – and other leading Salafi factions supporting the insurgency to steer “vetted, or moderate Salafi” rebels away from the Al Qaeda aligned groups; particularly the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), who are now portrayed as simply “foreign jihadists” and have become the leading fall-guy in Western and Gulf media for every atrocity committed by the rebels. This false perception has been built as a result of a Western and Gulf initiated public relations campaign to “moderate” the image of the Salafi/Jihadi fundamentalists (aswell as those more inclined to basic criminality, killing, and destruction) who may be more willing to meet the requirements of their Gulf donors and the United States. Yet, contrary to this divisive narrative, the same “moderate” Salafi’s who are now supposedly being encouraged to  disassociate from their Al Qaeda affiliates have happily fought alongside – more often than not as a junior partner – the West’s supposed “number one enemy” (AQ) since the insurgency began in 2011.

In further contrast to the aforementioned “Awakening” narrative, Jabhat al-Nusra (JaN) – the Syrian branch of Al Qaeda ideologues – are still very much in the mix. Although various pundits and analysts have made efforts to publicise tensions between ISIS and JaN, the two groups still share a similar Jihadist ideology and cooperate in key areas, particularly on paramilitary operations; as do the hardline Salafi groups such as Ahrar Al-Sham, who in turn fully cooperate with the western friendly “moderates” forming the backbone of Jaish al-Islam. In the recent ISIS takeover of the “FSA” held town of Azaz from the western-friendly Northern Storm brigade (of John McCain fame), Liwa al-Tahwid quickly offered to broker a ceasefire and acted as interlocutor between the two warring factions. ISIS in turn, rejected any “FSA” authority and have since taken control of the town – not that Liwa al-Tahwid could have stopped them anyway. These events directly contradict the notion that the new “Army of Islam” is in any rush to disassociate, let alone be able to wage war upon the ISIS or its extremist affiliates. Moreover, the leader of Jaish al-Islam, Zahran Alloush, publicly disowned his own “captain” after he warned ISIS there would be open conflict if they “continued this chaos”. The leader claimed that the comments were “dangerous” and designed to “cause strife between muslims”.

Furthermore, in a recent interview with Al Jazeera, Alloush, free of his “moderate” chains, lets loose on his ideals for a future Syria, in which he aspires to resurrect the Umayyad Empire (2nd Islamic Caliphate with Syria at its core and Damascus as its capital), and “cleanse” Damascus of “Majous” (pejorative Arabic term for Iranians) “Rafideh” (Shi’ites) and “Nusayris” (Alawites). Rebel leaders openly espousing sectarian rhetoric has been a running theme throughout the conflict; in line with this trend, Alloush’s statement can be taken as a clear indication that his new “Jaish al-Islam” is not in the least bit concerned with abiding by a western-friendly moderate image. Alloush, like the majority of rebel leaders, is a fundamentalist Salafist, who looks on at the minorities of Syria as kafir (unbelievers) who must submit to his interpretation of Salafi Islam or be killed.

The western/Gulf media narrative surrounding this new “Islamist Alliance” is a re-hash of failed PR campaigns of the past, which attempted to mitigate the inherent fundamentalist ideologies of the insurgents waging war upon the Syrian state. In stark contrast to the Caliphate-inspired visions held by the majority of rebel leaders, Syria has been a pluralistic secular society for decades, the majority of its Sunni muslim population are conservative and have coexisted peacefully alongside the many other religions and ethnic minorities that make up Syria’s diverse society, history, and culture. The people of Syria do not aspire to a Saudi sponsored Salafi/Wahhabi leadership or doctrine of law. Contrary to the popular narrative emerging in western and Gulf media that this new force will represent an indigenous “moderate Islamist” coalition capable of taking on the foreign elements and Al Qaeda, the majority of Syrians will be repelled by the sectarian language and ideologies of Zohran Alloush; his groups overt affiliations and pandering to Al Qaeda ideologues; and his “Army of Islam”.

Considering the above context, the narrative of home-grown Salafis somehow being more amenable to the Syrian population than their ISIS/JaN fundamentalist colleagues becomes even less tenable. Alloush’s formation of Jaish al-Islam, alongside the “Islamist Alliance” denunciation of the western-backed political opposition, show a marked shift of the insurgency further toward the Al Qaeda ideologues fighting the Syrian regime, not further away from them.

Did Israel just attack Syria? (again)

In a recent report from investigative journalist Richard Silverstein at the Tikun Olam blog, confidential sources within the Israeli military establishment revealed to him that the alleged bombing of a weapons depot in the Syrian town of Latakia – which sits beside the Russian controlled seaport at Tartous – was an Israeli operation, targeting advanced Russian-supplied defensive missile systems (S-300 or Yakhont), an operation that included the direct assistance of opposition militants inside Syria.

Silverstein’s Israeli source specifically states that memebers of the FSA coordinated with the IDF and engaged in a diversionary rocket attack at the time of the Israeli airstrike. The previous Israeli attack in Damascus – when rebels were on hand to film the event – bears similar hallmarks to the attack in Latakia. Yet, contrary to the previous Israeli strike on the Qassioun mountains, there has been no footage to date of the explosion, and Syrian journalists I have contacted have confirmed that there are no Syrian media reports on recent large-scale explosions in Latakia. The anti-Assad activist the “Syrian Observatory for Human Rights” has reported briefly on the incident and claimed Syrian soldiers were killed, and the blast could be heard kilometres from the alleged strike-zone.

In this Reuters report, titled “Syrian Naval Base Blast Points to Israel”, Qassem Saadeddine, spokesman for the Free Syrian Army’s “Supreme Military Council”, states: (my emphasis)

“rebel forces’ intelligence network had identified newly supplied Yakhont missiles being stored there. It was not the FSA that targeted this,… It is not an attack that was carried out by rebels.”

Saadeddine goes on to state that the attack on the base  “was either by air raid or long-range missiles fired from boats in the Mediterranean.”  Why would a “FSA” spokesmen disavow attacks on Syrian military installations? It seems anathema to what the various incarnations of “spokesmen” have been trying to achieve for two years, namely; fabricating attacks on military installations to bolster morale within the ranks of the rebels, and deplete the morale of the Syrian Army.  These accounts seem to tally with Silverstein’s Israeli source – yet the specific weapons that were the target seem to differ. It is hard to believe that Israel would take such a risk for the Yakhonts alone, unless they have developed a superior stand-off missile system that radically reduces the risks involved – which may have been the impotus behind the “rebels” gleefull advertisement of the “success” of Israel’s earlier airstrikes on Damascus. The S-300 system is a clear advantage for Syria, enabling superior mobile air-defense, the Yakhonts are built to target war-ships and while they offer deterrent for Syria’s Mediterranean coast, they are of no use to Assad if a No-Fly Zone is enforced.

Furthermore, it must be noted that it has become widespread knowledge that Israel is, at the very least, liaising directly with “opposition” forces inside Syria. Silverstein also confirmed this to be the case, and in particular referenced the Golan Heights, this cooperation has also been reported in some avenues of mainstream media, although the reportage is usually set to a “humanitarian” tone.

In a Times of Israel report from the 1st July titled: “We Have No Beef With Israel, Syrian Islamist Group Says”, a spokesman for the rebel group “the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade” – a Salafist rebel group based in the Golan Heights/Quneitra/Daraa region with close links to Jabhat al Nusra, and the group responsible for several kidnappings of UN peacekeepers – goes as far as to thank Israel for its assistance along the border saying: “The medical help that the refugees got from Israel is a very good thing,”, and attempted to reassure Israelis that their fight is directed at the Assad regime and not them, not even in “ten years time”.   The report goes on to state: (my emphasis)

To date, Israel has admitted over two dozen Syrians into its hospitals for treatment, and the IDF has set up a field hospital on the border for treating relatively minor cases. During June 6 clashes between Syrian rebels and Assad forces at the Quneitra border crossing, the IDF treated 20 Syrian rebel combatants for injuries suffered during the gunfight, according to a recently published UN secretary-general’s report.

Moreover, Israel has also made overtures to the Druze community in and around the Quneitra/Golan Heights region, in attempts to shore-up its borders. This highlights the moral expediency and great lengths the Israeli military will go to uphold the status quo and its military dominance. The Israeli government has no concern for Syria or its people, it will happily pour fuel on the fire and enable warring factions to shed further needless blood to achieve its desired strategic objectives. As Jonathon Cook noted recently, the “optimal scenario” for the Israel military would be for the Syrian war to totally divide the state, resulting in a de-facto “balkanization”. It makes perfect sense that to achieve this, Israel are in the same position as the United States, they are looking to “level the playing field”.

Red Lines and Ambiguity.

When Reuters questioned Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon regarding the explosions in Latakia, his reply was reminiscent of official ambiguous statements regarding previous Israeli strikes in Syria. (and other various Muslim nations around the world): (my emphasis)

We have set red lines in regards to our own interests, and we keep them. There is an attack here, an explosion there, various versions – in any event, in the Middle East it is usually we who are blamed for most.”

 This attack was either by air raid or long-range missiles fired from boats in the Mediterranean
 This attack was either by air raid or long-range missiles fired from boats in the Mediterranean,” he said.It is difficult to imagine that Putin is willing to take this act of aggression without reply, but as yet both Russia and Syria have been silent on the strike.. To compound this issue, it is doubtful that if the S-300 systems have been destroyed, neither Assad nor Putin would be eager shout from the rooftops that Syria’s deterrrent for a No Fly Zone has been destroyed with such relative ease and so little exposure. Russia’s reaction to the latest overt act of war against an ally Putin seems determined to uphold, along with a high probability of Russian personnel escorting the S-300 systems, could go either of two ways.If, on the one hand, the strike is ignored by both Russia and Syria, it seems the only logical explanation is that Putin has sold out to some extent and provided the Israeli’s with guarantees that Russia will not retaliate, time will tell on this score as Silverstien’s report seems definitive – especially considering the fact that since the report was published, the Israeli government have enforced blanket censorship on Latakia, and all Israeli media regarding Latakia must pass through the IDF censor’s office before publication.On the other hand, Russia could attempt to retaliate against Israeli interest in the same manner: away from the public spotlight. Putin may use the Israeli strike as justification to provide Syria with further S-300 systems, choosing to “up the ante” and covertly install the defensive systems (or better: S-400) before Israel is able to strike. If Russian military advisors were indeed escorting the S-300 and providing training to Syrian personnel, then it is hard to fathom why Putin remains silent. Despite the implications of Israel possibly attacking Russian forces; it also provides Putin – and Assad – a huge propaganda coup, as did the last strike on Damascus. Yet the silence could also be explained by diplomatic hubris; as mentioned above, it is not in Assad’s interest to tell the world his new air defense systems have already been destroyed by Israel. Yet contrary to this, it could also be in Assad’s interest to use the Israeli strike as a furtherence of his narrative of an international conspiracy against Syria; a narrative that to date, becomes more true as tiOne thing is certain, this illegal act of war represents another escalation on Israel’s behalf, and a further foray into the Syrian conflict. One only has to turn the tables to understand how drastic and risky these Israeli provocations are becoming. Imagine if Syria – or Russia – were to retaliate in the same manner and strike Israeli advanced systems on Israeli soil; the results of which would be widespread and far-reaching, and would undoubtedly include the military might of the United States lining-up against Russia. It should also be noted it is not out of character for Israel to take such huge risk in attempts to uphold the strategic status quo in the region, total military hegemony is of utmost importance to the Israeli establishment. And Israel’s prior and long-satnding record is evidence enough that International Law is not high on their agenda.

Following recent statements from Russian diplomats vowing to honour advanced weapons contracts, along with claims from Assad that the shipments had begun to arrive in response to the previous Israeli airstrike upon Syria, – which targeted elite Syrian military divisions stationed in the Qassioun Mountains in Damascus – it appears Israel may have acted upon the threat of attacking Russian weapons that “tip the balance” in the region. In reality, the result of Syria acquiring such advanced systems will diminish Israel’s ability to violate its neighbours sovereign airspace at will, and in turn, commit acts of war unhindered.

The media silence surrounding this alleged attack is disconcerting on several levels. Firstly, if indeed Russian supplied advanced weapons, either the Yakhont Surface to Sea, or the S-300 Surface to Air systems (undoubtedly accompanied by Russian military personnel) have been attacked, why is Russia silent on the issue? Have Russia given the Israeli’s guarantees that retaliation will not be forthcoming? Aside from this theory, there is the distinct possibility that an emboldened Israeli military now feels it can strike targets within Syrian territory with impunity, particularly considering the half-hearted response from Russia (and the “International Community”) to Israel’s last act of war upon Syria. Furthermore, if Israel has indeed carried out this strike and knowingly hit targets that Russian troops may be alongside, are Russia even willing or able to retaliate? Lets not forget, a war with Israel is almost a guaranteed war with the United States. Of course, to these powers this is a game of chess, and Israel like to play in the dark. Could Russia and Israel both be engaging in covert strikes against each other? Mysteriously, an Israeli F-16 “crashed during routine training” over the Mediterranean on Sunday, a mere two days after the alleged strike in Latakia; it is no secret Russia has been building a huge Naval presence in the Med.

In summary, if it is true that Israel has targeted Russian advanced systems, and all the implications that follow, Russia and Syria could be remaining silent for three reasons: firstly, out of embarrassment and an unwillingness to appear weak through lack of ability to retaliate; secondly, one of the parties is complicit; thirdly, they plan to retaliate in kind, ie: a covert operation. The only other explanation is that the strike in Latakia simply did not occur.