Syrian Army advances under Russian air Support, al-Qaeda no. 2 Killed

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

The Arabic press is reporting that under cover of Russian air support, the Syrian Arab Army of Bashar al-Assad has made some advances against al-Qaeda in Syria and hard line Salafi rebels fighting for imposition of sharia or their conception of Islamic law on the country.

Screen Shot 2015-10-18 at 2.11.53 AM
Via Google Maps

On the 11th day of the Russian intervention, the Syrian Arab Army has taken the town of Atshan in the northern hinterland of the city of Hama, after fierce battles with the rebels there, including al-Qaeda (the Nusra Front or Support Front). Atshan fell to the Syrian Army on the 10th of October but was recovered by the Army of Conquest (Jaysh al-Fateh, a coalition of fundamentalist militias that includes al-Qaeda) and their allies, Arab tribesmen in the region. Now it has fallen again to the Syrian Army.

It is not clear exactly what the Syrian Arab Army is fighting for. Probably not, by now, the ruling Baath Party or war criminal President Bashar al-Assad. A mixture of Alawite Shiites and secular-minded Sunnis, my guess is that the SAA is fighting against the Salafi fundamentalists who they know would gladly oppress or even kill them. Syria is likely 10-14 percent Alawite, 5 percent Christian, 3 percent Druze, and it has some Twelver Shiites as well. Along with these minorities, probably a half to a third of the Sunni Arab population (about 60% of the whole) is standing with the regime. Another 10 percent are Kurds, who are also fighting the fundamentalists and sometimes have alliances of convenience with the al-Assad regime against Daesh (ISIS, ISIL). So the demographic weight of Syria has so far told against the conservative rural Sunnis and the urban lower middle class Muslim Brotherhood adherents.

From Atshan the SAA, the regime’s military force, is trying to head to Khan Shaykhoun, the gateway to southern Idlib Province.

At the same time, the SAA advanced into the southern suburbs of the major northern city of Aleppo, which is split between government and rebel control. There they took farms and three small towns south of Aleppo. The conquests will allow the government more quickly to resupply its besieged army in east Aleppo and to keep the trunk road running from Damascus in the south through Homs and Hama and then up northeast to Aleppo.

It is not clear which bombing raids killed him, but there is also news of the death of Sanafi al-Nasr (a pseudonym), the number 2 man of al-Qaeda in Syria. A Saudi, he had been a seasoned fighter and tactician, and possibly an architect of the advance of al-Qaeda and its silent partners,the Army of Conquest. In fact, 2 other Support Front/ al-Qaeda operatives were killed on Saturday.

The Russian ambassador to Tajikistan underlined in a news conference on Saturday (h/t BBC Monitoring)

“Q: Is there any risk of Russia getting stuck in Syria like it did in Afghanistan?

A: For many times Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that Russian servicemen’s partaking in Syria’s land operations is ruled out. The duration of the Russian air space forces’ actions to eliminate the ISIL’s infrastructure facilities, headquarters, training camps, and weapon storage facilities are interconnected with the Syrian government army’s military offensive to clear the country’s territory of terrorists.

Russia is not the only country acting in Syria. Besides its cooperation with the government army, there is also intense collaboration with other regional powers such as Iraq and Iran. If other countries interested in the elimination of the ISIL join these collective efforts, the common victory over this structure acknowledged as a terrorist structure practically by all the countries will come sooner.

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Related video added by Juan Cole:

RT: “New Syria combat cam: Russian jets hammer ISIS with KAB-500 bombs”

21 Responses

  1. Isn’t al-nusra the junior partner to ahrar alsham who have 23000 fighters and are probably the largest group after assad and ISIL.

    • Ahrar al-Sham is Salafist – but NOT jihadist in orientation.

      They were initially a brigade under the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – but split off to operate under the umbrella group Islamic Front, not over dispute with the FSA itself – but rather due to differences with the Syrian National Coalition, to whom the FSA’s allegiance is owed.

      • The Free Syrian Army aimed at democratic elections and equal rights for all. Ahrar al-Sham rejects both in favor of sharia supremacism. I’m not sure why you say it isn’t jihadist but it doesn’t seem materially different to me from the Taliban.

        • “The Free Syrian Army aimed at democratic elections and equal rights for all………..”

          The FSA has been led by the Supreme Military Council, who has agreed to democratic principles in order to receive funding from U.S. government sources. Ahrar Al-Sham, while coordinating its military operations with the FSA, has rejected submitting itself under the leadership of the Supreme Military Council.

          “I’m not sure why you say it isn’t jihadist…………”

          Ahrar al-Sham is not designated by the U.S. State Department as a terror organization. It heads the political office of the umbrella group Islamic Front, who was wooed by Western diplomats at the Ankara Conference for possible aid donations.

          Ahrar al-Sham is viewed as more moderate than either ISIS or the al-Nusra Front and has been described as subscribing to “Revisionist Jihadism”:

          link to warontherocks.com

  2. There is much written about the conflicting differences between groups of Syrians and most of it is doubtless true, but such differences, which are ongoing, can be put aside, not resolved, just put aside while the parties combine to face an immediate danger. The differences do not disappear and when the danger is passed they re-emerge. Although remote from current Syria, there is perhaps a parallel in the political situation in the UK prior to WWll when dangerous levels of social unrest were reaching a point they even provoked the emergence of fascism. However both sides put those differences on the back boiler while they united to face 6 years of war. When the war was over (largely due to the actions of the Russians ironically enough) the differences come to the front again and resulted in the free election of the Labour Party with Clement Atlee as PM, while Churchill stepped down to the expressed astonishment of much of the world. Time and working, suffering, and sharing triumphs together had blunted their differences and diverted them into democratic paths. This, of course, occurred without any external interference, and might perhaps in Syria if allowed to, and if Putin can keep the likes of La Nuland at bay.

    • But that wasn’t a Civil War inside Britain. Going back further in history, Britain’s attempts to establish Home Rule in Ireland were wrecked by the coming of WW1, the militarization of the Troubles as partisans on both sides came home from the trenches, and surplus weapons poured in. That’s closer to Syria than Churchill’s Britain, which was at least internally a nation of laws.

      • True, but it was close, just about as close as you can get without tipping into anarchy. Besides an outcome where an acceptable political future arises appears to be the Russian purpose

        The Russian prime minister further emphasized that only the Syrian people are entitled to decide on the future of their country.
        “Now, who will be the leader of Syria is an issue to be decided by the Syrian people,” he said, adding, “Our current position is that the legitimate president is [Bashar] Assad.”

        That is what the US claims to want except few believe them and anyway they want to eat the chicken first and roast it later.
        link to presstv.com

    • One can hardly say that those differences were put aside during the war, nor that they reemerged afterwards. Fascist und Communist movements in England had been imprisoned for the duration of the war, and their activities and medias shut down. Same goes for nationalities suspected of being a potential threat. Same in the USA back then. It’s a common effect in states that for whatever reason start to mobilize and militarise it’s people.

  3. I know Egypt has recently pledged support for Syria & Russsia’s fight against terrorists. Wonder if they will send troops?

    • Egypt’s government’s support for the “fight against terrorists” is primarily motivated by the fact the Islamic Front and Free Syrian Army are heavily rooted in the Muslim Brotherhood movement that President Morsi belonged to.

      ISIS and al-Qaeda are not major players within Egypt’s political scene – but the Muslim Brotherhood is.

  4. Were the Syrian people better off before the U.S. and other forces assisted opening the Syrian doors to IS?

    • The Assad regime had tortured and murdered hundreds of thousands of Syrian nationals, placed his own family members in effective and exclusive control of the entire country with fundamental freedoms denied – including a lack of a freely-elected government – and created the conditions that caused the initial rebellion by the Free Syrian army that continues to this day.

      Assad has exploited the ISIS and al-Nusra Front menaces to forfeit the property of innocent business owners under the guise of “anti-terror” measures.

      Even Assad’s allies – including Russia and Iran – have felt that the Assad dictatorship must go as it is the root of nation’s problems.

      The current civil war would have existed whether or not ISIS eventually intervened – ISIS merely has exacerbated the already bad situation. ISIS will eventually be defeated – however the people of Syria will not be satisfied until Assad is deposed from power.

      • Mark – to quote “Even Assad’s allies – including Russia and Iran – have felt that the Assad dictatorship must go as it is the root of nation’s problems.”

        Russia and Iran will support the current al Assad regime militarily as long as Russian and Iranian “interests” operate in and through Syria, status quo.

        • Yeah, and by refusing to make any deal with Russia over negotiations now and in 2011, the US gives zero incentive for either to modify how best to guard their country’s interests

      • Well then let’s topple the Sauds! You are not in? I guessed so. Exceptionalism truly is a yoke. That the elected government around Assad has killed and tortured hundreds of thousands is really an interesting claim. Same with your statement of Russia and Iran being against Assad, which is not the case. Russia (and China) call for a political solution with Assad, Iran though seems not so interested in keeping Assad. The situation for the escalation for this former political and national conflict could also have been created by US led armament and training of Sunni rasdicals that turned into Al Nusra and ISIS fighters (noone could have foreseen that^^) and the continued support of those groups intending to intrdoduce an Islamic state with sharia law ( includes all “moderate” rebels) by the new alliance of the willing around the US, that leads to the hilarious situation in which even Israel openly supports Al Qaeda in southern Syria. Can you imagine Al Nusra fighters beeing rescued by the Israel army and treated in israel, and brought back to their forces? You dont have to, just watch this link to news.vice.com
        Lets just deliver more weapons and train people willing to use them and send them into states with political friction, then moan about the lost lives, keep inefficient bombing campaigns going for years, and when the old leader was toppled, support the new guy, and give him IMF loans so he stays dependend on our funds. Mission accomplished, i guess?

    • Good question Kathleen. Were they better of before a huge war, that so far already got thousands killed, millions seeking refugee in foreign countries and a brutal sharia law enforced in vast parts of syria was incited?

    • The Assad govt. tortured and killed hundreds of thousands of Syrians (ref. please)? But even, if true, does that explain U.S. involvement (from the start of the so-called liberation struggle)? As if, that is, the U.S. intervention is driven by the pursuit of freedom and democracy, rather than geopolitical interests. After all, is there any more repressive society than Wahhabi Saudi Arabia, which (along with Israel, occupier of Palestine), just happens to be America’s top ally in the Middle East?

      • The Assad government killed 30,000 in the Hama Massacre alone in 1982.

        Human Rights Watch has documented 27 torture centers within Syria operated by the Baathist regime in which an average of four persons die per day.

        It is estimated that the Assad regime is culpable for over 75% of the deaths recorded in the current civil war – with a very large percentage of these civilians – many of whom are directly targeted and including schoolchildren.

        Here’s a link:

        link to ibtimes.com

  5. You really do need a chart to keep up with everything in Syria. Its one of the reasons I believe the West ought to have stayed out of the middle east to begin with.

    anyhow if Russia, with its air strikes makes some head way against the extremists, Putin will have something to crow about. The West will then have to “forgive” him for Ukraine and get on with life.

    Canada may have a new P.M. on Monday, so the rhetoric against Putin will cool down and Canada will most likely pull out of the middle east, immediately. The current P.M. Harper has been very vocal about his dislike of Putin and Arabs/Muslims. Monday is the election. Both other main stream parties have promised to get out. One less other country messing things up and one less country supporting Benni in Israel.

    If this mess continues in the middle east and Benni takes Israel into the mess, we will all be in trouble. Canada has always supported Israel, but the support Harper gives to Benni, not a good thing.

    It would be nice if Putin could arrange for Assad to go somewhere else, but who knows who would replace him……….We’ve seen replacements and they don’t always work.

    Bombing a country inflicts so much pain and misery on the civilians, its hard to say what is worse, the bombing and killings or the extremists and the killings. Its like once one of these wars start, it becomes a way of life, like no one knows what else to do.

    We can only hope for peace.

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