By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –
The leader of al-Qaeda in Syria, Abu Muhammad al-Julani, has called for an escalation in attacks on the population centers of the Alawite Shiite minority.
The president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, and other leading members of the ruling Baath Party belong to this folk sect of Islam. Alawites constitute 10-14 percent of Syrians, or 2 to 3 million persons, and predominate in the northwestern area of Latakia.
While it would be unfair to blame all Alawites for it, the al-Assad regime has used tanks and aerial bombardment against Syrian dissidents, turning what had been a peaceful protest movement into a vicious civil war, killing tens of thousands, and displacing millions. The regime also kidnapped large numbers of dissidents and tortured an estimated 10,000 to death.
Al-Qaeda leader Al-Julani said in a speech broadcast via YouTube that the Russian intervention aims at saving the government of al-Assad from collapse, but that it would fail, just as the military support of Iran and Hizbullah had failed. He added that “there is no choice but to escalate the battle and to target Alawite villages and townships in Latakia.” He called on all the elements of al-Qaeda to “bombard all these villages with hundreds of rockets daily, just as Russia is targeting Sunni villages and towns.”
— Al-Masdar News (@TheArabSource) October 14, 2015
The Support Front or Jabhat al-Nusra has a direct reporting line to core al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, a mastermind of the 9/11 attacks on the United States. Some of its fighters, like the recently deceased Abu al-Hassan al-Tunisi, a right hand man of Usama Bin Laden, are core al-Qaeda going back to Afghanistan days. It holds substantial territory in northern Syria, directly controlling areas of Idlib Province, and forming a coalition called the Army of Conquest with hard line Salafi groups such as the Freemen of Syria (Ahrar al-Sham). The Army of Conquest is thought to receive substantial financial and weapons support from Saudi Arabia and Turkey, despite the leading position within it of al-Qaeda. The US CIA provides munitions such as TOW anti-tank weapons to Saudi Arabia, which shares it with Salafi groups such as the Army of Conquest and the Army of Islam. The Freemen of Syria is less extreme than al-Qaeda but declines to commit to support for pluralist democracy. When, in December of 2012, the US designated al-Qaeda in Syria or the Support Front a terrorist organization, 29 rebel groups denounced this designation and declared “we are all al-Nusra.”
Al-Julani, whose family is from the Golan Heights, fought US troops in Iraq alongside Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia there. He was captured and spent time at the American prison camp in Iraq, Camp Bucca. He became close to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq, the successor to al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia. But al-Julani has since broken with al-Baghdadi, now the leader of Daesh (ISIS, ISIL), on orders of core al-Qaeda leader al-Zawahiri.
Al-Julani said that the Russian intervention is “an eastern Crusader campaign” doomed to failure. He said the Russians had intervened after the jihadis had inflicted on the al-Assad regime a series of defeats and had reduced the Syrian Arab Army essentially to a militia among other militias.
Al-Julani had also called on Muslim extremists in the Caucasus to launch attacks on Russia in retaliation for its Syrian intervention. Al-Qaeda in Syria has North Caucasus volunteers. On Oct. 12, Russian intelligence, the FSB, said that a major attack in Moscow by extremists had been foiled, and three men were remanded to custody.
Al-Julani also put a $5 million price on the heads of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and the leader of Lebanon’s Hizbullah, Hassan Nasrallah.
Meanwhile, Greek Melkite Catholic Archbishop Jean-Clement Jeanbart of Aleppo, speaking in the UK, warned British politicians against supporting Muslim extremists [such as the Army of Conquest and its key component, al-Qaeda in Syria] in Syria. Jeanbart characterized the Baath regime as modern and tolerant of religious minorities, in contrast to the hard line Salafi jihadist groups being supported by the West. Jeanbart said that most Syrian Christians support the Russian intervention.
Of the Salafi Muslim extremists he said,
““They don’t accept anyone who is different,” Archbishop Jeanbart added. “Anyone who is not a fundamentalist Muslim has no rights — no right to live, no right to be in society, no right to be a citizen . . . [they] have destroyed everything — our economy, our industry, our churches, everything. . . The most important thing we are suffering from is that they are destroying man. They are taking away our right to choose what we want to be.”
It is an index of how dire the situation is for Syria’s roughly one million Christians, most of them Eastern Orthodox, that one of their leaders should cling to the illusion that the virtually genocidal al-Assad regime is “tolerant.” That Christians were better off under the Baath than they would be under al-Julani, however, is not in doubt. In Syrian politics there is very little middle ground.