Monday, September 9, 2013

Who are the Syrian rebels: al-Qaeda in Syria leaders think that Americans are threatening war in Syria to target them, not the regime; other rebels wish U.S. will bomb jihadists

    Monday, September 09, 2013   No comments

The four men around him, jihadists from elsewhere in the Arab world, laughed among themselves and looked around to see another group enter. They too had come from far away for jihad — first against the Assad regime and now the US, again.

At a table down the hall, a group of Free Syrian Army fighters were enjoying a late lunch beside an olive grove, wondering out loud what regime targets the US would go for and revelling in the discomfort of the jihadists, whom they felt had ridden roughshod over their war in recent months. "I don't care if the Americans attack them too," said one of the men, whose unit has been joined by the jihadists in several battles. "I'd like that in fact. They need to be scared of someone." The table erupted in laughter, before the men calmed themselves. "I hope the Americans know where their headquarters are," said one.
Business is better at the restaurant than at any point since the start of the civil war, said the owner, who did not want to be named. "They are always polite and they always leave a tip. They just don't want the narghilas (water pipes smoked by locals) anywhere near them."

Outside a recently empty car park is crawling with trucks. The highway, for much of the past year as long, straight and empty as an airport runway, is a bustling thoroughfare of dilapidated trucks and clapped out motorbikes – the favourite form of transport for jihadists and regular fighters alike, who ride in pairs, guns slung across their backs.

The highway leads past a bomb-pocked concrete plant to the town of al-Bab, roughly 25 miles north-east of Aleppo and an opposition stronghold for the past 14 months. Here the evolution of Syria's civil war is written in paint on the walls of schools, civic buildings and advertising hoardings, hijacked by myriad players intent on leaving their mark.

The black banner of al-Qaida, adopted by ISIS, is more prominent in al-Bab than the gold-edged flag of the other al-Qaida-linked group, Jabhat al-Nusra, or the regular units of the Free Syrian Army.

"We don't like it this way," said a local man, Abu Nashat, pointing at a school wall that had been white-washed and then emblazoned with two giant al-Qaida logos. "But who is going to take them on over a tin of paint? We already have a big fight on our hands against the regime. Opening a new battle is not something to do lightly."

Behind two wrought-iron gates was the ISIS command centre, emptied of most of its men before the anticipated air strikes. Two young boys stood guard, their heads swathed in bandanas, their pants cut at ankle length in the manner of the men they emulate.

New-found authority resonates from the commandeered schoolyard. And ISIS members have not been shy in asserting their will here, or elsewhere in northern Syria, where an internecine struggle is in danger of eclipsing the reason for the war. "They think everyone who doesn't think and act like them is an infidel who needs to be punished," said a young fighter from the Liwa al-Tawheed Brigade – a mainstream militia – who ran a clothes shop before the conflict. "While they may have learned how to fight the Americans, they haven't learned anything else from Iraq."

One lesson from Iraq, however, is embraced by many Syrians: the Awakening Movement, also known as the Sahawa, that drove al-Qaida out of Anbar province in 2007.

"We need the same thing here," said a senior member of the Liwa al-Tawheed. "They want to kidnap this revolution. Maybe they already have. But don't mistake all the black flags you see for community support. We just don't have the stomach to fight them now. And who could we hope to support us even if we did? America? Europe? Shame on them. Do they not see that Syria will drag down the whole Middle East?"
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Isr Ed

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