U.S. missile strikes, rebel training in Syria re-energize a refined army against Assad

The author of a study calls the Free Syrian Army “the cornerstone of Syria’s moderate opposition component.

The Washington Times, by Jacob Wirtschafter and Gilgamesh Nabeel, April 24, 2017:

CAIRO — In the ramshackle town of Atareb, a Free Syrian Army bastion 15 miles north of Aleppo, Maj. Anas Abu Zaid said he has looted Russian rockets, American-supplied anti-tank missiles and other firepower to hold off the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

He says it’s time to move on.

“We were facing airstrikes on a daily basis, but now some civilians are coming back to Atareb,” said Maj. Abu Zaid. “We are working to put in place civil governance for the town and even rebuilding some houses.”

His optimism reflects an energy that has infused the once-faltering rebel force in the wake of missile attacks that President Trump ordered on a Syrian air force base this month following Mr. Assad’s suspected use of chemical weapons on civilians.

Analysts say it doesn’t take a lot to tip the balance from one side or another in Syria’s grinding conflict, which is why the U.S. missile strike, limited as it was, had such an impact, said Alberto Fernandez, a retired State Department counterterrorism officer who is the go-to authority on capabilities and limitations of the multiple rebel groups in Syria.

Add to that the fact that the much-derided U.S. effort to train the Free Syrian Army fighters is starting to pay dividends on the battlefield, boosted by substantial financial aid from wealthy Persian Gulf emirates, Mr. Fernandez said, “A war that has been going on so long is basically a war of attrition and exhaustion, and all parties are being worn down.”

Mr. Fernandez, now president of the Washington-based Middle East Media Research Institute, said, “Those that remain from each part, unit or entity are the fittest, the most clever, the most savage and the most capable. So the question is: Who is going to be the last man standing?”

“Too often, [the FSA has] been written off, and they shouldn’t be,” he said. “On the other hand, they have been limited — like everyone else — in what they have been able to do, so far.”

Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, wrote in a lengthy study that the Brookings Institution released in November that the FSA was far better than its reputation suggests and has evolved into an effective fighting force while retaining a base of popular support that few of its rivals can match.

“By late 2016, the FSA had come to represent an expansive, socially and symbolically powerful but complex umbrella movement, composed of dozens of semi-autonomous armed opposition groups that are united by the original moderate ideals of Syria’s revolution,” Mr. Lister concluded.

He called the FSA “the cornerstone of Syria’s moderate opposition component.”

“For the U.S. and allied countries seeking an eventual solution to the crisis in Syria, the FSA’s military preeminence does not necessarily have to be the sole objective, but sustaining its ability to represent opposition communities is of crucial importance given its mainstream positions,” Mr. Lister said.

Maj. Abu Zaid was one of the Free Syrian Army officers selected by the Pentagon in 2015 for a U.S. program to boost moderate forces after previous training programs faltered.

In February, that effort reaped results when, with help from the Turks, Free Syrian Army forces took over almost 1,250 miles of territory from the Islamic State group on Syria’s northern border.

“The Americans made it clear that the regime was not the world’s priority, and the issue was defined as terrorism,” said the major, who added that Mr. Assad’s behavior since then has proved that the U.S. training was worth the cost. “With the Khan Sheikhoun chemical attack, Assad reminded them he was the biggest terrorist.”

Mr. Assad’s forces were responsible for more than 90 percent of the 207,000 civilian casualties in Syria from March 2001 through February 2017, according to the Violations Documentation Center, a monitoring group working with human rights activists inside and outside Syria.

Assad’s weaknesses

Free Syrian Army fighters insisted that the chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun revealed Mr. Assad’s fundamental weaknesses while highlighting their own stamina as a fighting force.

“His only way to defeat the people is by punishing civilians with these weapons to put pressure on them to make local truces, forcing them to leave,” said Maj. Issam Al Reis, a 41-year-old spokesman of the Free Syrian Army’s southern front near the Jordanian border. Pro-Assad forces “don’t have enough manpower to defend their front lines.”

Despite reports in the second half of last year that Mr. Assad’s forces, backed by Russian and Iranian support, had scored some major victories, facts on the ground support the rebels’ confidence.

Analysts at Omran Center for Strategic Studies, an independent think tank in the United Arab Emirates, said that despite Russian and Iranian backing, the Free Syrian Army controls almost 17,700 square miles inside the country, compared with less than 14,000 square miles in 2015.

Northeast of Damascus, Free Syrian Army forces briefly occupied the towns of Qaboun and Barzeh. The wins were ultimately reversed by the regime and Russian airstrikes, but they were a surprise to those who had written off the rebel group as irrelevant to Syria’s future after their defeat in Aleppo late last year.

“Thanks to the Russian brutality, we tended to think a month or two ago that Assad had prevailed and that he can do whatever he likes,” said Mordechai Kedar, a Syria specialist at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv. “I would not repeat that assessment today.”

As the civil war continues, the insurgents’ success should help them garner more aid from the West, said Fahad Almarsy, a former Free Army spokesman who now leads a loosely affiliated political organization in Paris called the National Salvation Front.

“The United States and Israel can target [Lebanese] Hezbollah and Iranian forces propping up Assad in and around Damascus and help the Free Army advance and clear Syrian territory of foreign fighters,” he said.

While most of the Islamic State’s losses in its Syrian base stem from Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces, who now control 20 percent of Syria, the group’s links to Kurdish separatists in Turkey bar them from becoming close U.S. allies, said Ayman Abdul Nour, an early opponent of Mr. Assad and a leader of Syria’s exiled Christian community.

“The Free Syrian Army is now positioned as America’s best bet if Washington wants to see a unified or at least a federal Syria,” Mr. Abdul Nour said in a telephone interview from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

The rebels said they intend to keep up the pressure on Mr. Assad. Their “Victory Army” in west-central Syria recently turned their guns on the regime’s Hama Military Airport, using Russian missiles to destroy a Russian-made fighter jet. Like the American missile strike, which destroyed six Mig-23s at the Al-Shayrat Air Force base, the attack was designed to downgrade the size and shorten the reach of Mr. Assad’s air force.

Refugees from regime-controlled areas, meanwhile, are joining rebel enclaves committed to Mr. Assad’s downfall.

“The people suffer exhaustion from the war, but they are still loyal to the Free Army,” said Kamal Bahbough, a 36-year-old physician in the besieged town of Al Rastan, about 14 miles north of Homs. “The Free Syrian Army soldiers are the sons of this region.”

Gilgamesh Nabeel reported from Istanbul.

Abdel Fattah El-Sisi’s Long Road to Islamic Reform

Egyptian Leader Al-Sisi.

Religious Freedom Coalition, by Andrew Harrod, April 20, 2017:

“There has been a lot of positive symbolism” from Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi regarding Islamic reform but little action, stated former American Ambassador Alberto Fernandez on April 3 in Washington, DC.  He and his fellow Hudson Institute panelists examined the enormous difficulties confronting any reform of the doctrines underlying various jihadist agendas even as America’s new President Donald Trump prioritizes counterterrorism.

Hudson Institute Center for Religious Freedom Director Nina Shea opened the panel before a lecture room filled with about 70 listeners by noting the Sisi-Trump White House meeting at that very moment.  Shea observed that America’s important ally Egypt is the most populous Arab country (94 million people) with a quarter of all Arab speakers in the world.  Egypt also has the Middle East’s largest Christian community, the Copts, accounting for an estimated ten percent of Egypt’s population, more than all the Jews in Israel.

Addressing Trump’s meeting with Sisi, Fernandez stated that the “number one issue in for this administration in this regard is obviously writ large the counterterrorism issue,” particularly concerning defeating the Islamic State.  He emphasized the necessity “to find creative, smart, aggressive ways to challenge the appeal of the default ideology in the Middle East today,” namely “some type of Islamism.”  Such ideologies had a long history, as in the 1970s “Egypt was the proving ground for all of this stuff that we saw with Al Qaeda and the Islamic State” involving atrocities against Mesopotamia’s Christians and other minorities.  He recalled visiting Egypt as a young diplomat for the first time in 1984 and seeing policemen guarding every Christian church and cemetery, an indication of this community’s peril.

Hudson Institute Senior Fellow Samuel Tadros, himself a Copt, stated that “there is no doubt that the Islamist message is appealing in Egypt” and reprised his previous analysis of Islamism.  “Islamism seeks to create a state that connects heaven and earth,” an ideology that is still credible in the public imagination and has no viable contenders in the marketplace of ideas.  Despite repeated failures to create this idealized state by groups like Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda, the “basic premises of Islamism make sense for an average Egyptian.”

Fernandez and Tadros accordingly dashed any high hopes raised by Sisi’s 2015 New Year’s Day address on Islamic reform to Al Azhar University in Cairo, often considered Sunni Islam’s preeminent theological authority.  Tadros stated that the speech “was general, it was unprepared” while Fernandez noted that “Sisi kind of put out a very enticing marker but there is a lot of work that has to happen which hasn’t even begun yet.”  Although globally the “speech that Sisi gave was very well received,” the follow-on reminded Fernandez of the Arab proverb “she was pregnant with a mountain but gave birth to a mouse.”

While “there is a tremendous amount of space for Islamist extremism in Egypt still” as the 2015 blasphemy conviction of an Egyptian talk show host showed, Fernandez remained unimpressed with Sisi’s Islamic reform advocacy.

There has been a nibbling around the edges.  But you cannot say that the Egyptian government has done something which would be truly revolutionary, that has never happened in the Arab world, which is to have a government on the level of ideology, on the level of textbooks, on the level of the religious establishment really embrace a kind of liberal reinterpretation of problematic texts and concepts that are used by Salafi-jihadists and by Islamists.

“While Washington has welcomed this talk a lot, there are actually a lot of limits to what Sisi can offer in this regard,” Tadros warned.  Sisi “would like to see a reform of the religious discourse, but he has no plan, plus he has to deal with the reality of Al Azhar” as his appeals to reform easy divorce laws had shown.  The “answer from Al Azhar was a very clear public humiliation of the president….This is not debatable, this is the religion as it is; basically don’t talk about these issues.”

Given Sisi’s societal circumstances, Fernandez noted that “even the weak tea that we see with that symbolism actually provokes a reaction” from Islamists like an Islamic State video attacking Sisi as a “slave of the cross.”  Fernandez and Tadros likewise discussed rampant antisemitism permeating Egyptian society as exemplified by Fernandez’s last visit to Egypt three years ago.  The bookstore of the five-star Intercontinental Semiramis Hotel where he was staying had an entire shelf of anti-Semitic literature including the Jew-hatred staple, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and books featuring vampires with Stars of David.

Such intellectual poison is unsurprising given Tadros’ assessment that the “Egyptian educational system remains a disaster; it simply teaches nothing about the outside world.”  A Christian Egyptian friend astounded him once when she related the inquiry of her fellow journalist about where her fiancée would spend his wedding night.  On the basis of the movie Braveheart, the inquiring journalist had obtained the bizarre belief that Coptic women spend their first night of marriage having sex with a Coptic priest.

For Tadros, the journalist’s pitiful ignorance about Copts is no anomaly, even though they are the indigenous people of an Egypt Islamicized after a seventh century Arab conquest.  Among Egyptian Muslims there is an “absence of any actual information about people that they have shared 14 centuries of living together.”  This allows “all these superstitions, these conspiracy theorists, this propaganda by Islamists to fill that vacuum.”

The only bright spot in the panel appeared in Tadros’ estimation most Egyptians considered Sisi, who came to power in a 2013 military overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood, as the only current acceptable political alternative.  “There are huge human rights abuses in the country, but it is also a very popular regime.  I have no doubt that even in free and fair elections President Sisi would win.”  He represents a “certain rejection of the Muslim Brotherhood, a demand for a return to normalcy, to stability.”

Andrew E. Harrod is a researcher and writer who holds a PhD from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a JD from George Washington University Law School. He is a fellow with the Lawfare Project, an organization combating the misuse of human rights law against Western societies. He can be followed on twitter at @AEHarrod.

Report: Anti-ISIS Propaganda Head Tied to Muslim Brotherhood

AP748496654624-640x480Breitbart, by EDWIN MORA, 17 Feb 2015:

The Obama administration is revamping its efforts to combat Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) propaganda. ISIS and its supporters produce “as many as 90,000 tweets and other social media responses every day,” reports The New York Times.

An empowered Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, currently a small component of the U.S. State Department, will spearhead the new campaign to fight the ISIS propaganda machine.

Rashad Hussain, a Muslim American with close ties to the White House, will replace Alberto Fernandez, the center’s director, according to The Times.

Hussain, who has reportedly participated in events linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, currently serves as Obama’s special envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. He will take over when Fernandez retires in April.

“Hussain, a devout Muslim, has a history of participating in events connected with the Muslim Brotherhood,” reported Cal Thomas in an article published by Townhall.

Citing Egypt’s Rose El-Youssef magazine, The Investigative Project on Terrorism reported that Hussain “maintained close ties with people and groups that [the magazine] says comprise the Muslim Brotherhood network in America.”

Some critics describe Hussain as a Muslim Brotherhood sympathizer. He is not a confirmed member of the group.

An added component called the Information Coordination Cell will be part of the newly revamped center.

It will be “staffed by intelligence and Pentagon analysts among others” and “will be responsible for the broader coordination functions.”

“Skeptics of the new [anti-propaganda] campaign voiced concerns that the program is an attempt by the White House to end a long-simmering turf war with the counterterrorism center’s director, Alberto Fernandez, and exercise more control over the kinds of messages that are produced and coordinated with domestic and international partners,” notes The Times.

“Other officials questioned whether even a newly empowered center at the State Department would be up to the task. Operating the center on a shoestring budget of about $5 million a year, Mr. Fernandez, a respected Middle East specialist and career Foreign Service officer, and his supporters have long complained that neither the State Department nor the White House fully supported or properly financed the center’s activities,” the article adds.

The Obama administration plans “to harness all the existing attempts at counter-messaging by much larger federal departments, including the Pentagon, Homeland Security and intelligence agencies,” explains The Times.

The Times added:

The center would also coordinate and amplify similar messaging by foreign allies and nongovernment agencies, as well as by prominent Muslim academics, community leaders and religious scholars who oppose the Islamic State, also called ISIS or ISIL, and who may have more credibility with ISIS’ target audience of young men and women than the American government.

About 80 people will staff the newly-empowered center.

“We’re getting beaten on volume, so the only way to compete is by aggregating, curating and amplifying existing content,” Richard A. Stengel, the under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, said on Monday, NYT reports.

He admitted that anti-ISIS propaganda efforts by the Obama administration “could have been better coordinated,” adds the article.

In its arsenal, the U.S. government has “more than 350 State Department Twitter accounts, combining embassies, consulates, media hubs, bureaus and individuals, as well as similar accounts operated by the Pentagon, the Homeland Security Department and foreign allies,” points out The Times.

The report points out that the details of the campaign are still in the works, but Obama officials are expected to reveal “broad outlines” of the effort during a summit sponsored by the White House.

Starting on Tuesday, the White House is hosting a three-day summit on “Countering Violent Extremism” to “highlight domestic and international efforts to prevent violent extremists and their supporters from radicalizing, recruiting, or inspiring individuals or groups in the United States and abroad to commit acts of violence.”

The White House did not mention “Islamic extremism” in announcing the event. It has not fully revealed who will participate in the summit.

Hussain’s attendance to Muslim Brotherhood-linked events was defended by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross in an article that appeared in The Long War Journal.

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