Influx of foreign fighters add to Syria's carnage

BY: HALA JABER  - From:The Sunday Times - June 17, 2012

A Free Syrian Army fighter fires his weapon during clashes with Syrian troops near Idlib, Syria. Source: AP

HE WAKES at dawn and disguises himself as a peasant to cross the river from Lebanon into Syria. There he joins fellow militants in a "holy" war against President Bashar al-Assad.

When night falls, Sheikh Saad Eddine Ghia, 50, creeps back home to north Lebanon after burying his weapon on Syrian soil. He will retrieve it for action the following day.

Jihad is a familiar routine for the sheikh. He fought side by side with al-Qa'ida in Afghanistan and Iraq, and has no time for the secular rebels of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

"As chaos escalates, the regime will be weakened and so will the FSA," he said. "In the end, the people will join the jihadists."

Ghia is one of hundreds of foreign Sunni fighters said to have crossed Syria's borders to fight the Alawite-dominated regime.

Many are extreme Salafist jihadists who combine respect for Islam's sacred texts in their most literal form with a ruthless dedication to attacking the perceived enemies of their faith.

As well as the Lebanese contingent, Tunisians, Algerians, Libyans, Saudis, Iraqis, Egyptians, Jordanians and Kuwaitis have swollen the ranks of the jihadists. Dozens have been killed, including two British men of Algerian origin.

Some are sympathetic to al-Qa'ida's ambition to create caliphates in Syria and the wider region; others are merely intent on avenging the killing of Muslims by Syrian forces.

They have contributed to an escalation of violence that prompted the United Nations to suspend its peace mission yesterday because its observers could no longer do their work.

General Robert Mood, the Norwegian commander of a 300-strong team of observers, announced that operations and patrols were being halted after 10 days of intensifying conflict. Last Tuesday UN monitors came under fire as they tried to enter the town of Haffa amid fears of a massacre.

"The push towards advancing military positions is increasing the losses on both sides," Mood said. "Innocent civilians - men, women and children - are being killed every day."

Horrors are being inflicted by both sides. Children were once again among the casualties of the latest army bombardment of the western city of Homs this weekend. More than 1000 families were trapped and more than 100 people were injured, an opposition source said, adding: "They have no food and no medical equipment."

Chilling footage posted on YouTube showed the punishment of a collaborator with Assad's forces at a block of flats in the town of Nabk, 50 miles north of Damascus, last Friday.

"In God's name, don't!" he screams as he is dragged to a window sill on an upper floor. "I beg you," he wails as a voice identifies him as Abu Wael.

The speaker says: "This is the fate of every traitor who collaborates with the security." The man's captors bundle him out of the window head first and dangle him by one foot before dropping him to his death.

Little wonder that Mood condemned a "lack of willingness by the parties to seek a peaceful transition".

The foreign fighters are responding to fatwas issued by religious authorities in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere.

"We will retaliate against the attacks launched by Bashar al-Assad and his associates by sending our dearest sons to inflict on him the harshest punishment," said Abu Muhammad al-Tahawi, a prominent Jordanian cleric.

Another fatwa, by a fellow Sunni cleric, Adnan Arour, was even more direct, threatening not only Syria's Alawite rulers, but Christians and other minorities who side with them. "We will chop you up and feed you to the dogs," Arour said.

One Tunisian couple found out their student son, Hussein Mars, had heeded the call to jihad only when they received a perfunctory message.

"We got an anonymous call telling us he'd been martyred - just three words," said his brother Mokhtar, a teacher. His parents had thought he was studying in Libya.

Mars, 34, is one of at least five Tunisians, all from the southern town of Ben Guerdane, who are believed to have been killed in Syria.

While no bodies have been returned home, a video featuring the black flag of al-Qa'ida has appeared on Facebook. It contains eulogies of the five men, koranic verses and the information that they died in Homs.

To some observers, the arrival of the foreigners is reminiscent of the early days of the Iraq war, when eager young Arab fighters arrived on buses in the central squares of Baghdad to take on the Americans.

Will Hartley, the head of Jane's terrorism and insurgency centre, said Syria would not play out in the same way. "In Iraq, we saw a populist cause to resist the US invasion," he said. "It was easy to mobilise fighters across the region to fight the USA."

But Peter Harling, a project director with the International Crisis Group, said the involvement of the jihadists, while limited for now, reflected a broader conflict between Sunnis and Shi'ites. "Syria presents a context in which jihadism could flourish. If conditions on the ground continue to deteriorate, it could become a significant phenomenon," he said.

The fundamentalist element seems to be gaining in prominence. According to one account, a middle-aged estate agent named Abu Rami Kheir who had done work for the government was kidnapped from his business earlier this year.

He was taken into the central square in Zamalka, a suburb of Damascus. One masked captor stretched out his right arm while another held him in position.

A third man with a butcher's cleaver brought down the blade close to the estate agent's shoulder, severing his arm. A fourth then fired three swift shots into his throat with an AK47 to cries of "Allahu Akbar" (God is the greatest).

According to a local resident who said he had watched the execution from a window overlooking the square, the captors - who were assumed to be outsiders - would not allow the body to be removed for an hour. There was no way to corroborate the account.

The UN's suspension of its mission followed a sharp increase in deaths from fighting between the army and rebels.

At the Tishreen military hospital last week, the general in charge said he was receiving 15 dead soldiers a day. There were 30 on Tuesday and 19 on Wednesday. Two flag-draped coffins at a time are paraded each morning to the accompaniment of Chopin's funeral march, mingled with the sound of ululating.

Youssef al-Masri, a 28-year-old soldier, described how he had been wounded in an ambush as his unit inched through alleyways into the centre of Hraytan, a small town near the city of Aleppo.

"Snipers were firing, anti-tank rockets were landing and machinegun fire was raining down on us," he said.

Although he was wearing a bulletproof vest, Masri was hit in the stomach and leg. He claimed some of the attackers looked like Salafists, with long hair and beards, and ankle-length gowns known as galabiyas. Two tanks were hit, with 12 soldiers killed and 70 injured.

The rising toll may be attributable partly to the supply of heavy weapons to Syrian rebels from Qatar and Saudi Arabia. But the unity of the opposition to Assad's forces is at risk from an influx of Salafist foreigners.

Ghia, the Lebanese sheikh, told Le Figaro newspaper that jihadists had "ideological differences" with the FSA. "They deem the FSA to be infidels since they oppose re-establishing the caliphate," he said.

"Things will not improve between us and the FSA. Eventually, it will come down to them or us."

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