[Marxism] With Mideast in Crisis, Militant Force Gains Strength
lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Jun 11 17:53:06 MDT 2014
NY Times, June 11 2014
With Mideast in Crisis, Militant Force Gains Strength
By THANASSIS CAMBANIS
GAZIANTEP, Turkey — The fighters with the Free Syrian Army were
expecting an attack any day from the jihadists besieging the city of
Minbej in war-torn Syria, fortifying their base, once a carpet factory,
with concrete bomb-blast barriers.
But they did not suspect the teenagers pushing a broken-down sedan past
the front gate. Then a boy who looked no more than 14 blew up the car
and himself, unleashing an assault that killed or wounded nearly 30
rebel fighters and ultimately put the entire city of Minbej under the
control of the most extremist jihadi group in the Syrian conflict.
“They call us godless. They attack us from the front, they attack us
from the back,” said Sheikh Hassan, the leader of the Free Syrian Army
brigade that came under attack.
That battle was one snapshot of the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq
and Syria, a militant Sunni group whose thousands of fighters have
occupied crucial swatches of Syria and have now surged into northern
Iraq. The group, known as ISIS, has vowed to create a caliphate spanning
the Sunni-dominated sections of neighboring countries.
In doing so, it is simultaneously battling the Syrian and Iraqi
governments and Sunni rebels it considers insufficiently committed to
Islam. Having seized vast areas of Iraqi territory and several large and
strategic cities, including the country’s second-largest, Mosul, it
controls territory larger than many countries and now rivals, and
perhaps overshadows, Al Qaeda as the world’s most powerful and active
The fighting in Minbej took place six months ago, but the methods the
Islamists used so effectively in northern Syria helped set the stage for
their blitzkrieg in Mosul, Tikrit and other key Iraqi cities this week.
Detailed descriptions from Sheikh Hassan and his men, along with several
other rebels who have been fighting the jihadists for the last six
months, paint an unsettling portrait of the formidable jihadist movement.
The group is a magnet for militants from around the world. On videos,
Twitter and other media, the group showcases fighters from Chechnya,
Germany, Britain and the United States.
Its members are better paid, better trained and better armed even than
the national armies of Syria and Iraq, Sheikh Hassan said.
Many of the recruits are drawn by its extreme ideology. But others are
lured by the high salaries as well as the group’s ability to consolidate
power, according to former members, civilians who have lived under its
rule in northern Syria and moderate rebels.
Other rebel groups often squabble with one another while fighting the
government. But the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has stayed cohesive
while avoiding clashes with the military of Mr. Assad, who seems content
to give the group a wide berth while destroying less fundamentalist
In areas that fall under their control, the jihadists work carefully to
entrench their rule. They have attracted the most attention with their
draconian enforcement of a fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic
Shariah law, including the execution of Christians and Muslims deemed
kufar, or infidels.
On a recent Sunday, a steady trickle of civilian refugees from Minbej
walked across the border to Turkey. “Thank God we’re free,” said a
teenage boy named Ahmed, who had escaped with his family. He was
relishing a cigarette, the first he had openly smoked in six months. But
he refused to give his family name, because “I.S.I.S. watches everything.”
But the group is not only following a stone-age script. It rapidly
establishes control of local resources and uses them to extend and
strengthen its grip.
It has taken over oil fields in eastern Syria, for example, and
according to several rebel commanders and aid workers, has resumed
pumping. It has also secured revenue by selling electricity to the
government from captured power plants. In Iraq on Wednesday, the
militants seized control of Baiji, the site of Iraq’s largest oil
refinery and power plant.
In Minbej, the jihadists initially left bakeries and humanitarian aid
groups alone, taking over their operations once they had established
military control of the city. The group takes a cut of all humanitarian
aid and commerce that passes through areas under its control.
One of the first militia leaders to resist the Islamic State of Iraq and
Syria, Abu Towfik from the Nouredin Zinky Brigade, said that its
sophisticated tactics made its fighters hard to dislodge. Since last
year, the militant group has fought with tanks captured from the Iraqi
Given that tenacity, Abu Towfik said, they will be hard to drive out of
the territory they now occupy in northern Syria and Iraq. “I am afraid
as time goes on they will spread their extreme ideology and we’ll have a
regional war,” he added.
At a meeting of rebel commanders at a Gaziantep Hotel cafe, Abou Sfouk,
head of the rebel Free Syrian Army’s Palestine Brigade, brought a prized
captive: a former jihadist named Mustafa.
At the beginning of the uprising, Mustafa had fought with Abou Sfouk’s
brigade, but he joined the Islamist group in early 2013, when it entered
Syria from Iraq, because it offered to triple his salary, starting him
at $400 a month.
“Wherever we took territory, we would declare people apostates and
confiscate their property,” Mustafa said. “We took cars and money from
Christians, and from Muslims we didn’t like.”
Mustafa, a trained bulldozer mechanic, became the “emir of the motor
pool.” But he eventually came under suspicion when it became known that
he had once served under the kufar, or infidel, rebel army.
After a summary trial before one of the group’s Islamic courts, Mustafa
was sentenced to death. A friend helped him escape, and he sought
protection with his old brigade commander.
“I would never trust him again,” said his old commander, Abou Sfouk.
“But he has useful military information.”
The defector has revealed the locations of Islamist prisons and the
identities of the group’s commanders. Many of the top leaders and
front-line soldiers come from abroad, but more than half of the
membership is made up of Syrian and Iraqi tribesmen, people well known
to their relatives and former neighbors now fighting against them.
“We are moderate Muslims,” Sheikh Hassan said. “We will fight anyone who
covers themselves in Islam and tries to talk in the name of our religion.”
A graduate of Koranic studies from Damascus University, Sheikh Hassan
considers his own credentials impeccable. He learned to fight as a
foreign volunteer with Iraqi resistance fighters attacking American
soldiers a decade ago.
Now, he said, he is desperate for more American help as he wages a war
against jihadists with whom he once shared a struggle. “There is a hole
between us,” he said with a shrug. “We will have to kill them. But we’re
humane. We won’t cut their throats; we will shoot them.”
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