[Marxism] With Mideast in Crisis, Militant Force Gains Strength

Louis Proyect 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 
jihadist group.

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 
rebel groups.

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 
military.

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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