Wednesday's New York Times reported in its lead article on the Saudi government's commitment to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and his patron, Iran, but focused on the scruples of a Saudi Salafist and said nothing about how the Saudi government is organizing its support of rebels.[1]  --  In December, the London Telegraph reported Saudi Arabia had concluded that U.S. Mideast was jeopardizing the region's stability and had resolved to "independently arm Syria rebels."[2]  --  Jihadists' prominence in the Syrian revolt led Western governments to back off from a commitment to overthrow Bashar al-Assad, which was a "betrayal" in Saudi eyes, Damien McElroy said.  --  The Saudis felt that the Nov. 24, 2013, agreement between Iran and the P5+1 countries had been negotiated behind their back.  --  An advisor to the Saudi ambassador in London said:  --  "We were lied to, things were hidden from us.  --  The problem is not with the deal struck in Geneva, but how it was done."  --  However, according an analysis posted on Tuesday by the Beirut-based al-Monitor, a U.S.-Saudi decision was made in December "to get rid of the ISIS burden and rehabilitate the Islamic Front as a final substitute for the Free Syrian Army (FSA)."[3]  --  In essence, according to this analysis by Mohammed Ballout, the U.S. has come to terms with its longtime Saudi allies and decided to support a kind of jihadism that "doesn’t threaten U.S. regional interests and is limited to the U.S. need to strike Syria."  --  ISIS, it should be noted, still has military strengths of its own:  "It still controls the main supply routes in Syria’s east, from Raqqa and Deir al-Zour, to Anbar in Iraq, where ISIS has significant posts and an army of foreign and Arabs fighters coming from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and North Africa."  --  But the enormous resources at the disposal of the U.S. and Saudi Arabia help account for its desperate behavior of late.  --  "The outcome of the battle in Anbar will determine the outcome of the battles in north Syria, and vice versa."  --  "More importantly, ISIS is threatening to bring down the temple on everyone’s head" by "withdraw[ing] from its fronts."  --  This threat, and other tactical disputes linked to theological points, "prevent a direct defeat of ISIS."  --  The fine point [which we have not yet seen discussed anywhere in U.S. mainstream media] is the U.S.'s stance toward Jabhat al-Nusra.    --  "So far, Jabhat al-Nusra is 'dissociating' itself from the conflict going on between the 'jihadist' brothers."  --  Al-Nusra may "split between ISIS and the Islamic Front."  --  "The rift appeared in the implicit call by Jabhat al-Nusra Islamic jurists, such as Sultan bin Isa al-Atawi and Abu Hassan al-Kuwaiti, to support the attack against ISIS, because 'whoever lit the fire should be the one to put it out.'  --  "In contrast, an ISIS emir named Abu Sami al-Waili said that he has received messages from a senior official informing him that Jabhat al-Nusra stands with ISIS because the latter has been attacked."  --  Many inside al-Nusra "think that their role will come as soon as ISIS is defeated." ...

Middle East


By Robert F. Worth

New York Times

January 8, 2014 (posted Jan. 7)

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia --
On his eighth trip to fight with the rebels in Syria, in August, Abu Khattab saw something that troubled him:  two dead children, their blood-soaked bodies sprawled on the street of a rural village near the Mediterranean coast. He knew right away that his fellow rebels had killed them.

Abu Khattab, a 43-year-old Saudi hospital administrator who was pursuing jihad on his holiday breaks, went to demand answers from his local commander, a notoriously brutal man named Abu Ayman al-Iraqi.  The commander brushed him off, saying his men had killed the children “because they were not Muslims,” Abu Khattab recalled recently during an interview here.

It was only then that Abu Khattab began to believe that the jihad in Syria -- where he had traveled in violation of an official Saudi ban -- was not fully in accord with God’s will.  But by the time he returned to Riyadh, where he now volunteers in a program to discourage others from going, his government had overcome its own scruples to become the main backer of the Syrian rebels, including many hard-line Islamists who often fight alongside militants loyal to Al Qaeda.

The disillusionment of Abu Khattab -- who asked that his full name be withheld because he still fears retribution from jihadists -- helps illustrate the great challenge now facing Saudi Arabia’s rulers:  how to fight an increasingly bloody and chaotic proxy war in Syria using zealot militia fighters over whom they have almost no control.

The Saudis fear the rise of Al Qaeda’s affiliates in Syria, and they have not forgotten what happened when Saudi militants who had fought in Afghanistan returned home to wage a domestic insurgency a decade ago.  They officially prohibit their citizens from going to Syria for jihad, but the ban is not enforced; at least a thousand have gone, according to Interior Ministry officials, including some from prominent families.

But the Saudis are also bent on ousting Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, and his patron, Iran, which they see as a mortal enemy.  Their only real means of fighting them is through military and financial support to the Syrian rebels.  And the most effective of those rebels are Islamists whose creed -- rooted in the puritanical strain of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia -- is often scarcely separable from Al Qaeda’s.

Abu Khattab, a slight-figured man with bulging eyes and the scraggly beard of an ultra-orthodox Salafist Muslim, embodies some of these paradoxes.  He now volunteers here once a week to warn young men about the false glamour of the Syrian jihad at the government’s rehabilitation center for jihadists.  “There is a shortage of religious conditions for jihad in Syria,” he said.  Many of the fighters kill Syrian civilians, a violation of Islam, he added.

But as Abu Khattab talked about Syria, his own convictions seemed scarcely different from those of the jihadists he had carefully denounced (two officials from the Interior Ministry were present during the interview).  He made clear that he considered Shiite Muslims and Mr. Assad’s Alawite sect to be infidels and a terrible danger to his own people.

“If the Shiites succeed in controlling Syria, it will be a threat to my country,” Abu Khattab said.  “I went to Syria to protect my country.”

At times, his sectarian feelings seemed to outshine his unease about the excesses of some of his more extreme comrades.  He did not deny that he had often fought alongside members of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, the brutal jihadist group affiliated with Al Qaeda.

Abu Khattab also mentioned proudly that he is no stranger to jihad.  He fought as a teenager in Afghanistan (“With the government’s permission!”) and, a few years later, in Bosnia.  He chose not to fight the Americans in Iraq “because there are too many Shiites there,” he said, with a look of distaste on his face.

Yet this is a man who lectures inmates at the rehabilitation center every week about ethics and war.  The center, like many Saudi institutions, has been somewhat embarrassed by the contradictions of Saudi policy with regard to Syria.  Although the center incarcerates some men who have been arrested for trying to travel to Syria, last summer the nephew of Abdelrahman al-Hadlaq, its director, was killed while fighting there.  His mother posted statements on Twitter saying she was proud of him.

More recently, the center suffered an even more stinging disappointment involving one of its best-known graduates, a reformed jihadist named Ahmed al-Shayea.  He became famous in Saudi Arabia after surviving his own suicide bombing in Iraq in 2004, a bombing arranged by militants with Al Qaeda’s Iraqi branch.

Mr. Shayea was burned and disfigured, but after months in a hospital he emerged and proclaimed himself cured of the jihadist mind-set.  He was known as the “living suicide,” and in 2009 an American author, Ken Ballen, devoted an entire chapter to a glowing portrait of him in his book, Terrorists in Love.

In November, Mr. Shayea slipped out of Saudi Arabia to Syria, where he is now fighting with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.  He proudly trumpets his return to jihad on his Twitter feed, which features a picture of him clutching a rifle with his mangled hands.

The Saudi authorities say they have urged their citizens not to go to Syria, but cannot keep track of every Saudi who wants to go fight there.  “We try to prevent it, but there are limits to what we can do,” said Mansour al-Turki, a spokesman for the Saudi Interior Ministry.  “You cannot prevent all young men from leaving the kingdom.  Many of them travel to London or other places, and only then to Turkey, and Syria.”

Abu Khattab’s path to Syria was similar to that of many others here and across the Arab world.  He read about the uprisings in 2011, but it was Syria that touched his heart.  It was not just because of the bloodshed, he said, but because his Sunni brothers were being killed by Alawites and Shiites.

When he first went, in the summer of 2012, he flew directly from Riyadh to the Turkish city of Antakya, near the Syrian border, he said.  There were other Saudi men heading for the battlefield on the flight with him, he said, and no sign of a Saudi government effort to monitor or restrain them.

In Turkey, he found many other foreign fighters, and Syrian rebels who were eager to take them to the battlefield.  “They especially like Saudis, because the Saudis are more willing to do suicide operations,” he said.

Over the next year, Abu Khattab said, he returned to Syria seven more times, usually on holidays, leaving his wife to care for their four children and staying for ten days to two weeks each time.  He fought with a variety of groups, seeing battle many times -- in Aleppo, in Homs, and in the countryside of Latakia, near the coast.  He wielded a Kalashnikov rifle most of the time, but sometimes a heavier Russian-made machine gun known in the field as a 14.5.

Gradually he became disillusioned with the chaos of the battle.  He often found himself among men who openly branded the rulers of Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states as infidels, deserving slaughter.  He said this bothered him, but it did not stop him from returning to the battlefield.

In the end, it was the slaughter of innocents that made him decide to quit, he said, and a broader feeling that the rebels alongside him were not doing it for the right reasons.  “If the fight is not purely to God, it’s not a real jihad,” he said.  “These people are fighting for their flags.”

But there was another reason he gave up the fight.

“Bashar has started to put Sunnis on the front line,” he said of Syria’s leader.  “This is a big problem.  The rebels do not want to fight them.  The real war is not against Bashar himself, it is against Iran.  Everything else is just a false image.”



World news

Middle East

Saudia Arabia


By Damien McElroy

** Saudi Arabia's ambassador to London has claimed the country is determined to independently arm Syria rebels after rejecting the diplomatic tactics of its Western allies **

Telegraph (London)
December 18, 2013

Saudi Arabia has warned it has been forced to go its own way in foreign policy as its Western allies seek diplomatic solutions to the war in Syria and crisis with Iran.

Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to London said U.S.-led diplomacy in the region was risking the stability of the Middle East.

Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz al-Saud said his country is determined to independently arm Syria rebels and could not stand idly by while thousands of children were being killed by Syria’s regime.

Despite almost a century of friendly ties with countries such as Britain and America, the oil rich monarchy can no longer follow its allies as they pursue diplomacy with its Middle Eastern enemies.

“We believe that many of the West’s policies on both Iran and Syria risk the stability and security of the Middle East,” he wrote in the *New York Times*.  “The West has allowed one regime to survive and the other to continue its program for uranium enrichment, with all the consequent dangers of weaponization.”

The comments come as Syria opposition officials report that Western diplomats have privately said that next month’s peace talks may not lead to the removal of President Bashar al-Assad from power.  At a summit of opposition backers in London last week, the opposition was told that the transistional arrangements must preserve key parts of the current regime.

“Our Western friends made it clear in London that Assad cannot be allowed to go now because they think chaos and an Islamist militant takeover would ensue,” said one senior member of the opposition said.

High level warnings from Saudi royals over the West’s betrayal of previously shared foreign policy goals have also included demands for the Gulf countries to have a seat at negotiations with Iran over its nuclear programme.

Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former head of Saudi intelligence, said Riyadh felt the U.S. and its allies had worked behind its back to achieve a diplomatic accord with Iran.

“It is important for us to sit down at the same table,” he said.  “We have been absent.”

Prince Turki added that the U.S. had “given the impression” it would take actions against Syria but had subsequently not delivered.

Saudi Arabia still expects its allies to challenge the two regimes over the bloodshed in Syria but is finding that West is refused to take action, Prince Mohammad added.  As a result Saudi Arabia would take its own approach to the conflict, and orchestrate its own financial and miltary strategy of support to the Syrian rebels.

“To do otherwise is to walk on by, while a humanitarian disaster and strategic failure continue to fester,” Prince Mohammad wrote.

Julian Barnes-Dacey, a Syria expert at the European Council for Foreign Relations, said the Saudi leadership viewed support for the Syrian rebels and overthrow of the Iranian-aligned Syrian regime as vital for its own security.  “There is broad consensus on the need to push hard on Syria because they don’t want the Iranians to gain the upper hand,” he said.  “Saudi Arabia is upping its game to help the rebels on the ground.  This is not just empty talk but is an appeal to the West to stand alongside them as they look to change the end game.”

Nawaf Obaid, an advisor to Prince Mohammad, accused America of dishonesty late last month as Riyadh reacted furiously in the wake of the Geneva agreement with Iran to negotiate over nuclear weapons.  “We were lied to, things were hidden from us,” he said. “The problem is not with the deal struck in Geneva, but how it was done.” Mr Obaid said the country was adopting a new “defence doctrine” that to pursue its foreign policy goals.

“Our strategic posture is moving from reactive to proactive, we have a new defence policy,” he said.

The American rush to embrace détente with Tehran resulted in a landmark interim deal last month that put the country’s nuclear program on hold in return for some easing of sanctions.

Mohammad Javid, Iran’s foreign minister, has said the new diplomatic opening raise the prospect that the 30-year breach in diplomatic relations with Washington could be healed by talks.

The nervous Gulf states have warned that Iran remains a destructive force in the Middle East and will use a thaw as cover for its support for terrorist groups and militias across the region.



By Mohammed Ballout

Al-Monitor (Beirut)
January 5, 2014

The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) is the victim of a U.S.-Saudi decision to get rid of the ISIS burden and rehabilitate the Islamic Front as a final substitute for the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

In the last few hours, ISIS lost control of more areas in northern Syria.  For the third day in a row, the military operations against ISIS are being conducted by an alliance that includes the Islamic Front and the Syrian Revolutionaries Front (SRF), which are respectively led by Saudi Arabia’s two men in Syria:  Zahran Alloush and Jamal Maarouf.

ISIS fighters retreated in front of a coordinated attack by the Islamic Front on ISIS sites in the strategic towns of Atma and Dana in Idlib.  ISIS abandoned its positions in Sarmada near the Turkish border.  Islamic Front fighters ejected ISIS from the vital Bab al-Hawa border crossing, through which convoys of foreign fighters and weapons supplies from the West and Saudi Arabia pass.  ISIS also gave up its positions around the crossing.

The Americans seem to have succeeded in igniting a major front among the jihadists in Syria.  The Americans chose to stand by those advocating “jihad only in Syria” and against the regional and global jihadist trend represented by ISIS.

The offensives by the Islamic Front and SRF on ISIS positions in northern Syria coincided with the counteroffensive launched by the Iraqi army and rebel tribes in Iraq against ISIS and with U.S. support, which is clearer in Iraq than in Syria.  U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in Jerusalem, before going to Riyadh where he met Saudi King Abdullah [bin Abdulaziz Al Saud] and Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, that “this battle is too big for Iraq to be left alone.  The fighting in Syria is part of what’s causing instability in the region.  This is the battle in the end.  They have to achieve victory in it.”

In a joint news conference with Faisal, Kerry said, “[During the meeting], we discussed Syria, the Geneva II meeting.  We discussed Iran and our common interests in seeing Lebanon be able to be stable and unimpeded by the interference of Hezbollah . . .”

Kerry will be meeting with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov on Jan. 13 in Paris.  Kerry said that Iran could perform a “role” in the Geneva II conference but only from the sidelines.  He insisted that Iran will not be a full participant in the international conference, which will open in Montreux, Switzerland, on Jan. 22.

The statement by the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad last week was interesting.  For the first time, the U.S. State Department called on the countries neighboring Iraq and Syria to not allow the passage of weapons and fighters through their territory.

The U.S.-Saudi plan aimed at replacing the FSA with the Islamic Front started a few weeks ago with attempts by U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford in Antakya, through meetings with Ahrar al-Sham, Suqour al-Sham and Liwa’ al-Tawhid Brigades, and the most prominent leaders of the Islamic Front, to persuade them to return to the FSA General Staff, whose headquarters and weapons stores near Bab al-Hawa they seized, and to join the political process in Geneva.

Saudi intelligence oversaw a meeting in Mecca last December attended by Salafist preachers Mohammad al-Arifi, Saad al-Barik, Saad al-Muhaimad, and Nasser al-Omar.  Those four are known to have supported Sahwa’s fight against al-Qaeda in Iraq.  No anti-ISIS religious edicts were issued in the Mecca meeting.  But, according to experts on Syrian jihadism, the group worked to create the atmosphere to fight ISIS.

The Syrian National Coalition, which re-elected Ahmed Jarba as its president for six months, provided significant political support for the ongoing military operation and accused ISIS of being an ally and a product of the Syrian regime.

If the military operation by the Islamic Front succeeds, the Americans would have been able to weaken the global jihadist wing in Syria before the Geneva II conference and portray those fighting the global jihadists as a party that is acceptable in the political process.

The Americans would also be able to continue exhausting Damascus and its allies through a force that is better organized than the FSA and with a more ideologically homogeneous discourse, whose “jihadism” doesn’t threaten U.S. regional interests and is limited to the U.S. need to strike Syria.

Despite that, it is not certain that the jihadist-Salafist allies, represented by the Islamic Front and SRF, would be able to quickly defeat ISIS, first and foremost for military reasons.

Despite ISIS losing important regions in north Syria.  It still controls the main supply routes in Syria’s east, from Raqqa and Deir al-Zour, to Anbar in Iraq, where ISIS has significant posts and an army of foreign and Arabs fighters coming from Saudi Arabia, Jordan and North Africa.

The outcome of the battle in Anbar will determine the outcome of the battles in north Syria, and vice versa. Militarily, ISIS is building a strategy that tries to avoid confrontations in the areas where ISIS cannot fight.  ISIS withdrew from its besieged positions around Aleppo and handed them to Jabhat al-Nusra. Instead of a direct confrontation, ISIS sent six car bombs yesterday [Jan. 5], killing dozens of people in Haritan and the Aleppo countryside.

ISIS launched a war of ambushes in the town of Magharat al-Artiq, killing four enemy fighters and 10 others near Tal Rifaat.  ISIS also executed five fighters in Haram and assassinated Ammar Laila, a main leaders of Liwa’ al-Tawhid in the northern Aleppo countryside, in response to Tawhid killing Assem al-Masri (Abu Hafs), one of the most important ISIS military leaders.  ISIS regrouped its fighters in Aleppo and can still send fighters and reinforcements, and conduct operations in the region.

More importantly, ISIS is threatening to bring down the temple on everyone’s head. The situation in Aleppo and its countryside may turn in the interest of the Syrian army if the Islamic Front maintains its attack.  ISIS has threatened to withdraw from its fronts in Aleppo in al-Sheikh Saeed, Afrin, Magharat al-Artiq, Nabbal, al-Zahra and Khan Toman.

There are other reasons preventing a direct defeat of ISIS.  They are related to the complexities of “jihad” in Syria.  The presence of more than 10,000 Arabs and foreign “immigrant” jihadists in both the Islamic Front in ISIS is preventing the fight between them to go all the way to the end.

The factions inside the Islamic Front are unable to agree on decisiveness against ISIS because the leader of Ahrar al-Sham Abu Abdullah al-Hamwi decreed the killing of anyone who assaults any “immigrant” woman, after the Syria Martyrs Brigade captured the families and women of ISIS “immigrants” fighters and killed the emir of Jund al-Aqsa Abu Abdul Aziz al-Qatari.

The harsh rhetoric against targeting the “immigrants” is due to their central role in giving the Syrian “jihad” their best leaders and fighters. Ahrar al-Sham and the Islamic Front arrested fighters for Suqour al-Izz, which especially attracts Saudi “immigrant” fighters and is led by the Saudi man named Saqr al-Izz.  The latter is famous for his hard line in the battles in the Latakia countryside and in his role in massacring Alawite villages.

ISIS has accused its attackers of seeking to kill the “immigrants.”  The Islamic Front responded, “We are fighting those who attacked us and to defend the factions from both supporters and immigrants.”

The fighting between the “jihadists” and the clear Americans support to the National Coalition and the Islamic Front raises the question about America’s position regarding Jabhat al-Nusra and its avoidance so far in the ongoing fighting, noting that Jabhat al-Nusra, not ISIS, is the official al-Qaeda representative, through its leader Ayman al-Zawahri, of the global “jihad” in Syria.

So far, Jabhat al-Nusra is “dissociating” itself from the conflict going on between the “jihadist” brothers.  The group of Abu Mohammed al-Golani (Jabhat al-Nusra's leader) is mediating between the warring parties.  He was handed ISIS’s headquarters and weapons, which strengthens Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, but only if the fighting stops because Golani and Jabhat al-Nusra's Shura Council cannot stay on the fence for very long.  Otherwise, Jabhat al-Nusra may split between ISIS and the Islamic Front.

The rift appeared in the implicit call by Jabhat al-Nusra Islamic jurists, such as Sultan bin Isa al-Atawi and Abu Hassan al-Kuwaiti, to support the attack against ISIS, because “whoever lit the fire should be the one to put it out.”  In contrast, an ISIS emir named Abu Sami al-Waili said that he has received messages from a senior official informing him that Jabhat al-Nusra stands with ISIS because the latter has been attacked.

The question raised by those partial to ISIS is being echoed inside Jabhat al-Nusra.  They think that their role will come as soon as ISIS is defeated.