Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Syria and the extremist rebels/ Hamas' latest terror tunnel

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Update from AIJAC

October 17, 2013
Number 10/13 #05

This edition of Updates from AIJAC focuses on the reality of growing Islamist extremism among Syrian rebels, the reasons this happened and what can be done, if anything, to increase the role of more moderate groups. It also focuses on the implication of the discovery of a new tunnel from Gaza into Israel, apparently designed to facilitate kidnappings or other terror attacks inside Israel.

First up is American political analyst James Traub, who bases his analysis of the state of the rebels from interviews he conducted from Antakya, a major jumping off point for rebels just over the border in Turkey.  He focuses on what he learned about the al-Qaeda rebel group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). While this group is relatively small it is terrorising local populations and reshaping the rebellion to the extent that moderate rebels are becoming, in Traub's terminology, "increasingly chimerical."  He argues that the rise of ISIS has made the Syrian situation "much worse for the rebels, much worse for the West, and much better for the regime" and blames failures of Western policy in part for this reality. For his full survey of the situation, CLICK HERE. Also strongly making the case that the Islamist rebels have become a huge asset for the Assad regime is Nicholas Blanford of the Christian Science Monitor.

Next is Washington Institute Syria specialist Andrew Tabler, who reports on discussions he had with moderate rebel leaders in Turkey about the Islamist extremists increasingly dominating the anti-Assad forces. Based on his discussion with them, he comes up with ten things they recommend the rebels can do better to help contain the extremists. Their ideas include accepting the reality of an Islamist extremism problem, developing a unified counter-strategy, using local elections to create political legitimacy, making the case that extremism helps the regime, and using clerics to discredit the Islamists. For the rest of the recommendations and all the details, CLICK HERE. Some discussion of the motivations and strategy of al-Qaeda in Syria is here.

Finally, this Update offers some detailed analysis of the announcement over the weekend of the discovery of a large tunnel into Israel from Gaza, apparently for purposes of carrying out kidnappings or terror attacks. Yaakov Lappin of the Investigative Project notes that not only has Hamas openly taken credit for building the tunnel, but according to an IDF count, they used over 24,000 concrete slabs to build it that Israel had recently allowed into Gaza as a humanitarian gesture to facilitate the construction of civilian infrastructure. Lappin stresses that the lesson of the discovery of the tunnel is that, despite the current ostensible calm in Israel's south, a cat and mouse game is going on which could see substantive violence resume at any time. For Lappin's discussion in full, CLICK HERE. Additional analysis of the implications of the tunnel comes from noted Israeli military analyst Ron Ben Yishai.

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'Everyone Is Scared of ISIS.'

Can anyone stop the radicalization of Syrian rebels?


BY JAMES TRAUB

Foreign Policy, OCTOBER 4, 2013

I've spent much of the last week in Antakya, an ancient city, known to Byzantine Christians as Antioch, which now serves as a bivouac for Syrian rebel fighters and a jumping-off point for journalists and humanitarian actors working in Syria, which lies 20 miles to the west. One subject preoccupies everyone in the Turkish town: not the brutality of the regime in Damascus, but the nihilistic violence of the foreign jihadi group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).

Firas Tammim, a native of the Syrian city of Latakia who now brings medical supplies and other goods to the region, said to me, "I don't want to say Assad is better, but at least he didn't arrest or kill people because they were smoking." Tammim showed me a picture on his phone of a crowd of villagers, including children, witnessing an ISIS beheading of an alleged infidel. "Think what this does to these children," he said. Over time, Tammim said, Syrians are becoming inured to what they once would have found unspeakable.

ISIS appears to have up to 8,000 soldiers in Syria, a tiny number compared with the 100,000 or so rebel fighters. But the group's medieval ideology, as well as its pathological obsession with enforcing Islamist rectitude in the towns and cities its soldiers have infiltrated, has made it a source of terror. One evening I was sitting at an outdoor cafe where a grizzled man was steadily smoking a hookah and shooting jets of tobacco smoke through his nostrils. He called himself Abu Abdul, and he was a fighter with a brigade affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the "moderate" forces backed by the West. We talked about the jihadists. Then he said something else. "He asks that you not mention the name of his brigade," my interpreter said. "Everyone is scared of ISIS."

President Bashar al-Assad has received two enormous gifts in recent months. The first is the Russian-brokered deal to remove Syria's chemical weapons, which distracted attention from his relentless campaign to kill and terrorize his enemies and also compelled Western governments to work with him as the country's legitimate ruler. The second is ISIS, which has also deflected attention away from the war between the regime and the rebels and has vindicated as nothing else could Assad's persistent claim that he is confronting, not political opponents, but "terrorists," as his foreign minister, Walid al-Muallem, recently claimed at the United Nations.

For this reason, it has become a fixed conviction in Antakya that ISIS functions as a secret arm of the regime. This sounds like an all-too-understandable conspiracy theory, yet even Western diplomats I've spoken to consider it plausible, if scarcely proved. In the summer of 2012, Assad released from prison a number of jihadists who had fought with al Qaeda in Iraq and who are thought to have helped formed ISIS. Reporters, activists, and fighters also note that while regime artillery has flattened the FSA's headquarters in Aleppo, the ISIS camp next door was left untouched until the jihadi group left; the same is true in the fiercely contested eastern city of Raqqa. ISIS, for its part, has done very little to liberate regime-held areas, but has seized control of both Raqqa and the border town of Azaz from FSA forces.

Maybe it is just a conspiracy theory. Aaron Zelin, a Syria analyst who closely follows the dynamic among rebel groups, dismisses the idea as "partly wish-fulfillment and partly delusion." But there's no mistaking the hydraulic effect of ISIS's brand of uncompromising Islam. I spoke to a group of wounded fighters recovering in a clinic in the Turkish town of Reyhanli, a few miles from the border with Syria. One of them, who called himself Abu Abbas, had gone to al-Baath University in Homs with my interpreter, Rifaie Tammas. He had been pursuing a master's degree in English literature. He shocked Rifaie by defending ISIS and claiming that the group is fighting the moderates because they are American stooges. The only answer for Syria, said Abu Abbas, is the rule of sharia.

The growing Islamization of the rebellion has something to do with ISIS, though a good deal more to do with the rebels' growing sense of embitterment at their abandonment by the West and by exile groups who squabble among themselves in the comfort of Turkish or Egyptian hotels. The Islamists - not just ISIS - say, "We have no one to turn to but God," and young men like Abu Abbas have little reason to think otherwise.

The moderate rebels have become increasingly chimerical. On Sept. 24, 13 fighting groups -- including the al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, Salafi brigades, and some more mainline elements -- issued a joint declaration in which they pledged to operate within an "Islamic framework" based on "the rule of sharia and making it the sole source of legislation." At the same time, the groups cut all ties with the Syrian National Council (SNC), the exile group that has received Western support. The pledge looked less like a gesture of solidarity than of despair.

It could have been otherwise. U.S. President Barack Obama could have bolstered moderate forces if he had supplied the rebels with weapons more than a year ago, as he was urged to do by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others. By refusing to do so, he discredited the SNC, alienated fighting units, and created a vacuum that ISIS has increasingly filled. Now, thanks in no small part to that failure, Obama has far stronger grounds to withhold U.S. military assistance than he had before. The president is not going to put much stock in a rebellion that puts so little stock in Western values.

What's more, the fear that advanced weapons might fall into the hands of extremists, arguably overblown 18 months ago, is now impossible to discount. The fighters and activists I spoke to insist that the only way they can take on ISIS, as well as the regime, is with a steady supply of weapons and ammunition. They're right, but they won't win that argument in Washington. And the consequences of a hypothetical military victory look more and more dangerous. Imad Dahro, a former general in the national police who defected last year, assured me, as many people did, that the regime would collapse in the face of a sustained American missile strike. "Then what?" I asked. Wouldn't the myriad rebel groups in the north then turn on each other? He reflected for a moment, and said, "Maybe."

The rise of ISIS, in short, has made the situation much worse for the rebels, much worse for the West, and much better for the regime. I heard any number of Syrians calling for nonradical brigades, with a core of Free Syrian Army groups, to join forces against ISIS. Only then, the argument runs, can they make a concerted effort to wage the war against the real enemy -- the regime. What is certainly true is that the rebels will not get major help from the West unless and until they reverse the process of Islamization, though select brigades will continue to receive arms and ammunition from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and others.

But radicalization is likely to increase, not diminish. Foreign extremists will keep streaming into Syria (a recent Der Spiegel article estimated the jihadi population of Atmeh, a Syrian town just across the border from Reyhanli, at 1,000). Assad will continue to exploit the focus on chemical weapons to commit atrocities against Syrian civilians. The rebels will keep absorbing and inflicting losses. And the endless torrent of refugees will further destabilize Lebanon and Jordan.

Obama has never tried to make the argument that America's national interests lie in preventing such a debacle, through military as well as diplomatic means. And now, perhaps, it's too late.

James Traub is a fellow of the Center on International Cooperation. "Terms of Engagement," his column for ForeignPolicy.com, runs weekly. 

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Ten Ways the Syrian Opposition Can Help Fight Extremism

Andrew J. Tabler

PolicyWatch 2154, October 11, 2013

Amid international efforts to rid Syria of chemical weapons, opposition leaders are offering advice about how to prevent extremist groups from gaining a permanent foothold.

Reports are growing of a sharp increase in the number of extremist groups operating in rebel-dominated areas of Syria. This has raised eyebrows in Washington, where policymakers continue to grapple with the question of how to support the opposition without inadvertently helping jihadists expand their destabilizing impact across the Middle East. These concerns are growing among Syria's neighbors as well.

During a recent visit to Syrian border regions from southern Turkey, I spoke with armed and civilian opposition leaders about the extent to which extremist groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) have penetrated their ranks. I also asked them what kinds of measures the opposition should take to prevent these groups from gaining a permanent foothold or exploiting the current crisis over the regime's use of chemical weapons (e.g., by disrupting international efforts to destroy those weapons). As enumerated below, their answers indicate that mainstream rebels have a number of options for reining in extremism while bolstering the overall effort to force Bashar al-Assad's departure. And many of these options offer good opportunities for U.S. engagement.

  1. Accept the extremist problem. Unlike in the past, opposition leaders now recognize that extremism is a growing problem in "liberated areas" under their control. Their main beef with groups such as ISIS and JN lies in their increasingly foreign nature and their methods of governance and operation; the only reason the rebels tolerate these factions is that they are effective fighters. At the same time, opposition leaders point out that the majority of rebels are not al-Qaeda, and that JN is more nationalist in orientation than ISIS. Yet the groups are better viewed as two heads of the same threat.
  2. Develop a national political and military strategy. Both civilians and armed groups are adamant that they need to formulate a political and military strategy to deal with the growing extremist threat. Planning has been the Achilles' heel of the opposition (and the Assad regime) for decades, but the rise in extremism has convinced many rebels that ISIS and similar groups are a foreign threat that does not have the Syrian people's best interests at heart. The extremists counter that ISIS and JN are the country's best option given the West's recent decision not to follow through on threats to punish the regime militarily for using chemical weapons. Thus, if mainstream opposition groups want to maintain the uprising's nationalist bent, they should develop a coherent national plan for containing extremism among their ranks and drawing clearer lines between themselves and the jihadists. In return, the United States and its allies would be much more willing to fund the rebellion.
  3. Don't join multiple groups. The Syrian opposition historically sees no conflict of interest in joining multiple alliances at the same time. On September 24, for example, a number of groups whose leaders are in or linked to the Western-backed Supreme Military Council (SMC) announced the formation of an "Islamic coalition," atop which is al-Qaeda affiliate JN, which aims to establish an Islamic state in Syria based on sharia. Opposition members' tendency to join multiple alliances at once may perhaps be seen as a way to keep options open with an array of patrons, but it also reinforces the view that the Syrian opposition has no foundation and is therefore not worth investing in. All the same, if these groups adopt principled stances, the United States and its allies could be in a position to back them.
  4. Go local, hold elections. Many, if not most, oppositionists openly admit that their desperate situation makes them ripe for manipulation by outside patrons with agendas too extreme for most Syrians. These patrons take advantage of ego-related and ideological rivalries among opposition members, creating a cycle that only leads to more fragmentation and subnational agendas. To counter this trend, opposition leaders should accept the criticism by actual fighters who argue that local leaders should have much more authority. To avoid manipulation in the choosing of local leadership, opposition members should emphasize the relative success of elections in selected areas of Syria as a mechanism for establishing authoritative leadership structures. These votes would be held in Syrian nahawi (districts equivalent to townships), manatiq (areas equivalent to counties), and muhafazat (governorates equivalent to states). Such a step would help solidify Syrian regional and national identities, making opposition members less susceptible to foreign patronage.
  5. Start by peeling off extremists. Given the relative strength of extremist groups in Syria today, clashing with them openly only strengthens Assad's hand. So while nationalist/nonextremist groups should always defend themselves in the face of aggression by extremists, the former probably should wait before going on the offensive. Instead, opposition members should develop plans to peel off members of extremist groups with incentives, such as financial and other support. Many civilian oppositionists believe that dialogue programs between members of nationalist or moderate Islamist battalions and Salafist groups further right on the spectrum will help peel away members and undermine the overall support of extremists. This approach to undermining extremists, of course, would require progress on item two of this list: the development of a national military and political strategy. Still, for international donors, such a program would likely be much more attractive than first providing weapons. And increased support in other forms -- including weapons -- could follow from the United States and other Western countries.
  6. Emphasize that extremists only benefit the regime. The opposition uses cui bono arguments to assess who benefits from the fighting and who actually supports extremist groups. Many in the opposition thus believe that ISIS is actually supported by the Assad regime. In a strategic sense, ISIS actions to capture areas such as Azaz play into the regime's hands. The opposition should emphasize the cumulative negative effect of ISIS and other extremist groups on both the opposition's effectiveness and its efforts to gather support from abroad.
  7. Use clerics to undermine extremists' religious authority. Many extremist and al-Qaeda-linked groups follow equally extremist clerics who are not widely followed inside Syria. As such, the mainline opposition should work with well-known national clerics to undermine those followed by al-Qaeda and other extremists, as part of an overall effort to control the religious message within the opposition.
  8. Take a hard look at the SMC. At present, the SMC encompasses both nationalist and Islamist brigades, with their ideological orientations often much more divergent than the range within Salafist and jihadist/extremist brigades on the far right. Therefore, opposition leaders need to look closely at the SMC, with the goal of identifying which groups remain aligned with the national agenda and which have lurched toward the extremists.
  9. Think through the assassinations dilemma. Some opposition leaders maintain that extremist groups can be so ideological that only dramatic steps, such as assassinations, will work to displace them from Syrian and nearby territory. While assassinations may be necessary in some cases, they can end up strengthening the hand of extremists if used at the wrong time.
  10. Accept that chemical weapons make the situation much worse. One might conclude that the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons against civilians could justify their seizure by opposition groups and use at key times against the regime and its supporters. A number of extremist groups operating in Syria even claim chemical weapons use is justifiable as an act of revenge. But the reality is that pursuing chemical weapons stockpiles will only make the opposition's long-term trajectory that much more difficult, ultimately strengthening the regime's hand and possibly drawing punitive measures from the international community. Enhancement of conventional weapons capabilities represents a much more productive approach for the opposition.

While implementing these measures will take time, starting now will help the Syrian opposition maintain its national character and create an environment conducive to containing the influence of extremist groups. Drawing clear lines between al-Qaeda affiliates and the mainline nationalist opposition will also make the latter much more attractive to the international community if and when a military or political settlement to the crisis emerges. Perhaps most urgent, however, is the need to remove the Syrian chemical weapons stockpile from the scene. This will help avoid the killing of more Syrians and prevent the conflict from widening any further than it already has.

Andrew J. Tabler is a senior fellow at The Washington Institute and author of In the Lion's Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington's Battle with Syria.

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Hamas Tunneling Its Way to Future Clash With Israel

by Yaakov Lappin

IPT News, October 15, 2013

On the face of it, Israel's southern border with Gaza looks calm. But under the surface, signs are growing that Hamas is thinking ahead to when the current ceasefire will end, and is investing heavily in preparations for serious cross-border terror attacks on Israeli civilians and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

The clearest indication that Hamas's feverish terrorism industry is ticking along at full pace, despite the truce in place since November 2012, came this week, when the IDF announced that an attack tunnel stretching from Khan Younis, in southern Gaza, to Israel's Eshkol region had been uncovered.

On Sunday, military reporters were invited to inspect the tunnel; it immediately became apparent that the subterranean structure was anything but ordinary.

Over a mile long and 65 feet deep, the tunnel's size is astounding. Its height – six feet – allows most adults to walk upright comfortably along it. Along the walls, we saw electric cables and phone lines, as well as over 24,000 concrete slabs (by the IDF's count) that Israel had allowed into Gaza with the intention of assisting the civilian construction sector there.

Hamas's cynical diversion of the materials, meant for the civilian economy, to its terror infrastructure led Southern Command chief Maj.-Gen. Sami Turgeman to cancel the transfer of further concrete to Gaza this week.

The tunnel splits into two branches, with one heading directly for an IDF border position and the second branch dug in the direction of the Israeli villages of Kissufim and Ein Hashlosha.

Hamas may have been planning a simultaneous attack, with one terrorist cell targeting IDF soldiers for death or capture (in order to extort Israel to release additional Palestinian security prisoners), and a second cell moving across the tunnel towards a civilian community to carry out an atrocity.

The military's assessment is that Hamas wasn't about to use the tunnel now, but rather, that it is preparing its operations for when the next round of violence breaks out.

Millions of dollars went into constructing the tunnel, one of three major tunnels found by the IDF this year alone.

"Instead of investing in schools, or civilian industry and employment, Hamas invests in terror," Turgeman pointed out. But he didn't come to the tunnel merely to chastise the Gazan regime. The southern commander also had a warning.

The tunnel, he said, "constitutes a gross violation of Israeli territory. If Hamas carries out a terrorism attack, it will pay a heavy prize, and Gaza will look different afterwards."

Turgeman's warning is aimed at maintaining Israeli deterrence. The caution is backed up by Israel's unprecedented fire power and intelligence capabilities, which, if directed at Hamas, would threaten its ability to maintain power in the Gaza Strip.

During Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012, the Israel Air Force struck 1,500 terror targets in Gaza. If needed, the IAF can strike the same number of targets in a single day with precision guided missiles.

Furthermore, the IDF might be ordered to carry out a ground offensive.

For the time being, the IDF has set up specialized surveillance units that operate covertly along the border, alongside heavy armor and infantry patrols, and advanced electronic sensors.

Hamas's strategic isolation is at an all-time high due to the Egyptian military coup which ousted from power the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas leaders had planned to join forces with their Egyptian brethren and eventually form a united front of radical, armed Islamists along Israel's southern borders. Now, those aspirations are in ruins.

Even if Hamas manages to return to the arms of its old sponsor, Iran, the weapons smuggling routes that once ran through Egypt's Sinai Peninsula to Gaza will be far harder to reactivate, due to the new Egyptian administration's firm determination to counter terrorism and arms smuggling in the region.

Nevertheless, Hamas remains a serious foe. It is restocking its rocket arsenal, which consists of thousands of projectiles aimed at the majority of Israeli civilians in its range, while training its gunmen for guerilla warfare and cross-border terrorism, and, as the tunnel exposure indicates, investing heavily in subterranean capabilities so that it can surprise Israel.

Mousa Abu Marzook, the deputy head of the Hamas politburo, took a predictably belligerent position after Israel exposed the tunnel, officially claiming responsibility for it and linking it with kidnapping plots of IDF soldiers to free incarcerated terrorists. He said the tunnel's construction had cost Hamas "much blood, money and effort," and added: "But all of these pale in comparison to our will to free Palestinian prisoners jailed in Israeli prisons."

Hamas also released a statement saying that "our will, entrenched in the hearts and minds of our people, is far more important than a tunnel dug in the ground. Our will can give birth to thousands of additional tunnels."

A day after that statement was made, the IDF blew up another tunnel that was discovered last year, laden with explosives, and dug to target Israeli security forces patrolling the ground above.

For now, Hamas will continue to try and play a cat-and-mouse game with Israel, building up attack capabilities for the day the ceasefire breaks down. But Israel too is preparing for the day hostilities resume, and it plans to utilize its superior military might to crush Hamas should the terror regime in Gaza dare to use its territory to attack Israel again.

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