After suffering one military defeat after another, the Syrian radical opposition, backed by the support of the West and the monarchies of the Persian Gulf, are increasingly retaliating cruelly against the civilian population. The jihadists seize towns and cultural and religious sites which up to that point had remained outside the combat zone, loudly proclaiming their victories.
For example, in response to the advance of the government army into the Qalamoun mountains between Damascus and Homs, where a powerful group of rebels had gathered for a sudden advance on the capital from the north (this group grew from 5,000 men a year ago to 20,000 in November of this year), the jihadists once again rushed into the nearby Christian town of Maaloula.
After vandalizing and desecrating the ancient churches, on December 2 they took 12 nuns from the Orthodox convent of St. Thecla hostage, hiding them in the city of Yabrud, which is held by the rebels. The rebels stated that they would burn the convent and kill the hostages, including the abbess, Mother Pelagia Sayyaf, after which the army retreated.
The Free Qalamoun Brigades, which are part of the Army of Islam (Jeysh al-Islam), took responsibility for these barbarous acts. News agencies reported only an offer to exchange the kidnapped sisters for a thousand female prisoners accused of aiding terrorists, but in fact the rebels demanded that the government forces stop their attack on Yabrud and lift the siege against the rebels in East Ghouta in exchange for the lives of the unfortunate nuns, in other words, encourage their barbarism by handing them the victory.
The Qatari television channel Al-Jazeera broadcast video meant to show that the sisters “are being treated well in captivity” (as if they can be considered prisoners of war!). However, it is clear from the broadcast that the nuns were forced to remove their crosses, which is an insult to the symbol of their faith. At the same time, hundreds of rebels from the groups Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar ash-Sham Al Islami were redeployed from Yabrud to Rankous in an attempt to occupy the nearby Christian city of Saidnaya. During the attack on the city they used grenade launchers, from which they shelled the local churches and convent. In eastern Syria, in the city of Ar-Raqqah, the group called the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) destroyed all Christian symbols in one of the city’s churches and established its headquarters there.
In a conversation with the Antiochian patriarch John X, Syrian Prime Minister Najib Mika promised to do everything possible to free the kidnapped nuns, as well as two metropolitans of the Orthodox and Syrian Jacobite churches who have been abducted by rebels. He emphasized the government’s dedication to keeping sacred sites of all religions out of combat zones. The widespread desecration of Christian churches by the rebels is only one side of the coin; the other is their sacrileges against Shiite shrines, including those connected with the veneration of the direct descendants of the founder of Islam, as well as turning mosques into fortified posts and military supply depots.
The British Independent reports that the terrorist threat to Europe and the United States from the “jihad warriors” in Syria is growing rapidly. MI5 and Scotland Yard have detected the first case of rebels sent from Syria to London for the purpose of carrying out terrorist attacks there “when needed”. In June of this year the number of jihadists from Europe who were “broken in” in Syria was estimated at 600; since then this figure has almost tripled. “With regards to the European figures, we estimate it’s between 1500 and 2000”, says Belgian Interior Minister Joelle Milquet. “It’s a phenomenon which is very generalized”.
Intelligence analysts in the West are already making recommendations to preserve the Syrian government army after the “overthrow of Assad’s regime” for the fight against the Islamic radicals in order not to repeat the mistakes made in Iraq and Libya. Salim Idris, the commander of the pro-Western Free Syrian Army (FSA), has supposedly already agreed to this. But will the Syrian army itself agree? Idris is seen more often in Paris and London than on the battlefield, and his intention to lead a united “opposition-government” army against al-Qaeda evokes nothing but sarcasm.
Currently the Islamists have total control over the FSA. According to the Independent, there are 22,500 fighters in ISIS alone. This organization is especially active in taking hostages. For example, they have abducted and detained 35 foreign journalists, as well as 60 various political and public figures. According to U.S. intelligence, over half of the 17,000 foreign insurgents fighting in Syria against the government are part of the Islamic State of Iran and Syria group. The Russian-speaking wing of this group, which numbers several hundred fighters, is led by a Chechen from the Pankisi Gorge in Georgia, Tarkhan Batirashvili, also known as Sheikh Omar al-Shishani… As the Wall Street Journal reports, Batirashvili received his military training in the American-backed Georgian army. His troops include not only emigrants from former Soviet republics, but Europeans who are notable for their “unusual violence…even by the gruesome standards of the war in Syria”. Although those close to Batirashvili say that he is trying to strike a blow against one of the Kremlin’s allies, he also does not hide his hatred for America, writes the Wall Street Journal. In 2008 he fought against Russia in a Georgian military intelligence unit. It is worth noting that in September 2010 the restless Batirashvili was arrested in Georgia for illegally harboring weapons and sentenced to three years in prison. However, in early 2012 he was released from prison and immediately left for Syria. One could assume that this turn of fate took place with the participation of then-president of Georgia M. Saakashvili. Threats from Syrian jihadists toward the Sochi Olympic Games are also linked with Batirashvili’s name.
In late November the majority of organizations on which the FSA has been counting declared their commitment to “Islamic values and sharia”. They united to form the Islamic Front (IF), announcing their closeness to the “brethren from Jabhat al-Nusra”. The total number of fighters in the newly-created front is estimated at 45,000-60,000 men. Western governments, which are rapidly losing control over events in Syria, have already hastened to declare the IF “a force with which it is possible to have a dialog”, and even started preliminary negotiations with them. In fact, the IF is a cover and a means of political legalization for the same uncompromising “jihad warriors”. Suffice it to say that those who abducted the 12 Orthodox nuns in Maaloula belong to the Islamic Front.
At the same time that ancient Christian Maaloula was being vandalized, representatives of Western countries, including the U.S. and Great Britain, were meeting with the leaders of the IF in Ankara through the efforts of mediators from Qatar. The fate of the nun martyrs was not discussed at this meeting. According to information in the press, during the negotiations in Ankara the Western allies tried to convince the Islamists to moderate their criticism of the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army and its leader Salim Idris. For their part, those who were uncompromising before the meeting demanded that the Military Council show them more active support, particularly with regard to weapons. And apparently they received this support. One of the British participants in the negotiations admitted to The Daily Telegraph that there are “sinister” elements in the Front.
In making contact with the Islamic Front, Western diplomats are hoping to prevent it from joining the even more radical groups Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS, which unlike the IF openly declare their ties with al-Qaeda. However, these hopes are not likely to be justified. Just a few days after the meeting in Ankara, the IF began pushing the Free Syrian Army out of Syria. Fighters from the Islamic Front have begun seizing bases and weapons depots from the FSA along the Turkish border in the Idlib Governorate. They have already occupied the largest weapons storage facilities in Bab al-Hawa.
In late November at hearings in the U.S. Congress, leading expert Andrew J. Tabler from the Washington Institute acknowledged that the processes taking place in Syria are not going to stay there, but will inevitably spill out into the entire region. And the abrupt increase in extremist elements among the Syrian opposition makes the possibility of helping its pro-Western parts while bypassing the jihadists unlikely.
“We need to start talking to the Assad regime again about counterterrorism and other issues of shared concern,” stated Ryan Crocker, an experienced diplomat who has served in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, to The New York Times. “It will have to be done very, very quietly. But bad as Assad is, he is not as bad as the jihadis who would take over in his absence”. Even Z. Brzezinski, not known for his sympathies toward Russia, states that the threat of an explosion in the Middle East, and in Syria in particular, means that the U.S. needs to work closely with Russia and China “to some extent more than…[with] Britain or France”. And cold war paladin Brzezinski knows what he’s talking about here.
Reprinted with permission from the Strategic Culture Foundation.