With Da­m­as­cus at­tack, al-Qaida tar­gets As­sad

Austin American-Statesman - - MORE OF TODAY'S TOP NEWS - By Al­bert Aji and Zeina Karam As­so­ci­ated Press

Un­der pres­sure BEIRUT — from fel­low in­sur­gents and es­ca­lat­ing airstrikes by the U.S.-led coali­tion, Syria’s al-Qaida branch is step­ping up vi­o­lence against Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad’s strong- holds with pre­cise, high-pro­file at­tacks, in­clud­ing a sur­pris­ing breach of the cap­i­tal in the most serious in­fil­tra- tion in years.

Sun­day’s at­tack, in which in­sur­gents used tun­nels they con­trol in north­east­ern Da­m­as­cus neigh­bor­hoods to hit gov­ern­ment po­si­tions, ap­pears to have caught the Syr­ian mil­i­tary off guard. It was a grim re­minder that the fight­ing is far from over, de­spite sig­nif­i­cant ad­vances by As­sad’s forces against rebels across the coun­try in the past year.

The gov­ern­ment dis­patched some of its elite forces to halt the of­fen­sive, which be­gan shortly be­fore sun­rise with two sui­cide bombers from an al-Qaida-linked group. The bombers, a Saudi and a Syr­ian, det­o­nated their ex­plo­sives-laden trucks against army po­si­tions on the east­ern edge of the cap­i­tal amid a bar­rage of ar­tillery shells that landed in the heart of Da­m­as­cus.

Dozens of in­sur­gents pen­e­trated the city’s de­fenses and cap­tured sev­eral blocks north­east of Da­m­as­cus, trig­ger­ing fierce clashes that lasted for hours be­fore the fight­ers were pushed back to where they started.

In­sur­gent groups re­peat­edly have tried to break Da­m­as­cus’ de­fenses in re­cent years. Syria’s al-Qaida’s branch has used sui­cide bombers tar­get­ing gov­ern­ment se­cu­rity in­stal­la­tions since the early days of the con­flict.

Sun­day’s in­cur­sion, how­ever, was the most serious since 2012, when rebels cap­tured sev­eral Da­mas- cus neigh­bor­hoods be­fore be­ing crushed by gov­ern- ment forces. It was the lat­est in a se­ries of stepped-up at­tacks claimed by the al-Qa- ida-linked Le­vant Lib­er­a­tion Com­mit­tee.

The gains, though short­lived, came against the back- drop of months of steady rebel losses to gov­ern­ment forces across the coun­try. It ap­peared to be an at­tempt by al-Qaida to mount so­phis­ti­cated at­tacks against high­value tar­gets to por­tray it­self as the main force ca­pa­ble of fight­ing the gov­ern­ment.

“Ev­ery time they can suc­cess­fully carry out one of th­ese, then it bol­sters their case within the armed oppo- sition,” said Sam Heller, a Beirut fel­low at the U.S.-based Cen­tury Foun­da­tion.

The Le­vant Lib­er­a­tion Com­mit­tee, the lat­est spinoff from Syria’s al-Qaida branch, has claimed sev­eral other high-pro­file at­tacks in gov­ern­ment-con­trolled ar­eas re­cently.

They in­clude two at­tacks ear­lier in March that killed at least 40 peo­ple, mostly Shi­ite pil­grims, in Da­mas- cus, and an­other syn­chro­nized at­tack last month by in­sur­gents storm­ing heav­ily guarded se­cu­rity of­fices in the cen­tral city of Homs and then blow­ing them­selves up, killing more than 30 of­fi­cers.

The uptick in at­tacks comes at a time when the al-Qaida-linked group is try- ing to dis­tance it­self pub­licly from the in­ter­na­tional ter­ror­ist net­work and im­pos­ing unity on other in­sur­gent fac­tions. So far, those ef­forts have largely failed, in­stead spark­ing ten­sions with other rebel fac­tions.

In July, al-Qaida’s branch in Syria — then known as the Nusra Front — said it had cut its links with the in­ter­na­tional ter­ror­ist group and re­named it­self the Fatah al-Sham Front. Af­ter clashes with mod­er­ate rebel fac­tions ear­lier this year, it be­gan lead­ing a coali­tion known as the Le­vant Lib­er­a­tion Com­mit­tee that con­sists of five groups and has since been urg­ing other in­sur­gents to join it.

The extr e mist group op­poses peace talks be­tween the op­po­si­tion and the gov­ern­ment tak­ing place in Geneva and the Kazakh cap­i­tal of As­tana, aimed at forg­ing a diplo­matic set­tle­ment to Syria’s civil war. Last week, the con­flict en­tered its sev­enth year with about 400,000 peo­ple dead and half the coun­try’s pop­u­la­tion dis­placed.

An­a­lysts say al-Qaida’s best bet to deal with the cur­rent chal­lenges is to pro­voke an es­ca­la­tion in vi­o­lence to re­main rel­e­vant and try to at­tract other fac­tions to its fold, par­tic­u­larly af­ter rebels lost Aleppo, their most im­por­tant strong­hold, in late De­cem­ber.

“We will es­ca­late our op­er­a­tions in the com­ing days, and our sol­diers will reach them in the heart of their for­ti­fi­ca­tions,” said Le­vant Lib­er­a­tion Com­mit­tee com­man­der Hashem al-Sheik, also known as Abu Jaber, in a YouTube video posted last week to mark the sixth an­niver­sary of the war. He was re­fer­ring to As­sad’s troops and gov­ern­ment.

The Syr­ian war is now in its 7th year, with 400,000 dead.

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