Group linked to al-Qaida steps up at­tacks in Syria

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - INTERNATIONAL - BASSEM MROUE In­for­ma­tion for this ar­ti­cle was con­trib­uted by Al­bert Aji of The As­so­ci­ated Press.

BEIRUT — Un­der pres­sure 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 strongholds with pre­cise, high-pro­file at­tacks, in­clud­ing a breach of the cap­i­tal in the most se­ri­ous in­fil­tra­tion 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. The at­tack came 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 clashes that lasted 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 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 Da­m­as­cus neigh­bor­hoods be­fore be­ing crushed by gov­ern­ment forces. It was the lat­est in a se­ries of stepped-up at­tacks claimed by the al-Qaida-linked Lev­ant Lib­er­a­tion Com­mit­tee.

The gains, though short­lived, came against the back­drop 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 high-value 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 op­po­si­tion,” 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 re­cent, high-pro­file at­tacks in gov­ern­ment-con­trolled ar­eas.

They in­clude two at­tacks ear­lier in March that killed at least 40 peo­ple, mostly Shi­ite pil­grims, in Da­m­as­cus, 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 alQaida-linked group is try­ing 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 Jab­hat Fatah al-Sham. 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 ex­trem­ist 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.

An­other round of U.N.-led talks is to take place in Geneva later this week.

A wave of coali­tion aerial at­tacks has killed some se­nior al-Qaida com­man­ders in Syria in the past year, adding more pres­sure on the group.

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 Cen­tury Foun­da­tion’s Heller said the in­sur­gents’ pri­mary au­di­ence for the at­tacks in Homs and against the pil­grims in Da­m­as­cus “seems to have been the Syr­ian op­po­si­tion con­stituency to whom they’re try­ing to es­tab­lish them­selves as the cham­pion and the heart of the op­po­si­tion against the As­sad regime.”

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