Warning: This site contains images and graphic descriptions of extreme violence and/or its effects. It's not as bad as it could be, but is meant to be shocking. Readers should be 18+ or a mature 17 or so. There is also some foul language occasionally, and potential for general upsetting of comforting conventional wisdom. Please view with discretion.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

FSA-ISIS Teamwork in the Latakia Massacres?

FSA-ISIS Teamwork in the Latakia Massacres?
Started November 1, 2015  
total re-write posted, December 6

With Syria's ruling government long ago deemed illegitimate and unacceptable, those competing to fill the supposed vacuum include the Free Syrian Army (hereafter FSA), largely mythical but "moderate," except parts of disputed size that are kind of Islamist. On another end of the opposition spectrum is the ridiculously barbaric Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL or, hereafter, the Arabic acronym/slur "Daesh"). Among non-Kurdish opposition, the space between Daesh and FSA is filled by a gaggle of hard-to-decipher Jihadist groups, the most famous of which is Jabhat al-Nusra, the official branch of Al-Qaeda in Syria. These, like the FSA and the rest appear to many as relatively moderate - compared to Daesh.

Recently there's been much protest at how Russian bombs now join Syria's in being aimed at anti-government fighters that, we often learn with shock, are not members of Daesh. The targets are said by the West to be Turkey-supported and CIA-trained "moderate" rebels, whom the Syrians and Russians still call terrorists. And activists say their strikes are mainly hitting civilian targets anyway, which the same West condemns. So Russia is aiming for moderates and killing innocents, as the US, Turkey and its allies push their single-minded war against Daesh, and, even more so, against Syria's government, which they claim somehow caused Daesh (a claim I partially address here).

Now the well-funded Daesh has downed a Russian jetliner, shot hundreds in Paris, and launched other attacks from Lebanon to Mali to (perhaps) San Bernadino just in the last month, on top of their previous atrocities inside Syria, Iraq, Libya, and beyond. Now the world scrambles to destroy the menace, in competing campaigns now shooting at each other at the risk of general global war.

Now more than ever we could use a more careful consideration, by minds on all sides of this debate, of the differences, the similarities, and the relationship between these groups, the opportunity provided to all of them by the regime change campaign, and the growing cost to humanity inside and outside the targeted area of that ongoing campaign.

Many minds are working on this in an honest way. They know the different groups from Daesh to the FSA are neither one-and-the-same, nor are they necessarily much different from each other. But to help solidify that point, I've done this review of a chillingly relevant case, not quite ignored but strangely muted: the early August, 2013 cluster of massacres in rural Latakia province. From August 4-18 rebels pushed a heralded “Operation to Liberate the Coast” - a united opposition effort to shake up the insulated Alawi (Alawite) community and terrorize a base of support for the government of Alawi president Assad. (see the “moderate” backdrop).

The attackers set out from the rebel-held Sunni village of Salma and on the first day, August 4, several villages were overrun. At least 225 women and children were taken prisoner as over 200 non-combatants were executed, many literally slaughtered or beheaded. These included women (some raped and killed), babies and children, and the elderly and infirm, but it was mostly a genocidal sweep of the all fighting age men they could find. These villages witnessed incredible brutality in the worst-yet accepted rebel massacre of Alawi civilians. Most readers could use at least a refresher on the horror of this incident before we examine just who the "rebels" were in this case. See top link for a longer event summary and links to the sub-posts including this one)

The rebels' 2013 Latakia offensive, which ended in defeat and Syrian recapture of all towns, was fought by various mainly Islamist factions working in tandem. There were at least 20 different but allied groups including Jabhat al-Nusra and a relatively new one called Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham as well as groups calling themselves part of a “Free Syrian Army.” The agreements and teamwork, if and how the Islamists and the "moderate" FSA shared the fighting, the killing, and the secrets, is what will be considered here. It's a long piece that took me over a month to re-write after the first quick draft. It's much shorter to read, but still not necessary to read end-to-end. But here it is.

Involved: Islamists Beyond FSA Control
HRW: Five Central Groups
Lebanese channel Al-Mayadeen made a powerful documentary about the offensive and massacres called From Earth - Latakia (video in Arabic, partial translation with commentary). This describes the scene as they entered the village of Balouta with the Syrian Arab Army weeks later: "Various banners and scrawled messages are around indicating which gangs of terrorists were in this village. ... “Jabhat al Nusra”, “Dawat al Islam”, “Katibet Soukour al-Iz”, “The Islamic State of Iraq and Sham” and “Haraqat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyyah” .... More foodstuffs are found. The packaging is written in Turkish." (at right, a still: weaponry and flags – Ahrar al-Sham (right) modified Deash partly visible, upper center.)

Dawat al-Islam (meaning dawn of Islam) may refer to a little-known group, or to a Daesh recruitment song of that name, current in late 2013, a more nebulous movement (some said there were “51 different races in Dawat Al-Islam,” The Muslim Issue, November 2013) or and/or Daesh itself (same link: “my brother from Dawat Al-Islam,” turns out to be a Daesh fighter.)

The other four names are among five core groups implicated by Human Rights Watch (HRW) in a report they issued in October after a field study in Latakia: "You can still see their blood" - Executions, indiscriminate shooting, and hostage taking by opposition forces in Latakia countryside. PDF, 113 pages. Researched and written by Lama Fakih, Human Rights Watch, October 11, 2013. Read or download page. This will be heavily cited from here on.

The investigation "found that at least 20 distinct armed opposition groups participated in the operation," listing at least 17 with supporting details, most of them gathered from open social media sources (that is, they were pretty open about it). It wasn't clear who all was present on the 4th when the worst of the killings happened, but HRW identified five groups "who were the key fundraisers, organizers, planners, and executors of the attacks" and "were clearly present from the outset..."

The following is a list with perhaps too much detail, optional reading/reference (for even more info, see longer-entry list with correlated fatalities here) Two of these are the well-known al-Qaeda offshoots  should need no introduction, but briefly:

1) Jabhat al-Nusra (Nusra/Victory Front) - a leading group, involved in hostage-taking, executions, including of sheikh Badreddin Ghazal. 3 fighters killed on the 4th.

2) Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS/ISIL/Islamic State or, herein, the Arabic acronym/slur Daesh) a leading group, just before taking Raqqah as their capitol, involved in hostage-taking and executions, had a commander, Abu Jaafar al-Libi, serve as first deputy commander of the overall operation (see Joint Command?). Graffiti on a school in Aubin declared “Headquarters of the Islamic State.” They lost at least 4 fighters, got to hold 120 hostages.

3) Ahrar al-Sham "Islamic Movement of the Free Men of al-Sham (greater Syria/Levant) -Wikipedia page. Islamist coalition that "cooperates with the Free Syrian Army and other secular rebel groups; however, it does not maintain ties with the Syrian National Council," HRW heard that Ahrar al-Sham was a leading group in the offensive, and its local leader Abu Taha was the deputy responsible for the finances. They “fought” in at least five villages, and lost 3 fighters,  all on the 4th and all Moroccans – likely overflow from Sham al-Islam on loan. They initially held no hostages, but in September "assumed responsibility for the hostages taken during the offensive,” somehow secured from JMA and Daesh. In October, 2013, they had their “political office in Raqqa," which was taken by Daesh as their capitol in mid-August, just as this Latakia offensive was ending. So this suggests Ahrar al-Sham were working with the Islamic State at that time (the Wikipedia entry doesn't mention any alliance or breaking of it, as it does with the next two listed groups).

4) Suqour al-Izz: Wikipedia This is a group of primarily Saudi jihadists, initially cooperated with both Daesh and Jabhat al-Nusra, but rejected the former and joined with Nusra early, in in January, 2014. HRW adds: "Sheikh Saqr, the leader of Suquor al-Izz (seems to be) the person responsible for the finances for the operation,” "referring to himself as a “poor slave.”” and dispersing money collected from “private Gulf based donors” via his deputy, Abu Taha from Ahrar al-Sham. A large body of nine Suqour al-Izz fighters died, hailing from Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and unknown.

5) Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar (JMA) Army of Emigrants and Supporters), Wikipedia page Largely Chechen-based, JMA was "briefly affiliated” with the Daesh, using their flag and so on, “but after changes in leadership it took an increasingly hostile stance against it.” But only in September 2015, did JMA officially side with Al-Nusra in its anti-ISIS fight. A leading group in Latakia, JMA commander Abu Jaafar al-Libi was identified as the leader of the operation (see below, joint command?). HRW learned of 10 JMA fighters killed, “many of them Tunisian and Libyan nationals." A JMA commander or “emir”, Abu Suhaib, was reported killed, but seemingly in error (see here). Abu Walid al-Shishani (a Chechen), is also identified as participating.

HRW: 12 Other Groups
According to the HRW report, the following 12 further groups have some evidence of involvement in the massacre towns and/or times, but full involvement is unclear. Some are units of the FSA, but apparently not under Idriss command. Order as given, almost seems to be by degree of connection to FSA, starting with the most linked.

6 Ahrar al-Sahel Brigade – FSA unit in name (see below, non-command FSA), claims involvement on the 4th in Isterbeh, Abu Makkah, Hamboushia, Beit Shakouhi. The Assad Allah Hamza battalion is a sub-unit. Commander Abu Talal was injured and Amer al-Haddad killed in Esterbeh.

7 Farouq Brigades: Wikipedia. This is definitely a unit of FSA (see below, non-command FSA), but involvement here is not very clear; a distance video, a graffiti mention in Abu Makkeh. No losses mentioned. 

8 The Hassan al-Azhari Battalion: Led by Abu Taha from Latakia (different from Ahrar al-Sham's), HRW's activist said this “Abu Taha protected Alawite women from the foreigners [other fighters] who wanted to kill them.” No mention of protecting the men.  Claimed presence in Nbeiteh, Barouda. At least two fighters killed in Abu Makkeh, both on or by August 6.

HRW photo: FSA unit "to the genocide of Alawites"
9 The Heroes of Khirbet al-Jawz: A nominal FSA unit (see below). Graffiti seen in Abu Makkeh: “The heroes of Khirbet al-Jawz to the genocide of Alawites.” Sub-unit Oussama Bin Zeid Battalion also left marks in Abu Makkeh. No losses mentioned.

10 Saif Allah al-Masloul, al-Ansar: HRW reports this group bragged on the 7th how on “August 5 they raided Blouta killing all the shabiha” (a day late?) A video shows them raiding Abu Makkah on the 5th.” They claim to part of “Al-Ansar.” Little else seems to be known. They report one fighter died from his injuries on August 7.

11 Sham al-Islam: Harakat Sham al-Islam (HSI - Wikipedia article)  "Islamic Movement of al-Sham ) is composed of primarily Moroccans. "The group was founded in August 2013 by three Moroccan detainees who had been released from the Guantanamo Bay detention camp,” only announced their formation as the operation ended, with a video on August 18. HSI later joined Jabhat Ansar al-Din, which in September, 2015 formally joined with al-Nusra, who claim to oppose Daesh. 5 killed, 2-3 at least Moroccans, may have provided Ahrar al-Sham's 3 dead Moroccans.

12 Sheikh Qahtan Battalion (formerly Al-Tawhid), Ansar al-Sham: “The Sheikh Qahtan Battalion, formerly al-Tawhid (distinct from the FSA group), operating under the umbrella of Ansar al-Sham, a member of the Syrian Islamic Front.” It was renamed during the August operation after its commander, Sheikh Qahtan Haj Mohamed, also a deputy commander of the operation (see Joint Command?), was killed on the 4th, and they renamed it after him.

13 Suqour al-Sham: Associated with Jabhat Tahrir Suriya, little said.. A video “shows Suquor al-Sham clashing with the Syrian army during the offense on Barouda tower on August 4,” and “graffiti identifying Suquor al-Sham was also left in Obeen village.”

14 Sons of al-Qadisiyya: This was formed around Feb. 2013, in Latakia, “composed of various battalions including al-Farouq and al-Ansar” with a mission to link the brigades with financial supporters and donors, “in coordination with the Free Syrian Army abroad.” Aside from that, no sign of FSA/SNC control. A video from August 5 or earlier shows Sons of al-Qadisiyya fighters shelling the villages.

15/16/17 Thuwar al-Haffeh, Ibrahim Khalil, Al-Shaheed Sino Rebels Battalion: These last three are implicated by graffiti, with limited background information, and no specifics on anything but where their graffiti was seen.

One More: Front for Authenticity and Development
FAD fighter, graffiti, logo, in Kaharata
Front for Authenticity and Development (FAD) is a U.S.-backed, Saudi-funded, "moderate Islamist" force, using FSA colors and cooperating with them, but not a part of FSA or answerable to the SNC (see ACLOS). Co-founded in 2011 by defectors including Farouq's Abdulrazaq Tlass, they maintain a low profile, appearing neither secular nor overtly Jihadist. They have controlled territory, if limited to sectors of some cities and no swathes of land (once with sectors of Aleppo, Deraa, and Douma, decreasing from there, but in 2015 granted a prized share in Jis al-Shughour). Graffiti saying "Allahu Akbar, first brigade, Western front, of front for authenticity and development" was seen in a video of theirs, on the wall of a checkpoint (see right). That was at the entrance to the village of Kharata, population 37, suggesting they were in charge there at filming time, on the 9th. Some reports (like HRW's) don't mention fatalities there at all, but some say everyone in Kharata died, or only 10 survived. The FAD is reasonably implicated in the massacre.

Joint Command?
Before even addressing the evidence for FSA involvement, let's skip ahead to what can be seen of the command structure for the “Operation to Liberate the Coast,” at least as HRW could see through open sources. The FSA was apparently not running the show, anyway.

Whoever fought under whatever banner, there were many fighters to manage in the Latakia offensive - a reported 20,000 of them, from at least 20 groups. Christof Lehman at NSNBC International, in his response to the HRW report, pointed to his analysis of the 2013 Ghouta alleged sarin attack, saying it "clearly demonstrated that a joint command structure exists" there, likely connected to the US and Saudi Arabia. I haven't assessed that claim, but it could be. And as he notes, with that occurring less than 2 days after the Latakia offensive ended, “it is unlikely that the 20 jihadi groups and their battalions which took part in the Liberate the Coast offensive did not have a joint command structure.” 

I'm not a military expert and can't really say if there had to be a joint command, but it makes sense. They at least needed some agreement to provide a little structure, a basic plan agreed by everyone. But Lehman is sure there must be an overall command, perhaps with an operations room, and says “HRW fails to mention this with as much as one word in the report,” an omission he finds odd in “an otherwise well documented report,” taking it as "a clear and unmistakable sign of strong, intentional bias.”

Leading: JMA, Daesh, Tawhid
However, an even clearer sign of pro-rebel bias would be to simply never release such a report. And, although it isn't clearly spelled out that I see, the report includes at least these passages saying there was an overall leader within the operation, and a command center supplied by his group, the Daesh-linked Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar (JMA). 

JMA's Abu Suhaib (as IDd) w/hostages, app. in September
JMA's local forces were co-commanded by two Libyans; Abu Jaafar al-Libi and Abu Suhaib al-Libi. The latter is the “ISIS emir” who was reported killed on the 18th, seemingly in error. “According to the opposition activist that spoke to Human Rights Watch,” the report states, these two leaders from JMA are the ones “that commanded the Latakia offensive against the villages” - maybe just the JMA part, or all of it. Further, ''On August 13, Sheikh Saqr, the commander of Saquor al-Izz, tweeted that Abu Jaafar al-Libi from Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar was the leader of the operation and that his deputies were Abu Jaafar from ISIS and Sheikh Qahtan from al-Tawhid.” Qahtan is separately described as “a deputy commander of the operation,” and Abu Jaafar was "identified as the first deputy commander of the operation.” The leader picks as deputies a guy in ISIS who's got a son with the same name (and thus they have the same fighter name), and the leader of a smaller local Islamist group for Syrian flavor. This makes sense.

In April, 2013, the HRW report states, the JMA had established a “mujahedeen operations room” in the Salma area, and used it to organize with other extremists as the coastal operation was being planned. (“It appears that planning and fundraising for the “Operation to Liberate the Coast” began at this time.”) They then had the center used to organize the August offensive (“This operation room was later used for the “Operation to Liberate the Coast””). Suqour al-Izz leader Sheikh Saqr seems to HRW to be “responsible for the finances of the operation room" and Abu Taha from Ahrar al-Sham was “the deputy responsible for the finances of the operation room.”

On the other hand, this is from an financier of the operation and an activist who organized between the groups, discussing an operation with brutality either might not want to own up to. And JMA and ISIS are natural falls guy to blame, almost seeming like professional villains invented to absorb excess evil. The activist was quite clear that “the Libyans (meaning JMA) did not kill, they slaughtered, even women and elderly.”

But the details are compelling enough this aspect of the joint offensive is most likely true. That is, they're the fall guys to be blamed for the strategically useful “excesses,” but it was actually scripted out that way in real life. Consider how between all the groups, it was somehow decided JMA and Daesh should actually hold all of the hostages, the women and children implicitly threatened with deliberate murder unless some terrorist demands were met.

Everyone Else 
As for other groups' prominence within the campaign - Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, FSA, and the others - all would be followers, if honored and valued followers. But some would lead among them. Several groups lost at least three and as many as ten acknowledged fighters; the more fighters they lost and the earlier, the more likely they were to be in the first wave, which is more likely to have segued right into exterminating civilians. HRW's core five groups are all in that category (Ahar Al-Sham lost 3, ISIS 4 Nusra 3, JMA 10,SaI 8) and at least Sham al-Islam (HSI, with 5 dead) and Tawhid/Qahtan (a commander, on day one) stand out among the other 12. Both also have other outstanding clues; HSI was an ambitious start-up that may have loaned excess fighters to another group, and Tawhid's killed commander Qahtan was one of two listed deputies of the whole genocidal operation, alongside a member of Daesh. 

FSA seems to have lost few fighters: one at least that was non-command, a few others possibly, but it's not clear who they were with. It seems then they were not heavily involved at the bloody outset. Did the FSA even have a man in the operation room? That's also unclear. Later, they suggested not, denying knowledge and disavowing groups with no command linkage to FSA's Supreme Military Council (SMC). Responding to HRW's report (HRW PDF link), the SMC acknowledged a possible massacre, but ignored that it was on or very near their watch, and declared:
“We stress that the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, Suqour al-Izz, and Jaysh al-Muhajireen wa al-Ansar, are not a part of the SMC command structure and do not represent the values of the FSA or the Syrian revolution. These extremists have attacked the FSA and have killed numerous FSA officers.”
They point to known fighting between the groups, in other times and places, which has happened. But in the relevant context it just raises puzzling questions. None of those FSA guys were killed during this Ahrar al-Sham-Nusra-Deash-JMA-Suqour al-Izz “liberation” of Alawi civilians. Instead, as we'll see, the FSA praised and maybe assisted in the attack, may have been involved in the planning of it, and knew to stay out of its way on day one (or to appear that way). And, they helped keep the massacres as quiet and ignored as possible.

The Role of FSA
Evidence for FSA Involvement: Inconclusive
Official seal for al-Jaish Al-Souriya al-Hur (FSA)
I've been saying that records show ISIS, al-Nusra, and FSA fighters all died fighting side-by-side to commit this massacre. They definitely did co-operate in the Latakia offensive at large, but not necessarily in the massacre villages at the right time (which HRW takes as simply the 4th, but seems to cover at least a slightly longer span).

The source for that was my usual shortcut, the "martyrs" database of the opposition Violations Documentation Center (VDC), showing dead on the 4th in massacre towns, listed as Nusra, ISIS, and FSA, and no one else. However, as covered separately, a closer look at those records compared to the HRW report shows the VDC only lists a portion of those killed, and does it wrong.

Of the 17 “FSA” fighters they list and HRW also mentions, there's only one from a proper but non-command FSA (Ahrar al-Sahel), and 16 from other groups (1 from Daesh, 1 from al-Nusra, 3 from Ahrar al-Sham, 3 from Suqour al-Izz, 3 from JMA, 3 Moroccans from Sham al-Islam, one from Saif Allah al-Masloul, and a commander from al-Tawhid). For example, Abu Malek al-Azdi (Foreigner, but not known from where), had said Islamic State member when I first saw the entry, recorded at ACLOS. Later, the “rank” (affiliation) was changed to "FSA.” But really (or per HRW's first-hand sources), he was with Suqour al-Izz.

So, all these groups not part of the FSA or beholden to any of their rules or commands, are listed by the VDC under a simplified "FSA" heading. Here, it seems, the label means against Assad, not ISIS, and not even al-Nusra. Except the one guy that was Nusra and the one that was Daesh. Everyone else is under that vague and overrated umbrella. 

Even past labeling issues, the general clues for “FSA” don't necessarily mean much to implicate the command directly in this hideous bloodbath. They are implicated in one or more of active participation, passive allowance, and helping cover up the crime. The exact nature of the mix is still not clear. As the HRW report put it:
In the case of the other groups who participated in the operation, the extent of their involvement in fundraising, planning, and leading it, and direct participation in abuses is not clear. It is also unclear whether their fighters were present and involved in the operation on August 4, the date when Human Rights Watch believes the abuses took place. One of these groups is the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army which is led by Salim Idriss, the Chief of Staff. 
An "opposition activist" who spoke to HRW and "said that (the FSA's) participation did not begin until after August 4 and that it was limited." The report cites an August 9 video that “also allegedly shows FSA fighters in the village of Kharata.” Titled “FSA ... frees the village” it's actually a video of FAD, a different group (see above). Graffiti tags claiming FSA were seen on two houses in Abu Makkeh: “The Free Syrian Army passed through here” “The Free Syrian Army al-Malak al-Ghali Abu Mohamed al-Malak” But these are vague; as the report notes “it is not clear if these fighters are under Idriss’s effective command and control” or, for that matter, what day it was scrawled. 

Non-Command FSA
In fact the report finds the few groups claiming an FSA pedigree seemed to not be answerable to the SMC and Idriss (hereafter, non-command FSA). At least these three groups fit the bill: 

1) The Farouq Brigades, formed back in 2011 as a FSA unit, co-founded in mid-2011 in Homs by early defectors like Abdulrazaq Tlass and Abu Sakkar (genocidal cannibal/scavenger). They co-founded the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front, powerful in Homs and Hama in 2012, but sliding in influence by mid-2013. Involvement here is not very clear; a distance video, a graffiti mention in Abu Makkeh. No losses mentioned. HRW's report said "It is not known whether the Independent Omar al-Farouq Brigade operates within the command structure of the Free Syrian Army".

2) Heroes of Khirbet al-Jawz “was formed on June 20, 2012 in Jisr al-Shoghour as a Free Syrian Army unit. There is no indication however that this group is under Salim Idriss’s command and control.” As noted, left graffiti encouraging "genocide against the Alawites." 

3) Ahrar al-Sahel was announed “on May 23, 2012 as a unit operating under the FSA in Latakia.” However, “Based on statements made by the leader of the group, Abu Ahmad, the group does not appear to be under the command and control of Salim Idriss.” Appearances can be deceiving, or accurate. 
But this last, Ahrar al-Sahel, were chosen to host a visit by FSA leader Salem Idriss, on August 12 near the massacre sites. This group is the best fit for Idriss-commanded , or at least worth being seen with. As HRW reported Idriss' contact was Saeed Tarbush, “the commander of the Free Syrian Army battalion Suquor al-Sahel,” apparently a sub-unit (he was injured in the fighting in the villages, and records suggest a relative died). Idriss told Tarbush “I am extending congratulations to you on your heroic achievements in the liberation of the coast,” and promised "we will do our best to meet the needs of this battle and provide everything we have."

Perhaps by “under FSA control” the later statements meant Ahrar al-Sahel and/or the other nominally aligned units. But the VDC definition of "FSA" as considered above might also mean more in this case, like some “vetted” fighters of the Jihadist groups deputized by agreement as adjunct FSA just before the deal. However, that seems unlikely.

The evidence is not conclusive, and it's impossible to prove a negative like no FSA involvement on the 4th. But what I've seen suggests command FSA with even a stated vow to uphold SNC norms, were not there at the time, and perhaps not at all.

FSA Claims: In Control, Offering (Selective) Protection
As HRW noted, “Several statements from (FSA chied Salem) Idriss, days after the beginning of the operation, indicate that fighters under his command were participating in it days after August 4.” In fact, the FSA claims they were there and even in general charge from the day after the worst killings.  But they never claim to be there on the day itself.

The affiliated Syrian National Coalition (SNC) issued their first word on the Latakia offensive on August 5: “The Syrian Coalition applauds Free Syrian Army fighters on the Syrian Coast” as “areas in rural Latakia become liberated.” Noting they were previously used for "artillery strikes on innocent civilians," the SNC gushed at how "the military posts of Inbata, Baruda, and Tela are now under the control of FSA fighters who will now defend and protect civilians in those areas." (all emphasis, as usual, is mine) 

But these areas are towns, not military posts - that's why there were civilians there. An-Nabata and Barouda saw serious killings on the 4th. Was they the FSA in control then? The double use of "now" suggests they meant to leave this question open but leaning towards late arrival. And so their victory story starts out: command FSA was totally absent on the 4th - and thus not involved in the actual “liberation” - but were completely in charge of at least 3 towns the next day.

Of course, that doesn't make much sense. And within days we could start to see why they were saying things that way; credible reports emerged of dozens or even hundreds of civilians massacred, mainly on the 4th, and hundreds abducted. The SNC in Turkey felt compelled to come back on August 9 with another statement to clarify "The FSA … pledge to protect civilians and families in the area, ... they will only target ... Assad’s militia. The statement emphasizes that the role of the FSA is not to target civilians but to protect them from Assad forces.”

Perhaps in return for Idriss' reassurance of commitment to the coast campaign (see below), Saudi-owned al-Arabiya gave the FSA leader a platform to also assure everyone there could be no massacre; "the FSA is fighting against regime troops, not Alawite civilians,” they reported, and “he said that there would be no revenge operations against the coast’s citizens of any sects, adding that the FSA would provide all Alawites with security and protection." At that time, over 200 locals had been dead for a week and again, there was no one left but captives, held by others, for anyone to kill. 

Now consider: if it were true the FSA were in control or even present in force, and there to protect, but some of their allies started roughing people up, would they pick a fight with the more-numerous Islamist groups? Saying that they protect "from Assad forces" was likely chosen because they didn't see it as their job to interfere with fellow rebel fighters, but rather to help remove the government forces keeping them at bay (in other words, to “defend” the locals from protection, which they may have done).

In fact, it's most likely that only only Islamist FSA fighters sympathetic to the campaign would even be allowed to ride along, to lessen the chance of conflict between the coordinating groups. However, FSA leadership claims to oppose these groups as well, and recognizes the reported incident as a heinous crime by "extremists." After Human Rights Watch issued its report in October, their SMC was given and failed this chance (same HRW PDF) to address the problem. They start out:
In the name of the Free Syrian people and our revolution, the Supreme Military Council (SMC) of the Free Syrian Army wholeheartedly condemns the alleged atrocities committed by extremist groups . ... 
A roadside victim, photo by Utaybi/Al-Azad
How can this massacre remain "alleged" to the them? Why the difficulty in figuring out whether or not a massive bloodbath occurred just one day prior to their alleged period of control, and somewhat into that period? HRW's activist (he organized the groups, was allied with most) says he first entered the villages later in the day on August 4, and told them “the men were free to roam around and slaughter at their leisure…” He would have seen the bullet marks and the pools of blood, bodies along the roads, and mass graves coming together. Weeks later, photos prove, that blood was still visible in some homes even after a good scrubbing, and charred bodies were left laying around. Was there no sign of that over the days between when FSA was “in control?” That seems unlikely. They had to know, and yet even after the HRW report they call it an “alleged” massacre.

And we might notice here the FSA never reported this crime by their supposed enemies on their own, just addressed it poorly once the prominent HRW brought it up. But once it was out there, a crime that's credible, condemnable, and still "alleged" clearly calls for more investigation. But instead, in that slot, the statement said:
The SMC command encourages Human Rights Watch and the international community to focus on the institutional crimes against humanity being committed by Assad’s security apparatus.
They didn't specifically say 'stop investigating this one,' but that's the implication. The SMC has therefore accepted this as a dirty secret they share and protect along with the Islamist extremists. Those are the ones they either chose to fight alongside, or pretended to fight alongside, just to seem relevant. Take your pick. The SNC's statement, to similar effect, calls the massacre “a shameful one-time attack” by no friends of theirs (quoted by Global Post). It was just a fluke, nothing worth even mentioning, let alone investigating further.

FSA Accused of Trying to Not Be There?
After the FSA arrived, they say on 5th, they and the others faced a growing counter-offensive until their defeat on the 18th. In the middle, HRW's report cites an August 9 statement by "the alleged head of the FSA Military Council in the Coast, Mustafa Hashem" that his fighters were running out of ammunition “and needed greater assistance to continue with the operation.” 

Allegedly, this turned into a request taken by some as an attempt to surrender the seized villages. Saudi-directed Asharq al-Awsaat reported on August 10 citing activist Omar Jablawi saying “Members of the FSA contacted commanders of the battalions fighting the regime in Latakia asking them to halt their advance by pulling out of the sites seized in the last few days.” He didn't name the FSA member who made that call, but explained that “arm supplies were halted during the last hours”, prompting those fighters who rejected the FSA’s request to “use the ammunition they seized from regime,” he added. They might also just borrow ammunition from the other groups involved – who would have done all the seizing anyway. 

This might have been a baseless accusation, or it might be a halfhearted effort to withdraw FSA support for the operation. Or maybe it was an obscure and brief show of protest, maybe to point to later. But it came only on the 9th or 10th, well after most or all massacres were done, and only after the government counter-attack was seriously underway and retreat made sense from a purely tactical standpoint. 

Idriss in Latakia, weighing picture far right of center
Either way, the Saudi media complaints seemed to have their effect. On the 11th, Idriss himself was actually in Syria to show his support to “the general of the Suquor Al-Sahel Brigade” on their “heroic achievements,” promising full support. As Iranian-run Press TV quotes him saying, “we are here today to reassure everybody that the... (FSA) General Command is coordinating completely and continuously with the leaders of the coastal front.” HRW quotes “We will continue to work intensively on the coastal front," and he promised to "provide the Syrian revolutionaries with bullets and weapons and all it needs so we can end the killing.”

The day after that (the 12th), Al-Arabiya, also Saudi-directed, mentioned Latakia and setbacks, one of which was, apparently, an actual halt to FSA operations there. But they added as a bright spot "activist groups said on Monday the FSA is resuming its operations in Latakia and Hama provinces, adding that the FSA shelled a regime site near Aleppo’s International Airport." In another week, the last rebel fighters in the seized villages would run for their lives anyway from the Syrian government's counter-offensive. 

Working Together, in Shifts? 
Whoever attacked from a distance, it seems the foreigner-dominated Islamist brigades were the first to set foot in the villages. They had the most fighters killed, probably killed the most soldiers, and most signs say, committed the massacres. While they did this, the moderate command FSA – enemies of these Islamists, as they claim - agreed to hold back and stay out of their way. Who agreed to this recipe for unimpeded slaughter? Within the logical joint command structure or at least mutual agreements, everyone involved agreed to it, one way or another.

It's said FSA came in later, presumably fighting no one from either set of described enemies, as the villages were already “liberated” from one set by the other set, in the first wave of this joint offensive. So why come in at all? That could have tactical reasons, like to assist in the push into more towns, as happened in the days after the 4th. These would likely be, and mainly were, evacuated by then, and less likely to spawn civilian massacres the FSA units might prefer to avoid.

But why would FSA agree to loose much of the glory of the initial liberation? Unless they suspected there was to be a bloody crime?

When they did waltz onto the scene, they would clearly enter as allied guests of the Islamists, maybe to give the rest of the campaign a nice sheen. Wanting or needing to stay on their hosts' good side, or even in direct approval, the FSA failed to mention the hideous massacre as they praised the “liberation” and promised to protect the local Alawi. Note that the Islamist groups hardly bothered promising to spare the infidels – this is a job for the FSA.

And why would the Islamists allow the late-arriving FSA publicly claim control after the 4th and muffle their own glory? Likely to let the blood be on the teflon gloves of the moderates as well, so the whole crime would have to go ignored by the West and its human rights establishment (which HRW is at the pinnacle of). Although it didn't quite work out, they had past precedent to call on suggesting it would.

Houla or Shumariya Massacre, May 2012, slain family and
graffiti saying "Free (Syrian) Army Forever"
From at least early 2012, shadowy men in black and shouting Allahu Akbar would appear, helping local “FSA” rebels conquer some area, in a victory rebels would then deny. But afterwards, murky men in black, described as pro-Assad Alawi “Shabiha” militia, chanting Shi'ite slogans, commit a massacre there – often of Alawi or government-loyalist Sunni families, as it turns out. FSA and related “moderate”activists would come in after, reveal the killings of apolitical Sunnis, and blame Assad for the genocidal crime, utilizing false “survivor testimony.” It usually worked well; outside powers bought that story with, for a prime example, the Houla Massacre of May 25, 2012 (which involved the FSA Farouq Brigades under Abdulrazaq Tlass, and murky Al-Qaeda types, likely an early form of Jabhat al-Nusra). Again and again Syria's enemies have blamed the government for a crime only committed once its own soldiers were overpowered, and responded by increasing the power of rebels to repeat that feat. The stated reason was to stop the killing, but little surprise it skyrocketed instead.

With the slaughter of the Latakia offensive, the government could hardly be blamed. This time, men in black really dominated the rebel victory, committed their killings and abductions, and the FSA and activists just came in after. They didn't mention the massacre, and blamed themselves for an awesome and victimless “liberation.” They simply made sure the tactically useful terrorism was mostly done with before they walked on the scene. Is this what "moderate" means in practice?

The SNC's response (again per Global Post) maximizes this shift division to the point of absurdity; “The incident reported by HRW in today's report does not represent an effort by the true Syrian opposition, but rather a shameful one-time attack by outlier extremist groups that thrive under the hand of [President Bashar al-Assad's] regime.” These were perhaps agents of Assad, killing in his most secure province. But of course, the same SNC had already described the same area as “now under the control of FSA fighters who will now defend and protect civilians in those areas," as we've established, from government protection. And so, Islamist slaughter jackals thrived there during the brief “liberation” from "the hand of the regime." And the SNC continues to promote that kind of “liberation” for all of Syria's people.

Conclusion: The Ongoing Problem of "Moderate" Islamists
In review: it's not clear if command FSA was there at all, but non-command units of FSA-in-name were there in the attack, although it's not clear when. Some clues say FSA units held back on day one as the Islamists, led by Daesh members and affiliates, ran ahead with their massacre. But FSA fighters may have participated in the killings, and both they and FSA command clearly did nothing to stop or expose the crime, but rather helped conceal it, at least. I say this constitutes FSA-Daesh teamwork.

Now, some might complain that even if FSA and the Islamic State worked together way back in mid-2013, times have changed and they're clear enemies now. That could be so, but times were like this, it's interesting to consider why. And more importantly, times could change back if they're allowed to, or directed to. It's not at all implausible, and good to have a preview like this, to help avoid any such shift. 

And of course times don't have to change all the way to renewed FSA-Daesh teamwork for the worries to be real. That was just the simplified concept for a catchy title, and it has 2 main limitations: 

1) The mythical mopderate command FSA barely exists and doesn't really matter. 
2) Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar Al-Sham, JMA, and Suqour al-Izz at least, who do matter, are just as implicated in the Latakia massacres as ISIS ever was. 

In the two years since the Latakia offensive, these “moderate Islamists” have tried various cooperation schemes with the FSA, other “moderates,” and the Turkish military. They started forming these with the exception of Daesh, after they emerged in Iraq too and became a global concern - the ISIS crisis. In fact, the FSA and the “outlier extremist groups” they keep on teaming up with have postured as anti-Daesh, arguing they and the “Assad regime” are two sides of one evil coin that only milder Sunni extremists can counter. They claim it's their very Islamism that drives them to oppose the evil, but the real reason is probably just the obvious script where they become the answer to the engineered Daesh problem. 

Anyway, their posturing is clearly nor out of any major ideological opposition – the difference seems to be a matter of degrees and of style, not nature. One pursues Jihad with actions that scream out they're the enemy of all Humanity, while the other, well... they get to easily look good by comparison, and steadily expand their own area of sharia law and ignored, creeping genocide against trapped minorities.

In a separate post, I'll explain how history has already repeated with offensives in Syria's northwest accompanied by sectarian massacres – the 2014 Latakia offensive, a 2015 Idlib offensive leading to massacres of Alawi and converted Druze nearby, then 2015 U.S. Training of rebels near Salma, Russian attacks on those, Turkish downing of a Russian jet to protect them, etc. Even with the Daesh villain cut out and stood up as the cardboard enemy, the results have only varied from more gentle and nuanced genocide (Kessab, Christians) to about the same (Ishtabraq, where the Alawi were again were spared nothing).


  1. American officers began training Turkmen militants around Salma in the Latakia Province.

    US Special Forces Allegedly Start Training Rebels in Syria
    Sputnik, 04.11.2015

    US military advisors are alleged to have started training so-called moderate rebels near the city of Salma in the Latakia province in what amounts to breaking a pledge not to put US boots on the ground in Syria, Lebanon's satellite television channel al-Mayadeen reported, citing an unnamed military source.

    "American officers began training Turkmen militants around Salma in the Latakia Province," the media outlet noted, adding that the mission was previously carried out in Turkey.

    1. Petri, hey! The locals involved in this would be Turkmen (right by Turkey, area includes a Turkmen mountain). Training may include things like graffiti control.

    2. It's also worth noting what good timing it is that news broke right after I started this post. Salma = problem people in a front with no humane reason to exist.

    3. Another point, same heading: I read today that they say this rebel training is to fight ISIS. So ... why Salma? Current situation map shows nearest Deash territory is 130 kilometers east of there. Are they expected to expand closer? Are these rebels to be trucked over to the west of Aleppo when ready? Or is it just because of the area's importance and likelihood of having trained rebels bombed by Syria/Russia, forcing some reaction?

      The reason matters because in itself Salma makes a poor argument for the true mission being to fight Deash. It is in fact the place western-backed rebels most famously FOUGHT ALONGSIDE DAESH to carry out genocide against the government-protected Syrian people. It is NOT the capitol of humanist rebels who fight for the people against the supposed Assad-ISIS axis. Out of the gate this training program is tainted just by locale selection, and it hasn't even failed with mass defections yet.


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