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Syrian Opposition Leader Attends International Counter Terrorism Conference in Israel

President Obama’s eve of 9/11 speech  in which he declared “war” on the Islamic State, formerly ISIS, contained a commitment to arm and support so-called moderate Syrian opposition to assist in “degrading and ultimately destroying” the Salafist Jihadist self-declared Caliphate. He may have been referring to the Free Syrian Army. But which Free Syrian Army (FSA)? One group has been headed by American –Syrian members of the Muslim Brotherhood who have dominated the Syrian National Council like Louay Safi with access to the White House. Moreover, as we have learned tragically, it is this Free Syrian Army, with a Supreme Military Command in Erdogan’s Ankara, that purportedly sold American Journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, who were barbarously murdered by ISIS. Those graphic beheadings deliberately conveyed on videos aroused American public opinion demanding action that prompted Obama’s televized address to the nation. This weekend, ISIS revealed another grisly beheading of British aid worker David Haines. In August 2014, President Obama had dismissed the moderate Syrian opposition as a group of “bankers, doctors and pharmacists.”

Dramatically, one leader of the “moderate” Syrian opposition Dr. Kamal al-Labwani, a veteran Syrian secular opponent of the Assad regime, surfaced in Israel this weekend at the annual International Counter Terrorism  (ICT) Conference in Herzliya. You may watch live feed of the ICT conference, here. According to the Times of Israel , who interviewed him, he is in Israel for 10-days on what Labwani described as “academic” and “exploratory” and stated he was prepared to meet with Israeli policymakers “whenever they want.”

Labwani’s attendance at the ICT conference may reflect the outreach by the other FSA led by the Syrian Opposition Coalition headquartered near embattled Aleppo composed of ex-Assad military including Alawites, Christians and Sunni tribal leaders currently battling ISIS inside Syria. My colleague Ilana Freedman estimates through her sources that there could be as many as 50,000 Syrian opposition fighters in this “other FSA.”

In our September NER, article, Did Assad and Maliki Facilitate the Rise of the Islamic State? An Interview with M. Zuhdi Jasser and Sherkoh Abbas, we noted this exchange with Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser:

Gordon:  Syria lies on Israel’s Golan frontier. What has Israel contributed to the alleviation of the plight of Syrians and has there been any relationship between the democratic opposition in Syria and the Israeli government?

Jasser:  I think that’s such an important question and the Syrian National Council, they are still slowly coming around to that view. I would ask people to look at some of the writings and comments of Dr. Kamal al-Labwani who in the past few months has come out and said we should have visited more closely with Israel and guaranteed them security on the Golan as being a mechanism by which we could actually protect some of the more moderates in Syria. He’s realizing that there was no hope for the Syrian National Council (SNC) because it was being protected by Turkey and Qatar. The Islamists, including many American Syrians including Louay Safi and others who went back to run the SNC from an Islamist Brotherhood perspective. Labwani is awakening to the fact that the West is his friend, Israel is at the head of that coalition and the Golan is part of that.

Dr. Labwani has spent ten years in and out of Assad regime jails for his activism in support of a secular and democratic Syria. Labwani lives in exile in Sweden. Adam Pechter in a Fall 2007, Middle East Quarterly profile noted Labwani’s treatment by the regime of Bashar Assad for his dissidence:

Labwani has long been a thorn in the Syrian regime’s side. He angered officials with his advocacy for human rights and fundamental freedoms and has been a consistent advocate for reform. On August 28, 2002, a Syrian court sentenced him to three years in prison for his activities promoting reform during the “Damascus Spring,” the short period in 2000-01 in which the Syrian regime appeared to tolerate more open political criticism. Rather than cow Labwani, his previous imprisonment emboldened him. Following his September 2004 release from prison he founded the Democratic Liberal Gathering which calls for political and free-market reforms and equality for women.

On May 10, 2007, one week after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met Syria’s foreign minister Walid al-Moallem for the highest-level bilateral talks between the two governments in more than two year a Syrian court sentenced Kamal al-Labwani to twelve years imprisonment and hard labor. That the harsh sentence coincides with Washington’s decision to reengage Damascus suggests that Assad believes the White House no longer holds it accountable for its persecution of nonviolent dissidents.

The Times of Israel report discussed Labwani views critical of Obama’s new ISIS strategy at the ICT Counter Terrorism conference, “Syrian opposition leader skeptical of US plan to arm rebels”. Labwani commented:

“Currently, the aid could fall into the wrong hands in the absence of good management and oversight,” Labwani said. “Real authority on the ground requires investment in organization before the aid is even sent.”

“We cannot fight terror with terror or crime with crime,” he said. “We must combat all the criminals, be they the regime or the terrorists from the Islamic State and the other gangs. You can’t have the Syrian people choose between a criminal named Bashar Assad or a terrorist named [Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi.”

“We must reconstruct a new leadership connected to the people,” he said. “This would also require a no-fly zone. It would be pointless to create a system inside and have the [Assad] regime destroy it.”

“They [the Americans] have relied on failed regimes. They gave a portfolio to Qatar and a portfolio to Saudi Arabia … but it’s the Syrians who must take responsibility and run their own lives. We could, for instance, form a base in liberated areas in the north and the south and establish good relations with people. But to receive orders from a Saudi sheikh or a Qatari sheikh or from foreign intelligence agencies? That won’t work.”

“How can we turn this chaos into order? We need to build an authority on the ground. This requires a budget, an economy, institutions, reconstruction, and protection. Weapons aren’t enough.”

An op-ed in the Weekend Edition of the Wall Street Journal resonated Dr. Labwani’s comments, Obama Needs the Free Syrian Army to Defeat the Islamic State. The authors are Oubai Shahbandar and Michael Pregent. Mr. Shahbandar, a former Pentagon analyst, is an adviser to the Syrian Opposition Coalition of which Dr. Labwani is a member. Mr. Pregent is an adjunct lecturer at National Defense University and a former U.S. Army intelligence officer. They noted:

Until recently, the U.S. intelligence community had a grim assessment of the prospects of working with the Free Syrian Army opposition forces in an anti-ISIS campaign. Issues with command and control and unclear links to a political framework were often cited as reasons for hesitation to invest in the type of military partnership the U.S. has with Kurdish security forces in Iraq in fighting ISIS.

Nonetheless, the success of President Obama’s strategy in Syria clearly depends on the ability of the Syrian Opposition Coalition and the Free Syrian Army to fight ISIS. The good news is the FSA has established a command center outside the village of Marea in the strategically important province of Aleppo to direct and manage the battle against ISIS in northern Syria. And in August the Syrian Revolutionary Command Council, an alliance between FSA and other rebel factions, was formed to increase coordination and unity.

How can these rebel groups help the U.S. assault on ISIS? Even with the world’s most advanced intelligence reconnaissance and surveillance platforms, the U.S. military still needs “eyes on the ground” to round out the intelligence picture of ISIS’s capabilities, locations and vulnerabilities. Establishing an advice and assist relationship with the Free Syrian Army and tribal networks in eastern Syria would pay dividends for military planning. In late July, the Shaitat tribe in eastern Syria rose up against ISIS and drove them from the villages of Abu Hamam, Kashkiyeh and Ghranijup. The Shaitat have in turn faced brutal recriminations, with ISIS fighters capturing and slaughtering some 700 tribal members.

In Iraq, Kurdish Peshmerga forces have proved to be the anvil to the hammer of U.S. airstrikes, denying ISIS strategic terrain and recapturing lost territory. ISIS suffered its first strategic setback in Iraq in August with the loss of the Mosul Dam —an important blow to its image among its fracturing Sunni support base. Iraqi Sunni tribes, whose tribal confederation crosses over into eastern Syria, are also joining the fight against ISIS. In Syria, airstrikes should enable the FSA and allied tribes to retake the country’s eastern oil fields, which are vital to sustaining and funding ISIS operations.

Perhaps, Dr. Labwani’s visit to the ICT conference in Israel may also discuss possible mutual interests regarding  covert support of the FSA military command and indigenous Sunni tribes’ opposition to ISIS and the Assad regime.  If the case, one can only hope that might include linking up with Syrian Kurdish resistance forces, despite earlier differences.

Watch this March 31, 2014, MEMRI video interview with Dr. Labwani that may have prompted his current visit to the IDC conference in Herzliya.

EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared on the New English Review. The featured image is of  Syrian Opposition Leader, Dr. Kamal Labani on right at ICT Conference Herzliya Israel 9-11-14. Source Moti Kahana,  Times of Israel.

ISIS Beheads American Photo Journalist — Threatens second U.S. Captive

The Islamic State, formerly ISIS, in retribution for US air strikes in Northern Iraq, released a video of the purported beheading of intrepid American Photo Journalist James Wright Foley attired in an orange jump suit.  Foley was captured in Northern Syria in November 2012. Foley was previously held captive by Gaddafi forces in Libya in 2011 for 44 days. Foley, a native of Rochester, New Hampshire was working for the on-line Boston publication, Global Post that had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to find and release him.  The video of his beheading was promptly taken down from YouTube under rules that Google has established as being too violent.    At the conclusion of the video there is a shot of another captive American Journalist, Steven Joel Sotloff.   Sotloff according to a report in the International Business Times (IBT) was captured near Aleppo on August 4, 2013. Sotloff, the IBT noted was,” a freelance journalist who had reported on Egypt, Syria, and Libya for TIME, the Christian Science Monitor, the National Interest and Foreign Policy magazine. There is also rumored to be another American aid worker captured by ISIS in the Syrian civil conflict.

Steven Joel Sotloff with ISIS Executioner

Steven Joel Sotloff with ISIS Executioner. Source: #ISIS.

This barbaric act by ISIS is reminiscent of the beheading on February 1, 2002 in Karachi, Pakistan  of Wall Street Journalist, Daniel Pearl, by Al Qaeda mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed in Karachi, Pakistan and American Contractor Nick Berg executed on May 7, 2004 in  Iraq by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of the predecessor of ISIS, Al Qaeda in Iraq.

The Reuters account noted the contents of the graphic ISIS video entitled, “A Message to America”:

The video opened with a clip of U.S. President Barack Obama saying he had authorized strikes in Iraq.

“Obama authorizes military operations against the Islamic State effectively placing America upon a slippery slope towards a new war front against Muslims,” words appear in English and Arabic on the screen.

It showed black and white aerial footage of air strikes with text saying “American aggression against the Islamic State”

A person identified as James Foley and wearing an orange outfit is seen kneeling in the desert as a man in black dress with a black mask stands beside him, holding a knife.

“I call on my friends family and loved ones to rise up against my real killers, the U.S. government, for what will happen to me is only a result of their complacency and criminality,” the kneeling man says.

The man in the mask speaks in a British accent and says: “This is James Wright Foley, an American citizen, of your country. As a government, you have been at the forefront of the aggression towards the Islamic State.”

“Today your military air force is attacking us daily in Iraq. Your strikes have caused casualties amongst Muslims. You are no longer fighting an insurgency. We are an Islamic army and a state that has been accepted by a large number of Muslims worldwide.”

Following his statement he beheads the kneeling man.

At the end of the video, words on the side of the screen say “Steven Joel Sotloff” as another prisoner in an orange jumpsuit is shown on screen.

Global Post published this early account this evening of the loss of their colleague, Foley, “Reported beheading of James Foley not yet verified”:

The video asserts that the alleged killing of Foley is in retaliation for recent airstrikes by the United States against IS militants in northern Iraq. In it, Foley, kneeling next to an apparent IS militant, makes comments against the US for its actions. The militant also claims to be holding journalist Steven Joel Sotloff, who went missing in Syria a year ago.

Philip Balboni, GlobalPost CEO and co-founder, made the following statement: “On behalf of John and Diane Foley, and also GlobalPost, we deeply appreciate all of the messages of sympathy and support that have poured in since the news of Jim’s possible execution first broke. We have been informed that the FBI is in the process of evaluating the video posted by the Islamic State to determine if it is authentic. … We ask for your prayers for Jim and his family.”

GlobalPost, for whom Foley had reported in Syria, has mounted an extensive international investigation since November 2012 to determine who kidnapped Foley and where he was being held. Significant research has been undertaken throughout the Middle East, including along the Syria-Turkish border, in Lebanon, in Jordan and in other locations.

“Although Global Post’s investigation at one point led us to believe that James was being held by the Syrian government, we later were given strong reason to believe he was being held by Islamic militants in Syria,” Balboni said. “We withheld this information at the request of the family and on the advice of authorities cooperating in the effort to protect Jim. GlobalPost, working with a private security company, has amassed an enormous amount of information that has not been made public.”

National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden affirmed in a statement that US officials are working to authenticate the video.

“We have seen a video that purports to be the murder of U.S. citizen James Foley by ISIL. The intelligence community is working as quickly as possible to determine its authenticity. If genuine, we are appalled by the brutal murder of an innocent American journalist and we express our deepest condolences to his family and friends. We will provide more information when it is available,” the statement said.

Foley was on a freelance assignment for GlobalPost when he was abducted in northern Syria on Nov. 22, 2012. He was on his way to the Turkish border when he was stopped by a group of armed men. Foley reported for GlobalPost from Libya and Afghanistan before traveling to Syria in the early days of the now long-running civil war that has taken the lives of more than 170,000.

Foley’s last article for GlobalPost detailed the growing frustration with the war among civilians in Aleppo.

The fact of Foley’s kidnapping was revealed publicly for the first time by his parents, John and Diane Foley of Rochester, New Hampshire, on Jan. 1, 2012, two months after his abduction. The only other American whose identity has been publicly revealed is Austin Tice, a freelance reporter for the McClatchy News Service and the Washington Post, who was kidnapped in August 2012.

The Foley family’s last public statement on the kidnapping came in October 2013.

While covering the Libyan civil war in 2011, Foley and two other journalists, American Claire Gillis and Spaniard Manu Brabo, endured a 44-day captivity in April and May of that year at the hands of then Libyan strongman Col. Muammar Gaddafi. A fourth journalist, South African Anton Hammerl, was killed when the journalists were captured by Gaddafi fighters near Benghazi in eastern Libya. Foley later returned to Libya to cover Gaddafi’s fall and eventual death. Foley and GlobalPost correspondent Tracey Shelton were at the scene of Gaddafi’s capture in October 2011.

EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared on the New English Review.