Unlike many of the now familiar images, this is not the aftermath of bombardments by fighter jets, helicopters or tanks. Instead, it is the aftermath of several bombs ripping through Saadallah al-Jabri square in downtown Aleppo yesterday. The targets were two hotels, the officer’s club and the municipal palace. The area was controlled by the regime and according to the perpetrators the buildings served as their headquarters. Car bombs and suicide bombers caused the massive destruction shown above which can also be seen from the BBC’s collection of pictures which originate from the regime’s TV.
It is from a pro-government YouTube network: a lengthy video of the damage, recorded by a man who narrated the scene as he trudged across piles of rubble to the brink of what appeared to be a six-foot-deep bomb crater. Gunfire could be heard nearby. The facades had been sheared off four buildings, two about eight stories high, and two smaller ones between them. On the other side of an intersection, a building appeared to have collapsed. The man narrating the video said that a coffee shop and a cellphone store had been destroyed along with the hotel, and that several senior officials had come to the scene. The video then cut to the bodies of two men wearing army uniforms. “Those are the terrorists carrying explosive belts as we can see attached to the hand of this terrorist,” the cameraman says as the video zooms into to show a corpse’s mouth covered with blood. In the background, someone shouts an obscenity. “Film the blowup device in his hand, film it!” It was unclear what was in the man’s hand.
Footage of the actual explosions according to the regime:
Instead of liberating the area, it has been destroyed. Alongside the military casualties were also civilians, and many residential buildings were damaged in the process. This is nothing less than a criminal and terrorist attack and it has been the most recent of a handful of such massive suicidal bombings, which were foreign to the revolution for almost a year into it. Nearly all of them, including this one, have been claimed by an ideologically Qaedist group called Jabhat al-Nusra or the Victory Front (a report on the declaration). Aside of these bombings, this group also claimed responsibility for a number of executions and kidnappings.
Jabhat al-Nusra appeared out of nowhere as it claimed responsibility for the very first bombings that took place in Damascus and Aleppo at the beginning of 2012. Due to the unknown identity of its members, its sudden appearance and its apparent strength and resources the group was viewed with suspicion not only by the FSA and the Syrian opposition, but also by the Syrian Takfiri cleric Abu Basir al-Tartousi. Other “Salafi Jihadi” clerics however have supported the movement. Jabhat al-Nusra is likely to have emerged from Iraq and has been accused of involvement with the regime. Recently documents were leaked which may prove the regime’s involvement in the Damascus bombings in May 2012, for which the responsibility was also claimed by Jabhat al-Nusra but reportedly denied again later on. Suspicions about this latest bombing in Aleppo have already been raised as well.
Despite all of this, the group managed to evolve from bombings and kidnappings into a fighting force and even carried out several operations with some of the battalions that are either part of FSA brigades or associated with battalions that are. The FSA itself however does not recognize the group while some of its forces have even clashed with it.
Co-operation between the brigades was limited in Aleppo, even during the fiercest fighting. One particularly unco-operative faction was the Islamist Jubhat al-Nusra brigade which is linked to al-Qa’ida. A senior Al-Nusra operative, Abu Mohammed al-Shami al-Absi, disappeared earlier this month. His body was found at Samada near the Turkish border a few days later, with fellow rebels believed to be responsible for his execution. Mr Al-Absi’s group has accused the Al-Farouq brigade of Homs of carrying out the killing. The group, which has publicly stated its opposition to al-Qa’ida’s involvement in the revolution, denies responsibility. But one of its officers, Amar Mohammed Abaddullah, stressed: “We are fighting for Syria to be a free country, a democracy where all our people, Muslims and Christians, have a part to play. Obviously we cannot work with those who want to impose their own [version of an] Islamist state and act against those who disagree with them.”
There have been more clashes with similar groups, but all of them put together do not match the evident force of Jabhat al-Nusra. It has been the only group that has been completely out of control from the very start and, judging by the latest events, continues to do as it pleases and wreck havoc. There seems to have been no official response yet from either the FSA or the political opposition regarding these attacks. In general and despite of some of the clashes, the response has been largely insignificant in word and deed. Some time ago Gen. Mustafa al-Sheikh confirmed the presence of Al Qaeda in Syria, emphasized that the FSA had nothing to do with them, but also admitted that there wasn’t anything they could do about it. By the end of July he warned against the growth in number and strength of such groups. “They are getting bigger and bigger. And day by day they have more powerful positions inside,” he said. “The situation is very dangerous.”
More than dangerous, it is reaching the point of becoming a factor in the destruction of the country and its future alongside of the Assad regime and its supporting forces. Moreover, their emergence has been part of regime policy in crushing the revolution from the very beginning. A major confrontation is inevitable simply because many in these groups consider the FSA to be “an apostate army” and no different from that of Assad, while they are considered unwelcome extremists themselves by Syrian society at large. Some activists are calling upon the FSA and the political opposition to respond, condemn, take a stance. They will be forced to sooner or later, and delaying this any further only allows the Assad regime to benefit from such groups in various ways, and for such groups to grow, causing more death and destruction while becoming a force to be reckoned with for perhaps years to come after the fall of the regime. The blame is often put on the inaction of the world, and rightly so, but it has to be remembered that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him and his family) said: “Whoever among you sees an evil action, let him change it with his hand [by taking action]; if he cannot, then with his tongue [by speaking out]; and if he cannot, then with his heart [by hating it and feeling that it is wrong] – and that is the weakest of faith.” (Narrated by Muslim)