The title is a quote from Saadallah al-Jabri, the first prime minister of the free Syrian Republic in 1946. The square in down town Aleppo that has been attacked by Jabhat al-Nusra on Wednesday was named after him. Normally, this quote is used in reference to the regime. The picture is from a demonstration that took place in Bustan al-Qasr, Aleppo, yesterday. The sign reads: “To Jabhat al-Nusra: we are the ones who said ‘traitor is he who kills his own people.’” Many share the sentiment, but not all do.
The response hasn’t been very clear either. For the most part, there has been silence. Hardly any statements are to be found from the revolutionary organisations. There is barely any reporting on the event to begin with, and very little footage. The political opposition, the SNC and others, seems to have remained silent, and the same goes for the FSA. The UN Security Council on the other hand actually found something to agree on for the first time and, be it due to incompetence or hypocrisy, condemned the terrorist attacks [while continuing to fail to do so regarding the 1000 times more death and destruction caused by the regime].
The situation is strange, for this is not the first terrorist act committed by this group and in the past there was a clear response from everyone: “it was the regime itself who did it.” For the regime the situation was not strange at all: footage, reports and condemnations followed quickly as they always have with these kind of attacks. It has now become a sensitive matter because in recent times this group has allied itself with certain FSA battalions while clashing with others. It is nevertheless something that has to be dealt with, one way or the other, because it concerns fundamental values and principles. The situation has already become difficult due to the great suffering of the people in Halab, their frustration with lack of progress and certain strategical decisions, the very difficult circumstances the FSA has to work with and increasingly unfortunate events taking place.
The only official statement about this recent attack came from Abu Firas al-Halabi, spokesperson for the Revolutionary Military Council in Aleppo, right after the explosions on Arabiya, posted on the Tawhid Brigade channel:
The attack is explained as an operation on a military target of security forces and Shabbiha without mentioning civilian casualties or the destruction of a residential area, or the name of the group or the character of the explosions. There is no real further discussion either, at the end the attack is brought up again to confirm that it was indeed a military target. The first concern here is that this council is the very top of the FSA leadership in Aleppo, who were aware of and apparently approved or tolerated not only the operation itself, but seemingly also Jabhat al-Nusra carrying it out in the way that it did.
However, the statement came probably before or as the regime’s footage and reports were coming out and a different picture began taking shape. Since then, only one report from “The Daily Beast” (never heard of it) followed up on it. The report looks serious and is well written, but there has been no way of verifying the quotes in it through other sources. The origins are apparently direct interviews with the paper. First, the main message is emphasized by the SOHC:
News of the alleged civilian deaths has prompted condemnation of the rebels’ tactics from some activists normally dedicated to detailing atrocities committed by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad’s government. “Targeting civilians, even if it’s not intentional, is unacceptable and condemnable,” says the Syrian Observatory’s Sipan Hassan. “The revolution began with aims to protect the Syrian people and give them freedom, not to kill them.”
A political response, representing a military group which is also in the council, essentially shares the same concerns:
“Sometimes people are hopeless, and that’s why they do things like this,” says a political leader for the Aleppo-based rebel group Suquor al-Sham, who goes by the nickname Abu Mohamed. “I am against any operation that takes innocent life. There are a lot of question marks behind this mission.”
The actual military response, however, has taken the discourse into a different direction according to this report:
When Syrian rebels bombed an officers’ club—which allegedly doubled as a military base for government forces—in central Aleppo on Wednesday, the initial response from many was to rejoice at having struck so deep inside the heart of the regime. “The point is that we got them in the middle of the city,” the head of the rebel military council in Aleppo, Col. Abdul Jabbar al-Okeidi, told The Daily Beast hours after the blasts. Casualty numbers were likely high, as the rebels claimed. “A lot of pigs died today,” Okeidi said. … In an interview on Thursday, Okeidi, the rebel military council leader, vehemently denied that civilians had died in the recent bombing. He pointed out that the regime has been accused of faking civilian deaths after rebel attacks in the past, and suggested that any victims thought to be civilians were actually shabiha, or regime-loyal thugs. “No civilians died. The people who died were shabiha,” Okeidi said. He also claimed that the heavy security around the square meant civilians had limited access to it, and that the bombings took place early in the morning, when civilians would have been asleep in their homes.
Col. Abdul Jabbar al-Akidi, who is the first one to speak in the video of the formation of the Revolutionary Military Council previously linked, is at the very top of the hierarchy in Aleppo and his words carry great weight. They confirm the previous statement on behalf of the council, and elaborates on the issues by taking the discourse into a different direction. This however only raises more questions.
First, if it is true that there have been no civilian casualties in this attack, an alternative portrayal of the events is required in as much as that it refutes what is evident from the footage and images from the regime. So far, nothing has come out. It’s no secret that this regime is notorious for its lies, fabrications and drama shows, and it is exposed for it over and over again. However, unless the footage of the aftermath and of the explosion as well as the photographs of it are of something else than the attack on the Saad al-Jabri square, it is inconceivable that there have been no civilian casualties. This because the damage and destruction is massive to the extent of what we’ve seen in some of the worst areas bombarded by the regime. Residential buildings have been shown to be gravely affected alongside of the targets to the extent that it’s impossible nobody got hurt in the process, that they were completely empty, or that the people shown in the footage of the explosion or in the aftermath of it are all security forces, Shabbiha or actors in a staged set.
Shabbiha is a name too loosely used for its mere mention to counter all of this. Jabhat al-Nusra carried out this attack and their definition of civilian is not one to go by. Clarity is of the utmost importance and it has to be noted that Islamic jurisprudence concerning these matters is far more strict than standards upheld by most armies around the world or the conventions countries signed on to. Important lessons can be learned from Shaykh Muhammad al-Ya`qoubi’s Fatwa on using land mines in urban warfare which was given in August of this year. An essential work covering a number of relevant aspects here is Shaykh Muhammad Afifi al-Akiti’s work Defending the Transgressed by Censuring the Reckless against the Killing of Civilians. It is unrealistic to expect an army born out of defections and supported by volunteers, even if ethics, morality and righteous ideals have been its driving force, to behave like saints. However, certain army mentalities of the past and the involvement of groups with standards of a very different kind resulting in the attack on the Saadallah al-Jabri square requires clarity on definitions and targets and makes the role of true religious guidance the more indispensable.
Secondly, if we assume that there have been no civilian casualties – as the bare minimum considering that non-civilians are not a category that can legally be targeted as far as Islamic jurisprudence is concerned – that still leaves the environment these military targets were in, namely in non-military public and private buildings and amongst residential buildings at a public square. If this is ignored simply because the area was occupied by military forces, then what kind of area is exactly off limits? For the regime, which is not concerned with any civilian or military differentiation to begin with, any area is a legitimate target. So they have bombarded peoples’ homes, schools, mosques, churches, hospitals, offices, malls, ancient ruins, monumental buildings and so on. If the Saadallah al-Jabri square looks like what it looks like from the so far uncontested footage and images from the regime, this is unacceptable regardless of any lack in civilian or even non-combatant military targets. Where will the destruction of the city end? Such destruction cannot be means to achieve enemy casualties, and “the goal of war in Islam is not to cause death or spill blood, rather it is to deter the enemy.” (Shaykh al-Yaqoubi from his previously mentioned Fatwa).
Finally, it cannot be said that the circumstances of the event and the regime’s quick response with footage of both the aftermath and the explosions, not to mention the bodies of two more suicide bombers who were apparently killed before detonating themselves, are not suspicious. That there has been some staging, as pointed out by the Col. in regards to civilian casualties, would be hardly strange. Like he said it wouldn’t be the first time, but the problem is that none of this is the first time, not such footage, not such attacks, not even the group. It’s the first time however that the response to it has been like this, whether through silence or through what has been reported here. Normally, the regime gets the blame for all of it. Why would any association or agreement between this group and the FSA change anything about the regime’s involvement? Have they admitted to their suspected origins and alliances or infiltrations and defected from it? It is important that there is further discussion with the Col. and hopefully more statements will follow from others in the council in Aleppo, and especially from Col. Riyad al-Asaad (back in Turkey again it seems) and Gen. Mustafa al-Sheikh. There were responses from others however, also in the report:
An official with the rebel Liwa al-Fatah brigade, which operates in Aleppo, likewise claimed that no civilian lives had been taken in the attack. “It’s funny that people are asking about civilians they think were killed by the rebels, when 30,000 people have been killed by the regime,” he says. “We’re trying to win the hearts of Syrians. We can’t lose them and fight the regime at the same time.” Rebels often speak of canceling missions over a concern for potential civilian casualties. A spokesman for Ahrar al-Sham, a large rebel brigade that operates across Syria that is known to conduct roadside bombings, even said in a recent interview with The Daily Beast that the group had scrapped missions because livestock had been meandering by.
The Fath Brigade is also part of the council, Ahrah al-Sham is not and has been associated with Jabhat al-Nusra, and it’s unclear what that says about civilian casualties in relation to the above comments regarding livestock and scrapping missions. Be that as it may, the idea that casualties caused by revolutionaries have to be compared with those caused by the regime is only applies to unbalanced responses such as that of the UNSC and others. Inside the revolution however, it should not be seen in a negative way, for example as being divisive or image tarnishing or the like. Speaking out against injustice is what it’s all about. It should not be seen as a small thing because the regime has killed and destroyed 1000 times more, injustice begins somewhere and only grows so the point of rejecting it cannot come too soon; it should in fact come before it happens. Such talk should therefore be rather seen as the brotherly advice as Islam prescribes, for the sake of guidance and righteousness in this revolution. And that is what the following reported from the Damascus branch of the Ahfadh al-Rasul Brigade (its Aleppo branch is also part of the council).
The attacks also have prompted debate inside the armed opposition about a bombing campaign against Syrian military targets that has been intensifying in recent months. “Any operation that hurts someone who’s innocent, we are against it completely,” says Ismail Mattar, a spokesman for the Ahfad al-Rasul brigade in Damascus, which has claimed responsibility for many of the high-profile bombings that have taken place in the capital of late. … Bombing attacks should be carefully targeted to hit only regime members, says Mattar, the Ahfad al-Rasul brigade spokesman. The brigade claims to get its bombs inside targeted sites with help from the inside, thereby limiting the unintended damage. Mattar also said suicide bombers should have no place in the rebel fight. “When we do an operation, we don’t get any civilians killed. We use defectors who are still working with the government and plant bombs on the inside,” he says. “You can’t blow up a car outside the building. Something like this should be done from the inside to avoid civilian casualties. If there’s a threat to civilian life, it should be called off completely.” “It’s not possible for someone who wants to protect civilians to kill civilians, too,” he adds.