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Islamic State Considered An Interloper By Larger Militant Groups

By Raja Abdulrahim, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Since declaring a caliphate, Islamic State has won the support of more than a dozen Islamist militant groups in the Middle East and Asia, but the dearth of endorsements from many of the largest and most recognizable groups shows the limits of the newcomer’s grand ambitions.

The al-Qaida breakaway group has been a lightning rod for devout support and bitter enemies since entering the Syrian civil war in April 2013. Its advances into Iraq, gruesome tactics and, most pointedly, its declaration of an ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim state covering the wide portions of eastern Syria and northern Iraq that it currently controls, have led to U.S.-led airstrikes and pledges of allegiance from 13 fellow Islamist militant groups.

Others have thrown their support behind Islamic State without putting themselves under the leadership of self-proclaimed caliph Abu Bakr Baghdadi.

But the best-known Islamist militant networks, such as major al-Qaida affiliates al-Shabaab and Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb in Africa, the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and Boko Haram in Nigeria, have not signed on to the movement that is seeking to position itself as the rightful leader of Muslims worldwide and the preferred destination for would-be Islamist fighters.

“These elements of support do exist, but I don’t think the caliphate announcement was as galvanizing or caused the huge shift that ISIS hoped it would,” said Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs Center in Israel, using a common acronym for Islamic State.

The closest the group has gotten to high-level backing was a recent statement by the Yemen-based Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula affirming support “for our brothers against the global crusader campaign.” But the ideological differences between the groups are probably likely too great to lead to anything beyond solidarity.

Though the bump from its caliphate declaration may not have been as large as the group hoped, Islamic State’s popularity among militants has drawn more into its fold.

“That’s one trump card they have, and you see that a lot on their recruitment messaging; ISIS is still emphasizing that most foreign fighters coming to Iraq and Syria are joining them,” al-Tamimi said.

The tactic has the feel of a marketing strategy, coming from a group that has shown social media savvy. Thus far, though, they have scored the militant equivalent of D-list celebrity endorsements.

The Somali-based al-Shabaab recently rejected an attempt by Islamic State representatives to buy its allegiance, according to a report by the U.S.-based SITE Intelligence group, which monitors online militant activity.

“The majority of groups pledging support are smaller, lesser known groups that have weak or no ties to al-Qaida central leadership, and are looking to affiliate themselves with [Islamic State] in order to bolster their own jihadist credentials,” Evan Jendruck, a terrorism analyst at Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre, said in an email.

For these mostly regionally focused groups, pledging to Islamic State was their first entry into the fray of global militancy.

Islamic State’s high media profile and continued momentum on the battlefield in Iraq and Syria has attracted “smaller factions around the world looking for a parent organization to tap into,” said Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center.

Those that have shown their support — if not complete loyalty — by funneling fighters to Islamic State include militant groups in Tunisia and the Gaza Strip. It remains to be seen what consequence this loyalty could have on Islamist militant causes beyond Iraq and Syria and whether Islamic State’s brutality will spread.

“Beyond attention-grabbing headlines, actual insurgent conflicts remain largely unchanged, so far,” Lister said.

In a speech in September, Islamic State spokesman Abu Muhammad Adnani called on Muslims to attack Westerners and specifically to “strike the soldiers, patrons, and troops of the tyrants. Strike their police, security and intelligence members, as well as their treacherous agents.”

The same month, a French tourist was beheaded in Algeria by an Islamic State-linked group called Jund Khilafah, which had warned it would execute him within 48 hours unless France stopped airstrikes in Iraq.

In the video of the beheading, one of the killers said, “This is why the Soldiers of the Caliphate in Algeria have decided to punish France, by executing this man, and to defend our beloved Islamic State.” It echoed the videos released by Islamic State in which American and British journalists and aid workers were beheaded in retaliation for airstrikes.

In the Philippines, the militant group Abu Sayyaf, which has pledged allegiance to Islamic State, threatened to kill two German hostages before releasing them on Oct. 17. The group had demanded that Berlin pull its support for the U.S.-led coalition and pay a $5.6 million ransom. Abu Sayyaf’s spokesman said the ransom was paid.

Unlike al-Qaida’s central command, which has affiliates in several global hot spots and more casual supporters, Islamic State demands nothing less than absolute fealty. That has turned off some potential supporters, who view Islamic State as an interloper that has risen to the top too quickly.

“There are a larger number of groups who are pledging affiliation to al-Qaida to align themselves against ISIS,” said Thomas Lynch III, a research fellow at the National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies in Washington.

Islamic State has disregarded established covert methods by recruiting openly and indiscriminately, thus failing to learn the lessons of predecessors and providing Western intelligence units the ability to track communications sites and fighter locations through social media, Lynch said.

It has also openly threatened neighboring countries around its home territory, actions that other Islamist militants see as rash and careless. “The serious jihadi outfits and networks are really mobilizing against ISIS, who are seen in the jihadi space as a usurper,” Lynch said.

Yet Islamic State continues to win support, even causing fractures in some groups.

Top officials, including the official spokesman, of the Pakistani Taliban — known as Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan or TTP — have pledged to Islamic State. The leader of TTP, an umbrella group of local and al-Qaida-affiliated militants, has not done the same.

In Syria, U.S.-led airstrikes aimed at debilitating and defeating Islamic State have had the opposite effect on the group’s popular backing. From Dair Alzour in the east to Aleppo in the northwest, residents and religious leaders have in part rallied behind Islamic State.

In Aleppo province, where the Western-backed Free Syrian Army and Islamic Front have controlled large areas, imams have taken to the pulpit in favor of Islamic State, speaking of the airstrikes as “a crusader war on Muslims,” said Humam Halabi, a member of the al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front.

The rise in ground support has corresponded with an exodus of fighters from other groups — especially foreign fighters — joining Islamic State’s ranks.

“It encourages them to say that (Islamic State) is 100 percent right because they are the only ones getting struck by the West,” Halabi said. “They say these strikes are going to weaken them, but in opposite it is going to strengthen them.”

AFP Photo

Syrian Rebels Lament Lack Of Weaponry From U.S.

By Raja Abdulrahim, Los Angeles Times

ATARIB, Syria — As the Syrian government warplane flew overhead, Malik Abu Iskandaroon ran to a storage room and grabbed a Russian-made surface-to-air missile.

Moments later, on the roof of the three-story villa, which serves as air force headquarters for the Harakat Hazm rebel group, he squinted at the threat in the sky.

Missile launcher resting on his shoulder, Abu Iskandaroon prepared to fire. But in the end he refrained, as the Sukhoi fighter jet flew by, miles out of range of his older-generation weapon. As he stood by helpless, the plane fired one rocket toward the town, killing four people.

The Russian-made Igla missiles “can strike a target up to 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) away,” said Abu Iskandaroon, who defected from a nearby government battalion. But the government warplanes “don’t fly under 4 kilometers.”

Months ago, Harakat Hazm, along with several other Western-backed Syrian rebel groups, appeared on the verge of receiving a strong boost in firepower they hoped would tip the balance of the civil war. In the spring, Harakat Hazm, with an estimated 7,000 fighters, became one of the first Syrian opposition militias to receive a shipment of American-made BGM-71 TOW antitank missiles.

But the U.S. weapons shipments proved to be very few. The advanced weaponry they’d hoped for never arrived.

“It was supposed to be a positive sign for additional American aid,” Harakat Hazm commander 1st Lt. Abdullah Awda said. “But as a missile, it is just a missile like what we were already using.”

Islamic State’s recent advances in northern and eastern Syria have added urgency to the question of delivering new arms to Syrian rebels, to help combat an extremist group now seen as a significant international threat. But the firepower supplied by the West has proved inadequate, and so has the pace of supply.

As the U.S. considers the possibility of launching airstrikes in Syria against the Al Qaeda breakaway group Islamic State, President Obama this week emphasized the need to more effectively support moderate rebels in Syria. But commanders on the ground say they have not been included in any discussion of U.S. airstrikes or additional weapons, underscoring the shaky and limited partnership the Americans have with their only Syrian allies.

“There is no coordination. We have no news… we have no details,” said Jamal Maroof, commander of the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, another TOW recipient with fighters in northern and southern Syria.

Congress has yet to approve a $500-million arms and training program proposed by President Obama in June, and the rebels — Western-backed as well as other groups — continue to mostly rely on outdated spoils of war seized from the Syrian army in their fight against the government of President Bashar Assad.

“You can’t defeat ISIS with airstrikes only in Iraq; ISIS has a stronger base in Syria and controls large parts of the country,” said Hussam Marie, a spokesman for the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army, referring to Islamic State by a common acronym. He added that airstrikes alone in Syria on Islamic State would not be enough to dislodge the group.

“There is no way to battle ISIS without supporting the Free Syrian Army,” he said. “We tell them that, but what is strange is our voice doesn’t have much influence among our friends of Syria.”

Now, with the Obama administration rushing antitank weapons and other arms to Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq to offset the swift advances by Islamic State there, Syrian rebel groups are growing increasingly impatient and demoralized as their situation continues to deteriorate.

A select few rebel groups examined and “vetted” for U.S. help have received a total of only a few dozen TOW antitank missiles, so few that they can be used only sparingly, resulting in a minimal effect on the battlefield.

The U.S.-supplied missiles, they say, lack the power and range of newer weaponry. In most cases, many complain, they are no better than the Russian weapons the rebels have seized from Syrian government bases.

Fighters who have been trained covertly in Qatar by the CIA spend days if not weeks scoping out a target for the TOWs.

More than two months ago, when a convoy of 10 Syrian military tanks progressed along a government road toward rebel positions in Aleppo, Harakat Hazm used a TOW to destroy the first tank and stalled the convoy’s advance for 10 days. The group later destroyed four or five more tanks and armored vehicles with the antitank weapons.

But the attack merely delayed the government advance. In July, government forces seized control of the strategic Industrial City neighborhood and are now only a few miles from surrounding rebel neighborhoods.

Another group that received TOW missiles used them near the Industrial City front line recently to destroy a bulldozer.

“God is great! God is great!” the rebel fighters shouted in a video of the event posted online, jubilant over the destruction of a machine that appeared to be making berms.

Such limited successes do little to buoy rebels’ spirits as the conflict drags on. Driving toward the front line recently, Harakat Hazm fighters Aasim Zeidan and Muhammad Abu Matar discussed not their hope for victory but the futility, so far, of their fight.

“Abu Matar and I are planning to die as martyrs in the upcoming battle for Aleppo, because that’s it, we just want to be done with it,” Zeidan said. “It’s been three years, and … we haven’t accomplished any victory.”

In Iraq, the CIA until recently covertly funneled weapons to Kurdish fighters. The Kurds are longtime allies of the United States and their ability to counteract the threat of Islamic State is seen as vital to American interests. The arms supply to the Kurdish troops has recently been taken over by the Pentagon, a transition that Syrian rebels would like to see replicated with them.

It is the difference between a secret program whose existence the White House can deny and the “foundation for a partnership,” said Oubai Shahbandar, a communications advisor for the opposition Syrian National Coalition.

One concern on the part of the Obama administration is that the Syrian rebels could lose advanced Western-made weaponry to Islamist extremists.

Those concerns have intensified since July, when a Malaysian airliner was shot down over war-racked eastern Ukraine, most likely by a pro-Russia separatist who had come into possession of a sophisticated antiaircraft missile. Nearly 300 civilians died.

Another issue is that the reliability of Syrian rebel groups allied with the West is sometimes not clear-cut, particularly when the groups must frequently make compromises with groups blacklisted as terrorists by the U.S. to remain viable.

Outside Syria, members of the political opposition who have helped facilitate the weapons transfers to the fighters play up the groups’ moderation and secular agenda in hope of securing more advanced armaments. But inside Syria, such characterizations have become a burden that fighters try to shrug off.

Harakat Hazm, for example, has struggled with being regarded as a U.S. pawn and labeled as secular in the midst of an opposition movement that has grown increasingly Islamist.

“Inside Syria we became labeled as secularists and feared Al Nusra Front was going to battle us,” Zeidan said, referring to an Al Qaeda-linked rebel group that has been designated by the U.S. as a terrorist organization. Then he smiled and added, “But Nusra doesn’t fight us, we actually fight alongside them. We like Nusra.”

In July, eight West-backed rebel brigades — all recipients of military aid — released a statement of “rejection of all forms of cooperation and coordination” with Al Nusra Front. Harakat Hazm was one of the signatories, even as it fought on the same front lines with the group in Aleppo, battling both Islamic State militants in the north and government forces seeking to retake the city.

Beleaguered rebels say the failure of the U.S. to deliver adequate weapons leaves them unable to refuse whatever allies come their way, including those with opposing politics.

Some shipments of TOWs, Awda said, have contained only three or four missiles, and the more sophisticated weapons haven’t come at all.

“They said they want to give us [antiaircraft] Stingers but they need to trust us first,” said Abu Matar.

Abu Matar, who like Zeidan was trained in Qatar by Americans, said he had already spent more than two years fighting, and didn’t learn anything new.

“They just wanted to see us,” he said.

“See what our thinking is,” added Abu Iskandaroon.

At a warehouse at the front line, fighters peer through small openings at a heavily armed Syrian military compound the rebels have been trying to seize for more than a year. So close, yet out of reach of their current weapons.

Overhead, a warplane circled.

“May God bless them, these donors; really we pray for them,” said local Harakat Hazm commander Amaar Burro, raising a Kalashnikov in his arms.

“Tomorrow we’ll give them olive oil and olives,” Zeidan said.

“Man,” Burro said, “we’ll give them the whole tree if they just help us get rid of” Assad.

AFP Photo/Joseph Eid

Syrian Forces Retake Damascus Suburb In Another Setback For Rebels

By Raja Abdulrahim, Los Angeles Times

Syrian forces regained control over a strategic suburb of the capital on Thursday as rebels under heavy bombardment said they were forced to withdraw.

The fall of Mleiha, the Damascus suburb that the rebels had controlled for nearly two years, is a major setback for the beleaguered opposition, which has seen its hold over much of the country weaken over the past year.

With Mleiha in government hands, other rebel strongholds in the Ghouta Sharqia area east of the capital are even more vulnerable to advances by military forces.

Hundreds of rebels in Mleiha were forced to pull out after coming under intense air and mortar bombardment by government forces and Hezbollah militants, said Abu Yazan, a media activist who had been in the town. Other rebel sources said opposition fighters remained in some parts of Mleiha.

“Occupying Mleiha is the beginning phase of occupying the towns inside the besieged Ghouta,” said Abdurrahman, a spokesman with the Islam Army, one of the largest rebel groups in Damascus.

“He will attack piece by piece,” Abdurrahman added, referring to the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad. The spokesman goes by his first name only for security reasons.

The Ghouta, which has been under government siege for more than a year, was attacked last August with chemical weapons, killing around 1,400 people. The two sides in the conflict blamed each other for the assault, with the United States and other Western allies pinning it on Assad’s forces.

Mleiha is only the latest victory for the regime, which since late last year has gradually retaken territory from the opposition rebels, some through military force aided by an outmatched air power and others through truces after months of dwindling resources and starvation.

State media reported that rebels in Mleiha used it as a base to carry out attacks on civilians. The town lies next to the pro-government and mostly minority suburb of Jaramana, which has come under regular mortar attack.

The army’s general command told state media that with Mleiha now under government control, troops have tightened the noose around the Ghouta Sharqia “and established a springboard from which these terrorists can be eliminated completely.”

The government routinely describes the opposition as terrorists.

AFP Photo/Joseph Eid

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Islamic State’s Momentum Complicates The Fight In Syria

By Raja Abdulrahim, Los Angeles Times

AKHTARIN, Syria — The rebel fighters peered through small holes in the wall of the abandoned poultry plant and across the farm fields where forces of the Islamic State had massed.

Hidden here, breathing the rank air, the rebels could see evidence of their foes’ recent victories: U.S.-made Humvees captured from the army in neighboring Iraq and driven almost all the way across Syria, as if the borders between the countries no longer existed.

More than a military advantage, the American vehicles serve as a psychological tool against more moderate Syrian rebels.

In Akhtarin, one village on a 30-mile front line that extends from the Turkish border to Aleppo, rebels buoyed by the arrival of hundreds of reinforcements from neighboring provinces have held off several attacks by Islamic State fighters. But they fear they are outmatched by the extremist group, which is enjoying momentum and the spoils of the Iraq war.

The rebels may soon face another complication. They could find themselves squeezed between the Islamic State, which broke away from al-Qaida, and al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria, Al Nusra Front, as the two battle for dominance in the global Islamist militant movement.

The Islamic State, emboldened by its swift advance in Iraq — along with allied Sunni Muslim groups it now controls an estimated one-third of that country — and flush with new cash and oil wealth, hopes to push westward in Aleppo province.

As recently as January, several rebel groups had united to expel fighters of the Islamic State — then known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS — from parts of northern Syria. But the group’s lightning advance in Iraq and declaration of a caliphate encompassing Iraq and Syria have given it enormous momentum, said Badee Muhammed, a commander with the Islamic Front, a rebel faction that opposes it.

“We were expecting them to return, because we know that their goal is not just Aleppo … their ultimate goal is the entire region,” he said.

Since June, when Islamic State leader Abu Bakr Baghdadi announced the establishment of an Islamic caliphate, the group has consolidated its control over much of the oil-rich eastern province of Dair Alzour. It continues to make gains in Hasakah province in northeastern Syria.

It recently began clashing with President Bashar Assad’s forces. The two sides had so far mostly avoided confrontation, leading many to conclude there was collusion between them to weaken Syria’s various rebel groups.

But last month Islamic State fighters seized two military bases in the north, beheading some government soldiers and displaying their bodies and heads at a busy roundabout. They also captured and briefly held an important gas field in central Homs province.

The Islamic State now controls about a third of Syria, according to the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

In Aleppo, rebel groups see themselves as the last line of defense against the territory-hungry Islamic State. Since its resurgence in the province, Islamic State fighters have seized control of only three villages, but rebels doubt they can stem the advance given the imbalance in weaponry.

Even nonlethal equipment gives the extremists an edge. Many of the clashes take place at night, and Islamic State fighters appear to have night-vision goggles. In contrast, their foes say they often are forced to fire blindly at night, wasting ammunition.

“If we don’t get more military aid soon, it is impossible for us to hold them off. I go to the front lines and try to lift the fighters’ spirits, but in the end we have no idea how we’re going to resist,” said Muhammed, the Islamic Front commander, adding that they have received only $200,000 from the Western-backed Supreme Military Council.

“It is fear and a lack of ammunition,” said Abu Hussein Debo, a local commander in Akhtarin. “Because they are coming and slaughtering with no mercy.”

Fighters here have direct knowledge of the public executions and other brutal tactics that Islamic State forces used before they were expelled from the area earlier. And they’ve heard of the recent beheadings elsewhere.

Soon after the Islamic State began seizing territory in Iraq, a map purporting to show the group’s five-year plan was released. It showed the Middle East, South Asia, and the northern half of Africa under the group’s black flag.

“The map keeps getting bigger and their goals keep getting more extensive,” Muhammed said. “And if we can’t stand in their way and push them back, that could happen.”

Al Nusra Front might stand in the way as well. The al-Qaida affiliate is an ally of more moderate rebel groups fighting Assad, but it is starting to replicate some of the Islamic State’s strategies in an effort to avoid becoming irrelevant in the global militant movement.

A month after the Islamic State declared a transnational caliphate, Al Nusra said it would eventually announce its own governing entity, an emirate in Syria.

Humam Halabi of Manara Al Bayda, Al Nusra’s media channel, said that could happen within a month, and that in the meantime the group was undergoing an internal restructuring.

The Syrian al-Qaida branch, much like al-Qaida’s central command itself, has been overshadowed by the rapid rise of the Islamic State, which espouses more extreme views and is more social media savvy. Al-Qaida renounced the Islamic State this year after it repeatedly failed to heed orders from Ayman al-Zawahri, al-Qaida’s leader.

“Obviously, Syria has become a battleground between al-Qaida and IS,” Halabi said.

So far, Al Nusra has engaged in heavy clashes with Islamic State fighters only in eastern Syria, where battles have raged over control of oil fields. Many Al Nusra fighters are unwilling to kill fellow Sunni Muslims, but now leaders are taking drastic measures.

Al-Qaida-linked religious leaders have traveled from Afghanistan, Chechnya, and Saudi Arabia to persuade them that there is proof that Islamic State fighters are “khawarij” — Muslims who have turned against a rightful leader — and must be fought, Halabi said.

In announcing plans for an emirate, Al Nusra hopes to lure back some of the groups that have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, as well as attract the foreign fighters who have been drawn to the conflicts in Syria and Iraq.

“The foreign fighters want either an emirate or a caliphate,” Halabi said.

Al Nusra also is feeling the effects of the Islamic State’s momentum. It has suffered a drop in revenue because it has lost control of the oil wells it once held in eastern Syria as some of its groups have withdrawn and others have joined the Islamic State.

“They are trying to regroup and reestablish their financial support,” said Mustafa Sultan, a rebel with the Islamic Front.

Al Nusra also is distancing itself from mainstream rebels, especially those allied with Western backers, in an attempt to regain credibility. It recently withdrew from the Sharia Committee, a legal authority in Aleppo it helped establish, and has formed its own version, Halabi said.

The al-Qaida group might soon also withdraw from a joint operations room, which has coordinated all the opposition battles in Aleppo province in recent months, he said.

But first, Al Nusra plans to form its own army, Halabi said. “An emirate without an army won’t do.”

AFP Photo

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As Syrian Army Sets Sights On Aleppo, Residents Flee A Broken City

By Raja Abdulrahim, Los Angeles Times

ALEPPO, Syria — Minutes after the barrel bomb eviscerated the crowded market, those still alive had to contend with matters of survival — and collecting what little remained of the dead.

A woman with tired eyes walked away cradling a bottle of water and a few onions like she would a baby. Her black abaya was almost gray from the dust and pulverized concrete. Behind her, her son held a small grocery bag full of the little they had bought before the oil drum filled with TNT killed at least 15 people.

“Oh my God!” a man on a motorcycle said as he stopped near a destroyed fried chicken restaurant.

His shock wasn’t over the human wreckage, but something more pragmatic in a city struggling to feed itself: “The chickens!”

As he spoke, another man walked up behind him, his outstretched arm gingerly holding a bulging black bag.

“Where are the body parts?” he asked.

Several bystanders pointed him to Persian rugs folded over one another to hide their contents. Half a leg and an arm had been collected in a wide-brimmed pan that moments earlier had been used to display freshly harvested vegetables.

Abu Karam, a rebel fighter, was helping to gather the body parts for burial. They had become accustomed to this hurried, bloody task.

“Yeah, yeah, this is Syrian meat,” he said angrily.

It was a rare moment of anger in Aleppo. Anger these days has been overtaken by exhaustion after months of intense air bombardments from emboldened government forces attempting to regain control of the entire city.

Just a few months ago, residents here tried to maintain some level of normality.

Now there is an exodus from a broken city.
___

It was a little past sunrise, and at intersections and roundabouts drivers of buses and microbuses yelled out a stream of destinations: Turkey, Aleppo’s government side, the countryside, even cities controlled by the extremist group the Islamic State.

Anywhere but here.

The only vehicles on the road at this hour, which usually offers a brief lull in the airstrikes, are full of people fleeing the bombs and the threat of a government siege, a lifetime’s worth of possessions strapped tightly atop buses and pickup trucks.

“Fear of the siege and fear of the barrels,” one man said, quickly explaining his reasons for leaving before jumping into a microbus headed for Manbij, a city under Islamic State control. “The barrels increased, and every day the government advances from here and from here.”

In an effort to replicate their success in parts of Damascus, the capital, and the central city of Homs, forces loyal to the government of President Bashar Assad advanced this month to retake Aleppo, once Syria’s commercial hub. Rebels say Assad is pursuing the same policy of submission by starvation.

Rebel reinforcements have come from neighboring provinces to help stave off the government encroachment, but the opposition has no antiaircraft weaponry to combat the air bombardment.

Life in Aleppo is marked by morbid calculations: At the sound of a helicopter, men light up to enjoy a cigarette one last time. As rockets strike nearby targets, a rebel places his car keys across the room: In case he is killed, why have the keys covered in blood?
___

“Grab the injured first; leave the bodies for now,” Khalid Hijjo yelled from the back seat of the truck.

As the civil defense team careened through rubble-lined streets in its red first-responder truck, attacking each speed bump with little hesitation, driver Jameel Minahijji peered through a windshield cracked by previous airstrikes.

“Where, Abu Abdo?” Minahijji asked a bystander as he briefly slowed the truck and leaned out the window. The man pointed in the general direction of the Masaken Hanano neighborhood.

But when the team got there, the streets were abandoned and there was no one to ask where the barrel bomb had landed. The neighborhood had long since been emptied of its last holdouts.

“Where?” Minahijji asked no one in particular.

“Take a right,” guessed Sobhi Hussein.

“Here,” someone yelled, and they all jumped out of the truck, scrambling for signs of a recent attack amid remnants — pancaked roofs and sunken buildings — of so many others.

By this point, an ambulance had caught up with them. “Where?” the driver asked.

The men hopped back into the truck and kept frantically searching for fire or smoke or even a cloud of dust. When they couldn’t find anything, they consoled themselves by saying the bomb probably hadn’t killed anyone because everyone had already left.

“We don’t have the ability to know,” Hijjo explained as they drove back to the civil defense station, a repurposed middle school reeking of sweat and blood, indications of its former self — desks, books, models of human organs — relegated to forgotten corners.

While waiting for the next barrel attack, civil defense member Diya Badoor repeatedly flicked a switchblade open and shut.

“It’s gotten to the point where you hope to die,” he said.

“The most important thing is to die in one piece,” Hijjo said.

“Why does it matter? It’s all the same — your soul has left your body,” said Shahood Hussein, Sobhi’s brother.

“It’s not for me,” Badoor said, shaking his head. “But I don’t want you guys to get tired picking up all the pieces.”

Photo: Los Angeles Times/MCT/Raja Abdulrahim

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Islamic State Fighters Capture Military Base In Syria, Behead Soldiers

By Raja Abdulrahim, Los Angeles Times

ANTAKYA, Turkey — Militants with the al-Qaida breakaway group Islamic State seized control of a military base in northern Syria late Thursday night, beheading dozens of soldiers and displaying their headless bodies, activists said.

It is only the latest victory for the extremist group that has made rapid advances in both Iraq and Syria in recent months as it pursues its goal of creating an Islamic caliphate.

There have been sporadic skirmishes around the base, called Division 17, in Raqqa province for months, but on Wednesday Islamic State fighters launched a concerted offensive. The fighting began when two militants blew themselves up in with suicide car bombs near the base’s chemistry battalion, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition watchdog group based in Britain.

Within a day the militants had taken over the base and begun carting off light and heavy weaponry, said Abu Muhammad, an activist with the Masar Press Agency.

“Every government soldier they capture they execute immediately,” he said.

The assault on Syrian government positions marks a departure for the Islamic State, which recently shortened its name from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria once it declared that it had succeeded in forming the caliphate. Until recently it had for the most part not fought regime forces, instead focusing on seizing territory from opposition rebels who are fighting to oust the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The lack of open conflict between the Islamic State and the government, avowed enemies, had led many in the opposition to believe the two sides were colluding to undermine and defeat other rebel forces.

When the Islamic State, which grew from al-Qaida’s Iraqi branch, first entered the Syrian conflict last year, it fought alongside other rebel forces. But soon it turned against others in the opposition, accusing them of corruption, executing their fighters and activists and pushing them out of towns and villages. As the Islamic State increasingly fought with rebels, the opposition found it harder to maintain its battle against government forces and lost control of many areas.

But as the Islamic State has expanded into neighboring Iraq, where it shares control over about half the country, and consolidated its hold on major parts of eastern Syria, it has launched offensives against regime targets as part of its greater plan to establish the Islamic caliphate in both countries and beyond.

The Islamic State now holds about a third of Syria, according to the observatory.

Last week the militant fighters seized the Sha’er gas field from regime and paramilitary forces in the central Homs province. The move struck a major blow against the government, which had already lost control over many oil fields in eastern Syria. Islamic State controls most of the fields, making it among the wealthiest terrorist networks, experts believe.

The Islamic State executed or otherwise killed 270 paramilitary fighters, guards and employees at the Sha’er field, the observatory said.

AFP Photo/Mohammed Abdul Aziz

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In Syria, A Loaf Of Bread Costs One Man His Independence

By Raja Abdulrahim, Los Angeles Times

ALEPPO, Syria — In the living room he helped build, Mahmood sat in a wooden chair, being scolded by his wife. The urine in his drainage bag had just spilled onto the freshly mopped floor.

“Why is it ripping each day?” Auroba asked sternly, exasperation creeping into her voice.

“What do I know?” he said quietly, slumped forward like a child in trouble. His patchy salt-and-pepper beard spoke of an uneven, hurried shave.

“What are you doing to it?” Auroba pressed, as she grabbed a bucket and handed it to him.

Mahmood took the bucket and placed the leaking bag inside without answering.

He’s surrounded by reminders of his former existence as a self-reliant man, a second-generation carpenter: coffee tables, a desk, an entertainment system, built with his own hands. Now, when the 50-year-old finishes his daily coffee, he wordlessly hands the cup to a family member, unable to lean forward even slightly to place it back on the coffee table.

A simple act of independence stolen by a sniper’s bullet.

Sometimes he wishes the man with the gun had finished him off. “There are moments when I want to kill myself,” he said.
___

In a conflict that has already killed more than 160,000 people, there is little time to dwell on the living, no matter their condition.
The war, now in its fourth year, has left an estimated 1.1 million Syrians injured, according to the opposition Syrian Network for Human Rights.

With resources exceedingly limited, especially in opposition-controlled areas, even amputees, the paralyzed and the otherwise maimed must, by and large, fend for themselves.

“I pray to God that if I get struck I will die immediately and not be injured,” said Fuad, a volunteer nurse at a field hospital in the opposition-held neighborhood of Bustan Qasir where Mahmood has his catheter changed. “After a while, everyone gets sick of you. The focus here is on life and death; if he’s alive, leave him.”

Even before the 2011 uprising, Syrian society was inhospitable to the disabled. They were most often stuck at home or begging in the streets. Many curbs are about a foot high, placing the rare wheelchair ramp at a dangerously steep angle.

The country also doesn’t have a strong tradition of physical therapy to help those injured regain a modicum of independence.

In spite of the injuries inflicted by the conflict, few nonprofits work in the field of rehabilitation; most humanitarian aid is directed at trauma care and helping orphans and widows.

Raed Masri is the manager of the year-old National Syrian Project for Prosthetic Limbs. The project, which builds prosthetics as well as offers physical therapy, has a clinic in Reyhanli, Turkey, and recently opened one in northern Syria. There are plans to open offices in Jordan and Lebanon as well.

“This is a constantly growing number,” Masri said of the need. “If we say there are 100 cases in Aleppo and then there is shelling today, there may be four more cases.”
___
It was early 2013, the height of a bread shortage in Aleppo, and Mahmood had gone out to buy a loaf. He had to walk about a mile until he found a bakery that was open, and then he stood in line for six hours.

As he was walking home, he suddenly felt a sharp prick in his back and collapsed in the middle of the street. He grabbed one of his legs and tried to lift it, but it fell lifelessly.

“You people, you citizens, I didn’t do anything!” he yelled at the faceless sniper as he lay in the empty street.

His screams drew worshippers from a nearby mosque. No one dared to venture into the street to pull him to safety; instead, they threw a rope and dragged him out of the sniper’s sights, further injuring his back.

He was taken to a private hospital in the government-controlled side of the city of Aleppo, but doctors refused to operate, saying he was permanently paralyzed from the waist down. They didn’t remove the bullet until weeks later, when he developed a high fever.

When he pressed about possible treatments, some doctors told him there was no hope while others assured him he would heal naturally. Some, well-meaning, advised him to rub olive oil on his back.

“If I had been killed it would have been better,” he said, tears falling from eyes with droopy lids and a permanent pleading look. “If a shell hit me, I’d say it’s OK, but not some son of a bitch to shoot me, and all for some bread.”

Over the months, Mahmood’s legs have begun to atrophy and twist to the right. Occasionally he grabs them and jerks them upright. He spends most of his days sitting on the couch, his legs stretched out in front of him but hidden under a blanket.

“I am embarrassed to ask anyone to carry me down,” Mahmood said of getting downstairs. “People don’t have time for me. I was someone who relied only on myself.”

Until recently, the family had been living in an empty, ground-floor doctor’s office. Although there was no shower and no electricity, he was happier there because he could roll himself out to the sidewalk in his wheelchair and sit for hours.

People suggest that he go to neighboring Turkey for surgery that might restore his ability to walk. But the family, which receives food aid and is struggling to pay about $33 a month for rent, can afford neither the operation nor travel. There is also no guarantee such an operation would be successful.

Photo: Los Angeles Times/MCT/Raja Abdulrahim

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Syrian Officials, Rebels Reach Deal To Restore Electricity To Aleppo

By Raja Abdulrahim, Los Angeles Times

The Syrian government and rebels struck a rare agreement Monday to restore electricity in Aleppo province, cut off by the opposition for more than a week, in exchange for a cessation of airstrikes by the military.

Several rebel groups severed the electricity for the province, demanding that the government cease its bombardment on opposition areas with barrel bombs. The oil drums filled with TNT have ravaged the city of Aleppo and its suburbs for four months and have led to a mass exodus of residents. Activists estimate that more than 2,000 civilians have been killed in the bombings alone.

The deal is scheduled to go into effect Tuesday.

Truces have become common around the capital, Damascus, as the military blockades have led opposition-held areas to agree to lay down arms in exchange for food and medicine. However, rebels in the north have long rejected any calls for cease-fires.

But the months of unrelenting bombardment, which have left some parts of Aleppo almost entirely deserted, led to the ultimatum by the rebels. They had threatened that if the government did not relent, the electricity outages would be extended to Damascus and the coastal province of Latakia, a stronghold for President Bashar Assad.

“The regime recently began dropping the explosive barrels on the civilians in an insane way,” said Yaser Ataee, spokesman for the Sharia Committee in Aleppo, which reached the agreement with the government.

The partial truce, which will have no effect on ongoing clashes between the two sides, comes on the heels of a weekslong offensive by the rebels. The fighting has seen the opposition regain the upper hand against the military in Aleppo, cutting off a strategic reinforcement route and besieging the government-controlled parts of the city, though at least one passage remains open for civilians and humanitarian needs.

State media reported the restoration of power to Aleppo province but gave a differing account. The Ministry of Electricity reported that power lines damaged by terrorist groups had been repaired, according to the Syrian Arab News Agency. The government routinely refers to opposition forces as terrorists.

The development is the latest in the battle for Aleppo, which has seen a switching of fortunes from one side to the other. Government forces had been gradually retaking parts of Aleppo for many months and in March were close to encircling and blockading rebel-held areas.

On Monday, the Sharia Committee, along with several rebel factions including the Islamic Front and the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front, received a written agreement from the government by way of the Red Crescent, Ataee said.

The agreement includes promises on both sides not to target civilians and not to interfere with utilities such as water and electricity. Ataee said that electricity to several parts of the city was restored on Monday, earlier than expected.

“And if the regime breaks any clause (of the agreement), we will easily do what needs to be done,” he said. “In a few hours we will see the regime’s compliance with this issue, even though we doubt it will comply. But this is necessary to embarrass them diplomatically.”

Photo via AFP

In Syria, U.N. Agency Distributes Most Food In Government-Held Areas

By Raja Abdulrahim, Los Angeles Times

The World Food Program gives out most of its food aid to Syria in government-held areas, with only a quarter of the distributions occurring in rebel-controlled territory, according to latest figures from the U.N. agency.

The findings underscore the obstacles facing the WFP, which is the major distributor of food aid in Syria, in getting help to rebel-held areas. Many of those zones are under frequent bombardment by Syrian forces, making access dangerous for aid workers and their drivers.

In addition, the WFP needs government permission to cross into rebel territory. And many Syrians fleeing combat are more likely to head for areas that are held by the government or are contested, drawing fewer airstrikes or heavy fire.

“The displacement is disproportionately higher in areas that they think is safer, which is government-controlled areas and contested areas,” said WFP spokeswoman Abeer Etefa. “Our focus is always on those displaced population, which is one reason why you have increased distribution in government-controlled areas.”

The distribution breakdown, presented in monthly WFP maps, shows the percentage delivered to both sides in each of the country’s 14 provinces. In March, all food aid was given to government areas in six provinces, including Aleppo, Damascus and Hama. In Raqqa and Dara, all aid was distributed to opposition areas, according to the WFP.

In all but one of the remaining provinces, a majority of aid went to government areas, with an even split in the final province. On average across the provinces, the maps show, 75 percent of the aid distributions occurred in zones controlled by President Bashar Assad’s forces.

The war has left immense poverty and need across the country. However, opposition towns and neighborhoods have been some of the hardest hit, with government shelling and air campaigns reducing some areas to disaster zones with little surviving infrastructure.

And though many civilians have fled to government towns and neighborhoods, a large number have moved to other opposition areas deemed safer. In the last few months, makeshift refugee camps have sprung up all along the border with Turkey, some of them little more than shelters made of tarps and sticks.

The WFP’s most recent assessment in Syria revealed that more than 9 million people lack reliable access to sufficient food and 6.5 million cannot survive without food assistance. This comes at a time when humanitarian agencies are warning that the country may be facing a drought, which would exacerbate the situation.

The agency’s goal is to reach 4.25 million people each month in Syria, which amounts to about 40,000 tons of food, but it has regularly fallen short. In March it reached 4.1 million people and distributed in all 14 provinces, Etefa said.

Kareem Shami, an opposition aid volunteer in Damascus, blamed the Syrian government for the lack of aid going to opposition-controlled areas.

Assad’s military “has instituted the blockades so that aid cannot get in,” he said. “He hasn’t blockaded it for nine months in order for the U.N. to come in and provide aid.”

The government has pursued a siege campaign against many opposition areas in Damascus and Homs, preventing food, medicine and other aid from entering for many months. Rebels have also laid siege to some towns, but to a lesser extent.

The WFP, like other U.N. agencies, operates under a General Assembly mandate that says Syria’s sovereignty cannot be violated. That rule in effect bans crossing borders that are under opposition control, limiting aid distribution to such places as Aleppo, where all crossings with Turkey are in rebel hands.

But Etefa said safety was also a major concern. “Who are the truck drivers that you can send to an area that is being bombed in order to deliver?” she asked. “It’s a war zone.”

On Saturday, a blast in Hama killed an aid driver and injured two others, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent tweeted. “Each side has a role to play in the fact that many people are going hungry,” she said, adding that at a time when access was improving, “I don’t want to point fingers.”

This month, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees delivered humanitarian assistance to an opposition-held neighborhood in Aleppo. The government and rebels agreed on a rare cease-fire so the aid could be delivered.

The UNHCR had last delivered aid to the area in June 2013, and no assistance had reached the population there since, according to the United Nations.

There have been other one-time instances of aid getting into hard-to-reach rebel areas, including Qamishli in the northeast of the country and the eastern suburbs of Damascus, the capital. But such limited deliveries do little to alleviate the situation.

In the Yarmouk camp near Damascus, home to both Palestinian refugees and Syrians, aid has been allowed to enter on and off depending on government permission or clashes between rebels and government forces. More than 100 people are said to have died from starvation in Yarmouk, according to opposition activists.

On Sunday, a spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees warned that U.N. food in the Yarmouk camp was about to run out after 12 consecutive days without food deliveries because of fighting between the rebels and government.

“The U.N. groups are always waiting for permission from the regime, and for the regime, aid is a red line,” Shami said. “And even when it comes in, it is in such a small amount.”

©afp.com / Joseph Eid

In Syria, Bombardment Of Aleppo Brings ‘A Feeling Of Paralysis’

By Raja Abdulrahim, Los Angeles Times

When Omar Naasir wants a restful night’s sleep in Aleppo, he says, he stays as close as possible to the front line of the ongoing clashes between Syrian rebel and government forces.

Farther back in his rebel-controlled neighborhood, Naasir says, the risk of death greatly increases because of the barrel bombs and other explosives raining down daily amid the government’s bombardment campaign.

“Between us and the regime army is sometimes less than 100 meters, so they don’t drop barrel bombs there so they don’t strike their positions,” he said via Skype, referring to the deadly oil drums filled with TNT.

“With barrel bombs, there is a feeling of paralysis that is indescribable,” said the former peace activist turned rebel.

Even when airstrikes intensified on Aleppo’s opposition-held neighborhoods in late December, many residents vowed not to be driven from their homes. But as the attacks continued and in the last two weeks increased to sometimes 30 barrel bombs a day, most civilians fled, opposition activists say.

About 10 percent to 30 percent of the population remains in the city’s rebel-held areas, they say. Most are fighters, activists and aid workers.

“Very, very few people are left,” said Naasir, a member of the Ansar al-Haq rebel group.

Since Jan. 1, activists say, an estimated 800 to 2,000 people have been killed by barrel bombs alone. The pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported Thursday that more than 400 people had died in February, including 109 children.

Now major portions of the northern Syrian city, long a bustling commercial hub and home to millions, are deserted. Residents have fled to government-held neighborhoods, the suburbs or Turkey.

Those interviewed said they could no longer cope with the government bombing, coupled with internal clashes between rebel forces such as the Free Syrian Army and fighters with the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which until recently was affiliated with al-Qaida.

For weeks, they said, barrel bombs have struck homes, schools and mosques.

On Wednesday, at least 38 civilians were killed, according to activist groups. In a video recorded just after the strike, civil defense members and fellow residents pulled the dead and wounded from a partially collapsed building. They called out for blankets to carry the mangled remains. The gore has become a daily ritual for those unable or unwilling to leave.

“We carry the wounded and then we continue what we were doing,” said Naasir, who was sleeping when a bomb recently fell about 50 feet from his building. He said he helped retrieve those killed and wounded in the early morning attack and then went back to bed.

The bombardment has continued this week as a second round of peace talks began in Switzerland, but it has not been a topic of the negotiations aimed at ending the conflict, which began in March 2011.

In a statement last week, U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry condemned the barrel bombings and said that with the attacks, “the Assad regime reminds the world of its true colors.”

“Each and every barrel bomb … launched against innocent Syrians underscores the barbarity of a regime that has turned its country into a super-magnet for terror,” Kerry said. “Given this horrific legacy, the Syrian people would never accept as legitimate a government including Assad.”

Riyad Hussein, an activist with the Aleppo Media Center, said some neighborhoods were now empty.

“You know like in the movies when you see these areas that are just piles of rock and dust and are desolate?” he said via Skype. “That’s what parts of the city look like.”

On the worst day, 130 bombs fell and more than 200 people were killed, Hussein said. But, like many activists, he said he had no plans to leave.

On Monday, government officials closed the only crossing linking the rebel and government-controlled sides of the city. Some residents have been waiting in the streets there for days, hoping the crossing will reopen soon, said Batoul, who works with an orphan aid group. She asked that only part of her name be used to protect her safety and that of her relatives.

Before the closure, residents of the rebel-held areas flowed into government-held neighborhoods, filling schools and public parks despite freezing temperatures at night, one resident said.

Batoul, who has relatives on the government side, said those who had gone there have been denied help and the opportunity to rent apartments.

Batoul lives in Salahudeen, a rebel-held neighborhood near the front line, which makes it one of the safer opposition districts. Civilians unable to flee have moved there or nearby, she said. Single-family apartments now hold multiple families.

“The warplane barely leaves the sky above us before it is back again dropping bombs,” Batoul said.

More than 20,000 Syrians have already fled to Turkey this year, and in recent days 500 to 2,000 a day have been arriving daily at official crossings, said Melissa Fleming, a spokeswoman in the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

In Turkey, now host to an estimated 700,000 refugees, the influx has strained resources. Syrians along the border said very few people without passports were being allowed across the border now, instead left stranded at the crossing or in makeshift camps on the Syria side.

Those who do get into Turkey don’t necessarily fare better. The bus station at Kilis, a Turkish border town, is full of Syrians unable to find anywhere else to sleep, said Bashir Saleh, a spokesman with the rebel al-Tawheed Brigade.

“This is the worst humanitarian situation since the beginning of the uprising,” he said.

AFP Photo/Karam al-Masri

Photos May Provide Evidence Of Torture, Killing Of Syria Detainees

By Raja Abdulrahim, Los Angeles Times

With peace talks due to begin this week in Switzerland, a report lays out new evidence that the Syrian government engaged in the “systematic torture and killing” of detainees that it says could support charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

A team of legal and forensics experts, including three lawyers with experience prosecuting war crimes in Sierra Leone and the former Yugoslavia, was asked by a London law firm acting on behalf of Qatar to review about 55,000 images said to show bodies of people who died in Syrian custody.

Their findings, contained in a 31-page report, were made available to CNN and Britain’s Guardian newspaper, along with the United Nations, international governments and human rights groups.

The inquiry team concluded that the images document the deaths of about 11,000 people and show evidence of binding, beatings, burns, strangulation and other assaults, including injuries that would not have occurred as a result of armed combat. There are also photographs of severely emaciated bodies and bodies with no eyes.

Many of the disturbing images were said to have been smuggled out of Syria by a defector from the military police, code-named “Caesar” in the report for his safety. The investigators, who said they approached the task of verifying Caesar’s evidence with some skepticism, noted that he did not claim to have witnessed torture or killings himself, which they argued added to the credibility of his account.

Caesar told the inquiry that his job before the war was to photograph crime and accident scenes. But once the uprising began in 2011, leading to the arrest of thousands of people, it was his job to photograph bodies that were taken from detention facilities to a military hospital.

The photographs were taken so that death certificates could be prepared without families seeing the bodies, thus avoiding questions about how the victims died, he was quoted as saying in the report. Documentation was also needed to satisfy authorities that orders to execute detainees had been carried out, he said.

“In the view of the inquiry team, the need to photograph those who were killed is a strong pointer to the fact that the killings were systematic, ordered and directed from above,” the report said.

The authors — Desmond de Silva, a former chief prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone; Geoffrey Nice, former lead prosecutor of the late Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic at an international criminal tribunal; and David Crane, who indicted former Liberian President Charles Taylor at the Sierra Leone court — concluded that the material reviewed was evidence of crimes against humanity by the Syrian government and might also support findings of war crimes.

“This report offers further evidence of the systematic violence and brutality being visited upon the people of Syria by the Assad regime,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague was quoted as saying by the Guardian. “We will continue to press for action on all human rights violations in Syria, and for accountability for those who perpetrate them.”

The Syrian government denies allegations of abuse. A spokesman for the Syrian Information Ministry, Bassam Abu Abdullah, questioned the provenance of the photographs, telling the BBC that the investigators should be interviewing Qatar, which paid for the report and has provided support to rebels fighting the government of President Bashar Assad.

The findings, first reported by CNN and the Guardian on Monday, were released ahead of the so-called Geneva II peace conference, which begins Wednesday in the Swiss city of Montreux. The conference aims to find a peaceful resolution to nearly three years of conflict, although expectations are low, especially as fierce fighting continues in Syria.

The United Nations and international human rights groups have documented abuses by both sides in the war.

In its annual World Report released Tuesday, the New York-based Human Rights Watch highlighted the “unchecked slaughter of civilians in Syria.” The rights group accused Russia, which is backed by China, of protecting the Syrian government from U.N. action, such as an arms embargo or referral to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

“As the Geneva II peace talks begin, with uncertain prospects of success, they shouldn’t become the latest excuse to avoid action to protect Syrian civilians,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “This requires real pressure to stop the killing and allow the delivery of the humanitarian aid they need to survive.”

AFP Photo/Karam al-Masri