Syrian rebel dynamics and the death of Kayla Mueller
US authorities confirmed the killing of US aid worker, Kayla Mueller, by the Islamic State (IS), on Tuesday, several days after the group claimed she had been killed as a result of a Jordanian airstrike on the compound in which she was being held, in the Syrian city of Raqqa.
While it is unclear if Mueller was taken directly by IS 18 months ago in Aleppo, or initially by another group which then handed her over, it is certain that the developments and dynamics among rebel factions played a defining roll in her capture.
By August 2013, parts of Aleppo had become a wasteland, cut in half between Islamist rebels supported by Gulf donors and de-facto Western sponsors, and the Syrian Army with its allied militias, backed by Iran. An agreement between secular and religious rebel factions in the area would ultimately ensure the rise of extremist forces from which IS would emerge as the most powerful.
On 4 August, Mueller was abducted along with a Syrian friend in the city of Aleppo, while en route to a bus station that would take her back across the Turkish border where she was based. They never made it to their departure point. While Mueller's Syrian friend was released after several months in captivity, IS kept the 26-year-old American prisoner, with some reports indicating that her family had received proof of life and a €5 mn ($6.6 mn) ransom demand.
What exactly Mueller was doing in one of Syria's most war-torn cities is unclear. According to a formal statement released by Doctors Without Borders (MSF), Mueller had accompanied a friend who was contracted to repair their hospital's IT infrastructure. As night fell on the city, MSF agreed to let them sleep at the hospital and arranged transportation to the bus station the following day out of security concerns.
According to friends and family, Mueller, who grew up in Arizona, was deeply driven by her convictions, volunteering at home and abroad to help those less fortunate. After she graduated college the plight of refugees began to emerge as a theme in her professional pursuits. She went on to work with the Tibetan refugee community in Nepal, African refugees in Israel, and the International Solidarity Movement in Palestine. Finally she moved to Turkey's southern border with Syria and began working with NGOs present in the sprawling refugee camps that sprung up over the last four years there.
In August 2013, the battle for Aleppo was raging and following the failed push by united rebel factions to secure the city in July of the year before, Islamist rebels exercised an increasing share of the anti-regime forces' leadership.
The al-Nusra Front - al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate which then contained al-Qaeda in Iraq, IS's precursor - played a central role in securing frontline positions and strategic areas of the city the year before. At that point, ideological differences between the anti-regime groups took a back seat in favour of vanquishing the Syrian military and their allies from the city. The presence of jihadi fighters with foreign recruits was tolerated by mainstream rebel forces, and thus by default their Western state sponsors, because their ranks were stocked with well-trained, battle-hardened veterans.
While IS forces split with the Nusra Front in May 2013, they kept coordinating with rebel factions and played a central role in operations around the city. In fact, the day after Mueller was abducted IS coordinated an attack with the Free Syrian Army on the Minagh air base, a strategic point on the main artery between Aleppo and the Turkish border. The leader of the FSA's military council in Aleppo, Abdel Jabar al-Akeedi made a joint statement with IS representative Abu Jandal, thanking and praising the efforts of IS and their foreign recruits for participating in the attack. Several months later, Akeedi would tender his resignation, distraught by infighting among his commanders and lack of Western support.
This grand deal which Akeedi, a US-backed moderate, and his fellows made with extremist groups would have serious repercussions for the character of the uprising and also on what a post-Assad Syria would look like if the Damascus-based regime was eventually dislodged.
By the time Mueller entered Aleppo, the city had largely devolved into anarchy. Frontline positions of the Syrian army and anti-regime forces calcified over the past 12-months, effectively partitioning what was once Syria’s commercial and cultural centre. Warlords emerged and forces working to overthrow Assad dropped any pretense of secular democracy as their goal, replacing it with an Islamic theocracy guided by Sharia law.
IS would go on to formally renounce its old associates and clash with Nusra and its allied umbrella group, the Islamic Front. While these groups largely purged IS from Aleppo, by the beginning of January 2014, the damage was already done. Though the group may not retain the physical presence it used to in the city, its successors retain a similar ideology, though they are not as heavy-handed in its implementation.
Many rebels complained that dwindling or minute Western support for their cause has pushed them into the arms of well-funded but extreme religious fighting groups, fueled by donors in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. Further, Western hostages had become an additional funding source for these groups, spawning an associated criminal enterprise. The US and EU's approach to Syria may have served its short-term goal of putting pressure on the Syrian government via proxies, but it also relegated the so‑called “moderate” rebels that it said it would cultivate through training and funding.
The human cost of this strategy has been catastrophic, and it is within this context that Kayla Mueller was kidnapped and died and it’s within this quagmire that Aleppo's residents continue to live.
- Charles Fromm is a writer, analyst and researcher on Middle East affairs. Follow him on Twitter at @CLFromm
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: By not providing sufficient support for the so-called 'moderate' opposition the US has allowed groups like al-Nusra and IS to dominate the war (AFP)
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