Middle East

Syria jihadist rebels prepare for US attack

Members of the jihadist group, al-Nusra Front, in Aziza, Syria (4 April 2013)

In theory, any US-led strike against the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad is a gift to the jihadists fighting to overthrow him.

The hailstorm of Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (TLAMs) that is expected to rain down on Syria's bases and command-and-control centres - if President Barack Obama wins Congressional approval - would certainly hurt the jihadists' enemy, although perhaps not fatally.

Yet instead of being welcomed in jihadist ranks, the prospect has triggered alarm and confusion there and amongst other Islamist groups.

Many are convinced that the real target of any US strikes will be the numerous anti-Western Islamist militias that have proliferated in the two-and-a-half-year-long civil war in which more than 100,000 people have already been killed.

'Second barrage'

"An imminent US attack will target al-Nusra Front and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) positions," announced a message on Twitter on 25 August from an account that supports one of the two most effective jihadist fighting forces in Syria.

It went on to list what it believes will be the primary targets of a US missile strike: Syrian government radar and other air defence systems, Scud missile depots and vehicles involved with chemical weapons.

It says "the second barrage will most probably be with cruise missiles", and lists the targets as al-Nusra Front and ISIL training sites, high-ranking and senior leaders of the prominent jihadist factions and finally, Sharia courts.

The US administration has been at pains to stress that any military action would be strictly in response to what it maintains is the Assad regime's significant use of chemical weapons in the Damascus suburbs on 21 August and it denies it would be entering Syria's civil war on anyone's side.

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Media captionSpeaking to the BBC's Jeremy Bowen, Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said terrorism would flourish everywhere if the US attacked Syria

In fact, US fears of the jihadist rebels' growing manpower and firepower have been instrumental in putting a brake on promised US support for the rebels.

But on Monday, Syria's Deputy Foreign Minister, Faisal Mekdad, told the BBC that any US military action against his government would effectively assist anti-Western jihadists.

"Any attack against Syria is support of al-Qaeda and its affiliates, whether al-Nusra Front or the State of Islam in Syria and Iraq," he said.

'Real target'

Whether or not Syria's jihadist groups are in America's sights, they are taking no chances.

"Do you think we trust the Americans?" one fighter from the rebel group Liwa al-Islam was quoted as saying, adding: "They gave Assad two weeks' notice to clear his bases. We know we are the real target."

In preparation for the missile strikes - if and when they come - instructions have gone out online for rebel commanders and others to change their locations and not to gather in big groups or convoys.

There is a specific fear of homing chips being attached to leaders' cars to guide incoming missiles as they are believed to have been in Pakistan's tribal areas and in the Gaza Strip.

"All the leaders must change their locations in order to confuse the spies," said one instruction to jihadist groups, adding: "Change the sequence of the routine tasks and the usual locations of performing the prayers. Avoid any public appearance."

Such is the depth of hostility and suspicion jihadist groups feel towards Western governments that some members have even accused the West of being indirectly behind the 21 August chemical attacks, asserting that "the West gave Assad the green light".

Forces which could be used against Syria:

Five US destroyers - USS Gravely, USS Ramage, USS Barry, USS Mahan and USS Stout - are in the eastern Mediterranean, equipped with cruise missiles. The missiles can also be fired from submarines, but the US Navy does not reveal their locations

Airbases at Incirlik and Izmir in Turkey, and in Jordan, could be used to carry out strikes

Two aircraft carriers - USS Nimitz and USS Harry S Truman are in the wider region

French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle is currently in Toulon in the western Mediterranean

French Rafale and Mirage aircraft can also operate from Al-Dhahra airbase in the UAE