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Syrian rebel forces execute clan leaders loyal to Assad regime

A Free Syrian Army fighter holds his gun during a fight with forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in downtown Aleppo, August 1, 2012.

Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

As Syrian artillery and helicopter gunships pulverize parts of the historic city of Aleppo, rebels from the countryside and jihadists from outside Syria are carrying out heinous acts of reprisal as warnings to the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

The conflict in Syria, fuelled by foreign powers and stoked by foreign intrigues, has descended into a war of radical sectarianism.

On Tuesday, over the strenuous objections of the Syrian National Council leadership, rebel forces chose to summarily execute leaders of an Aleppo clan that is notoriously loyal to the Assad regime.

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Videos published Wednesday show Ali Zein Al-Abdeen Birri, leader of the Al Birri clan, and three of his men lined up against a wall and shot in a hail of rifle fire as onlookers shouted: "Allahu akbar [God is great]."

In another video, reported Reuters, a militant cameraman filmed the bodies of about 15 men Tuesday at a police station. One rebel fired at the corpse of the station commander, blowing his head off.

Such actions, very likely war crimes, reflect the kind of gruesome behaviour seen in previous internationalized conflicts.

"This should not come as a surprise," said Alastair Crooke, a Beirut-based analyst, who served as an operative of British intelligence in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

"What we are witnessing in Syria is the Afghanization of this conflict. I saw it all 25 years ago."

In a powerful indictment of both sides in this conflict, the International Crisis Group, an independent non-government organization, warned Wednesday that "among armed rebels, activists and protesters, deeply-rooted, atavistic anti-Alawite (and anti-Shiite) prejudice resurfaces more intensely as time goes by: The minority community's ways are alien, their mores primitive, their presence unnatural."

Responsibility for this base sectarianism rests at the feet of Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the head of Saudi intelligence, said Mr. Crooke.

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Prince Bandar, who served for several years as Saudi ambassador to Washington, launched this campaign in 2006-07, Mr. Crooke explained, following Israel's war against Hezbollah in the summer of 2006. The war, that saw Israel retreat without a victory, left the militant Shia organization in Lebanon more powerful than ever.

"The Saudis were determined to break what they saw as the weak link between Iran and Hezbollah: Syria," said Mr. Crooke, author of Resistance: The Essence of the Islamist Revolution.

They and the Qataris injected money into Syria's dormant Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups, and they changed the rhetoric from that of earlier Brotherhood preachers to one of religious jihad.

When the popular uprising began in Syria 17 months ago, Saudi Arabia is believed to already have had many operatives in place.

As well, said Mr. Crooke, "Bandar saw to it that expensive satellite phones were distributed to operatives all over the country." They would be used to ensure access to the Internet and to keep tabs on the progress of the uprising elsewhere in the country. They also were used to send out to journalists and others around the world videos of demonstrations, regime violence and protesters' success. It was a polished operation.

As the uprising flourished and the opposition grew more militant, protesters and demonstrators gave way to militants and foreign jihadists, the latter were drawn to the latest in a line of Islamist battlefields – Afghanistan, Algeria, Bosnia, Iraq.

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With the new arrivals, came a campaign of carrying out deadly bombings at security facilities beginning in December.

The latest phase was triggered by the July 18 assassinations in Damascus.

The bomb or bombs, seemingly planted deep inside Syrian security headquarters, killed four top Syrian officials, including President al-Assad's brother-in-law, the deputy defence minister.

While the opposition's Free Syrian Army quickly claimed responsibility, most security experts say the attack was more likely the handiwork of a foreign power, most likely Saudi Arabia, and most likely Prince Bandar.

Indeed, Prince Bandar was promoted to head of Saudi intelligence the day after the assassinations.

Of course, the Assad regime has its outside assistance too, mostly in the form of Iran.

"Its agents knew an attack was coming, and they warned Assad," said Mohamed Marandi, a well-connected visiting professor in Beirut from Tehran University. Prof. Marandi was in the Iranian capital the day of the assassinations.

This may explain why the Syrian president was not wounded seriously, if at all, by the bombing.

It may also explain, some say, the mysterious absence for the past week of Prince Bandar.

Rumours that appear to have started in Iran say that Prince Bandar was himself killed in an attack on Saudi intelligence headquarters July 22.

The reports are unconfirmed and have been dismissed by most analysts.

But the longer Prince Bandar is not seen in public, the more the rumours will grow.

While it is not conceivable that Syria could organize and carry out such an attack in the four days following the Damascus bombing, others, such as Iran could have had agents in place already.

"It wouldn't surprise me at all," said Mr. Crooke, referring to a possible assassination of the Saudi prince.

"What would be really surprising is if there was no retaliation."

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