BEIRUT — An Islamist rebel group that the United States has listed as a terrorist organization has taken the lead in fighting in Damascus, according to residents who’ve recently fled the violence there.
The reports that the Nusra Front, which the Obama administration last month declared to be an affiliate of al Qaida in Iraq, is at the forefront of the fighting in Syria's capital underscores the deepening sectarianism inside Syria that many analysts feel is likely to thwart new U.N. efforts to promote a negotiated settlement to the conflict.
Residents of the southern Damascus neighborhood of Yarmouk said that fighters from Nusra, whose name in Arabic is Jabhat al Nusra, were at the forefront of a battle that has driven hundreds of thousands of people from the district since Nusra launched its offensive about two weeks ago. Other Islamist rebel groups also are playing a role in the combat, the residents said.
Supporters of rebels fighting to topple the government of President Bashar Assad say that groups like Nusra make up only a small minority of the anti-Assad fighting force. But Nusra increasingly is leading the fighting across Syria, a development that raises the prospects of sectarian bloodletting as rebels move from areas where the population, like the rebels, is predominantly Sunni Muslim to cities and towns where the residents are Shiite Muslim or Alawites, the Shiite sect to which Assad and Syria’s governing elite belong.
In the northern town of Zarzour, located strategically on a road between the Turkish border and rebel-held areas to the south, rebels burned a Shiite mosque last month, an event with echoes of the sectarian conflict that continues to cause violence in Iraq.
Damascus residents who’ve fled to Beirut also said the government increasingly has deployed militias to offset losses by the Syrian military, another sign of how the conflict has forced Syrians to choose sides or flee.
Pro-democracy activists from Yarmouk who fled to Lebanon last week said that they no longer saw space inside Syria for nonviolent action.
Ahmed, a 22-year-old anti-government activist from Yarmouk who fled to Lebanon on Friday, said he had decided to seek a visa for a third country, rather than wait for a chance to return to his homeland. He asked that his last name be withheld out of security concerns.
“I am a peaceful activist,” he said. “I can’t carry a weapon.”
Still, he defended Nusra’s role in the fighting, saying his experience made him have confidence that any government that replaced Assad would not be governed by Nusra’s rejection of elections and call for a state based on Islamic law.
“I wouldn’t want to live in an Islamic state,” Ahmed said. “But I don’t believe that is the future of Syria – people would demonstrate against that, too.”
Fighting for control of Yarmouk has gone on since last summer, when rebels first launched a major offensive in Damascus and Aleppo, the country’s largest city.
The Nusra offensive two weeks ago, however, added new momentum to the battle, driving Yamouk residents to flee and triggering fierce government bombardment in response.
Ahmed said he had dealt with Nusra fighters on a daily basis in Yarmouk and viewed them as more professional than other rebel groups, who’ve been accused of widespread looting in some parts of the country where fuel and food are in short supply.
“They were very honest people,” Ahmed said.
Nidhal, another young activist who fled Yarmouk for Lebanon last week, also said that Nusra had assumed a leading role in the fighting. Like Ahmed, he said he saw little room for pro-democracy activists like himself who first rallied against the Assad government in peaceful protests 22 months ago.
Nidhal, who also asked that his full name not be divulged for security reasons, said he spent the last three months working to aid refugees. He moved constantly to avoid fighting and the increasing number of government checkpoints in Damascus. He said he managed to leave the country by bribing officials first to get out of Damascus and then to cross into Lebanon. He stayed only 24 hours in Lebanon before flying on to Egypt.
Controlling Yarmouk would essentially give the rebels a unified line across much of southern Damascus, but they still lack a foothold in many of the city’s central neighborhoods.
“Yarmouk is going to be like Baba Amr,” Nidhal said, referring to a neighborhood in Homs, Syria’s third largest city, which was devastated as government troops laid siege for months before finally driving rebels out of the area six months ago.
Nidhal said the sectarianism had grown on both sides, with the government increasingly replacing soldiers with pro-government militiamen drawn from the Alawite sect. Civil order in much of Damascus, Nidhal said, had largely broken down, with kidnappings for both ransom and politics now rampant.
Controversy over Nusra, which declared its existence openly after a series of massive bombings in Damascus a year ago, intensified last month when the Obama administration declared that it was just another name for al Qaida in Iraq, a Sunni Muslim group responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American troops in Iraq and that is still believed to be responsible for much of the bloodshed in that country.
The designation came as the United States announced that it was recognizing as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people a newly formed opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces. U.S. officials said they hoped the designation would persuade countries providing assistance to the rebels to direct their aid to groups other than the Nusra Front.
But the Syrian National Coalition’s leader, Sheik Mouaz Khatib, a Muslim cleric from Homs, condemned the declaration of Nusra as a terrorist group and urged the State Department to withdraw it.
Nusra itself has paid little attention to the designation and continues to fight independent of the regional military councils that the United States has promoted as a way to improve coordination among the hundreds of rebel groups fighting across the country.
Nusra released an hour-long video in December documenting some of its operations in northern Syria. The video used openly derogatory language to refer to Shiites and Alawites.
Analysts say that it will be difficult for the United States to keep any aid it might give to the rebels from also benefiting the Nusra Front. Only after Assad falls will it be possible to separate Nusra from other rebels.
“In many respects the U.S.’s policy is too late,” said Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who studies radical Islamist movements. “The next opening won’t happen until after the regime falls, once all the rebels groups no longer have the same goals. Then I think the U.S. will have a better opportunity to exploit these divisions for its interests. Until then, it could be an uphill battle for the U.S. due to its dithering policy up to this point.”
Enders is a McClatchy special correspondent. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @davidjenders