Despite word of split over al Qaida, Nusra Front still key in Syria fighting

McClatchy Foreign StaffMay 24, 2013 

— Jabhat al Nusra, the al Qaida-allied Syrian rebel group that’s also known as the Nusra Front, remains integral to efforts to topple the government of President Bashar Assad despite reported rifts within the group over its terrorist ties and claims by other rebels that Nusra’s assassinated rebel leaders in eastern Syria to consolidate its hold on oil fields and other strategic infrastructure there.

Nusra’s leader, who uses the nom de guerre Abu Mohamed al Jawlani, formally announced the group’s allegiance to al Qaida in an audio recording last month, shortly after Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq, al Qaida’s affiliate in Iraq, announced that Nusra and his group had joined to become the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

Jawlani’s language in his audio message seemed to reject subordination to Baghdadi, pledging obedience directly instead to Ayman al Zawahiri, the Egyptian doctor who leads al Qaida. Reports of splits within Nusra, which has been a key force in rebel victories over the past year, began to emerge, and some in the Syrian opposition claimed that the group had become less active as a result of the internal dissent.

But interviews and reviews of military actions in Syria show that Nusra remains a major contributor to rebel tactics. On Wednesday, Nusra participated in the capture of a Syrian army base in the northern province of Idlib. In past weeks, Nusra had played a role in the systematic destruction of army checkpoints along the highway that leads to the base.

Nusra is also key to a fight in the eastern suburbs of Damascus, the Syrian capital, where rebel groups have united in an attempt to reopen a road that all groups in the area had used as a supply line.

“Sometimes you do not hear about any operations by us, because some targets need time,” a Nusra spokesman in eastern Damascus who uses the nom de guerre Abu Hammam said in response to the notion that Nusra had been quieter in recent weeks.

He was answering a question from a Syrian journalist at an informal news conference in Damascus last week, a recording of which was provided to McClatchy by one of the journalists present. During the 80-minute session, Abu Hammam answered questions about the group’s aims and tactics in what seemed to be an open and candid fashion.

“We will not put down our weapons until God’s law is applied,” he said in response to a question about whether the group sought to impose religious law should the Syrian government fall.

He also downplayed splits in the group, saying it would be up to Zawahiri to decide whether Nusra would retain its own flag or be incorporated into the Islamic State of Iraq.

In announcing its emergence, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant executed three men in a square last week in Raqqa, Syria, while filming the event and encouraging others to film it as well.

The speaker in the video referred to the executions as retribution for the massacre of Sunni Muslim civilians, including a number of women and children, in the Syrian coastal town of Banias earlier this month. The killings have further inflamed the war’s sectarian overtones.

“The crimes of Bashar increase every day, not distinguishing between anyone, and the crimes are perpetrated by his soldiers and shabiha, who are Nusayris and apostate Sunnis, and the Banias massacre was the tip of the iceberg,” the speaker in the video says before the three captives are executed. “And so, in vengeance for that and in application of God’s words . . . we in the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant are seeking to be closer to God by killing these three Nusayris.” “Nusayris” is a derogatory Arabic term for Alawites, the Shiite Islam offshoot that Assad and other members of Syria’s elite practice. “Shabiha” is a term used to describe pro-Assad militias.

Both sides have posted videos of atrocities against each other’s forces and civilians, and they now speak in openly sectarian terms, with rebels often using the derogatory term “Nusayri.”

Nusra increasingly has clashed with other rebel groups as it attempts to consolidate its hold on strategic infrastructure, particularly in the country’s east, where the group is in control of grain stocks, oil wells and a hydroelectric dam.

Fighters from the Farouq Brigades, a moderate rebel group that partially controls at least two of Syria’s border crossings with Turkey, have clashed with Nusra recently, particularly near the Tel Abiyadh border crossing, north of Raqqa in eastern Syria. Members of Farouq in Raqqa also blame Nusra for the assassination of the commander of another rebel group last week.

“Nusra has made attempts against FSA leaders in different areas of Syria, but especially in the eastern area, including Deir el Zour and Raqqa,” said a Farouq commander in Raqqa who uses the nom de guerre Abu Mansour. He was referring to the Free Syrian Army, the name that many moderate rebels use to identify themselves.

Email: denders@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @davidjenders

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