BEIRUT — Two al Qaida-linked rebel groups in Syria appear to be distancing themselves from each other in what may be an effort by the Nusra Front, which the United States has branded as an international terrorist organization, to remain relevant amid signs that major portions of the Syrian population are chafing under harsh rule by conservative religious fighters.
A series of incidents in which residents and fighters in rebel-held areas have protested what they say is a heavy-handed approach to a raft of issues have put Nusra and the other group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, on the political defensive even as the umbrella group of rebels that the West recognizes, the Free Syrian Army, comes under pressure by the United States to reduce the groups’ influence.
“The jihadists are rightly worried that the U.S. will demand action against jihadists as a vetting bottom line. They talk a lot about the FSA being recruited by the CIA to fight them,” said Joshua Landis, an associate professor at University of Oklahoma who’s an expert on Syria.
When the Obama administration agreed last month to supply weaponry to the Free Syrian Army’s Supreme Military Council, it quickly became clear that ensuring that those weapons didn’t go to Nusra or the Islamic State was a major condition of the aid, which nevertheless has been slow to materialize. Adding to the tensions has been the killing by an Islamic State member of a commander from a pro-Free Syrian Army unit in the mountains along the Syrian coast, allegedly in a dispute over a checkpoint.
In an effort to tamp down the perception that the Free Syrian Army was powerless over these al Qaida-linked groups, a commander in the area said the Free Syrian Army had demanded an arrest. The Islamic State’s response was to order the arrest and trial of the suspected shooter.
That hasn’t yet happened. “There has been no reaction from his group,” said Tasmim al Laathiqiyah, a member of the Khalwah Bin al Azwar Battalion, a rebel unit affiliated with the Free Syrian Army.
In another incident, disgruntled civilians in the northern city of Aleppo demonstrated over the weekend to protest Islamic State checkpoints that prohibited them from visiting government-controlled portions of the city.
The issue for Nusra is to not become the target of that bitterness. Nusra was created by veterans of al Qaida in Iraq, the jihadi organization that gained fame during the U.S. occupation of Iraq by opposing the American presence and later battling that country’s Shiite Muslim majority in a bitter sectarian war.
Nusra’s approach in Syria – many of its members are Syrians who fought against the American presence in Iraq – has been shaped by what happened to al Qaida in Iraq, whose harsh policies eventually turned Sunni Muslim tribal leaders against it. Once the tribal leaders rebelled, they joined with the United States to push the group out of Iraq’s largest province, Anbar.
While the United States has said Nusra and al Qaida in Iraq are indistinguishable from each other – the U.S. designation of Nusra as a terrorist organization declared it to be simply an alias for al Qaida in Iraq – some analysts say Nusra has adopted more palatable policies, even as its leader, Abu Mohamed al Jawlani, has pledged allegiance to al Qaida and its leader, Ayman al Zawahiri.
Analysts and Free Syrian Army commanders in Syria say Nusra has avoided the grisly executions of regime figures and its suicide operations have generally been smaller than the massive attacks on civilian targets that al Qaida-style groups favor. They say it’s clear Nusra wants to be thought of first as an organization that’s fighting President Bashar Assad rather than one that’s pressing an international radical Islamist program.
“It’s always been obvious that Nusra has been presented as a Syrian organization dedicated to fighting the regime of Assad,” said Charles Lister, an analyst with IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre in London. “They’ve focused on fighting and assisting the population and have maintained they’re open to local and national government policies. This is clearly part of the lessons they’ve learned in the past” in Iraq.
The al Qaida connections to Nusra and the Islamic State, whose membership includes many non-Syrians, were made clear in April, when Zawahiri intervened in a dispute between the groups over whether they were one group or two separate ones. That dispute arose after the Islamic State, which is headquartered in Iraq and is a successor organization to al Qaida in Iraq, announced that it and Nusra were one. Many in Nusra objected to the pronouncement, and to demonstrate its independence, Jawlani announced his allegiance to Zawahiri within days.
Zawahiri settled the dispute by decreeing that the two groups are separate and that Nusra’s area of operations was Syria, while the Islamic State should operate primarily in Iraq.
Laathiqiyah, the Free Syrian Army official, said it remained unclear how independent the two groups were but that Nusra received less criticism from rebels and civilians alike.
“We no longer know (the difference), but what people say on the ground is that Nusra is better,” he said. “We no longer know the truth, sadly.”
Laathiqiyah also acknowledged that Nusra remains the most effective anti-Assad military force, spearheading most of the anti-Assad victories, a fact that’s given potential international supporters of the rebels pause. “From a jihadi point of view, it seems to be that where there is (Nusra) there is progress in our favor,” he said.
In the eastern city of Raqaa, which Nusra seized earlier this year, a Free Syrian Army commander reached by phone said the differences between the groups were abundantly clear and that the Islamic State had abused its power over civilians with summary executions that circumvented the area’s concept of tribal justice.
“Two days ago, for example, a youth was held by (the Islamic State) and they executed him in front of the people without referring to the Shariah Commission that was in the city or even the military or civilian council in the city,” said the commander, who calls himself Abu Bakr. “Now they are spreading pamphlets with prayer times.”
Lister, of IHS Jane’s, said that while the groups shared a nearly identical ideology, Nusra was trying hard to argue that it was different in an effort to compete for influence.
“How much they militarily coordinate is unclear in some cases but they’re rivals in recruitment and for influence,” he said. So far, the two groups haven’t clashed with each other, he added, but the disagreement that broke out in April made it clear “that Nusra wants to be the only al Qaida group in Syria.”
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @mitchprothero