Al Qaida-linked group Syria rebels once denied now key to anti-Assad victories

A Syrian rebel stands guard at an oil well near Shahel, Syria
A Syrian rebel stands guard at an oil well near Shahel, Syria MCT

When the group Jabhat al Nusra first claimed responsibility for car and suicide bombings in Damascus that killed dozens last January, many of Syria’s revolutionaries claimed that the organization was a creation of the Syrian government, designed to discredit those who opposed the regime of President Bashar Assad and to hide the regime’s own brutal tactics.

Nearly a year later, however, Jabhat al Nusra, which U.S. officials believe has links to al Qaida, has become essential to the frontline operations of the rebels fighting to topple Assad.

Not only does the group still conduct suicide bombings that have killed hundreds, but they’ve proved to be critical to the rebels’ military advance. In battle after battle across the country, Nusra and similar groups do the heaviest frontline fighting. Groups who call themselves the Free Syrian Army and report to military councils led by defected Syrian army officers move into the captured territory afterward.

The prominence of Nusra in the rebel cause worries U.S. and other Western officials, who say its operations rely on the same people and tactics that fueled al Qaida in Iraq – an assertion that is borne out by interviews with Nusra members in Syria.

Among Nusra fighters are many Syrians who say they fought with al Qaida in Iraq, which waged a bloody and violent campaign against the U.S. presence in that country and is still blamed for suicide and car bombings that have killed hundreds of Iraqis since the U.S. troops left a year ago.

According to Nusra members, some of the group’s leaders, including the emir, or top ruler, in Syria’s Deir al Zour province, are Iraqis.

The group’s prominence makes clear the dilemma of Syria’s revolutionaries, as well as those who might provide support to them. Though members of Nusra operate independently of the other rebel groups that have taken up arms _ and particularly those that are calling for elections if Assad is deposed _ it is increasingly clear that their operations are closely coordinated with more secular rebels.

Some Syrians say that Nusra’s importance is a result of the West’s failure to support those secular rebels. But the closeness of the coordination between Nusra and other rebels makes it difficult to support one without empowering the other.

Nusra leaders argue that the West should not fear their rise in importance.

“The West must not fear Islam _ when Islam is in power, all people will live peacefully,” said Iyad al Sheikh Mahmoud, the leader of a recently founded Jabhat al Nusra group in this central Syrian city of about 30,000. Before becoming the leader of Nusra’s group here, Mahmoud had been part of Ahrar al Sham, another group of fighters that has branches across the country and subscribes to a similar ideology.

“There is no difference at all between the ideology of Ahrar al Sham and Jabhat al Nusra,” Mahmoud said, indicating that he had largely changed groups for the opportunity to lead one. Like Nusra, Ahrar al Sham is also not aligned with the military councils.

Nusra’s rise is most evident in Syria’s north and east, where anti-Assad forces have recently been racking up impressive military gains. Gone are the days just five months ago when Nusra’s actions seemed limited to car and suicide bombings. Now, Nusra fighters are organized in battalion-sized groups that are often armed with heavy weaponry.

On a trip to Syria that spanned most of the month of November, a journalist found Nusra’s fighters on every frontline he visited.

In the country’s largest city of Aleppo, they were advancing on the army to try to take key intersections. In Maarat al Numan, a strategic city on the highway between Aleppo and Damascus, they were laying siege to a military base. In Ras al Ayn, in the country’s northeast, they captured a strategic border post, allegedly summarily executing a number of Syrian soldiers they had trapped on a base there in the process. In Deir al Zour province, in the country’s southeast, they were at the fore as rebels captured parts of Syria’s oil infrastructure and laid siege to an artillery base near the city of Mayadeen in hopes of capturing the weapons inside.

“Our financial support is greater than other groups, and our faith makes us more effective fighters,” said Mahmoud, explaining why the group had grown so quickly. He said the financial support came from individual donors, not directly from any government.

The mujahedeen groups also appear to have clearer structures than the military councils, whose leadership is sometimes less than obvious as newer defectors of higher rank demand control from less senior officers who’ve been fighting against Assad longer.

Car bombings have also increasingly killed civilians in Damascus neighborhoods sympathetic to the government. The first operation Mahmoud’s group supported was a suicide bombing by a Libyan man against an army base north of here.

Mahmoud said he saw no reason to hold elections if Assad falls.

“Eighty percent of Syrians want Islamic law,” he said.

Many fighters said they were aware of the accusations about Nusra’s links to al Qaida. But they generally discount the importance of those ties when speaking with journalists.

“In Europe, they consider all Muslims terrorists, not only Jabhat al Nusra,” Mahmoud said.

Still, there are moments when Nusra’s ideology shines through.

“When we finish with Assad, we will fight the U.S.!” one Nusra fighter shouted in the northeastern Syrian city of Ras al Ayn when he was told an American journalist present. He laughed as he said it and then got into a van and drove off, leaving the journalist unable to ask whether it had been a joke.

In Ras al Ayn, the burning of a liquor store by Nusra fighters frightened Syrian Kurds and Christians living there, and the group has come into direct confrontation with Kurdish militia members in the area who’ve said they are willing to negotiate with moderate rebels but will not allow groups like Nusra into the territory they hold.

There are tensions developing between local military councils and Nusra and other non-aligned groups. On Saturday, one group planning an attack in the Qalat al Mudiq area was asked by the military council to call it off, to avoid endangering a local truce that holds in the city.

In the eastern province of Deir al Zour, Muhammed Mustafa Aboud, the military council commander, said that in meetings with U.S. officials in Turkey and Jordan, the main concerns had been “Nusra and al Qaida.”

“We say to them they are small groups and they are not very powerful and it’s your fault because if you had supported FSA they wouldn’t be here now,” Aboud said. “Eighty percent of Syrians are moderate Muslims . . . the West is too afraid of these groups.”

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