01.04.13

Jihadists Are Creeping Into Syria’s Rebel Factions

Al-Nusra, a group the U.S. has identified as a terrorist organization, has been steadily attacking Syrian-government targets—and becoming more legitimate in the eyes of the people. Jamie Dettmer on the rebels’ dilemma.

A jihadist group in Syria, tagged a terrorist outfit by the Obama administration for links with Al Qaeda, is enjoying growing cachet from recent operational accomplishments on the battlefield—and is making progress in persuading other Islamist and jihadist brigades fighting to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to join together.

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Fighters from Islamist Syrian rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra take their positions on the front line during a clash with Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar al Assad in Aleppo Dec. 24, 2012. (Ahmed Jadallah/Landov)

Since announcing its formation in Syria in early 2012, Jabhat al-Nusra has launched more than 30 successful bombing attacks against mainly government military targets, often using suicide bombers, and the group has been in the vanguard of several recent full-scale rebel clashes with Assad forces, including the overrunning last month of a sprawling Army barracks and infantry training school five kilometers north of Aleppo.

Its first suicide bombing came nine months after the uprising against Assad began with a two-car bomb attack on Dec. 23, 2011—targeting the regime’s intelligence offices, killing at least 44 people, and wounding more than 160. According to the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, it is likely that two female suicide bombers from Iraq carried out that attack.

Since then the pace of al-Nusra bombings has increased from one a month in the first three months of 2012 to four in April and then maintained an average of five to six a month thereafter.

The effectiveness of Jabhat al-Nusra, the respect other rebel brigades hold for it—especially for its bomb-making skills and tactical prowess—and its growing popularity in the rebel enclaves of Idlib and Aleppo provinces tucked under the border with Turkey are adding to Western alarm about the direction of the long-running civil war that’s claimed more than 60,000 lives, say U.S. and European security sources.

They say the rise of al-Nusra, which has homegrown fighters in its ranks as well foreign jihadists drawn from elsewhere in the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia—including Iraq, Libya, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, and Chechnya—is further complicating Western thinking about whether and how to supply arms to the rebels.

Later this month, under pressure from British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President François Hollande, foreign ministers from the European Union are due to consider reframing an arms embargo on Syria that would maintain the ban on sales to the Assad regime but allow arming and logistical military support for rebels. But the diplomatic push is getting bogged down with growing fears that Western arms would inevitably reach al-Nusra and other jihadists.

Al-Nusra, which the Obama administration last month said was an alias for al Qaeda, has made clear in recent statements that its longer-term goal is to spread jihad across the Levant. On the same day it was designated a proscribed terrorist organization by the U.S., al-Nusra issued a call to arms after a meeting in the Syrian province of Deir al-Zour with nine other jihadist groups. Al-Nusra urged all jihadist brigades to “unite in the cause of Allah, organize the efforts and the attacks against the soldiers of disbelief and apostasy, and distinguish the ranks of truth from falsehood.”

The statement continued: “We call upon our sincere mujahedin brothers all over the strong Levant to unite their ranks in groups, pure of the filth of suspicious groups and the infiltration of people who have no qualities or faith, in order to clarify their banner and purify their path.”

A European official involved in the arms-embargo negotiations tells The Daily Beast that discussions are centering on assuring EU countries fearful of a leakage of arms to jihadists that weapons supplied from Europe will be directed only to a military council of the opposition coalition, formally known as the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.

That coalition, which was pulled together from a variety of often fractious opposition groups at a meeting in November in Doha, Qatar, convened at the insistence of the United States, is—like its predecessor, the Syrian National Council—struggling to establish its authority and to transform itself into a political force that commands the loyalty of the rebel brigades who are actually doing the fighting.

“There are increasing worries that we will be able to block al-Nusra and other jihadists from getting their hands on any weapons we supply,” concedes the European official, who declined to be named for this article, as he’s not authorized to speak to the media.

In a bid to gain the support of the general rebel brigades—many have become noticeably more religious as the war prolongs—the national coalition has packed its own military council with members of the Muslim Brotherhood and individuals linked to various Salafi or jihadist groups. While this may placate field brigades, it isn’t helping to defuse Western powers’ fear that arms will leak to jihadists and is undermining the argument of the British and French that there’s safety in funneling weapons to the coalition’s military council.

“We are in a bind, and what makes it worse is that banging on about al Qaeda and jihadists feeds into the Assad propaganda that the rebellion is all about foreign conspiracies, foreign fighters, and terrorists,” adds the European official.

On the battlefield, brigade commanders affiliated with the loosely coordinated Free Syrian Army that predates the national coalition, make no disguise of their respect for al-Nusra and their suspicion of the coalition, which many of them see as a creation of the U.S. that’s being foisted on them.

“We are in a bind, and what makes it worse is that banging on about al Qaeda and jihadists feeds into the Assad propaganda that the rebellion is all about foreign conspiracies, foreign fighters, and terrorists,” adds a European official.

In several interviews in recent weeks with The Daily Beast, commanders and their men in rebel towns to the north of Aleppo voiced sympathy for al-Nusra, eulogizing the jihadist prowess and competence. “It is not a terrorist group,” said Abu Hadi, a former high-school teacher who led the rebellion against Assad in the town of Iaziz, near the Turkish border, and is one of the FSA’s most respected leaders.

“Their fighters are effective, and the West should stop using them as an excuse for not arming us,” Hadi said.

“The FSA is not happy with the national coalition; it is an agent of the West and the Qataris,” Hadi added. “We don’t trust the leaders—most are exiles, and they are not here fighting. We’ll go along with the coalition for now, but if it looks like they are out for themselves and just want to get rich, we are ready to fight them as well.”

While the standing of al-Nusra has been rising in the rebel enclaves in the north, the FSA has been facing growing criticism from civilians, even in rural towns such as Tal Rifat, Iaziz, Al Bab, and Marea that were among the first to join the rebellion and welcome the FSA. Spray-painted slogans criticizing the FSA are becoming a more common sight.

Locals praise al-Nusra fighters, who stand out from their FSA counterparts, appearing more disciplined and reserved and soldierly.

“They are good people, religious people, and they are respectful and honest and share their war spoils,” says 48-year-old Mohammed, a father of two young children. A store owner in Marea, he says that while local people were observant Muslims before the conflict, “they were not very religious, but that is changing, and now more people are, and al-Nusra makes sense to them.”

With anger rising toward the West for what locals call a betrayal—they compare their plight with Libya’s, when the rebellion against Col. Muammar Gaddafi received NATO and American support—Washington’s disapproval of al-Nusra is merely adding to the esteem of the jihadist group.