Al Qaeda’s rise in southern Syrian pushes moderate rebels to sideline

Some worry that the point at which moderate factions can hope to easily rein in Jabhat Al Nusra on the southern front may have already passed.

Alleged Jabhat Al Nusra members pose in eastern Syria. Al Nusra’s surge has alarmed many citizens in southern Deraa province, and the western and Arab states backing moderate fighting groups. Courtesy Balint Szlanko / November 2012
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Foreign correspondents

AMMAN // Al Qaeda’s Syria wing has significantly grown in power and influence on Syria’s southern front over the past three months, according to rebel commanders and opposition activists, shifting the balance of power away from moderate factions.

Jabhat Al Nusra’s surge has alarmed many citizens in Deraa province, and the western and Arab states backing moderate fighting groups, according to rebel commanders connected to the Military Operations Command (MOC) in Amman, which channels weapons and money to the Free Syrian Army.

“Foreign intelligence agencies are worried about Nusra in the south now more than ever, some are telling us to fight with them [Nusra] quickly, to take a hard line against them, before they get any more powerful,” said a rebel officer who meets regularly with foreign military officials.

But the point at which moderate factions can hope to easily – or with limited bloodshed – rein in Al Nusra on the southern front may have already passed.

“Al Nusra is not as strong as the FSA but it is strong enough now that we cannot put pressure on it or fight it easily,” said another senior FSA commander. “Fighting Al Nusra would be a major undertaking; it would cost us a lot and we don’t have the resources, even if we want to do it. Nusra knows that and has taken advantage of the situation.”

Over the past two weeks, the group has, with apparent impunity, captured two prominent FSA officers, Col Ahmed Nehmeh and Zuhair Dabo, and rebuffed mediation efforts to have the men freed.

Since then, FSA officers in Jordan – there for meetings or to take a break from the fighting – have delayed their return to Syria, according to another well-connected FSA member.

“Al Nusra can attack any FSA leader at any time now, so our people are afraid to go back in case Nusra decides to take them too.”

The capture of Col Nehmeh and Dabo marks a new, more belligerent and muscular strategy by Al Nusra, rebel commanders say, that ended a period of comparative reserve and cooperation that had seen the group apparently content to play a more junior role than the more powerful FSA in the south, where both have been fighting forces loyal to president Bashar Al Assad.

In contrast to Syria’s fractured northern and eastern fronts, the southern area has seen rebels relatively united in their cause, avoiding the infighting that has harmed their cause elsewhere.

“Nusra has managed to win a lot of popular support, they have been winning hearts and minds,” said the rebel officer with close links to foreign intelligence. “They have taken part in all operations, they are close to everyone, they’ve made sure to not do anything to make people dislike them, they have money and weapons, and they are excellent fighters.

“They have been very successful and have played a role in more operations than we [the FSA] like to admit,” he said. “Nusra is effective because they are not afraid to die and if a Nusra emir gives an order to one of his men to carry out a suicide operation, he just does it, happily. With the FSA, you give an order and there is a big debate about it, and a debate about who has the right to even give orders. I wish we were as well organised as they are.”

Al Nusra, like other Al Qaeda factions, remains highly secretive but assessments by rebels and analysts say most of its rank-and-file members in the southern area are locals, many of whom once fought with the FSA but were drawn to Al Nusra by its burgeoning reputation and resources.

“The only group really working against Bashar Al Assad is Al Nusra, it is the most active and the most trusted,” said a man from Deraa, aged him his early 20s, with family members in the FSA. “Al Nusra has earned respect.” Locally manned FSA units retain cordial personal links with Al Nusra’s rank and file – many of whom are cousins and bothers of FSA members – and some supporters of the moderate factions insist Al Nusra is not an Al Qaeda group, despite its open declaration of obedience to Ayman Al Zawahiri, the Al Qaeda leader.

“I have five nephews in Nusra and they do not have the Qaeda ideology so we do not consider them Al Qaeda; they are our relatives and they are fighting for our freedom,” said a former political prisoner from Deraa. “Their leaders might be Al Qaeda, but the men are not.”

Al Nusra’s key leadership in Deraa province are foreigners; a close-knit unit of 300 Jordanians, Libyans and Saudis, according to FSA commanders and analysts, who put Al Nusra’s total manpower in the area at approximately 2,000.

“The problem with Nusra isn’t the fighters, it is the stubborn leaders,” said the FSA officer. “There are leaders who are very close to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant [ISIL], they are moving Nusra to be more aggressive and less cooperative.”

ISIL has been thrown out of the Qaeda network and in northern and eastern Syria it has been locked in fighting with Al Nusra and the FSA.

Hardliners in Deraa’s branch of Al Nusra are increasingly critical of the FSA, according to opposition activists, who said there had been growing number of incidents of them referring to moderate Muslim rebels as apostates, and seeking to impose cultural codes such as modest dress codes for women and smoking bans.

Moderate rebels in Deraa have long expressed disquiet about their cooperation with Al Nusra and the idea that the opposition to the regime is inching towards a greater degree of extremism. Some say an outbreak of fighting is inevitable.

“First of all Al Nusra is Al Qaeda, and we don’t want them in our country. Taking on Al Qaeda is something that is inevitable for us as Syrian nationalists, this is the principle for us,” said Monzer Akbik, chief of staff to Ahmed Jarba, head of the opposition Syrian National Coalition.

“On the military side, this is something that the military commanders will make suitable decisions on; what to fight and when to fight because they always have to take into consideration what they can do and what they cannot do within the limitations of the resources that they have in hand.”