ISTANBUL // Jabhat Al Nusra, the Sunni Islamist rebel group with links to Al Qaeda, has been quietly expanding its activities in southern Syria, working alongside western- and Arab-backed rebels in military operations aimed at ousting the regime of President Bashar Al Assad.
Al Nusra and other radical Islamist groups have dominated the anti-Assad insurgency in the north and east of Syria but until recently, they have been less numerous in Deraa and elsewhere in southern Syria.
While refraining from calling public attention to their activities, Al Nusra is now rising in the south. Its fighters have entered into secret, ad hoc and often uneasy alliances with units of the more moderate, western-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA).
“They offer their services and cooperate with us, they are better armed than we are, they have suicide bombers and know how to make car bombs,” an FSA fighter explained.
Many FSA commanders and secular opponents of Mr Al Assad and his regime refused to talk about Al Nusra, saying the group was irrelevant in Deraa, a tribal area with a tradition of moderate Islam. But others admitted that Al Nusra’s role in fighting in southern Syria is far greater than publicly acknowledged.
“The FSA and Al Nusra join together for operations but they have an agreement to let the FSA lead for public reasons, because they don’t want to frighten Jordan or the West,” said an activist who works with opposition groups in Deraa.
“Operations that were really carried out by Al Nusra are publicly presented by the FSA as their own,” he said.
A leading FSA commander involved in operations in Deraa said Al Nusra had strengthened FSA units and played a decisive role in key rebel victories in the south.
“The face of Al Nusra cannot be to the front. It must be behind the FSA, for the sake of Jordan and the international community,” he said.
Deraa, where the revolution broke out in March 2011, lies in a heavily militarised area close to Syria’s borders with both Jordan and Israel. Adding to the strategic importance, it is also seen by rebels as a gateway to Damascus and a location they must seize in order to win a war that has claimed more than 120,000 lives and forces millions to flee their homes.
Efforts by insurgents this important southern zone to disguise Al Nusra activities there extends to withholding information from a rebel command centre in Jordan.
“In many battles Al Nusra takes part, but we don’t tell the operations room about it and sometimes we’ll even say that Al Nusra fighters are really from the FSA to enable them to move more easily across borders,” the commander added.
The operations room has been trying to prevent the arms from reaching Al Nusra, which has been designated a terrorist organisation by the United Nations, the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia and whose leader, Abu Mohmmad Al Jolani, has sworn fealty to Al Qaeda head Ayman al Zawahiri.
According to opposition sources, this command centre, which helps channel weapons and battlefield advice to FSA units inside Syria, is housed in Jordanian intelligence headquarters and staffed by Western and Arab military officials, allegations Jordan denies.
Outgunned by regime forces with their artillery and aircraft, however, FSA units say that they have little choice but to be pragmatic in their alliances and that regardless of Al Nusra’s ideology, its fighters provide much needed firepower.
Despite their cooperation in carrying out attacks against Mr Al Assad’s forces, FSA commanders said the weapons supplied to them by the operations room have not been shared with Al Nusra fighters.
There is, however, an agreement to share the spoils from successful operations, with Al Nusra getting at least 20 per cent of any weapons seized in joint raids on regime bases, they said.
Al Nusra’s expanding presence and influence in southern Syria is testament to its effectiveness on the battlefield. Rebels and opposition figures in Deraa described it as tightly knit, highly motivated and better equipped than other factions.
“Everything they have is the best. The best weapons, cars and people, they are the best at what they do, they have a man who does their fundraising, he’s a genius, their military operations man is another genius, they’re really professionals,” a FSA commander said with grudging respect.
Details of their finances are a tightly held secret, although private funds from Gulf Arab donors are believed to be a major source of income.
“My men have fought without pay and sometimes without proper food for months, “ said the FSA commander. “We dream of raising US$100,000 (Dh367,290) every few months but Al Nusra [in Deraa] is getting US$300,000 (Dh1.1 million) or more a month without any problems,” he said.
“I don’t believe that is just private funding. I’m sure there is some government backing for them, a government somewhere is approving that kind of funding,” he added.
For the moment, FSA units remain more powerful than Al Nusra in Deraa province, in part because they are more numerous. Although exact figures are impossible to compile, rebels in Deraa said that Al Nusra fighters numbered in the hundreds, not thousands, unlike FSA affiliated units.
Yet Al Nusra has a growing influence out of proportion to its numbers.
In September, Al Nusra took over a key border point on the Syrian-Jordanian frontier, a move that prompted Jordanian authorities to close the crossing.
A deal between the FSA and Al Nusra saw its fighters moved away from the border, although they remain in the Old Jumrek area, a zone between the border and the city of Deraa.
“They pulled back. It’s symbolic but the international community and the Jordanians will not deal with us if they stay and they [Al Nusra] realise that. They don’t want to make unnecessary problems,” an FSA officer said.
In Deraa feelings are mixed among civilians and the FSA about the relative merits and dangers of a growing, Al Qaeda-affiliated group, even if it has proven to be less aggressive towards other rebels than the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), another Al Qaeda faction that has grown powerful in Syria but which has little, if any, presence in Deraa.
ISIL is dominated by foreign fighters, while Al Nusra is overwhelmingly Syrian, according to analysts and rebels.
“We know the people in Al Nusra. They are our sons, we can talk to them and don’t need to be afraid of them,” said a leading opposition figure from Deraa. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he retains contacts with Al Nusra and the opposition Syrian National Coalition (SNC).
He and others in Deraa and the SNC have argued that engaging with Al Nusra will help moderate the group, while trying to ignore it or marginalise it will only make it more extreme and popular.
In Deraa, an experiment in cooperation is underway, and the group is working alongside local sheikhs and clerics in one Islamic court, earning a grudging respect for its work in administering justice.
Others say that more moderate forces are courting danger by working alongside Al Nusra.
“Al Nusra doesn’t trust us and we don’t trust them. They make us promises the future and they say they will not force their views on the people but we don’t believe them,” said an FSA commander from Deraa.
There have been moments of dangerous tension, including last month when an FSA fighter was shot at an Al Nusra checkpoint for refusing to stop, as well as arguments over ideology and the ultimate aim of the revolution.
“They are quiet and cooperative now because we are still more powerful, but the moment they are stronger than us, they will push us aside and do what they want,” the FSA commander said.
* Suha Maayeh reported from Amman