Ceasefire boost for Al Qaeda
Halt to Syria conflict has strengthened terror group
Al Qaeda’s branch in Syria has recruited thousands of fighters, including teenagers, and taken territory from government forces in a successful offensive in the north, illustrating how the ceasefire put in place by Russia and the United States to weaken the militants has in many ways backfired.
The branch, known as the Nusra Front, has churned out a flood of videos - slickly produced in the style of its rival, ISIS - that show off its recruitment drive. In one, young men line up for combat training. In another, a bearded fighter in a mosque urges a crowd of men to join jihad. A third shows an Al Qaedalinked cleric leading a graduation ceremony, handing out weapons to young men.
Since March, the group recruited 3,000 new fighters, including teenagers, in comparison to an average of 200 to 300 a month before, according to Rami Abdurrahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group monitoring the conflict. He cited contacts within the Nusra Front.
But battlefield success and the push for new recruits have brought to the surface tensions within the Nusra Front over the group’s future path, observers say.
A hard-line faction within the group wants to emulate ISIS, and declare an Islamic caliphate in the areas under its control, a step Al Qaeda has long rejected because it does not want to alienate its allies in the Syrian opposition. On the other end of the spectrum, a Syria-minded camp within the Nusra Front wants to focus entirely on the campaign to oust Syrian President Bashar Al Assad and to break ties with Al Qaeda.
The Nusra Front has long been one of the strongest factions in Syria’s opposition. It and other Syrian rebels, including some allied to it, hold most of the northwestern province of Idlib and parts of neighbouring Aleppo province. When Russia and the United States brokered a ceasefire between Al Assad and opposition forces in February, the Nusra Front and ISIS were excluded, allowing Al Assad’s troops and Russian and US airstrikes to continue to hit them. The hope in Washington and Moscow was that other rebel factions would shun both extremist groups.
Instead, the ceasefire faltered within weeks as Al Assad’s forces fought rebels around the opposition-held part of Aleppo, and peace talks in Geneva stalemated. That boosted the Nusra Front’s credibility as the force that kept up the fight against Al Assad and it has attracted a coalition. Their alliance, known as the Jaish Al Fatah, or Army of Conquest, has recently waged a counter-offensive around Aleppo, retaking ground from Al Assad’s military and its allies and inflicting heavy casualties, including killing more than a dozen members of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard and about 30 Lebanese Hezbollah fighters, allied to Al Assad.
Maj Jamil Saleh, commander of Tajammu El Ezzah, a US-backed rebel group, said the Nusra Front is gaining recruits in part because the international community has not pressed for Al Assad’s removal at the peace talks, discrediting moderate factions that agreed to the negotiations. “It is impossible for the rebel factions to enter into this battle (against the Nusra Front) so long as Bashar (Al Assad) remains in office,” Saleh said.
“Syria is right now the central front for Al Qaeda’s jihad,” said Thomas Joscelyn, senior editor of the Long War Journal and an Al Qaeda watcher for The Foundation for the Defence of Democracies, a US-based think tank. “I don’t think a lot of people realise how many resources Al Qaeda has invested in Syria.”
With the backing of Al Qaeda’s leadership, Nusra Front leader Abu Muhammad Al Golani appears to be working to keep the group’s factions behind a more pragmatic policy focused on keeping allies by the group’s side, rather than pressing an ideological agenda, experts believe.
PUSH: Pictures from the Nusra Front Twitter page glorify their fighters