Cease­fire boost for Al Qaeda

Halt to Syria conflict has strength­ened ter­ror group

7 Days in Dubai - - SPECIAL REPORT -

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

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