Headache for US as al-Qaeda rebel battalion rises in Syria

Syrian rebels sit in a homemade armoured vehicle. Picture: Getty
Syrian rebels sit in a homemade armoured vehicle. Picture: Getty
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THE LONE Syrian rebel group with an explicit stamp of approval from al-Qaeda has become one of the uprising’s most effective fighting forces, posing a stark challenge to the United States and European countries that want to support the rebels but not Islamic extremists.

Money flows to the group, the Jabhat al-Nusra, from like-minded donors abroad. Its fighters, a small minority of the rebels, have the boldness and skill to storm fortified positions and lead other battalions to capture military bases and oil fields. As their successes against the forces of president Bashar al-Assad mount, they gather more weapons and attract more fighters.

The group is a direct offshoot of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Iraqi officials and former Iraqi insurgents say, which has contributed veteran fighters and weapons.

“This is just a simple way of returning the favour to our Syrian brothers that fought with us on the lands of Iraq,” said a veteran of al-Qaeda in Iraq, who said he helped lead the Nusra Front’s efforts in Syria.

Tellingly, rebel commanders meeting in Turkey this weekend to form a unified military command deliberately excluded Jabhat al-Nusra and two other extremist groups from their discussions, pointing to possible conflict if and when Assad falls.

The US says it plans to blacklist Jabhat al-Nusra as a terrorist organisation soon, making it illegal for Americans to have financial dealings with the group and most likely prompting similar sanctions from Europe.

Jabhat al-Nusra’s ally, al-Qaeda in Iraq, is the Sunni insurgent group that sowed widespread sectarian strife with suicide bombings against Shi’ites and other religious and ideological opponents. The Iraqi group played an active role in founding Jabhat al-Nusra and provides it with money, expertise and fighters, said Major Faisal al-Issawi, an Iraqi security official who tracks jihadi activities in Iraq’s Anbar Province.

Yet Jabhat al-Nusra’s appeals to Syrian fighters seem to be working.

At a recent meeting in Damascus, Abu Hussein al-Afghani, a veteran of insurgencies in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, addressed frustrated young rebels. They lacked money, weapons and training, so they listened attentively.

He told them he was a leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, now working with a Qaeda branch in Syria, and by joining him, they could make their mark. One fighter recalled his resonant question: “Who is hearing your voice today?”

Ansar al-Jebhat is far from the only fighting group that embraces a strict interpretation of Islam. Many battalions have adopted religious slogans, dress and practices, in what some activists call a pragmatic shift to curry favour with Islamist donors in Persian Gulf countries.

Not all religiously driven rebels embrace the al-Qaeda vision of global jihad, the International Crisis Group said in a recent report. Some have criticised Ansar al-Jebhat as serving the interests of the Assad government, which seeks to paint its opposition as terrorists and foreigners.

Many of its members fought in Iraq, where the Syrian government helped funnel jihadis to battle the American occupation.

In Iraq’s Diyala Province, a former member of al-Qaeda in Iraq said that a leader and many members of the group were fighting in Syria under the Nusra Front’s banner. An Iraqi security official there said they travel through Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey to Syria.

“They are well trained mentally and militarily,” Major Issawi said. “They are so excited about the fighting in Syria. They see Syria as a dream coming true.”