Is Al-Qaeda helping Al-Assad?
More than one group affiliated with Al-Qaeda is involved in the conflict in Syria, but with what end in view, asks Bassel Oudat in Damascus
Dozens of armed groups are fighting in Syria today, presumably aiming to bring down the regime led by President Bashar Al-Assad which has ruled the country with an iron fist for nearly four decades.
Some of these groups are secular, and some are moderate Islamists whose agenda is known and who usually fight in the ranks of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
However, others, such as the Nusra Front and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), are known affiliates of Al-Qaeda. Presumably, these groups see themselves as fighting for a worldwide jihad, but their agenda in Syria is so bewildering that some now suspect them of taking sides with the regime.
The moderate Islamists fighting in the ranks of the opposition are Syrians, and they do not accept foreign fighters in their ranks. However, the Al-Qaeda affiliates have no such qualms, and their ranks are filled with non-Syrians, including Arabs, Westerners and Asians.
While the leaders of most of the Syrian groups are well known, no one seems to know who is running the Al-Qaeda affiliates. Both the Nusra Front and the ISIS forces are remarkably well-trained, well-equipped, and well-financed, something that the other Syrian groups, endemically short of both cash and ammunition, can only envy.
Over the past few months, Al-Qaeda affiliates have been challenging the FSA by expelling it from positions it had won in battle, chasing it from areas with no particular military value, and generally trying to weaken it.
What has been even more jarring has been the fact that the Al-Qaeda affiliates have also started to interfere with the civilian population, presumably in an attempt to force it to adopt a strict form of Sharia Law, a goal that has never been embraced by the Syrian revolution as a whole and one that can only alienate many of its civilian supporters.
Add to this the curious fact that the regime almost never bombs areas that are controlled by the Al-Qaeda affiliates and the outlines of a conspiracy theory begin to emerge, or at least this is what the Syrian opposition is now coming to believe.
Many in the Syrian opposition say that the Al-Qaeda affiliates are now in fact doing the regime’s bidding by weakening its true adversaries, those led by the FSA, and alienating Syrian civilians and the West and thus giving the regime the opportunity to claim it is fighting terrorists.
ISIS fighters recently stormed into the town of Azaz near Aleppo in northern Syria and expelled FSA fighters from it, doing the same thing in areas of Al-Reqqa, Deir Al-Zur and Idlib.
Syrian opposition members are beginning to identify a pattern. Whenever the regime is in trouble, they say, the Al-Qaeda affiliates start a fight with either the FSA or the Kurds, thereby alleviating the pressure on Al-Assad’s forces.
To explain this pattern, members of the Syrian opposition say that the Al-Qaeda affiliates have either been infiltrated by the regime, or have forged close ties with its intelligence services.
Such activities by the Al-Qaeda affiliates have done much to discredit the Syrian revolution, and they recently eliminated the chance of a military strike against the regime as legislators in both London and Washington balked at the idea of removing a regime in a country so at risk of falling into the hands of jihadists.
Turkey, increasingly worried about the jihadists in Syria, has also recently closed its main border crossing with Syria, a step that has further weakened the Syrian secular opposition.
The ISIS has also been accused of fomenting clashes between the Arabs and the Kurds who oppose the regime, so as to throw the ranks of the opposition into disarray. It has arrested activists, relief workers and journalists, actions which have reflected badly on the opposition as a whole.
The ISIS has made a habit of occupying oil supply points, major roads and strategic points across the borders, actions that seem less directed against the regime than geared towards maximising its own clout in the country and another reason for the suspicions now surrounding the group’s agenda.
The Syrian opposition says that the Nusra Front and the ISIS could not care less about the revolution and its goals, which include creating a pluralistic democracy in Syria and defending citizens’ rights, justice and freedom. None of these goals seems to elicit support from the jihadists.
The opposition local coordination committees, which include activists from all currents, claim that the actions of the Nusra Front and the ISIS are helpful to no one but the regime.
Monzir Khaddam, spokesman for the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, said that the jihadists were also implementing a US agenda. Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly, Khaddam said that “for the extremist jihadist groups in Syria, including the Nusra Front and the ISIS, bloodshed is their sole raison d’être.”
“They claim that what they are fighting for is the creation of an Islamist regime that would implement Sharia Law in Syria, which is absurd. In truth, the US created the jihadist movements, and it is using them for its own purposes. The jihadists are only a problem for America and the West if they pose a threat to Israel. But if they are destroying Syria, then their presence is tolerated.”
“I do not rule out the possibility that at some point as part of a political settlement between the opposition and the regime in Geneva or elsewhere, the Syrian army might join with the FSA to destroy the extremists,” Khaddam said.
Sources in the Syrian opposition estimate the number of non-Syrian jihadists at some 17,000, while European sources put the figure at 6,000.
Louay Safi, spokesman for the National Coalition of the Syrian Opposition and Revolutionary Forces, said that there was no shortage of Islamist factions that believe in freedom and dignity, but that the Al-Qaeda affiliates were not among them.
“The Syrian people must exercise their right to choose their political leaders in a democratic fashion,” Safi said.
Soad Nofal, an activist from Al-Reqqa who staged a one-woman picket in front of the ISIS headquarters for two months to demand that the group stop abducting and arresting activists and burning churches, is convinced that the ISIS have connections with the regime.
Speaking to the Weekly, Nofal said that “all their actions suggest, indeed confirm, that they have links with the regime.”
FSA spokesman Fahd Al-Masri called on foreign fighters to leave the country, saying that the FSA would not allow any extremist or terrorist group to stay in Syria after the fall of Al-Assad.
“The countries that talk about how terrorists are infiltrating Syria must ask themselves how this has happened. These groups have been crossing the borders in broad daylight. We have to find out how more than 1,000 Taliban fighters arrived in Syria. We have to find out how members of Al-Qaeda escaped from Iraqi prisons and came to Syria,” he said.
“There is an international conspiracy to let Islamists and extremists into Syria in order to upset the military and political balance in the country and distort the Syrian revolution.”
Claims that the Syrian regime is in cahoots with Al-Qaeda are not as fantastical as they may seem. During the first year of the revolution, the regime released more than 60,000 criminals from prison, including jihadists who had had dealings with the regime when the country was a route for extremists going to Iraq.
As the extremists continue their activities today, the revolutionaries in Syria find themselves in a tight spot, needing both to fight the regime and the jihadists who are better equipped and better trained than they are.