On the back of fresh supplies of weapons and the provision of logistics and training support through Jordan, rebel forces have made substantial gains in the south against the regime of Bashar al-Assad in recent weeks.
However, the dynamic among those rebel groups fighting under Islamist banners has been shaken up after an informal alliance between al-Qaida and Jabhat al-Nusra (J.N.), a Syrian opposition group, was seemingly made explicit in a series of statements and audio postings on April 9 and 10. The al-Qaida tie-up has increased the tensions between J.N. and other groups seeking more military support from the West.
The opposition forces have overrun a number of regime positions in the southern part of Daraa province, which covers part of the border with Jordan, and in Quneitra province, adjoining the disengagement lines along the Golan Heights. These include two border posts, a military intelligence center and an air defense base. Rebel forces now claim to have control of a 30-kilometer stretch of the main highway between Damascus and Daraa.
During February and March, rebel groups led by J.N. announced two operations inside Damascus, involving thrusts from outlying areas into the city center to engage with regime forces, followed by withdrawals. There have also been a number of car bombs in the capital, the most recent on April 8 in the vicinity of the Central Bank of Syria and the Ministry of Finance, in which 14 people were killed, according to the regime’s official media. The Syrian National Coalition (SNC) of political forces has denied that rebel forces carried out the attacks, and has accused the regime of staging them in order to support its claim that the opposition is made up of terrorists. However, J.N. has acknowledged using car bombs and improvised explosive devices, but claims that such attacks are only directed against military targets.
The rebel push in the south appears to be part of a strategy to set up a base of operations from which to build up pressure on the Assad forces defending Damascus. The Supreme Military Council (SMC), designed as a form of Ministry of Defense for the SNC, is nominally in charge of drawing up and executing the strategy, with a measure of support from Jordan and the Gulf Arab states. The U.S. and other Western governments, in particular the U.K., are thought to be providing covert assistance, for example reportedly through facilitating the supply of weapons from Croatia.
“The announcement that [Jabhat al-Nusra] has forged a formal alliance with al-Qaida could mark a turning point in the relationship between the [opposition's Supreme Military Council] and the Salafi and jihadi groups.” – The Economist Intelligence Unit
One of the stated aims of Western governments in supporting the SMC – so far, officially, only through the provision of “non-lethal” equipment – has been to bolster forces defined as “moderate,” as distinct from groups such as J.N., which is designated by the U.S. as a terrorist organization with links to al-Qaida. In practice, the SMC only has lose control over the brigades and battalions operating under its umbrella, and SMC-affiliated units frequently operate alongside those from J.N. and other groups flying the black flags that identify them as following the puritanical Salafi trend in Islam.
Al-Qaida designs on Syria
The announcement that J.N. has forged a formal alliance with al-Qaida could mark a turning point in the relationship between the SMC and the Salafi and jihadi groups. The connection of J.N. to al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI) had been evident from the start. The core of J.N. was made up of Syrian jihadis who had fought alongside AQI. Syrian intelligence services had supported this connection, and this background led to suspicions that initially J.N. was a creature of the Assad regime itself, but it has since emerged as a leading force in the military campaign against the regime. It has worked closely with Salafi groups such as Ahrar al-Sham, which does not have al-Qaida connections. On April 9 jihadist websites carried a statement in the name of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of AQI, stating that the group had been behind the creation of J.N. and that the two groups would now merge under the name of the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (Greater Syria).
The following day, Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, the leader of J.N., issued an audio statement saying that he had pledged allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the overall leader of al-Qaida, and that he acknowledged the role that AQI had played in supporting the group with finance, weapons and manpower. However, he stopped short of confirming the reported merger or the objective of building a common Islamic state in Syria and Iraq. He said that he had not discussed this idea with AQI, and that before agreeing he would need to consult other Jihadi factions operating in Syria. This suggests that J.N. perceives a risk of being seen as threatening Syrian sovereignty. This is an understandable concern, given the Sunni rejection in 2007 of AQI’s goal of creating a breakaway militant Islamic state encompassing most of the center of Iraq – a proposal that offended many Iraqi nationalists. It would thus seem, at least at this stage, that J.N. wishes to maintain some distance between itself and AQI.
Khatib rejects al-Qaida
The flurry of statements about J.N. and al-Qaida brought a strong response from Moaz al-Khatib, the current president of the SNC (although he announced his intention to resign a few weeks ago). Khatib has previously criticized the U.S. decision to blacklist J.N. He said in December that the group was playing an important part in the fight to overthrow the Assad regime, although he acknowledged the political and ideological differences between the SNC and J.N. After the latest announcements from J.N. and AQI, Khatib said that he abhorred al-Qaida’s ideology, and that he suspected that al-Qaida was seeking to impose itself on J.N.
The focus on J.N. and al-Qaida came as the SNC and the SMC made a renewed effort to secure Western support in the military campaign. Ghassan Hitto, the prime minister-designate of the temporary government that the SNC has created with the aim of delivering services in areas of the country seized from the regime, has said that the opposition forces need help to counter the regime’s air force and helicopters, preferably through establishing no-fly zones. Hitto has also made clear that the best way to ensure that al-Qaida-affiliated groups do not overrun Syria is to bolster the mainstream forces. One of the tasks that he has set for the new government is to manage the economy in “liberated” areas, through arranging mechanisms to buy wheat and cotton crops from farmers and through securing control over oil and gas installations, some of which have been taken by J.N. Hitto has indicated that the government will cooperate with officials working in the Assad regime administration who have been identified as being supportive of the opposition, but who have been encouraged to remain in their posts.
However, his task may well be made more difficult by the latest developments involving J.N. The Assad regime, which has long sought to portray the opposition as terrorists and criminals, has been handed a useful propaganda tool. Meanwhile, the task of foreign governments seeking to supply the rebels has been made even more complicated, given the obvious political sensitivity of supplying arms that could fall into the hands of an explicitly al-Qaida-linked organization.
This post has been authored exclusively for MEV by The Economist Intelligence Unit.
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