Al-Qaeda’s Proxies Among Syria’s Rebels Scared by Threat of U.S. Strikes

  • Share
  • Read Later
Guillaume Briquet / AFP / Getty Images

Center: A Turkish fighter of the jihadist group Al-Nusra Front, bearing the flag of Al-Qaeda on his jacket, holds position with fellow comrades on April 4, 2013 in the Syrian village of Aziza, on the southern outskirts of Aleppo.

Correction appended: Sept. 6, 2013

As the U.S. Congress inches closer towards authorizing the use of military force in Syria, rebel groups on the ground are preparing for an offensive that could fundamentally alter the trajectory of what is now a stalemated war well into its third year. Not all of them are happy about it: al-Qaeda affiliated groups that have long sided with the rebels are worried that the U.S. and its allies might use the pretext of strikes against the regime to degrade their own abilities. According to Ayham Al Hussain, a rebel fighter from the northern city of Raqaa, which was taken over by the al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front in March, the jihadist groups have left their bases and melted into civilian society, fearing a U.S. strike. “The Islamists are so afraid,” he says, using a term that encompasses the Nusra Front as well as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, Syria’s al-Qaeda wing. “They have evacuated their positions but are still keeping some of the guards in front of their bases,” he says via Skype, noting that they have even taken down their signature black flags.

A strike on Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliates is highly unlikely—such a strategy would be difficult to pull off given the complex interlacing of various rebel groups, and nothing of the sort has been publicly discussed as officials in the Administration of U.S. President Barack Obama make their case for punitive attacks against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, whom they accuse of launching a chemical weapons attack against rebel-held suburbs east of Damascus on August 21. (The government denies using chemical weapons, saying the opposition is responsible.) But opposition concerns about the pending attacks expose the growing rift between al-Qaeda-aligned rebel groups whose ultimate goal is an Islamic state in Syria and the more moderate factions who are simply fighting to overthrow the Assad regime.

The jihadist groups, by dint of their discipline, religious zeal and the inclusion of foreign combatants trained in the wars of Iraq, Afghanistan and Chechnya, tend to be the most effective fighters. They have garnered a disproportionate degree of influence for that reason, and attract attention, funding and weapons from international donors seeking a quick path to the overthrow of Assad. The more moderate Syrian rebels are conflicted; while they welcome the jihadist groups’ military prowess, they fear the militants won’t stop with Assad’s overthrow. “The Islamists are not fighting for us, they are fighting for their own agendas,” complains Mohammad Mohammad, a 25 year-old rebel fighter from Rankous, near Damascus, via Skype. “They repaint our graffiti with Islamic paintings and they want to solve our problems in Islamic courts. I want a national and civil court.”

Opposition activists worry that the growing power of the al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in areas they control could cause a backlash, tarring all the rebels with the jihadist brush and driving Syrians back into the regime’s arms. Some have gone so far as to vocalize their hopes that the U.S. might take out their al-Qaeda rivals at the same time as Assad’s military assets. “Both the regime and the fanatic groups are delaying our victory and our freedoms,” says Husam Rozisk, an opposition activist running the Tal Abyad Media Center in Aleppo. “To target both now is better than leaving [the jihadists] to have a bigger influence because it will be hard to eliminate them in the future.”

Even if such an attack is unlikely, some of the hard core jihadist groups are taking cover, just in case. “We cannot hide that we are anxious, but we are well prepared. We have evacuated all of our bases,” says Abu Omar al-Tawammi, an Aleppo-based commander from the Salafist Ahrar ash-Sham brigade, one of the most powerful factions fighting in the war, with 10,000 to 20,000 fighters. “They [the Americans] declared that the aim of the strike is to punish the regime but the real aim behind the strike is to weaken the Islamic groups on behalf of the FSA,” he tells TIME via Skype, referring to the Western backed Free Syrian Army, a loose confederation of rebel units also fighting the regime.

Mohammad, the fighter from Rankous, dismisses such fears as propaganda designed to elicit support from a population that already feels betrayed by the West for its inaction. In the wake of the chemical attacks, the jihadist groups took the lead in calling for retribution, threatening a “volcano of revenge” against the government. U.S. attacks could preempt the jihadists’ standing as the toughest kids on the block, undermining support from a population that was willing to put up with Islamic law in exchange for a strong champion against the regime. “In my area the Islamists haven’t left their bases yet but they are spreading rumors that they will be attacked to make people sympathies with them,” says Mohammad. To Reva Bhalla, Vice President of Global Analysis for Stratfor, a private intelligence and analysis organization based in Texas, the jihadist groups’ reaction may be a canny combination of defensive positioning and p.r. broadcasting. “If they can’t be sure of U.S. intentions on the whole, there may be some practicality to reducing their profile. It works in their favor to assume the role of both victim and avenger,” she says.

Such tactics may work in the short term, says Mohammad. But they won’t last. “The Islamists are defying the will of the Syrian people and they will lose by the end.” It’s just not clear how long that will take.

—with reporting by Rami Aysha / Beirut

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Ahrar ash-Sham was listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department. It is not.

 
79 comments
KingdomOfHeaven
KingdomOfHeaven

The battle of heart and mind of America vs Al Qaeda from Khorasan to Bilad al-sham for the sake of Jerusalem!

AlfredoIannuzzi
AlfredoIannuzzi

This kind of supposition is misleading:

Why should rebels be scared By U.S. strikes against their enemy?

Putting the magic word "Al Qaeda" and pretending that they fear your intervention, are you trying to justify to american people your decision to strike?

kafantaris2
kafantaris2

"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free."

These words on the Statute of Liberty reflect that we are a magnanimous people and that our country is the beacon of hope for the world.

Yet, we have grown weary of this role and of the sacrifices it entails, as parents grow tired of the sacrifices entailed in raising good children.

But just as parents cannot abandon their sacred role, neither can we abandon the work that has defined us. Not only because there is no one else around to take our place, but also because there is no one around the world would trust. This is so despite the daily criticism -- and sometimes vitriol -- hurtled against us.

Let us shoulder on then, and keep jumping over the hurtles and through the hoops, as we had done the past century.

And let us remember that though the world does not always agree with us, it still deems us its de facto leader -- its brightest and singular example of how things should be.

Yusimi Reyes
Yusimi Reyes

Estupidos en Guerra esperemos Las naciones Les de paz a ese paiz y pedir por la paz de ese paiz.

Rana Umar Abrar
Rana Umar Abrar

well! Al Qaeda(rebels) & USA are both on the same side fighting Syrian Govt (Bashar Al Assad) Is this post some kimd of a joke?

MitchB
MitchB

I take issue with Ms. Rand's conflation of the terms "Islamist" and "jihadist."  In this context, jihadist most accurately refers to Sunni adherents of Salafist jihadism who believe in the use of indiscriminate violence to establish the global Islamic caliphate.
Al Jazeera's Jamal Al Sharif discussed jihadist Salafism's divergence from, and disdain for, such "moderate" Islamist groups as the Muslim Brotherhood: http://bit.ly/17VdKlS 
Islamism itself is a broad term that individuals may apply to themselves to mean anything from a devout Muslim whose religious beliefs shape their political opinions, to the jihadists themselves.
To combat the Western tendency to overgeneralize foreign groups, "Islamism" should be seen as a broad and general term that covers many individuals (including the members of the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front, who are Islamist but reject al-Qa'ida and Jabhat al Nusra), who may become radicalized into "jihadists" (as Maajid Nawaz discusses firsthand in his book, "The Islamist", and his transition from Islamism, to jihadism, to moderate Islam).

JebediahBush
JebediahBush

President Putin is sending over a team to instruct our GOP Congressmen and Senators on how to vote. The RINO Boehner, is considering not attending - he is a traitor to Tea Party Patriots. We can make obama fail! YEA!

Dave J Keegan
Dave J Keegan

The U S, arm those who cause some of the most outrages attacks on innocent people. They support Isreal, and that in itself should be considered outrages. What is happening in Syria, is without a doubt a crime against humanity, but the U S by interfering is displaying itself with double standards. On one hand the U S is claiming to protect the innocent victims in Syria, while on the other hand, the U S is supporting Isreal, in the slaughter of innocent Palestinians

Tania Letizia Gobbett
Tania Letizia Gobbett

ancora non ho capito che visione abbiano di se stessi - mitica, figurale, politica, anarchico-apolide - vorrei capire

JdReader
JdReader

Hopefully, the chemical weapons do not fall into the hands of Al-Queda and those weapons are used in Western Nation. If that happens, all of you doubters who live in an alternate universe will be blamed for the deaths of innocents.

Robert Plant
Robert Plant

alqaeda militia joins us army. . What a history

Justin Blurblur
Justin Blurblur

That is not true because Barack Hussein Obama is actually Al Qaesa's proxy. He is trying to massacre Christians in the Middle East. Edward Nowden knows who Obama really is and that is why Obama is desperately trying to make Americans hate Russia.

eapotterjr
eapotterjr

@slone What a mess, but doubtful Qaeda elements have much to fret from any US strike, in spite of the opportunity. I Bet Obama rules it out.

NJ
NJ

If the US bombed al-Qaeda in addition to Assad, it would be bombing both sides of a civil war. Insanity!

Ysam Bayron
Ysam Bayron

^ It will be a bad business for those country if US will intervene. hmm?

davidpun0042
davidpun0042

We have not been told the truth about why Obama wants to attack Syria to deter further use of chemical weapons.  The reason is quite simple. Modern chemical weapons are the one weapon that the US has no defense against and no superiority over other adversaries. We have superior conventional military force, superior air power, superior naval forces, superior ground forces. We have superior nuclear weapons. We can knock out missiles and satellites. We can deter and repel almost any conceivable attack from any country in the world

The one weapon that we are completely vulnerable to is chemical weapons. If Sarin gas  is released in New York City, it will be no different than it was in Syria. We can't stop it, we can't neutralize it, we can't protect ourselves in any conceivable manner. And Sarin gas is one of the mildest chemical weapons in the arsenal. America is vulnerable to any opponent who decides to use chemical weapons to attack it.

Although he will not voice it for obvious reasons, it is essential that the US obliterate any adversary who attempts to use chemical weapons before they can deploy them against us. 

If there is a world wide prohibition we can intervene before an opponent has enough chemicals to hurt us. If we fail to intervene and Syria uses chemical weapons with impunity, then they will continue to use them, against their own people initially, and then further down the road, against opponents who they view as enemies....like the United States.


mavisrooster
mavisrooster

What an obvious propaganda piece trying to diminish the objections to the fact that the President wants to join Al Queda in their quest to overthrow a pro-Western leader in Syria.

Jean Pierre Joubert
Jean Pierre Joubert

It would be the only sensible option if they plan any strikes in Syria.

leon1376
leon1376

Let's say Obama defeats Assad. Let's go even further and say that the "good rebels" establish a democratic government. What do you think is going to happen next? Anyone with half a functioning brain knows that al-Qaida will attack the new government and then what will you have? Another Libya. Because Obama hasn't announced any goal other than getting rid of Assad, I have no doubt the final outcome is what "Jihadist Obama" is aiming for. He's given Libya to the crazies and he's doing his dead-level damnedest to hand Syria over to al-Qaida as well. Obama came close in Egypt but failed. Can someone please tell me why that is? Anybody? 

EarthView
EarthView

This article is nonsense. It makes absolutely no sense. The Jihadists want the U.S. to attack Syrian government assets. 

Adrian Jawort
Adrian Jawort

Russia... Yugoslavia... Etc. Nothing shocking.

Boy King
Boy King

no kind israil you will be die all see you after.

Jason Downie
Jason Downie

am I supposed to feel bad for them!!! oh well I don't I hope they all die!!!

Lucas Bavaresco
Lucas Bavaresco

ever noticed this? every time USA does not fund a big war, there are terrorist attemps. do you see any connection?

boa201301
boa201301

She forgot to ask the main question - What are the goals of the US's illegitimate and unlawful aggression against Syria?  The purpose is to weaken Syrian institutions and allow those rats to create a complete anarchy. It has nothing to do about the Syrian people, but it has ALL to do with Israel's evil interests. NATO, Gulf countries, Israel and Jordan have already created two million refugees and one million of them are children. The chaos supported by these entities resulted in over one hundred thousand deaths. The world understands their hypocrisy and condemn these war crimes aggression supported by the so-called democratic entities. It is a complete tragedy. Conversely, I am astonished by the lack of journalistic skills and sincerity of these mercenaries who write articles on platforms offered by the Corporate Media. 


olaf.auer
olaf.auer

Call them what you want; split hairs all you want, but the bottom line is they are all scumbags and they hate America!

RickyWilks
RickyWilks

@Justin Blurblur Wow, these conspiracy theories just get more and more ridiculous.

Shanpat
Shanpat

@EarthView You really think it's nonsense? Yes the Jihadists want us to attack the Syrian gov't, but it does explain how they are in fear for their own hides. In my perfect world, our missiles would do a bullseye on the Jihadists.