BEIRUT

Middle East

Al-Qaeda-Nusra union can divide Syria: rebels

Nusra fighters wave their brigade flag on the top of a regime helicopter at Taftanaz air base that was captured by rebels in January.

BEIRUT: The announcement that the Syrian opposition Nusra Front has aligned with the leadership of Al-Qaeda in Iraq has thrown transition plans in Syria into chaos, with some opposition groups warning it could complicate the battlefield, even pit northern-backed Islamists against southern-backed secularists.

The new development coincided with high-level discussions at the G-8 summit in London on the Syria crisis and an appeal from rebel groups for more arms, adding strain to already diverging opinions on how and who to support among the opposition fighters.

Abu Mohammad al-Golani, the leader of the Nusra Front the most lethal opposition group, Wednesday pledged allegiance to the leadership of Al-Qaeda in Iraq in an online statement.

“The sons of Nusra Front renew their pledge [of allegiance] to the Sheikh of Jihad Ayman al-Zawahri and declare obedience,” Golani said.

The announcement came a day after the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi said his group and the Nusra Front would operate under a united leadership called the Islamic State of Iraq.

The Nusra Front has claimed some of the most significant victories against Syrian government forces in the course of the 2-year-old uprising. But their radical ideology and use of suicide attacks and the killing of civilians has alienated other opposition fighters, who point out that Syrian President Bashar Assad has frequently justified his offensives as a war against foreign-backed jihadists and not a popular Syrian movement.

In December, the U.S blacklisted the Front as a terrorist group, citing links to Al-Qaeda.

The Syrian State news agency said the union “proves that this opposition was never anything other than a tool used by the West and by terrorists to destroy the Syrian people.”

Golani appeared to try to appease opposition backers, and, while not denying the merger, said he was not consulted ahead of time about the union through the media.

“What you saw from the Front of its defense of your religion, honor and blood, and its good qualities with you and the fighting groups, will remain as you experienced it,” Golani said.

The move could complicate efforts to arm and assist opposition groups on the ground.

Efforts to form a transition government, designed to administer military and humanitarian efforts and manage natural resources from a location inside northern Syria along the Turkish border, was announced in haste in February.

But the initiative has stalled over a dispute over the leadership, and persistent accusations from some opposition factions that the government mirrored the Syrian National Coalition from which it was formed; dominated by Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Arab military, diplomatic and opposition officials speaking to The Daily Star have acknowledged Western concerns over a lack of unity within the government, and worries that weapons are heading to Islamist groups on the ground, were behind a quiet backing away from the initiative.

The U.S. and its regional allies, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, which has a peace accord with Israel, fear a hard-line Islamist government could replace Assad if he falls.

According to opposition military sources and Arab diplomats close to discussions, the plan collapsed in part due to a failure by Saudi Arabia and Qatar to negotiate a deal over the position of defense command, which would manage military supplies. And when Qatar- and Turkey-backed Ghassan Hitto was nominated for the premiership of the body, various opposition factions resigned from the coalition.

Chief among opponents to the government was the Supreme Military Council, the armed wing of the Syrian National Coalition designed to coordinate Free Syrian Army operations from their command post in Turkey.

Spokesman for the FSA, Saudi-aligned former Lebanese MP Louay Moqdad, told The Daily Star this week the FSA did not support the Nusra ideology but that the coordination with the FSA was convenient only on the ground.

Moqdad said the FSA was “grateful to Turkey for hosting us,” but he reiterated the military council’s position that the transition government was a mistake.

“We want all the Free Syrian Army to be unified together. When Saudi Arabia sees that there is unity, they will support us, but not under this coalition.”

Arab diplomatic sources told The Daily Star U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had also requested a hold on the northern transition initiative amid increasing reports that the U.S. military was working with Saudi Arabia to form a “Western-friendly” transition government aimed at funding more secular rebels from Jordan on the southern border as a counterweight to the proliferation of hard-line Islamists.

While Western diplomats have remained tightlipped about the Jordan project, a senior military opposition official, who declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of discussions, told The Daily Star: “The fight is essentially for Damascus, and Jordan is much closer to Damascus.”

It was unclear where the new development left the Jordanian plan, but opposition figures said they lamented the Nusra announcement, saying it could only lead to new battle between revolutionary forces.

Veteran dissident Kamal Labwani, who has been an outspoken opponent of the Muslim Brotherhood and Qatar’s agenda in Syria, said Nusra’s move was proof the group was being used by Iran and would ultimately serve the Syrian regime.

“I am afraid that this movement may divide the opposition in Syria. ... Aleppo will be under the control of the Salafists and the south under the control of maybe more liberals, but those serving ... Israel or whoever else,” Labwani said.

“We think this will lead to a divide between the revolution forces.”

A Muslim Brotherhood spokesperson late last night told The Daily Star they had yet to adopt a position on the Nusra announcement.

“Everyone has an interest in dividing Syria. Qatar, the Muslim Brotherhood, Turkey, Israel, Iran, Iraq ... All have a benefit in dividing Syria,” Labwani said.

Asked what the best outcome could be to avoid such a scenario, he replied: “I hope they will be brave enough to intervene militarily now.” – With agencies

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 11, 2013, on page 1.

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