Adonis Diaries

Moderate Rebel factions in Syria? Forget it. Even Al Nusra is siding with ISIS

Posted on: November 7, 2014


As Qaeda-Backed Group Makes Gains, Rift Grows Among Rebels in Syria

And the US airstrikes are targeting most of the rebel factions” in Syria.” Even France has changed policy and doesn’t believe anymore in moderate factions could make any difference and resume the fight.


Fighters with the Qaeda-backed Syrian rebel group Al Nusra Front stood among destroyed buildings south of Damascus in September. The group has been making inroads in Idlib Province. Credit Rami Al-Sayed/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

BAGHDAD — The Nusra Front, a Syrian rebel group affiliated with Al Qaeda, has been expanding its control in the northern province of Idlib, seizing territory from two Western-supported rebel organizations and potentially threatening a critical border crossing with Turkey, according to rebels and monitoring groups.

Groups in Idlib have been a focus of the Obama administration’s plan to train and equip some Syrian rebels to fight Islamic State, the jihadist group that has occupied territory further east in Syria and Iraq.

And though the province represents just a small part of the sprawling conflict in Syria, it has been an important center of international attempts to organize and supply the resistance to President Bashar al-Assad’s government.

Two groups that the Nusra Front has seized bases from in recent days, the Syrian Revolutionaries Front and the Hazm Movement, are considered moderates and have received limited arms support from the West.

Despite that, they have been unable to hold their ground against the extremists in this latest outbreak of rebel infighting, commanders say.

The trouble began last week when the Nusra Front began moving against the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, headed by Jamal Maarouf, a former construction worker-turned rebel leader who has been widely accused by other rebels of war profiteering. (As if no leaders ever profited from war)

As the Nusra Front pushed him and his fighters from the area, Maarouf spoke out in videos posted online. In one, he walked over rocky ground, saying his men were defending Syria.

After the Nusra Front took over  last week his home village, Deir Sunbul, he acknowledged in another video that he had fled and vowed to come back and liberate the area, “village by village.” (Street by street as Gadhafi vowed to recapture Benghazi)

Activists linked to the Nusra Front struck back, posting videos of their fighters gathering weapons from Maarouf’s storehouses and of more than a dozen decomposed bodies of people they accused Mr. Maarouf’s men of killing and dumping in a well.

Rami Abdul-Rahman, the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said he considered the videos genuine. His group, which tracks the conflict from Britain through contacts on the ground, reported earlier this year that Mr. Maarouf’s fighters had executed more than 90 Islamist rivals and dumped them in wells.

“These are some of those bodies,”  Abdul Rahman said.

Mr. Maarouf could not be reached for comment on the bodies.

It remains unclear how much support Mr. Maarouf’s group had received from the West, and some say the West does not give him aid.

But the other affected group, the Hazm Movement, has been a key recipient of military aid from a covert program run by the United States and other countries from across the border in Turkey. According to members of the group, this aid has included salaries, light ammunition and a limited number of anti-tank missiles.

Activists in Idlib Province said that tensions there had intensified when the Nusra Front chased off Mr. Maarouf. Both groups have fighters from the village of Khan al-Subul, where the Hazm base is, so they sought a deal to avoid bloodshed, with the Hazm fighters withdrawing over the weekend.

Activist reports conflicted on what arms the Nusra Front had seized from the base, with some saying they included anti-tank missiles sent by the West and others denying it. Other activists said that dozens of fighters had switched sides, joining the Nusra Front.

In an audio interview released online on Tuesday, the head of the Nusra Front, Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, attacked Mr. Maarouf, saying his group contained “thieves and bandits” and that other rebel groups had urged the Nusra Front to oust him.

While Mr. Jolani did not mention the Hazm Movement, he criticized Western aid for the rebels, saying it represented an effort to kill the “mujahedeen” and impose Western policy.

After years of refraining from intervening in Syria’s civil war, the Obama administration recently announced plans to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State. But that program, meant to train 5,000 fighters a year at a base in Saudi Arabia, has yet to begin, and many in Syria’s opposition have criticized the plan, saying their priority is to fight Mr. Assad.

Emile Hokayyem, a Middle East analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said that American policy toward the so-called moderate rebels had put them in a hard position. Some had aligned with the West in hopes that it would give them arms to fight Mr. Assad, he said. But now the United States wants to use them only to fight the Islamic State, damaging their credibility among Syrians who see Mr. Assad as the greater enemy.

“This is the worst of all worlds,” Mr. Hokayem said. “These guys get blamed for being American lackeys even when they get nothing.”

The infighting has angered residents of rebel-held areas, many of whom accuse rebel leaders of looking out only for themselves.

In a video posted this weekend, an unnamed man held up pieces of munitions dropped by Mr. Assad’s army and accused Mr. Maarouf, the Nusra Front and other rebel factions of doing little to protect civilians.

“We Sunni Muslims, why can’t we unify?” the man said. “Because we have people with big heads: Me! I want the chair!”

Correction: November 4, 2014
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article referred incorrectly, in one instance, to the rebel group that Jamal Maarouf leads. It is the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, not the Hazm Movement.

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