A new power struggle has emerged within the Syrian rebellion after Al-Qaeda announced it aims to create an Islamic “emirate” to compete with rival jihadist group, the Islamic State (IS).
As with IS in its early days, when it was still known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, Al-Qaeda affiliate the Al-Nusra Front is spreading its zone of influence, taking over strategically located villages, and competing with other rebel groups.
On July 11, an audio recording attributed to Al-Nusra’s chief Abu Mohammad al-Jolani was distributed via YouTube, in which he announced the group’s intention to establish an Islamic “emirate”.
“The time has come, O loved ones, to create an emirate in the Levant,” Jolani said, adding that its borders will be with “the regime, those who exaggerate (the Islamic State), the corrupt ones (the rebels),” and the Kurds.
The audio recording emerged two weeks after IS proclaimed an Islamic “caliphate” straddling Syria and Iraq.
Days later, for the first time in Syria’s war, battles erupted between Al-Nusra and their rebel allies from a patchwork of opposition groups.
The first major fight was in the Jisr al-Shughur area of Idlib province, near the northwestern border with Turkey, in which dozens of fighters on both sides died, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Al-Nusra and rebels have also since fought each other in Daraa province in the south, and Aleppo in the north.
Activists say the change is in part due to the fact that Al-Nusra has been significantly weakened in recent months by the fighting against IS and is now seeking to extend its influence once more.
– Openly at war –
IS and Al-Nusra, who both have thousands of fighters in their ranks, are rooted in Al-Qaeda in Iraq but the latter has since split with the global terror network and faced criticism from its head Ayman al-Zawahiri.
The two groups have been openly at war with each other in Syria since early this year.
In eastern Syria’s oil-rich Deir Ezzor, IS won the battle, killing hundreds of Al-Nusra fighters and forcing those who survived either to flee or to submit.
According to Abu Yasmin, a rebel in Idlib province in Syria’s northwest, “Al-Nusra is going through a real crisis. Its announcement that it wants an emirate is a way to draw new jihadists into its ranks. On the ground, it is pushing to create an emirate exclusively under its control.”
Al-Nusra first emerged in Syria’s war at the end of 2011 — a year and a half before IS appeared on the scene.
Unlike IS, Al-Nusra integrated well into the Syrian rebellion, and claimed responsibility for major attacks on regime positions.
But some opposition fighters are now changing their view of Al-Nusra, and are even preparing to fight it.
Earlier this week, a group of moderate rebel groups — including Western-supported Hazem and the Syrian Revolutionaries Front — published a stinging statement, vowing not to cooperate with Al-Nusra.
– ‘Showing its true face’ –
Part of the backlash reflects a rising rejection of jihadism, as a whole, among rebel ranks.
Abu Yasmin told AFP via the Internet that Al-Nusra’s tactics “are about power, not about Islam. We Syrians don’t need anyone to teach us Islam.”
According to Rami Abdel Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Al-Nusra has been pushing for exclusive control in several border areas in Idlib and Aleppo province near Turkey, and Daraa province near Jordan.
“This is exactly how IS started out,” said Abdel Rahman. “First it took control, then it announced its caliphate. We are seeing this happen again, with Al-Nusra Front.”
Abdel Rahman also told AFP that, like IS, Al-Nusra is starting to go it alone, cutting its ties with joint rebel Islamic courts that act as the de facto authority in opposition-held areas.
Al-Nusra and its Islamist rebel sympathisers, for their part, claim to be waging a campaign against “corrupt” rebel groups with questionable reputations.
“Remember, IS used to do just the same, singling out small groups and fighting them, in order to gain popular support at first while legitimising its spread of influence,” said Abdel Rahman.
The key difference, said a rebel officer who spoke to AFP on condition of anonymity, between IS and Al-Nusra is the latter has so far done a far better job at integrating than IS ever did.
“But now Al-Nusra is starting to show its true face. Its goals are not freedom and democracy. It wants control and sectarianism. And that’s not what our revolution is about,” said the officer.