News Column

Syrian Rebels Swear Loyalty to al-Qaeda

April 12, 2013

A Syrian rebel group's pledge of allegiance to al-Qaeda's replacement for Osama bin Laden suggests that the terrorist group's influence is not waning and that it may take a greater role in the fight to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The pledge of allegiance by Syrian Jabhat al Nusra Front chief Abou Mohamad al-Joulani to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri was coupled with an announcement by the al-Qaeda affiliate in Iraq, the Islamic State of Iraq, that it would work with al Nusra as well.

Lebanese Sheik Omar Bakri, who wants states to be governed by Muslim law, says al-Qaeda has assisted al Nusra for some time. "They provided them early on with technical, military and financial support, especially when it came to setting up networks of foreign jihadis who were brought into Syria," Bakri says. "There will certainly be greater coordination between the two groups."

The United States, which supports the overthrow of Assad, designated al Nusra a terrorist entity in December.

Al Nusra and groups like it have seen some of the most significant victories against Syrian government forces in the course of the 2-year-old uprising in which Assad's forces have killed about 80,000 people. Rebels not affiliated with al-Qaeda have pressed Washington for months to send weaponry that will allow them to match the heavy weapons of the Syrian army. They've urged the West to mount an air campaign against Assad's mechanized forces.

President Obama refuses to provide any direct military aid. Foreign radical Islamists streaming into the fight from the Middle East and Europe are making headway with the Syrian population by providing services and gaining ground in battles.

Tamer Mouhieddine, spokesman for the Syrian Free Army, a force made up of Syrian soldiers who have defected, said, "The rebels in Syria have one common enemy -- Bashar Assad -- and they will collaborate with any faction allowing them to topple his regime."

He confirmed that al Nusra is generating loyalty in Aleppo, a region battling for months with Assad, by providing financial support as well as setting up charities.

Aaron Zelin at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington says al Nusra's ability to provide security and basic needs such as bread and fuel to Syrian civilians has won gratitude from people who would not usually adhere to its strict ideology.

"This illustrates the need for American leadership in the Syrian conflict, particularly with regard to helping non-Qaeda-aligned rebels contain the growth of (al Nusra) and similar groups," he said.


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Source: Copyright USA TODAY 2013