The government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will exploit the merger of al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Syrian extremist al-Nusra Front to push its argument that it’s fighting a war on terror, not an uprising, an opposition leader said.
Burhan Ghalioun, who headed the opposition Syrian National Council, said all liberal, democratic-minded and moderate Syrians should “redouble our efforts to restore the real face of the uprising.”
Al-Qaeda’s branch in Iraq said it has merged with Syria’s al-Nusra Front, The Associated Press reported today. Al-Nusra is listed by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist group because of ties to al-Qaeda. A website linked to the group today confirmed the merger with the Islamic State of Iraq, whose leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, first made the announcement in a 21-minute audio posted on militant websites late yesterday, AP said.
Assad has portrayed the uprising that began in March 2011 as a war against jihadists funded by countries including Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Ghalioun said in a phone interview from Paris that the president and his government will exploit news of the merger to tell the world they were right.
“What started off as a peaceful uprising by the Syrian people is essentially now being hijacked by al-Qaeda,” Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center in Qatar, said in a phone interview.
“Al-Qaeda has reached a level of maturity in Syria whereby they can directly pose a challenge to everyone else,” he said. “It’s going to make things more complicated and it’s something we suspected would happen the longer this regime” stayed in power.
Links between al-Qaeda in Iraq and the al-Nusra Front “were well known before this announcement,” the State Department’s acting spokesman, Patrick Ventrell, said in an e-mail. “We have long made clear our serious concerns with respect to the threat of violent extremist elements present in Syria, including al-Nusra Front.” The U.S. in December designated al-Nusra as an alias of al-Qaeda in Iraq, he said.
U.S. officials have expressed concern that the conflict in Syria is a magnet for jihadist fighters who might obtain access to chemical weapons and gain power in a post-Assad Syria. The U.S. has been unwilling to provide weapons to the rebels, in part citing concerns arms might go to the extremists.
Fundamentalist Islamic fighters are a growing presence in the Syrian opposition, increasing their influence as Western nations have failed to intervene militarily in the uprising against the Syria government, according to an October report by the International Crisis Group.
The lack of assistance by the international community has created a vacuum in the balance of power that the jihadists have filled, said Ghalioun, who’s still a member of the council.