As rebel fighters set out for Syria’s northeastern region of Reqqa two days ago, their mission was to free two of their own held by another group of insurgents rather than to take on regime forces.
Militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, an al-Qaeda affiliate, had detained the two former army officers as they accompanied a weapons shipment, according to Rami Abdurrahman, head of U.K.-based group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Mediation efforts over three days failed to secure their release, Abdurrahman said by phone yesterday.
More than two years into Syria’s civil war, radical Sunni Islamists are emerging as the prevalent force seeking to topple President Bashar al-Assad, according to military analysts in Europe and the Middle East. Their influence is among the biggest challenges facing the U.S. and allies such as Saudi Arabia as they decide which anti-Assad forces to back and how.
“Two of the most powerful insurgent factions in Syria are al-Qaeda factions,” Evan Kohlmann, senior partner at Flashpoint Partners in New York, said by telephone. “Even were the Assad regime to fall and there be some kind of takeover by rebels, there’s not a clear understanding that everyone here will be able to agree and form any kind of government.”
The struggle echoes the tumultuous transitions of power in Arab countries rocked by revolts since 2011, as well as the sectarian conflict in Iraq following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
In Libya, armed militias that helped end Muammar al-Qaddafi’s rule have refused to lay down their weapons, obstructing the North African oil-producer’s efforts to restore order and revive the economy.
The rise of radical Islamists in Syria came as attempts by Western and Arab countries to support moderate anti-Assad groups failed to unite the opposition or bolster the rebel Free Syrian Army, led mainly by former Assad army officers. Instead, what began as a peaceful uprising turned into a war involving about 1,200 groups, according to U.S. intelligence estimates. Now, some of them have turned against each other.
Militias belonging to the biggest Kurdish party in Syria, the Democratic Union Party, have been fighting groups attached to al-Nusra Front, another group with ties to al-Qaeda. The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, also fought “turf wars” with Kurds after taking control of a “significant chunk” of territory in northeastern Syria, said Kohlmann.
Repenting to God
ISIL held about 30 Democratic Union Party members captive in Aleppo Province and released them only after they publicly declared “their repentance to God” and quit the party, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in an e-mail today.
The men were later given papers identifying them as “repenters” so they wouldn’t be taken by other Islamist groups, the observatory said.
The two al-Qaeda affiliates support transnational Jihad, or a religious war spanning borders, and want to establish an Islamic state in Syria. Al-Nusra was also the first to claim responsibility for using suicide bombers in the war, according to the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, or ICG.
The two groups “benefit from a core contingent of foreign fighters whose training, discipline, and willingness to conduct suicide attacks provide them comparative advantages over mainstream rebel counterparts,” said Noah Bonsey, a senior Syria analyst at ICG, which tracks conflicts worldwide.
A third prominent group, Ahrar Al Sham, or the Freemen of the Levant, is best known for “its widespread resort to roadside bomb attacks,” the ICG said in a report in October.
Bonsey and Kohlmann both said militants in Syria can follow the path of Iraqi radical groups and maintain the fight in Syria even if Assad’s regime collapses.
The Islamists remain disunited and have engaged in public feuds over their roots and affiliation.
When ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced that al-Nusra was merely an extension of his Iraq-based group, al-Nusra leader Abu Muhammad al-Jolani denied the claim and said that his faction was in fact an ally of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and not the Iraqi branch.
Divisions among the rebels and the influence of Islamists will still limit the scope of any U.S.-led military strike to punish Assad for his alleged use of chemical weapons in an Aug. 21 attack, according to the analysts. The threat of action has helped push oil prices to the highest level in two years, weakened stocks and emerging-market currencies.
“In some locations Jihadi factions could be the first to benefit from a strike,” Bonsey said. “But it’s not a simple calculation: the Jihadis have been strengthening relative to their moderate competitors in the absence of intervention.”
Abdelbaset Sieda, a member of the Syrian National Coalition, the main political opposition, said undermining the power of militants must come through “proper” international support for the Free Syrian Army.
“They’re a problem now and they will be a big challenge in the next stage,” Sieda said by phone from Istanbul. “If the Free Syrian Army is given proper support properly it will undermine them, but if the Free Syrian Army is not properly backed, these groups will thrive.”