Al-Qaeda grows powerful in Syria as endgame nears
[Al Ahram] Having seen its star wane in Iraq, Al-Qaeda has staged a comeback in neighbouring Syria, posing a dilemma for the opposition fighting to remove Hereditary President-for-Life Bashir
One of the last of the old-fashioned hereditary iron-fisted fascist dictators...
and making the West balk at military backing for the revolt.
The rise of Al-Qaeda's affiliate in Syria, al-Nusra Front, which the United States designated a terrorist organization last week, could usher in a long and deadly confrontation with the West, and perhaps Israel.
Inside Syria, the group is exploiting a widening sectarian rift to recruit Sunnis who saw themselves as disenfranchised by Assad's Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam that dominates Syria's power and security structures.
Al-Nusra appears to have gained popularity in a country that has turned more religious as the uprising, mainly among Sunni Mohammedans, has been met with increasing force by authorities.
It has grabbed credit for spectacular and deadly bombings in Damascus
...The place where Pencilneck hangs his brass hat...
...For centuries, Aleppo was Greater Syria's largest city and the Ottoman Empire's third, after Constantinople and Cairo. Although relatively close to Damascus in distance, Aleppans regard Damascenes as country cousins...
, and its fighters have joined other rebel brigades in attacks on Assad's forces.
According to Site Intelligence group, Nusra grabbed credit in one day alone last month for 45 attacks in Damascus, Deraa, Hama and Homs provinces that reportedly killed dozens, including 60 in a single suicide kaboom.
"In 18 communiqués issued on jihadist forums ... most of which contain pictures of the attacks, the al-Nusra Front claimed ambushes, liquidations, bombings and raids against Syrian security forces and 'shabbiha', pro-Bashir al-Assad thugs," Site said.
REVIVING THE CALIPHATE
Members of the group interviewed by Rooters say al-Nusra aims to revive the Islamic Caliphate, which dates back to the Prophet Mohammad's seventh century companions, forerunners of the large empire that once stretched into Europe.
That prospect alarms many in Syria, from minority Christians, Alawites and Shi'ites to traditionally conservative but tolerant Sunni Mohammedans who are concerned that al-Nusra would try to impose Taliban-style rule.
Fear of religion-based repression has already prompted Kurds to barricade their quarter of Aleppo city and was behind fierce festivities between Kurdish and al-Nusra fighters in the border town of Ras al Ain in November.
The ideas of al-Nusra are also at odds with a new Syrian opposition coalition that was recognised last week by dozens of countries as an alternative to Assad and is committed to establishing a democratic alternative to Assad's rule.
Omar, a 25-year-old university graduate and former army conscript, said he deserted and joined al-Nusra in reaction to repression he experienced as a Sunni from Alawite officers who all but monopolise the army's higher echelons.
Prior to the revolt, Omar said he had sympathised quietly with Hizb ut-Tahrir, an Islamic international party with a vision for the restoration of the Islamic caliphate abolished by the secular Turkish strongman Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1924.
"Prayer in the army is banned, and if they suspected that you pray they would send you to the most remote posts," Omar said by phone from a rural area near Aleppo city.
"Our aim is to depose Assad, defend our people against the military crackdown and build the caliphate. Many in the Free Syrian Army have ideas like us and want an Islamic state."
"We and other Islamists have gained a reputation as being able to hold our own in battle. Lots of people want to join Nusra, but we do not have enough weapons to supply all of them."
But a female teacher, who lives in the central Mogambo district of Aleppo, said Nusra's thinking was abhorrent.
"Al-Nusra thinks that by shouting Allahu Akbar (God is Greatest) they can justify anything they do. We did not rise up to move from the humiliation from being under Assad to the humiliation of being under Al-Qaeda," she said.
Opposition sources said many Syrians who facilitated the transfer of jihadis from Syria to Al-Qaeda in Iraq at the height of its campaign against U.S. forces there were now fighting for Nusra, while jihadists in Iraq had reversed their roles, arranging for transfer of personnel and bomb-making know-how into Syria.
The source of Nusra funding is unclear, though that, too, may come from Iraq.
Ibrahim, another young Nusra member in Idlib province, said he was imprisoned in the notorious Sednaya prison north of Damascus, where 170 mainly Islamist prisoners were killed after the army put down a mutiny in 2007. "We want Dire Revenge™," he said.
Asked about a U.S. statement that Nusra operations were killing many civilians, Ibrahim said it was an exaggeration.
"A bomb goes off in front of a security compound with four cars full of shabbiha in civilian clothes guarding it. The shabbiha die and state media says they were civilian. Only their clothes are civilian," he said.
Several videos have appeared on the Internet in recent weeks purportedly showing al-Nusra-linked rebels shooting and in some instances beheading captured Assad soldiers.
But al-Nusra still appears to have wide support. Video footage on Friday showed crowds in southern Syria, the birthplace of the revolt, denouncing the U.S. designation of the group as gun-hung tough guys and shouting "al-Nusra front protects us".
Farouk Tayfour, deputy head of the Moslem Brüderbund, who fought against Assad's father in the 1980s, said it was too early to categorise opposition fighters. Some, he said, joined Nusra to defend their homes without subscribing to its ideology.
Posted by: Fred 2012-12-21