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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 19 November 2018

Al Qaeda group losing influence in southern Syria

Jabhat Al Nusra appears to be losing its lustre in southern Syria amid internal rivalries, battlefield losses and the financial cuts it is facing in its funding.
Members of al Qaeda's Jabhat Al Nusra in a trench near Al Zahra village, north of Aleppo city on November 25, 2014. Hosam Katan/Reuters
Members of al Qaeda's Jabhat Al Nusra in a trench near Al Zahra village, north of Aleppo city on November 25, 2014. Hosam Katan/Reuters

AMMAN // After a meteoric rise in its fortunes in southern Syria this year, Jabhat Al Nusra is now struggling to maintain its influence and frontline role, according to rebels, opposition activists, analysts and supporters of the Al Qaeda-affiliated group.

Al Nusra carved out a prominent place for itself in the war against Syrian president Bashar Al Assad on the strategically vital southern front in the three and a half years since the start of the uprising in nearby Deraa, scoring victories against regime forces with dramatic suicide bombings, winning over defectors from moderate rebel groups and attracting cash from wealthy private donors in the Arabian Gulf.

By May, it had established courts, was giving out food and fuel to desperate civilians and, with apparent impunity, arrested or killed its rivals — all key elements in setting up its own mini-state. Enemies of the group feared and, grudgingly, respected its discipline, wealth and battlefield prowess.

However, six months later, Al Nusra has suffered setbacks in the south. Rebels, opposition activists, analysts and even supporters of the group acknowledge its fortunes are now ebbing.

It remains powerful and has a real, if difficult to measure, level of popular support in the south, with up to 1,500 hard-core fighters. But it no longer seems to wield the same influence it used to. Various factors are at play, including cuts in the group’s funding from private sources in the Gulf, serious internal rivalries, battlefield losses and a deepening rift with moderate factions that have fought alongside it.

While there are no reliable numbers on Al Nusra’s finances, moderate rebel commanders, as well as some of its supporters in the south, said it has suffered a notable decline in cash flow, harming its abilities in combat, and its capacity to win allies and sympathy by providing supplies to civilians and joining in joint operations with other rebel groups.

“Nusra is still popular but not like it was before, for example it has not been providing food aid to people the way it used to, they are getting less financial help from private donors,” said a Syrian analyst based in Deraa province who closely monitors the group.

With less cash, rebel fighters who once flocked to join Al Nusra’s ranks — many having made the calculation it was the best combat unit, rather than as zealots for Al Qaeda’s ideology — have chosen to stay with increasingly better organised, funded and successful moderate factions, rebel commanders say.

It has also slackened once stringent entry requirements for rank-and-file fighters as it seeks to bolster sagging numbers.

“Nusra has opened the door for anyone to join them, in their attempt to win over as many people as they can,” said a senior moderate rebel commander. “So you see those who smoke, who drink and criminals. But that cannot be applied to the leadership,” he said.

Al Nusra has also been put under intense pressure by the growing power of ISIL, rebels and analysts watching conditions in the south say.

Some of the most extreme elements among Al Nusra increasingly aspire to move over to ISIL. The two groups remain at war with one another.

In August, Al Nusra arrested 40 of its members suspected of trying to join ISIL, an incident that also served to highlight a simmering internal dispute within the group.

Where there was once iron internal discipline, there are now signs of splits.

The tensions have pitched one faction of Al Nusra members, who view fighting ISIL and making alliances with moderate rebels a priority, against elements which view moderate factions as infidels and favour the formal establishment of an Al Nusra-run Islamic emirate.

The anti-ISIL faction in the south is centred around Abu Maria Al Qahtani, an Iraqi who fought against ISIL in Deir Ezzor before moving to Deraa province, while the more hardline faction is tied to Sami Uradi, a Jordanian emir and key lieutenant of Al Nusra leader, Abu Mohammad Al Jolani.

In a recent video uploaded to YouTube, Abu Baseer Al Muhajer, a defector from Al Nusra complained about Mr Uradi, accusing him of abusing his power, issuing unsound Islamic judicial rulings, running secret prisons and killing those who failed to follow his edicts — all harming the rebel cause against the Syrian regime.

That theme of overreaching its power was echoed in a series of other incidents this year, including the kidnapping of some 45 UN peacekeepers in August and the detention of rival rebel commanders, Col Ahmed Nehmeh and Zuhair Dabo.

Other rebels, and Arab Gulf states backing the groups, were angry about the kidnappings, saying they harmed the anti-Assad cause. Al Nusra released the peacekeepers in September.

The arrest of Col Nehmeh, Zuhair Dabo and other rebels also alienated Al Nusra from rebel factions it had previously enjoyed cordial and often cooperative relationships with. Mr Nehmeh and Mr Dabo were both well-connected rebel commanders.

Another of the opposition figures detained by Al Nusra had helped wounded rebels get medical care in Israeli field hospitals. Al Nusra was opposed to cooperation with Israel, but other rebel factions were grateful that their wounded were getting high quality medical care, regardless of who provided it.

In the aftermath of that, amid growing signals that Al Nusra might turn its guns on moderates in the south, as it had in the north, other factions pulled back on cooperation with the Al Qaeda group and intensified their own coordination in an effort to limit its power.

Then, with the US-led coalition hitting Al Nusra targets and a number of commanders getting killed in battle, the extremist group agreed in November to enter into a joint court system with other rebel factions in the south.

As part of that deal, dozens of prisoners held by Al Nusra were handed over to a joint rebel force, in what appeared to be an acknowledgement that it can no longer run its own legal system aimed at destroying its opponents.

“A sign Nusra is losing influence is that it agreed to be part of the unified court, they have had to tone down their aggressive approach after they found out it is no longer working for them,” said a rebel commander.

“Their money and membership is dwindling, and their reputation is at rock bottom, people are no longer happy with Nusra in the south,” he said.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae