x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Pakistan's Taliban sends forces to Syria to fight Assad

Taliban sends hundreds of men to Syria to fight beside rebels opposed to the president in a strategy aimed at cementing ties with Al Qaeda's central leadership.

A member of the Syrian armed forces takes position during a patrol near the Al Manashir roundabout in Jobar, in the outskirts of Damascus.
A member of the Syrian armed forces takes position during a patrol near the Al Manashir roundabout in Jobar, in the outskirts of Damascus.

ISLAMABAD // The Pakistani Taliban have set up camps and sent hundreds of men to Syria to fight alongside rebels opposed to the president in a strategy aimed at cementing ties with Al Qaeda's central leadership.

More than two years since the start of the rebellion against Bashar Al Assad, Syria has become a magnet for foreign Sunni fighters. They have flocked to the country to join what they see as a holy war against Shiite oppressors.

Operating alongside militant groups such as the Al Nusra Front - described by the United States as a branch of Al Qaeda - they mainly come from nearby countries such as Libya and Tunisia riven by similar conflicts as a result of the Arab Spring.

Yesterday, Taliban commanders in Pakistan said they had also decided to join the cause, and had sent hundreds of fighters to Syria to fight alongside their "mujaheddin friends".

"When our brothers needed our help, we sent hundreds of fighters along with our Arab friends," one senior commander said, adding that the group would soon issue videos of what he described as their victories in Syria.

The announcement further complicates the picture on the ground in Syria, where rivalries have already been flaring between the Free Syrian Army and the Islamists.

Islamists operate a smaller, more effective force that controls most of the rebel-held parts of northern Syria. Tensions erupted again on Thursday when an Al Qaeda-linked militant group assassinated one of the Free Syrian Army's top commanders after a dispute in the port city of Latakia.

The move also comes at a time when Mr Assad's forces, with backing from Shiite fighters from Hizbollah and Iran, have been making gains on the Syrian battlefield.

Another Taliban commander in Pakistan said the decision to send fighters to Syria came at the request of "Arab friends".

"Since our Arab brothers have come here for our support, we are bound to help them in their respective countries and that is what we have done in Syria," he said.

"We have established our own camps in Syria. Some of our people go and then return after spending some time fighting there."

Known as the Tehreek-e-Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban operate from Pakistan's insurgency-plagued Pashtun areas along the Afghan border, a long-standing stronghold for militants including the Taliban and their Al Qaeda allies.

Taliban militants in Pakistan, who are linked to their Afghan counterparts, are fighting to topple Pakistan's government and to impose their radical version of Islam. They target the military, security forces and civilians.

But they also enjoy close ties with Al Qaeda and other militant groups who have, in turn, deployed their own fighters to Pakistan's volatile tribal region on the Afghan border known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or Fata.

In the latest sign of this trend, at least two suspected foreign militants were killed in a drone attack in North Waziristan, security officials said.

Ahmed Rashid, a prominent Pakistani author and expert on the Taliban, said sending Taliban fighters to Syria was likely to be appreciated as an act of loyalty towards their Al Qaeda allies.

"The Pakistani Taliban have remained a sort of surrogate of Al Qaeda. We all have these foreigners up there in Fata who are being looked after or trained by the Pakistani Taliban," said Rashid, who is based in the Pakistani city of Lahore.

"They are acting like global militants, specifically with the agenda that Al Qaeda has. This is a way, I suppose, to cement relationships with the Syrian militant groups and to enlarge their sphere of influence."