News / Middle East

    Al-Qaida Recruitment in Syria May Jump

    FILE - Rebels from al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, also known as the Nusra Front, wave their brigade flag, as they step on the top of a Syrian air force helicopter at Taftanaz air base, Jan. 11, 2013.
    FILE - Rebels from al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, also known as the Nusra Front, wave their brigade flag, as they step on the top of a Syrian air force helicopter at Taftanaz air base, Jan. 11, 2013.

    Rebel commanders and opposition activists are warning that jihadist recruitment of Syrian fighters is likely to jump in the coming months because of the collapse of some moderate militias and a shake-up of others in the wake of a Russian-backed Syrian government offensive in northern Syria.

    But it is not Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State that will benefit the most, but al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, they warn.

    Al-Nusra has pursued a stealthier approach in Syria than its jihadist rival, alternately intermingling with other rebel militias and assisting them when more is to be gained or turning on them and seeking to dominate when circumstances change.

    FILE - This image posted on the Twitter page of Nusra Front, April 25, 2015, shows Nusra Front fighters in the town of Jisr al-Shughour, Idlib province, Syria.
    FILE - This image posted on the Twitter page of Nusra Front, April 25, 2015, shows Nusra Front fighters in the town of Jisr al-Shughour, Idlib province, Syria.


    With the majority of Jabhat al-Nusra's fighters being Syrian — analysts estimate only about 20 percent of the group’s fighters are from overseas — the group has appeared less alien than IS and more rooted in the country.

    Battlefield effectiveness

    Jabhat al-Nusra and ally Ahrar al-Sham, a hardline Islamist faction al-Qaida veterans were instrumental in forming, have legitimacy among Syrian rebels, not so much for ideological reasons but because of their effectiveness on the battlefield, say rebel commanders.

    Jabhat al-Nusra is being seen by rebel fighters as the best vehicle to continue the fight against President Bashar al-Assad and his foreign Shi’ite allies from Iran and Lebanon.

    “Many fighters already furious with the West for its passivity in the face of the Russian airstrikes and Assad offensive will feel they have no other option but to join with the jihadists,” says Bassam al-Kuwaitli, a well-known figure in political opposition circles. “They will follow the money and join who can supply them with arms,” he laments.

    Al-Qaida’s affiliate is expanding geographically, sending fighters back into Aleppo a year-and-half after it withdrew from the city to focus on building control of neighboring Idlib province as a counter to the Islamic State's presence in Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor.

    Redeployment into Aleppo

    The redeployment back into Aleppo came as the Russian-backed Assad offensive unfolded last month in northern Syria. Al-Nusra fighters set up checkpoints to protect larger incoming conveys. The group also expropriated several large buildings and warehouses in rebel-held districts of Aleppo for use as offices and barracks.

    Stalls are seen on a street beside damaged buildings in the rebel held al-Shaar neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria, Feb. 10, 2016.
    Stalls are seen on a street beside damaged buildings in the rebel held al-Shaar neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria, Feb. 10, 2016.

    Political activists quickly raised an alarm about the large presence of al-Nusra fighters, arguing it would make more sense to have them on the outskirts of the city if they were there to combat the Assad offensive in the suburbs of Aleppo.

    Anger beyond borders

    Al-Nusra’s rejection of a proposal by moderate rebels and Islamic nationalists for a unified police force to be formed in Aleppo also prompted concern and fears the al-Qaida affiliate will impose its will on rebel-held districts, helped by the rising bitterness among Syrian rebel factions and civilians directed at the West for not confronting Assad and his allies, the Russians.

    The anger can be heard in southern Turkish border towns.

    “The Americans, the Russians, the regime, they are all responsible for the deaths, for the killing of Syrians,” said Mustafa, a refugee in Kilis. His words were greeted with vigorous nods by a small crowd of Syrians.

    A Turkish man helps a Syrian woman carrying a wounded Syrian girl to a hospital in Kilis, Turkey, Feb. 15, 2016.
    A Turkish man helps a Syrian woman carrying a wounded Syrian girl to a hospital in Kilis, Turkey, Feb. 15, 2016.

    In a joint study issued last month by the Institute for the Study of War and the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute, both Washington-based research organizations, analysts warned Western powers “must alter the popular narrative that the West has abandoned the Syrian Sunni Arabs in favor of Iran, Assad, and Russia.”

    In search of a strategy

    In the report, “Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS: Sources of Strength,” the analysts concluded, “Identifying means of separating Jabhat al-Nusra from the opposition in order to destroy it is the most difficult intellectual task in developing a strategy for Syria."

    Developing such a strategy and countering al-Nusra is not being helped by the Assad government or the Russians. The targeting of al-Nusra, which has been excluded from the shaky U.N.-mediated cessation of hostilities, is building up even more sympathy among rebel fighters for al-Qaida’s affiliate, cautions Nader Othman, deputy prime minister in the opposition's Syrian Interim Government.

    A Syrian national flag waves as vehicles move slowly on a bridge during rush hour, in Damascus, Syria, Feb. 28, 2016.
    A Syrian national flag waves as vehicles move slowly on a bridge during rush hour, in Damascus, Syria, Feb. 28, 2016.

    “The Assad offensive has damaged the moderates, and more fighters will move over to al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham,” he says. “This is the logical result. Only five percent of Russian airstrikes were on ISIS, most were on us, the moderate rebels. And the regime’s idea was to demolish the moderate alternative to the regime.”

    “People will keep on fighting, but we should worry about where the fighters whose militias collapse will go,” he adds.

    “There is huge danger,” says a Turkey-based European diplomat. “This war is going to become more terrorist-based, more of an underground fight. Many more fighters are going to become highly radicalized and we are going to be seen as much the enemy as Assad.”

    “They feel the world is against them and they will lash out,” he adds.

    You May Like

    UN Observes International Day of Peacekeepers

    The U.N. honors 3,400 peacekeepers killed since first mission in 1948

    Video Rolling Thunder Tribute to US Military Turns into a Trump Rally

    Half-million motorcycles are expected to rumble Sunday afternoon from Pentagon to Vietnam War Memorial for rally in event group calls Ride for Freedom

    The Struggle With Painkillers: Treating Pain Without Feeding Addiction

    'Wonder drug' pain medications have turned out to be major problem: not only do they run high risk of addicting the user, but they can actually make patients' chronic pain worse, US CDC says

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Chinese-Americans Heart Trump, Bucking National Trendi
    X
    May 27, 2016 5:57 AM
    A new study conducted by three Asian-American organizations shows there are three times as many Democrats as there are Republicans among Asian-American voters, and they favor Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. But one group, called Chinese-Americans For Trump, is going against the tide and strongly supports the business tycoon. VOA’s Elizabeth Lee caught up with them at a Trump rally and reports from Anaheim, California.
    Video

    Video Chinese-Americans Heart Trump, Bucking National Trend

    A new study conducted by three Asian-American organizations shows there are three times as many Democrats as there are Republicans among Asian-American voters, and they favor Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. But one group, called Chinese-Americans For Trump, is going against the tide and strongly supports the business tycoon. VOA’s Elizabeth Lee caught up with them at a Trump rally and reports from Anaheim, California.
    Video

    Video Reactions to Trump's Success Polarized Abroad

    What seemed impossible less than a year ago is now almost a certainty. New York real estate mogul Donald Trump has won the number of delegates needed to secure the Republican presidential nomination. The prospect has sparked as much controversy abroad as it has in the United States. Zlatica Hoke has more.
    Video

    Video Drawings by Children in Hiroshima Show Hope and Peace

    On Friday, President Barack Obama will visit Hiroshima, Japan, the first American president to do so while in office. In August 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the city to force Japan's surrender in World War II. Although their city lay in ruins, some Hiroshima schoolchildren drew pictures of hope and peace. The former students and their drawings are now part of a documentary called “Pictures from a Hiroshima Schoolyard.” VOA's Deborah Block has the story.
    Video

    Video Vietnamese Rapper Performs for Obama

    A prominent young Vietnamese artist told President Obama said she faced roadblocks as a woman rapper, and asked the president about government support for the arts. He asked her to rap, and he even offered to provide a base beat for her. Watch what happened.
    Video

    Video Roots Run Deep for Tunisia's Dwindling Jewish Community

    This week, hundreds of Jewish pilgrims are defying terrorist threats to celebrate an ancient religious festival on the Tunisian island of Djerba. The festivities cast a spotlight on North Africa's once-vibrant Jewish population that has all but died out in recent decades. Despite rising threats of militant Islam and the country's battered economy, one of the Arab world's last Jewish communities is staying put and nurturing a new generation. VOA’s Lisa Bryant reports.
    Video

    Video Meet Your New Co-Worker: The Robot

    Increasing numbers of robots are joining the workforce, as companies scale back and more processes become automated. The latest robots are flexible and collaborative, built to work alongside humans as opposed to replacing them. VOA’s Tina Trinh looks at the next generation of automated employees helping out their human colleagues.
    Video

    Video Wheelchair Technology in Tune With Times

    Technologies for the disabled, including wheelchair technology, are advancing just as quickly as everything else in the digital age. Two new advances in wheelchairs offer improved control and a more comfortable fit. VOA's George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Baby Boxes Offer Safe Haven for Unwanted Children

    No one knows exactly how many babies are abandoned worldwide each year. The statistic is a difficult one to determine because it is illegal in most places. Therefore unwanted babies are often hidden and left to die. But as Erika Celeste reports from Woodburn, Indiana, a new program hopes to make surrendering infants safer for everyone.
    Video

    Video California Celebration Showcases Local Wines, Balloons

    Communities in the U.S. often hold festivals to show what makes them special. In California, for example, farmers near Fresno celebrate their figs and those around Gilmore showcase their garlic. Mike O'Sullivan reports that the wine-producing region of Temecula offers local vintages in an annual festival where rides on hot-air balloons add to the excitement.
    Video

    Video US Elementary School Offers Living Science Lessons

    Zero is not a good score on a test at school. But Discovery Elementary is proud of its “net zero” rating. Net zero describes a building in which the amount of energy provided by on-site renewable sources equals the amount of energy the building uses. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, the innovative features in the building turn the school into a teaching tool, where kids can't help but learn about science and sustainability. Faith Lapidus narrates.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora