News / Middle East

Islamists Gaining Ground in Syria

Islamist fighters carry their flag during the funeral of their fellow fighter Tareq Naser, who died during clashes on Sunday, near the village of Fafeen in Aleppo's countryside September 17, 2012.
Islamist fighters carry their flag during the funeral of their fellow fighter Tareq Naser, who died during clashes on Sunday, near the village of Fafeen in Aleppo's countryside September 17, 2012.
The small group of Free Syrian Army opposition fighters marched under a hazy sky outside Aleppo, raising their guns in the air, days after the government's Sheik Suleiman base fell into rebel hands.
"We are coming for you," they chanted in a video posted to the Internet, an apparent warning to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. "God damn your soul, We are coming for you."
But the week's major victory at the military base was not led by the Free Syrian Army.  The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says it was led by Islamist fighters with the al-Nusrah front, giving them access to tanks, missiles and other heavy weaponry.  
“We see a shift toward Islamicization of the ideology of the people who are fighting on the ground, which is a concern,” says Mattaz Suheil with the Britain-based Observatory.  “They’re more cohesive as a group and that’s a problem because it’s radicalizing young people who want to be part of a military campaign against the regime, against a minority in Syria and they eventually adopt the more radical view.”
Suheil says the influence of groups like al-Nusrah is having an impact that goes beyond the battlefield.
“We see in Aleppo city now they’ve installed an Islamic court and a police of vice and virtue which means people, civilians, are being tried for moral crimes.”
West taking notice
Concern has escalated in the West. The U.S. Treasury on Tuesday sanctioned two senior leaders of the al-Nusrah front for acting on behalf of al-Qaida in Iraq, while the U.S. State Department designated al-Nusrah a terrorist organization.
"This, again, goes to the environment that Assad and his regime have created with their violence - that they have, as we have been concerned about for many months, created an environment with this violence which extremists can now try to exploit," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters at a recent briefing.
Activists and some experts warn the problem runs even deeper.
Rohan Gunaratna heads the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and has studied al-Qaida extensively.  He warns al-Nusrah is positioning itself well.
"Al-Nusrah has emerged as the most capable and most lethal enemy of the Syrian government," Gunaratna says, adding the Free Syrian Army "does not have the ability to match or compete against al-Nusrah."
He says if and when the government of Bashar al-Assad tumbles, it will be al-Nusrah and other like-minded groups competing for power.
Other experts and activists are hesitant to make such bold predictions but point out al-Nusrah is better organized than most of the other forces working to topple the Syrian government.  
They say the group draws on support from al-Qaida and on funding from private donors - which has allowed it to arm with better weapons.  Making al-Nusrah even more dangerous are the lessons the group's leaders have learned from Iraq.  
Stratfor, a private intelligence firm, says for months al-Nusrah has been trying to win over the local population instead of alienating them with attacks that cause mass casualties, a tactic that in Iraq led to the rise of the counter-jihadist Sunni Awakening Councils.
Al-Nusrah also has been willing to work with other groups, like the Free Syrian Army, to achieve the opposition's main objective of toppling the Assad regime.
Doubts remain
While concern appears to be growing, not everyone is convinced al-Nusrah and other Islamist groups represent a major threat.
“In a post-Assad era is Syria going to be Islamist? I think that is a largely exaggerated fear,” says Leila Hilal, director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation.
Hilal says al-Nusrah's leadership may subscribe to a hardline Islamist doctrine but that the make-up of its fighters is much more diverse.
“People often move from one group to another depending on the availability of resources, depending on operational decisions that may be made,” she says.
Some analysts say what happens next depends not necessarily on groups like al-Nusrah, but on what actions are taken by the U.S. and other key players in the international community.
“Syria has not been a fertile environment for al-Qaida," says Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center.  "But as long as we’ve allowed the situation inside Syria to drift and the power and security vacuum that comes with that, al-Nusrah has gained ground and will continue to gain ground.”
Shaikh says al-Nusrah - and al-Qaida - can still be "put back in their place” - though it will require a more effective opposition coalition and help from the U.S.
“I still believe that a robust U.S. role in the train and assist aspect of the rebels' military effort is extremely important," he says.  "It will also, I may add, lay the groundwork for the kind of more national forces we will need in Syria to ensure a safe and secure environment for a political transition.”
In the meantime, Shaikh and others fear many Syrians will act out of desperation and take help from wherever they can get it.
Other factors
There is also the question of aid coming from Gulf Arab states like Saudi Arabia and the effect it is having.
“The evidence so far has pointed to them actually contributing to a certain amount of fragmentation where weapons have gone to different groups in a less controlled and considered fashion than they could have been,” Shaikh says.
There is concern that such fragmentation is doing more than allowing Islamist groups to strengthen their positions.  Some analysts say combined with a weak opposition coalition, the situation could give rise to sectarian strife.
“It’s a real race against time, I would say, before we see almost a free-for-all inside Syria,” Shaikh says.
For now, the Syrian Observatory's Mattaz Suheil worries about the radical Islamists and the fight their growing victories are enabling them to lead.
"The conflict and the form of the military conflict is going to intensify with higher caliber weapons being used by both sides which by their nature are more indiscriminate,” he says.
“What we’re seeing on the ground are not gains.  We’re seeing the largest city in Syria - and its economic hub - turned into a battle zone.  The infrastructure of the state is completely destroyed."

Jeff Seldin

Jeff works out of VOA’s Washington headquarters and is national security correspondent. You can follow Jeff on Twitter at @jseldin or on Google Plus.

You May Like

Germany Celebrates 25 Years of Unity

October 3 is a public holiday, marking the day in 1990 when East Germany and West Germany reunited More

Analysts: Russia's Syria Strikes Shake Regional Powers

If Moscow bolsters Assad, Saudi Arabia, other Gulf countries may feel obliged to step in More

Video Innovative Nano-Tech Water Filter Prevents Disease

It can absorb contaminants like copper, bacteria, viruses and pesticides, says Askwar Hilonga, who has been successfully trying out his product in Arusha More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: Jane Smith from: Colorado, U.S.A.
December 12, 2012 3:47 AM
The Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation is an American think tank that promotes "leftist," policies. The New America Foundation tries to influence public opinion on such topics as healthcare, environmentalism, energy policy, and global governance.

by: Jethro Mayham
December 11, 2012 6:31 PM
Send in Blackwater! They are much more organized than any battle-hardened Islamic fanatic. The Islamic fighter fights for Allah and Blackwater fights for money. Money is stronger than Allah, Plus Blackwater will have access to futureistc weapons of choice.

In the contract, we will never offer medical or hospital care because the dam medical field is so dam corrupt anyways.

by: Annabelle Drumm from: Sydney Australia
December 11, 2012 6:20 PM
It's a tricky situation for the USA. How to help? Who to help? From here, it looks like every party involved is determined to lead in a way which only benefits a part of the population.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Russia’s Syria Involvement Raising Concerns in Europei
Luis Ramirez
October 02, 2015 4:45 PM
European nations are joining the United States in demanding that Russia stop targeting opposition groups other than the Islamic State militants as Russian warplanes continue to conduct raids in Syria. The demand came in a statement from Britain, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States Friday. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video Russia’s Syria Involvement Raising Concerns in Europe

European nations are joining the United States in demanding that Russia stop targeting opposition groups other than the Islamic State militants as Russian warplanes continue to conduct raids in Syria. The demand came in a statement from Britain, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States Friday. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video First Self-Driving Truck Debuts on European Highways

The first automated semi-trailer truck started its maiden voyage Friday, Oct. 2, on a European highway. The Daimler truck called 'Actros' is the first potentially mass-produced truck whose driver will be required only to monitor the situation, similar to the role of an airline captain while the plane is in autopilot mode. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video Nano-tech Filter Cleans Dirty Water

Access to clean water is a problem for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Now, a scientist and chemical engineer in Tanzania (in East Africa) is working to change that by creating an innovative water filter that makes dirty water safe. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.

Video Demand Rising for Organic Produce in Cambodia

In Cambodia, where rice has long been the main cash crop, farmers are being encouraged to turn to vegetables to satisfy the growing demand for locally produced organic farm products. Daniel de Carteret has more from Phnom Penh.

Video Migrant Influx Costs Europe, But Economy Could Benefit

The influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants is testing Europe’s ability to respond – especially in the poorer Balkan states. But some analysts argue that Europe will benefit by welcoming the huge numbers of young people – many of them well educated and willing to work. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

Video Botanists Grow Furniture, with Pruning Shears

For something a bit out of the ordinary to furnish your home, why not consider wooden chairs, crafted by nature, with a little help from some British botanists with an eye for design. VOA’s Jessica Berman reports.

Video New Fabric Helps Fight Dust-Related Allergies

Many people around the world suffer from dust-related allergies, caused mainly by tiny mites that live in bed linen. Polish scientists report they have successfully tested a fabric that is impenetrable to the microscopic creatures. VOA’s George Putic has more.

Video Burkina Faso's Economy Deeply Affected by Political Turmoil

Political turmoil in Burkina Faso over the past year has taken a toll on the economy. The transitional government is reporting nearly $70 million in losses in the ten days that followed a short-lived coup by members of the presidential guard earlier this month. The crisis shut businesses and workers went on strike. With elections on the horizon, Emilie Iob reports on what a return to political stability can do for the country's economic recovery.

Video Fleeing Violence, Some Syrians Find Refuge in Irbil

As Syrians continue to flee their country’s unrest to seek new lives in safer places, VOA Persian Service reporter Shepol Abbassi visited Irbil, where a number Syrians have taken refuge. During the religious holidy of Eid al-Adha, the city largely shut down, as temperatures soared. Amy Katz narrates his report.

Video Nigeria’s Wecyclers Work for Reusable Future in Lagos

The streets and lagoons of Africa's largest city - Lagos, Nigeria - are often clogged with trash, almost none of which gets recycled. One company is trying to change that. Chris Stein reports for VOA from Lagos.

Video Sketch Artist Helps Catch Criminals, Gives a Face to Deceased

Police often face the problem of trying to find a crime suspect based on general descriptions that could fit hundreds of people in the vicinity of the crime. In these cases, an artist can use information from witnesses to sketch a likeness that police can show the public via newspapers and television. But, as VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Houston, such sketches can also help bring back faces of the dead.

Video Thailand Set to Build China-like Internet Firewall

Thai authorities are planning to tighten control over the Internet, creating a single international access point so they can better monitor content. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Bangkok on what is being called Thailand’s own "Great Firewall."

Video Croatian Town’s War History Evokes Empathy for Migrants

As thousands of Afghanistan, Iraqi and Syrian migrants pass through Croatia, locals are reminded of their own experiences with war and refugees in the 1990s. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from the town of Vukovar, where wartime scars still are visible today.

Video Long Drought Affecting California’s Sequoias

California is suffering under a historic four-year drought and scientists say even the state's famed sequoia trees are feeling the pain. The National Park Service has started detailed research to see how it can help the oldest living things on earth survive. VOA’s George Putic reports.

VOA Blogs