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

    Video As Refugees Perish, Greek Graveyards Fill

    Before burial at overflowing cemeteries, unidentified dead being swapped for DNA, in case some day relatives come to learn their fate

    Russian Opposition Leader Sues Putin for Conflict of Interest

    Alexei Navalny tells VOA in exclusive interview why transfer of $2 billion from country’s wealth fund to company with ties to President Putin’s son-in-law triggered lawsuit

    How Diversity Has Changed America

    Over the past four decades, the level of diversity in the United States has increased most in these four states

    This forum has been closed.
    Comment Sorting
    Comments
         
    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.
    As Refugees Perish, Greek Graveyards Filli
    X
    Hamada Elsaram
    February 11, 2016 8:01 PM
    Aid workers on the Greek island of Lesbos say they are struggling to bury the increasing number of bodies of refugees that have been recovered or washed up ashore in recent months.  The graveyards are all full, they say, yet as tens of thousands of people clamor to get out of Syria, it is clear refugees will still be coming in record numbers. For VOA, Hamada Elrasam reports from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video As Refugees Perish, Greek Graveyards Fill

    Aid workers on the Greek island of Lesbos say they are struggling to bury the increasing number of bodies of refugees that have been recovered or washed up ashore in recent months.  The graveyards are all full, they say, yet as tens of thousands of people clamor to get out of Syria, it is clear refugees will still be coming in record numbers. For VOA, Hamada Elrasam reports from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video To Fight Zika, Scientists Target Mosquitoes

    Mosquitoes strike again. The Zika virus outbreak is just the latest headline-grabbing epidemic carried by these biting pests, but researchers are fighting back with new ways to control them. VOA's Steve Baragona takes a look.
    Video

    Video Mosul Refugees Talk About Life Under IS

    A top U.S. intelligence official told Congress this week that a planned Iraqi-led operation to re-take the city of Mosul from Islamic State militants is unlikely to take place this year. IS took over the city in June 2014, and for the past year and a half, Mosul residents have been held captive under its rule. VOA's Zana Omar talked to some families who managed to escape. Bronwyn Benito narrates his report.
    Video

    Video Scientists Make Progress Toward Better Diabetes Treatment, Cure

    Scientists at two of the top U.S. universities say they have made significant advances in their quest to find a more efficient treatment for diabetes and eventually a cure. According to the International Diabetes Federation, the disease affects more than 370 million people worldwide. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video NATO to Target Migrant Smugglers

    NATO has announced plans to send warships to the Aegean Sea to target migrant smugglers in the alliance's most direct intervention so far since a wave of people began trying to reach European shores.
    Video

    Video Russia's Catholics, Orthodox Hopeful on Historic Pope-Patriarch Meeting

    Russia's Catholic minority has welcomed an historic first meeting Friday in Cuba between the Pope and the Patriarch of Russia's dominant Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church split with Rome in 1054 and analysts say politics, both church and state, have been driving the relationship in the centuries since. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video Used Books Get a New Life on the Streets of Lagos

    Used booksellers are importing books from abroad and selling them on the streets of Africa's largest city. What‘s popular with readers may surprise you. Chris Stein reports from Lagos.
    Video

    Video After NH Primaries All Eyes on South Carolina

    After Tuesday's primary in New Hampshire, US presidential candidates swiftly turned to the next election coming up in South Carolina. The so-called “first-in-the-South” poll may help further narrow down the field of candidates. Zlatica Hoke reports.
    Video

    Video US Co-ed Selective Service Plan Stirs Controversy

    Young women may soon be required to register with the U.S. Selective Service System, the U.S. government agency charged with implementing a draft in a national emergency. Top Army and Marine Corps commanders told the Senate Armed Services Committee recently that women should register, and a bill has been introduced in Congress requiring eligible women to sign up for the military draft. The issue is stirring some controversy, as VOA’s Bernard Shusman reports from New York.
    Video

    Video Lessons Learned From Ebola Might Help Fight Zika

    Now that the Ebola epidemic has ended in West Africa, Zika has the world's focus. And, as Carol Pearson reports, health experts and governments are applying some of the lessons learned during the Ebola crisis in Africa to fight the Zika virus in Latin America and the Caribbean.
    Video

    Video Smartphone Helps Grow Vegetables

    One day, you may be using your smartphone to grow your vegetables. A Taipei-based company has developed a farm cube — a small, enclosed ecosystem designed to grow plants indoors. The environment inside is automatically adjusted by the cube, but it can also be controlled through an app. VOA's Deborah Block has more on the gardening system.
    Video

    Video Illinois Voters Have Mixed Emotions on Obama’s Return to Springfield

    On the ninth anniversary of the launch of his quest for national office, President Barack Obama returned to Springfield, Illinois, to speak to the Illinois General Assembly, where he once served as state senator. His visit was met with mixed emotions by those with a front-row seat on his journey to the White House. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.
    Video

    Video Exhibit Turns da Vinci’s Drawings Into Real Objects

    In addition to being a successful artist, Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci designed many practical machines, some of which are still in use today, although in different forms. But a number of his projects were never realized — until today. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Heated Immigration Debate Limits Britain’s Refugee Response

    Compared to many other European states, Britain has agreed to accept a relatively small number of Syrian refugees. Just over a thousand have arrived so far -- and some are being resettled in remote corners of the country. Henry Ridgwell reports on why Britain’s response has lagged behind its neighbors.
    Video

    Video Russia's Car Sales Shrink Overall, But Luxury and Economy Models See Growth

    Car sales in Russia dropped by more than a third in 2015 because of the country's economic woes. But, at the extreme ends of the car market, luxury vehicles and some economy brands are actually experiencing growth. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.