By: Loveday Morris
Many Syrian rebels have grown concerned about the increasing role being played in the civil war by an al-Qaeda-linked group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. But one group’s fighters say ISIS’s presence has given them a popularity boost.
Until recently, Jabhat al-Nusra was known as the most radical wing of the opposition seeking to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It was the first to assert responsibility for car bombings against government targets and was quickly designated a terrorist group by the United States.
That change comes amid an overall radicalization of the Syrian rebel movement and a weakening of moderate groups that have left the West wary of supplying support.
Abdul Kareem Dahneen, a 31-year-old from the northern city of Idlib who joined Jabhat al-Nusra a year ago, said the group’s relations with local communities have improved in recent months. He attributed that largely to the departure of foreign fighters who traveled to Syria to battle for the establishment of a caliphate, a traditional Islamic political system. The foreigners had different ambitions than the Syrian fighters who rose up to battle Assad, he said.
“Of course this had an effect,” Dahneen said. “Now with Jabhat, we are more moderate with the people.”
Shift in perception
When ISIS emerged as a force in March, all the foreign fighters in Dahneen’s unit 30 out of 40 men, hailing from places such as Chechnya, Tunisia and Algeria left to join the group, he said. They packed up and opened a base less than 100 yards down the road.
He said the shift in perception about Jabhat al-Nusra has prompted Syrians who might have previously shunned the group to join, helping make up for the drain in foreign fighters.
Mohammed, a 25-year-old Jabhat al-Nusra fighter who declined to give his last name, said he would have had reservations about joining the group before the foreigners left.
“The very extreme foreigners went to Islamic State, and the Syrians stayed with Nusra,” he said. “We are Syrians. We refuse these extremists’ ways.”
Some rebel groups say they see Jabhat al-Nusra as key to curbing ISIS’s expansion in rebel-held areas and are keen to reach out to the group.
Jabhat al-Nusra, once focused on solo operations or on cooperating with hard-line Islamist battalions, has been fighting alongside a much wider array of rebel groups in recent months.
“They have changed their strategy recently and become closer to the mainstream FSA,” said Yasser al-Haji, a spokesman for the military council of the Free Syrian Army in Aleppo. “They are trying to improve their image a little bit. With the West not supporting us, we have no choice but to cooperate.”