Jihadists Vie for Supremacy in Syria

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Things are going from bad to worse in Syria. The counterattack by President Bashar Assad’s forces on Aleppo is turning the once thriving city of 2 million souls into a charnel house. Bombings, strafings, artillery and tank fire are reducing entire neighborhoods to rubble while people flee by the hundreds of thousands.

But, as the Guardian reports, hundreds of foreign jihadists have infiltrated into Syria over the last few months in order to fight Assad’s forces in the name of Allah. Many have attached themselves to units of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Others have sought out domestic Syrian jihadist groups, independent of the FSA, who are just now starting to organize themselves into a fighting force. If they are successful, the Islamist fighters could challenge the FSA for supremacy and replace them as the main group of fighters battling the Syrian army.

Already there are signs that the jihadists are receiving plenty of money with which to purchase arms and equipment from wealthy donors in Saudi Arabia and Qatar. And while the US, the West, the Gulf States, and Turkey are all refusing to supply the FSA with tanks, artillery, and other heavy weapons out of fear that they would eventually fall into the hands of extremists, the FSA is in danger of eventually being absorbed into an Islamist army that would be in an excellent position to dominate a post-Assad Syria.

But there is a catch to this rosy scenario for the jihadists: nobody trusts them. In fact, some of the major jihadist groups in Syria are widely believed to be tools of President Assad’s government. The FSA looks with a jaundiced eye on any Islamist group that has taken up arms, and a poll taken last year shows that the Syrian people themselves appear to be dead set against a religious dominated government (although we were assured by all the “experts” of the secular nature of the Egyptian rebellion as well).

Who are the jihadists in Syria? There’s al-Qaeda, of course. They may be small in number but they’re strength is rising as law and order breaks down and they can operate more freely. Most of the al-Qaeda fighters are veterans of fighting the US in Iraq and are adept at setting roadside bombs. They have carried out at least two dozen attacks, according to an expert at Rand Corporation.

Jabhat al-Nusra, or the Al-Nusra Front is a domestic Syrian terrorist group that has welcomed some foreign fighters into its ranks in recent months. They have carried out more than 120 attacks since they were formed early in the year, including many car bombs that have killed dozens of civilians.

But Al-Nusra has a credibility problem. They are widely seen to be acting on the behalf of the Syrian government. Tyler Golson of The New Republic reports:

The majority of Syrians—according to anecdotal evidence from Syrian social media sites—believe that all of JN’s claimed operations were in fact perpetrated by the regime’s thugs. This, despite the fact that JN’s statements are carried over official Al-Qaeda internet channels, and despite assertions by Western intelligence agencies that JN is an Al-Qaeda affiliate bent on bringing down the Syrian regime.

Another jihadist who set himself up as an Emir in the “Islamic Emerite of Homs” may, in fact, have been acting under the orders of the Syrian government. Walid al-Boustani showed up in the city of Homs with a few fighters claiming to be with the Syrian opposition. But after several kidnappings and murders to enforce his will, the people turned on him and an FSA unit moved in to depose him. It turns out, the Lebanese-born Boustani was a member of Fatah al-Islam — a Lebanese al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group thought to be a tool of Syrian intelligence.

So, it is not so farfetched to think that some of the jihadists groups may be more interested in serving Assad’s government rather than overthrowing him. Many of the fighters are veterans of the Iraqi jihad against America. Their entry into Iraq was facilitated by the same Syrian government they now say they want to bring down.

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