Nusra Front reportedly leading Syrian rebels’ fight for key Damascus area

 

McClatchy Newspapers

An Islamist rebel group that the United States has listed as a terrorist organization has taken the lead in fighting in Damascus, according to residents who’ve recently fled the violence there.

The reports that the Nusra Front, which the Obama administration last month declared to be an affiliate of al Qaida in Iraq, is at the forefront of the fighting in Syria's capital underscores the deepening sectarianism inside Syria that many analysts feel is likely to thwart new U.N. efforts to promote a negotiated settlement to the conflict.

Residents of the southern Damascus neighborhood of Yarmouk said that fighters from Nusra, whose name in Arabic is Jabhat al Nusra, were at the forefront of a battle that has driven hundreds of thousands of people from the district since Nusra launched its offensive about two weeks ago. Other Islamist rebel groups also are playing a role in the combat, the residents said.

Supporters of rebels fighting to topple the government of President Bashar Assad say that groups like Nusra make up only a small minority of the anti-Assad fighting force. But Nusra increasingly is leading the fighting across Syria, a development that raises the prospects of sectarian bloodletting as rebels move from areas where the population, like the rebels, is predominantly Sunni Muslim to cities and towns where the residents are Shiite Muslim or Alawites, the Shiite sect to which Assad and Syria’s governing elite belong.

In the northern town of Zarzour, located strategically on a road between the Turkish border and rebel-held areas to the south, rebels burned a Shiite mosque last month, an event with echoes of the sectarian conflict that continues to cause violence in Iraq.

Damascus residents who’ve fled to Beirut also said the government increasingly has deployed militias to offset losses by the Syrian military, another sign of how the conflict has forced Syrians to choose sides or flee.

Pro-democracy activists from Yarmouk who fled to Lebanon last week said that they no longer saw space inside Syria for nonviolent action.

Ahmed, a 22-year-old anti-government activist from Yarmouk who fled to Lebanon on Friday, said he had decided to seek a visa for a third country, rather than wait for a chance to return to his homeland. He asked that his last name be withheld out of security concerns.

“I am a peaceful activist,” he said. “I can’t carry a weapon.”

Still, he defended Nusra’s role in the fighting, saying his experience made him have confidence that any government that replaced Assad would not be governed by Nusra’s rejection of elections and call for a state based on Islamic law.

“I wouldn’t want to live in an Islamic state,” Ahmed said. “But I don’t believe that is the future of Syria – people would demonstrate against that, too.”

Fighting for control of Yarmouk has gone on since last summer, when rebels first launched a major offensive in Damascus and Aleppo, the country’s largest city.

The Nusra offensive two weeks ago, however, added new momentum to the battle, driving Yamouk residents to flee and triggering fierce government bombardment in response.

Ahmed said he had dealt with Nusra fighters on a daily basis in Yarmouk and viewed them as more professional than other rebel groups, who’ve been accused of widespread looting in some parts of the country where fuel and food are in short supply.

“They were very honest people,” Ahmed said.

Nidhal, another young activist who fled Yarmouk for Lebanon last week, also said that Nusra had assumed a leading role in the fighting. Like Ahmed, he said he saw little room for pro-democracy activists like himself who first rallied against the Assad government in peaceful protests 22 months ago.

Nidhal, who also asked that his full name not be divulged for security reasons, said he spent the last three months working to aid refugees. He moved constantly to avoid fighting and the increasing number of government checkpoints in Damascus. He said he managed to leave the country by bribing officials first to get out of Damascus and then to cross into Lebanon. He stayed only 24 hours in Lebanon before flying on to Egypt.

Controlling Yarmouk would essentially give the rebels a unified line across much of southern Damascus, but they still lack a foothold in many of the city’s central neighborhoods.

“Yarmouk is going to be like Baba Amr,” Nidhal said, referring to a neighborhood in Homs, Syria’s third largest city, which was devastated as government troops laid siege for months before finally driving rebels out of the area six months ago.

Nidhal said the sectarianism had grown on both sides, with the government increasingly replacing soldiers with pro-government militiamen drawn from the Alawite sect. Civil order in much of Damascus, Nidhal said, had largely broken down, with kidnappings for both ransom and politics now rampant.

Controversy over Nusra, which declared its existence openly after a series of massive bombings in Damascus a year ago, intensified last month when the Obama administration declared that it was just another name for al Qaida in Iraq, a Sunni Muslim group responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American troops in Iraq and that is still believed to be responsible for much of the bloodshed in that country.

The designation came as the United States announced that it was recognizing as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people a newly formed opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces. U.S. officials said they hoped the designation would persuade countries providing assistance to the rebels to direct their aid to groups other than the Nusra Front.

But the Syrian National Coalition’s leader, Sheik Mouaz Khatib, a Muslim cleric from Homs, condemned the declaration of Nusra as a terrorist group and urged the State Department to withdraw it.

Nusra itself has paid little attention to the designation and continues to fight independent of the regional military councils that the United States has promoted as a way to improve coordination among the hundreds of rebel groups fighting across the country.

Nusra released an hour-long video in December documenting some of its operations in northern Syria. The video used openly derogatory language to refer to Shiites and Alawites.

Analysts say that it will be difficult for the United States to keep any aid it might give to the rebels from also benefiting the Nusra Front. Only after Assad falls will it be possible to separate Nusra from other rebels.

“In many respects the U.S.’s policy is too late,” said Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who studies radical Islamist movements. “The next opening won’t happen until after the regime falls, once all the rebels groups no longer have the same goals. Then I think the U.S. will have a better opportunity to exploit these divisions for its interests. Until then, it could be an uphill battle for the U.S. due to its dithering policy up to this point.”

Enders is a McClatchy special correspondent. Email: denders@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @davidjenders

Read more World Wires stories from the Miami Herald

  •  
FILE - In a Thursday, May 29, 2014 file photo, singer Aretha Franklin looks up while seated on stage during Harvard University commencement ceremonies, in Cambridge, Mass., where she was presented with an honorary Doctor of Arts degree. Franklin has some harsh words for a New York server at a at a Johnny Rockets restaurant in Lewiston near Buffalo who told the Queen of Soul she wasn’t allowed to eat her takeout inside the restaurant. A spokesman for Franklin says on Tuesday, July 22, Franklin ordered a hamburger after performing a sold-out show. But he says the server screamed at Franklin, saying she couldn’t sit down to eat because she had ordered takeout. A Johnny Rockets spokeswoman says the franchise owner is sorry for the actions of “a new and very young employee.”

    Aretha Franklin slams server's D-I-S-R-E-S-P-E-C-T

    Aretha Franklin has some harsh words for a server who showed D-I-S-R-E-S-P-E-C-T by telling the Queen of Soul she wasn't allowed to eat her takeout inside the restaurant.

  •  
In this undated photo released by The Calehr family, Miguel Panduwinata, right, poses his mother Samira Calehr. Miguel and his brother Shaka Panduwinata were killed aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which was shot down over eastern Ukraine.

    MH17 victims' family: Airline lacking compassion

    The family of two brothers killed in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 is unhappy that the carrier has offered them no grief counselling in more than a week and is refusing to organize a flight home to Houston for the boys' grandmother.

  •  
In this Sunday, July 13, 2014 file image made from video by The Associated Press, smoke rises from the direction of Tripoli airport in Tripoli, Libya. The United States shut down its embassy in Libya on Saturday, July 26, 2014, and evacuated its diplomats to neighboring Tunisia under U.S. military escort amid a significant deterioration in security in Tripoli as fighting intensified between rival militias, the State Department said.  (AP Photo/File)

    U.S. evacuates Libya embassy amid growing unrest

    With Libya facing its highest levels of violence since its 2011 uprising, the United States drove its embassy staff and military personnel Saturday to neighboring Tunisia with U.S. military escorts flying overhead.

Miami Herald

Join the
Discussion

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category