BEIRUT -- The presence of al Qaida-linked groups fighting alongside rebels in Syria continues to grow – and reshape the conflict.
With that expanding role comes mounting unease among some – including much of the mainstream of the Syrian rebellion against President Bashar Assad – about manning the same side of the ramparts as forces known primarily for terrorism.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, as the local al Qaida affiliate is known, has fast been expanding its influence across virtually all rebel-held areas in northern Syria. It’s fighting alongside its ideological ally, the Nusra Front.
And it’s brought to the fight brutal tactics that marked the insurgency against U.S.-led forces in Iraq. That’s left aid workers, Western patrons of the revolution and others jumpy about such an alliance. The jihadists’ role has at times also pitted rebel against rebel in the already chaotic and shifting battlefield in the Syrian civil war.
Both the al Qaida and Nusra groups are led by veterans of the Iraqi insurgency, and both have flirted with the tactics that ultimately alienated them among Sunnis in that country who ultimately turned against them.
Still, mainstream rebel factions have been reluctant to denounce the fierce Islamist militants they now find siding with them against the Damascus regime. That may be partly a factor of success.
When rebels early this month made the critical seizure of an airbase in Idlib province, they dealt the Syrian regime a serious blow and opened up critical supply lines for their cause. They also scored the bloody victory with the help of the al Qaida group.
Likewise, those Islamist and mostly foreign forces spearheaded a high-profile offensive into the coastal region – territory previously seen as unassailable because the Alawite Muslim population supports the Assad government.
In both cases, the mainstream rebels’ Free Syrian Army and Syrian Military Council publicly thanked the Islamist fighters in a series of videos. Those announcements were released by umbrella groups, who face stiff pressure from the West to confront their more radical allies.
The uptick in military successes by the Islamists comes as more mainstream factions continue to suffer major setbacks – particularly previously rebel-held towns along the Lebanese border. Both Homs and Qusayr, previously territory belonging to the rebel Farouk Brigade, fell to the regime this summer.
Few would dispute that the revolution remains under the control of the Syrian Military Council. But the military wins lately have come with distinctive fingerprints of more radical Islamists.
“While other battalions might like to claim credit, the fact is that ISIS” – the acronym attached to the al Qaida group – “banner is flying over the main tower at the airbase,” said Aymenn Tamimi, an analyst specializing in Iraqi and Syrian jihadist groups at Oxford University. “(The Islamists are) more successful in terms of control of territory and influence than their counterparts in Iraq could ever hope to have achieved.”
That influence took on a fractious tone last week. The al Qaida fighters grew frustrated that their ostensible rebel allies were too timid in efforts to seize the provincial capital of Raqqa. The al Qaida group dispatched a series of car bombs – not to attack regime forces, but against rebel headquarters. That was followed by ground assaults and the execution of 18 rebel fighters by the Islamists, according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.