Rebel leader in hiding after disputed merger

Syrian group Jabhat al-Nusra being subsumed by Islamic State in Iraq and Levant

Fighters from Islamist Syrian rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra on the front line during a clash with Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. Photograph: Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters 
Files (SYRIA - Tags: CIVIL UNREST POLITICS

Fighters from Islamist Syrian rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra on the front line during a clash with Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. Photograph: Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters Files (SYRIA - Tags: CIVIL UNREST POLITICS

Wed, May 22, 2013, 02:00

The Syrian rebel movement Jabhat al-Nusra, considered a terrorist organisation by the US state department, is in the process of being subsumed by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, which has a Muslim world agenda rather than the local Syrian opposition’s objective of regime change.

Several weeks ago Islamic State chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi said the two groups had combined and would operate under his command. Jabhat leader Abu Mohamed al-Golani, who had not been informed beforehand, denied the merger had taken place and proclaimed his group’s allegiance to al-Qaeda central leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Golani was evidently trying to prevent a takeover by Baghdadi and the Islamic State, the Jabhat’s parent movement, which has provided fighters, funds and arms for operations in Syria. Zawahiri appears to have come down on Baghdadi’s side. Indeed, he may have planned the move.

Golani, effectively toppled, has reportedly gone into hiding, and many of his men have joined the Islamic State or other radical factions fighting in the Syrian conflict.

The Jabhat — which began operations at the end of 2011 and had been the most successful combat organisation among hundreds of rebel groupings — has split into at least two wings, the smaller with Syrian fighters and a Syrian agenda, the larger with foreign jihadis and al-Qaeda’s plan to expel western influence from the Muslim world and unite it under a caliphate that would impose Muslim sharia law.

Baghdadi has moved to Aleppo province in northern Syria to command conflict operations. Golani’s followers demand that he go back to Iraq.


Jihadi region
Baghdadi apparently believes that if Sunni jihadis gain power in Syria they could combine with radicals in Iraq’s western Sunni provinces to form a jihadi region from which they could export al-Qaeda’s ideology and programme to neighbouring Lebanon and Jordan — and, perhaps, to Turkey.

Analysts say the Islamic State in Iraq could alienate Syrians who do not go along with its tough tactics and brutal treatment of captured Syrian army personnel. In addition, Syrian Sunnis are religiously moderate and socially tolerant generally, not puritanical.

Iraqis eventually turned against the original organisation, al-Qaeda in Iraq and, during the 2007 US “surge” against sectarian strife, formed Sunni “awakening councils” to help US forces contain the movement.

New Sunni “awakening councils” have apparently emerged among cross-border tribesmen dwelling in northeastern Syria and northwestern Iraq with the aim of purging al-Qaeda elements, particularly foreign fighters.