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A Syrian man runs for cover during heavy fighting between Free Syrian Army fighters and government forces in Aleppo, Syria, on Monday. (NARCISO CONTRERAS/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
A Syrian man runs for cover during heavy fighting between Free Syrian Army fighters and government forces in Aleppo, Syria, on Monday. (NARCISO CONTRERAS/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

In Aleppo, jihadists take on greater role with Syrian rebel army Add to ...

The men stepped out of a beat-up 4x4 with a black flag flying from the antenna and walked out onto a crowded street in the rebel-held heart of this city. They each had long black beards, were carrying extra weapons and were wearing baggy black pants that made them look more like the mujahedeen who fought in Afghanistan than rebel fighters in Syria.

One of the men said he was from Saudi Arabia; another, of Arab origin, said he was from France. Later, other similarly dressed fighters arrived and began mingling with the Syrian rebels.

A few months ago, these fighters – who belong to a shadowy Islamist group known as Jabhat al-Nusra (Support Front) – would have been an unimaginable sight on the streets of Aleppo, a once bustling city filled with music and all-night restaurants. But after five months of fighting that has transformed parts of the city into a rubble-strewn wasteland, the fighters with their black flags and balaclavas now appear openly. The formerly reclusive group, endorsed by al-Qaeda and embracing jihadists from many Muslim countries, appears to be playing an increasingly decisive role on the front line.

With resources strained in the fighting with the Syrian military, the rebels’ Free Syrian Army has come to depend more and more on the growing presence of these apparently well-financed fighters.

“We need them in order to win this fight,” said one commander in Liwa al-Tawhid, the main FSA group fighting in Aleppo. “Jabhat al-Nusra has more money and more support than we do.”

The group has been operating since January in the background of the Syrian conflict and claimed responsibility for a series of deadly suicide bombings in Damascus and Aleppo this year.

But as the fighting in Aleppo drags on, Jabhat al-Nusra has been moving to centre stage. Its distinctively black-garbed fighters can be seen driving to and fro in the city at all times of day. They gather at a rebel hospital, chasing away Western journalists and using one of the quiet rooms for afternoon prayer. They can be seen loitering outside the compound of what used to be a nurses’ college near the Eye Hospital, which Jabhat al-Nusra has converted into a base. And in almost every front-line neighbourhood, where the fighting rages daily, they are reinforcing groups of FSA rebels, who sometimes don’t even know their names.

“We love them, really, because they give us a lot of help,” said Ahmad Ajouz, a clean-shaven former English literature student at the University of Aleppo who is now part of an FSA unit. “They are good people, really. The people just have a bad idea about them because they are strict Muslims.”

Despite Jabhat al-Nusra’s seeming popularity among the rebels, some of its more extreme and violent tendencies have been a source of friction.

A video circulating online last month showed at least eight captured and unarmed Syrian soldiers being summarily executed. Syrian activists in the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad said the killers were from Jabhat al-Nusra, and Amnesty International said the acts appeared to constitute a war crime. Similar execution videos attributed to Jabhat al-Nusra have been showing up online since May.

Jabhat al-Nusra’s occasionally draconian attempts to enforce strict Islamic law in Aleppo haven’t proved especially popular among Syrians in rebel-held territory either. “They will kill a person or cut off his hand just for making a mistake,” said the FSA commander, who goes by the name of Abu Karima. “They don’t have any room for debate. They just see one way.”

The group’s sometimes aggressively Sunni Muslim rhetoric appears to go against the opposition’s efforts to win support from Syria’s Christian and Alawite minorities. On one occasion, a pair of hooded fighters with Jabhat al-Nusra confronted this reporter with their weapons, demanding to know whether he was Muslim.

Recently, more moderate leaders of Jabhat al-Nusra are reported to have gone so far as jailing some of their more extreme fighters in a converted Aleppo school after they started beating civilians on the street for smoking, a nearly universal habit among ordinary Syrians.

“We don’t like [this group] having too much power,” said Abu Karima, who, like other FSA commanders, still eagerly collaborates with Jabhat al-Nusra on the battlefield.

Many rebel soldiers and their commanders say they are concerned about the non-Syrian mujahedeen , or holy warriors, who have joined their rebellion. But they hope those fighters will eventually leave – despite the Jabhat al-Nusra’s ominous stated goal of creating an Islamic state in Syria.

“We have a deal with them,” said Mr. Ajouz, the student-turned-soldier. “All the mujahedeen will go back to their countries after the revolution. Jabhat al-Nusra will have no stake in the new regime in Syria.”

Many rebel soldiers and their commanders say they are concerned about the non-Syrian mujahedeen , or holy warriors, who have joined their rebellion. But they hope those fighters will eventually leave – despite the Jabhat al-Nusra’s ominous stated goal of creating an Islamic state in Syria.

“We have a deal with them,” said Mr. Ajouz, the student-turned-soldier. “All the mujahedeen will go back to their countries after the revolution. Jabhat al-Nusra will have no stake in the new regime in Syria.”

The presence of such radical Islamist groups within the fractious rebel organizations presents a risk, and challenge.

“We may well see the same kind of pushback from society as we’ve seen in Iraq, or Algeria or elsewhere,” said Peter Harling, an analyst with the International Crisis Group, which has been monitoring the role of j ihadist groups in Syria. “At some stage, the balance of forces will have to be worked out within the opposition itself.”

Even the rebel fighters, now sometimes unwilling to criticize Jabhat al-Nusra, will reluctantly acknowledge that their differences are going to come to a head.

“I’m telling you,” said Mr. Ajouz. “We’ll have another revolution after this. I’m sure about this.”

FACTS ABOUT ALEPPO

  • It is about 50 km south of the Turkish border at the crossroads of several historic trade routes.
  • Aleppo was first mentioned in texts from the third millennium BC, and evidence of occupation dates back to the 10th century BC.
  • The Hittites, Assyrians, Akkadians, Greeks, Romans, Umayyads, Ayyubids, Mameluks and Ottomans are among the powers that have ruled it.
  • The economy was based on the Silk Road trade route overland to Asia until the Suez Canal was completed in 1869.
  • It was named a UNESCO World Heritage site for the diversity of its architecture
  • It is famous for its mosques, madrasas and churches

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