An Al Qaeda affiliate launched an attack against Western-backed rebels in a key area of Syria, bolstering the terrorist group’s territorial holdings inside the war-torn country and giving more credence to the central theme of President Bashar al-Assad’s continued hold on power.
In an attack over the weekend, the Nusra Front, Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, took over bases and seized US-supplied weapons from the Free Syrian Army’s 13th Division in Idlib, according to The Wall Street Journal.
And as the Nusra Front gains ground in rebel strongholds in Syria, Assad has pushed the narrative that his opposition is filled with terrorists and should be discounted.
For years, Assad has been positioning himself as the last bulwark against a total jihadist takeover of Syria, pointing to the advance of groups like the Nusra Front and ISIS (also known as the Islamic State, ISIL, or Daesh) as proof that the rebels that oppose him have a terrorist agenda.
It’s part of a simple strategy: Convince the West that he is fighting a war on terrorism while trying to destroy nationalist rebels trying to topple his regime.
The Nusra Front’s attack in Idlib, a northwest province of Syria that has a strong rebel presence, could bolster Assad’s narrative.
Abu Faisal — a Syrian aid worker who goes by a pseudonym and has been working with locals in Maaret al Nouman, the city where the fighting this weekend was centered — said the situation there is now “chaotic.”
Rebel losses to the Nusra Front could force a pivot on the ground. While in some cases moderate rebels collaborated with Nusra against the regime, Nusra attacks on rebels will end such agreements.
Faisal predicted that rebel groups are now headed toward “war” with the Nusra Front.
“In the long-run this is good because when Al Nusra is gone, their thuggery will be gone and the coalition won’t have any excuse to not fund moderates and it will destroy Assad’s ‘us or them’ narrative,” Faisal said, referring to the reluctance of the US-backed anti-ISIS coalition’s reluctance to throw more support behind the Syrian opposition.
But even if an escalated fight against the Nusra Front has the potential to wipe out the jihadists in Syria, it still could improve Assad’s bargaining chip at the expense of the opposition as peace talks between the regime and the opposition continue in Geneva, Switzerland.
“In the meantime this is great news for the regime and horrible news for Syrians on the ground,” he said. “The more territory Al Nusra controls, the more the ‘us or them’ narrative grows stronger and, ironically, the less support moderates get from the coalition.”
And the Nusra Front controlling more territory in areas that were previously held by rebels could lead to more bombing in these areas, where civilians still live.
Ahmed Alwan, a senior cleric in Maaret al Nouman, told The Journal that the Nusra Front wants to be the “paramount force” in Idlib.
This week marks the fifth anniversary of the Syrian civil war, which kicked off in 2011 with protests over Assad’s dictatorial rule. A tenuous ceasefire is in place while representatives from the regime and the opposition meet for peace talks in Switzerland. But since the Nusra Front is a designated terrorist group, it is not included in the ceasefire.
It’s not just the Nusra Front the Syrian opposition has to worry about, either. Russia has been bombing extensively in Syria since late last year, targeting mostly anti-Assad rebels under the guise of fighting terrorism. The airstrikes have weakened the opposition, which has ceded territory to the regime.
Russia announced on Monday that it would begin withdrawing ground troops in Syria this week, but it’s unclear how much that will change the situation on the ground, as airstrikes against rebels in the country are likely to continue.