The FSA and Jabhat al-Nusra at the Crossroads of Aleppo

Activists in Aleppo released a statement on the day of the terrorist attack on the Saadallah al-Jabri square in down town Aleppo, disassociating the revolution from Jabhat al-Nusra and calling on all revolutionaries to do the same. The statement does not seem to be in response to the attacks themselves, but to a mass execution of regime forces a few days before. Unfortunately, not everyone feels the same as can be seen in the following demonstration from the Abu Hurayra Mosque on October 5.

They are calling for God to protect Jabhat al-Nusra, whose fighters are walking amongst them. Ironically, they call for the FSA to be armed while walking amongst those who nobody would want to arm; who are pointed to when arms are not coming through; who have more than plenty of resources themselves; and whose abundance of this is what puts the FSA in a problematic position. In fact, a disastrous position, at the crossroads of Aleppo’s liberation and its future.

It is important to understand that this group is not mainstream Salafist or Islamist, but Qaedist. It is part of the ideological movement of Al Qaeda which operates in Afhanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Mali, Somalia, Chechnya, as well as the non-Muslim world. This is not something merely assumed from the way it has operated in Syria, or from its suspected origins in Iraq, or from its fans are around the world, but from its own sources. A quick look at their forum Ansar al-Mujahidin reveals what they are all about to anyone even slightly familiar with groups and personalities that belong to this movement. Now that the UNSC addressed the group’s latest attack, its name can be expected to appear on the official lists.

It all began when Assad decided that he would wage war on Al Qaeda early on in the revolution and when Qaedists decided that their Jihad had come to Syria. It started off badly because this “coincidence” alone was enough to raise suspicions, not to mention the fact that such a conflict was galaxies away from the realities of Syria, its people and their revolution. The people couldn’t even imagine what such a conflict would look like considering that they, unlike people in many other countries, haven’t been exposed to anything even resembling this ideology and the movement behind it for three decades.

It took nearly a year into the revolution for the first group, Jabhat al-Nusra, to pop up, and others followed. At first there were very few of them, then a few hundred fighters, by now perhaps a few thousand. Ammar Abdulhamid spoke of as many as 5000 while Prof. Landis spoke of thousands having come in over the Turkish border; this seems to be a bit exaggerated though, and in the end even such a number remains a fraction of many tens of thousands fighting for the FSA. Whatever the eventual number may be, only a few are needed for their typical terrorist operations and soon enough the suicide bombings, kidnappings, executions and so on would be introduced and structurally grow in size and frequency, eventually resulting in the recent events. When they arrived, they were isolated from Syrian society and the FSA and limited themselves to their characteristic operations. This slowly changed. First, some Syrians joined them. Probably through them, they came in contact with battalions who were ideologically closer to them than others, some of which were associated with the FSA. By this time the battle for Aleppo started, and they became much more of a fighting force on the ground. Probably through these battalions they reached the FSA Brigades there and finally, so it seems, the military council. However, until now Jabhat al-Nusra or any other Qaedist group is not part of the FSA or any of its Brigades.

In the beginning all of this was only imaginable in the fantasy world of regime supporters, while many others explained things by ascribing everything completely to the regime as the culprit. Even now there are probably people who can’t look beyond the regime and see that this movement is very real and present in Syria, going about its usual business. Others might ignore the other side of what happened at the Saadallah al-Jabri square or other such issues, out of anger, suffering and despair, perhaps out of an extreme response, but not out of an extremist ideology; that is what could describe most of those protesters chanting for Jabhat al-Nusra, they may walk with them but they are surely not part of their movement. And even then they remain only a few amongst the hundreds of thousands of activists, not to mention the rest of the people. The problem is that many people don’t know who they’re dealing with and might get duped. That free Syrian flag waving there is to be waged war against, as is Syrian religious tradition and its people, scholars and laymen alike, as are minorities, and any political system and social culture that contradicts their ideology. There will never be peace unless the Syrian people either defeat them, or concede at least a part of their country to them. They wouldn’t be the only ones in line as far as that goes.

The FSA should and most likely do know better. But they too are desperate. For nearly a year they have been waiting for arms and some form of serious military assistance, hoping everything would change in that regard in the battles of Aleppo and Damascus so that it would not become like Homs. But it did, nothing substantial came and besides the related problems concerning organisation and defections they suffered shortages of everything, bread, gas, water, while being constantly massively bombarded from the sky. At this rate, it would take months to come for completely liberating Aleppo alone, and years before completely defeating the Assad regime. At first, they could not do anything about those strange groups of foreigners. By now, they feel that they need them. They need their resources, their skills, their suicidal mentality.

By August 20, Jabhat al-Nusra released a clip from an interview with Abdul Qader Saleh, the Commander of Aleppo’s Tawhid Brigade, second only to Col. Abdul Jabbar al-Agedi (see the photo at the top of this post) the head of Aleppo’s Revolutionary Military Council.

He says that Jabhat al-Nusra are their brothers, and that they go with everyone who fights, for the aim is to overthrow this regime, and that this group is fighting just like other battalions are. He seems to have difficulties with what he’s saying, perhaps it’s the desperate and tiresome situation though I don’t think so.

David Ignatius was in Aleppo recently and interviewed Col. al-Agedi:

…Akidi demonstrated the frustration of a commander who has been waiting for U.S. help but claims he isn’t getting anything useful. Official U.S. policy is to provide non-lethal aid, including command-and-control tools such as satellite phones. Akidi looks like a military man, barrel-chested and confident, and he’s the sort of officer who Washington hopes might build a solid fighting force. If the United States can help him get modern antiaircraft and antitank weapons, “I will keep them away from extremist groups,” he promises. He hopes America can provide training, too — even a two-week basic course that could help create a real army. But unless the United States provides weapons that can tip the balance, Akidi says he needs help from the jihadists who are so eager to fight and die. “I have no problem with extremists if they are fighting the regime. All we care is that the regime falls and the bloodshed stops.” What would Akidi do if the regime used chemical weapons? He laughs as he answers: “We will look for a grave.”

He also interviewed Afif Suleiman in Idlib:

I meet Col. Afif Suleiman, the commander of Free Syrian Army forces in Idlib province. He’s wearing a shoulder holster with silver bullets in the bandolier and repeats the same injunction to America: Give us weapons and help us coordinate our forces, or the extremists will take control.


The decision that has apparently been made is a pragmatic one, but it won’t come without a price. All of it is the regime’s gain. First, not only does it finally get the war it has been looking for from the beginning, if it has a hand in Jabhat al-Nusra – which remains very likely although the FSA doesn’t seem to think so any more – the regime may now be able to stretch this hand all the way up to the very leadership of the FSA. Moreover, it will cost support from the international community (whatever that is worth) and more importantly from Syrian society. Most important of all, it will not please God. What they get in return is not only a prolonged battle, even if this seems to be the way to prevent that, but a strong new enemy for many years to come, even if it isn’t very hostile yet. This is not the path Syria should take, it does not befit its people and their heroes who have refused the orders to shoot peaceful demonstrators, and turned their guns against Assad’s machine of mass murder and mass destruction. Col. al-Agedi and Abdul Qader Saleh and their men are good, decent people, national heroes who are fighting for a sacred cause in a righteous way. The people of Halab are with them, but they will never be with Al Qaeda.

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