It’s been a big day for the Nusrah Front, one of the most prominent and deadly jihadist groups operating among the rebels against Bashar Assad’s regime. Today, they took a long-besieged base on northern Syria. Long War Journal explains:
The Al Nusrah Front for the People of the Levant, an al Qaeda-linked jihadist group that is fighting Bashir al Assad’s regime in Syria, and allied jihadist groups took control of the last major Syrian Army base in western Aleppo after a two-month-long siege. The base is believed to be involved in Syria’s chemical weapons program.
The Sheikh Suleiman base, or Base 111, fell to the Al Nusrah Front and “several Islamist rebel battalions linked to it,” a representative of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told AFP. Foreign fighters are also said to have played a key role in the assault that led to the fall of the Sheikh Suleiman base, while nearby units of the Free Syrian Army stood by and watched.
“Many of the fighters were from other Arab countries and Central Asia,” AFP said. . . . Al Qaeda’s black flag of jihad was raised over one of the buildings on the base as the fighting took place.
The two other Islamist groups who fought alongside Al Nusrah were identified as the Mujahedeen Shura Council and the Muhajireen group, according to The Associated Press. The term muhajireen means emigrants, a strong indication that many of its fighters are from outside of Syria.
Some of the fighters who took the base are non-Syrian. One of the leaders involved in the battle to take the base identified himself to AFP as Abu Talha and said he was from Uzbekistan. Other foreign fighters said, “We are all mujahedeens and muhajireens.”
Lest their accomplishments go unrecognized, the U.S. government has now black-listed the group and identified it as an offshoot of al-Qaeda in Iraq. The Nusrah Front will be officially added it to the State Department’s terror list tomorrow, the Washington Post reports:
The State Department has designated Syria’s Jabhat al-Nusra Front as a Global Terrorist organization. The new designation identifies the group as an alias of previously designated al-Qaeda in Iraq. . . .
In separate amendments under the Immigration Act and an existing executive order, the designation prohibits Americans from having any financial dealings with the group and freezes any of its assets under U.S. control.
Recent reports from Syria suggest that extremists groups such as Jabhat are gaining ground in places where support for the opposition Free Syrian Army, the loose umbrella of rebel fighters, is wearing thin.
FSA officials estimate Jabhat fighters now account for 7.5 to 9 percent of total rebel forces, and that they are regarded as some of the fiercest front-line troops against the military force of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Administration officials say the Jabhat group consists largely of Syrian fighters who joined al-Qaeda in Iraq some years ago and have returned to their own country, along with additional Iraqis and other foreigners. Al-Qaeda in Iraq was one of the leading Sunni insurgent groups that attacked U.S. troops there.
The decision to list the group as an AQI alias both accelerated the designation process, and emphasized the administration’s desire to tie it directly to the al-Qaeda offshoot in neighboring Iraq.
As the Post goes on to remind us, at the end of last week, member groups of the new Syrian opposition command, the Syrian Opposition Coalition, met in Turkey, but the Nusrah Front was not invited. It is expected that the U.S. will recognize this umbrella group as the legitimate representative of Syria on Wednesday at a meeting in Morocco — meanwhile, the military and tactical vanguard of the rebel forces continues to be undeniably jihadist elements such as the Nusrah group, by their advantages in organization, commitment, expertise gathered in places such as Iraq, enthusiastic funding from Gulf Sunnis, etc., a trend no level of involvement the U.S. is considering seems likely to reverse.