Thousands of Syrian jihadists affiliated with al-Qaeda’s Al-Nusra Front have recently taken refuge near the Israeli and Jordanian borders fleeing northern Syria, which has fallen into the hands of the more extreme Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Syrian opposition sources informed The Times of Israel that as many as 6,000 members of Al-Nusra have moved south over the past few weeks after being driven out of Deir el-Zour by the Islamic State, which succeeded in wresting control of the oil-rich province from the Assad regime in mid-June.
The Islamic State overtook Assad’s 17th Division in the northern province of Raqqa and the 122nd Regiment in the northeastern province of Hasakah this week, imprisoning soldiers and capturing military equipment. According to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the Islamic State has already taken control of all major oil fields in the Deir el-Zour province.
Created in January 2012 and led by Mohammed al-Jawlani, the Al-Nusra Front is classified as a terror organization by the United Nations, the United States, and other Western countries. Al-Qaeda, represented in Syria by Al-Nusra, has dissociated itself from the Islamic State, which has occupied vast territories in northern and western Iraq, as well as northern Syria.
“About 1,500 hundred Al-Nusra men arrived in our area,” an opposition activist from Quneitra province told The Times of Israel, speaking from Jordan. “The Free Syrian Army and the moderate forces are unable to confront them.”
The activist said that while the Islamists are operating against the Assad regime, moderate forces in the area are gravely concerned about the spread of extremist ideology among the local public. He said that approximately 10 percent of the men — especially the commanders — are not Syrian nationals, and may be linked to foreign intelligence agencies.
“Their ideology is wrong and we are trying to address it through dialogue and education,” continued the activist. “But they have very strong financing, which greatly worries us.”
A Free Syrian Army spokesman in Daraa province, on the Jordanian border, told The Times of Israel that some 3,000 Al-Nusra fighters arrived in the area approximately 10 days ago, and another batch similar in size arrived this week. He said the total number of Al-Nusra fighters in Daraa and Quneitra may now be as high as 10,000.
The spokesman said that the fighters received orders from Al-Nusra commander al-Jawlani to converge on Daraa and help liberate it from the Assad regime. “We need the Al-Nusra Front,” he said, “but relations are tense and sensitive.”
However, the Islamist group has clashed with fighters of the more moderate Free Syrian Army, kidnapping military commanders and local civilian leaders this week, including the commander of the FSA’s Al-Haramein Battalion, Sharif As-Safouri.
“We haven’t clashed with them yet, but we will in the future,” the spokesman said. Al-Nusra has already taken control of the local Sharia courts, and have begun imposing their rulings on the general public.
The Free Syrian Army, which continues to engage the Assad regime’s 90th Battalion in Quneitra and Daraa, is severely lacking in equipment, the spokesman said. The United States is providing military support for certain “secular” opposition forces, primarily the Syria Revolutionaries Front, neglecting others, he complained. These forces have received TOW anti-tank missiles and heavy machine guns shipped from Jordan and Turkey.
“Our situation is worse than it used to be,” he told The Times of Israel. “We’ve received nothing so far. I’ve begun suspecting that America itself is supporting the Al-Nusra Front.”