Syrian opposition coaxing Islamists away from Israel border
Recently unified under new leadership, Free Syrian Army said persuading Al-Nusra combatants to fight Assad closer to Damascus
Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel
Having consolidated its fighting units under a unified command two months ago, the Free Syrian Army on the Golan Heights is coaxing Islamist opposition forces to leave the border area with Israel and fight the Assad regime further east, a Free Syrian Army member told The Times of Israel.
According to the civilian opposition activist, who spoke to The Times of Israel on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to Israeli media, the newly-formed Unified Free Syrian Army under the command of Brigadier General Ibrahim Fahd Al-Nu’aimi has managed in recent weeks to convince radical elements — including members of the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front — to leave Syrian villages located just miles away from the Israeli border.
The Al-Nusra members have abandoned the villages of Ghadir Al-Bustan and Al-Qseibah in the Quneitra province and moved eastwards, to fight in the western outskirts of Damascus. In al-Qseibah, for instance, Al-Nusra had planned to set up a religious institution “to spread the ideology of Al-Qaeda” but was dissuaded by the FSA from doing so.
The Times of Israel could not independently verify the veracity of these claims, but a video uploaded to YouTube on October 29 depicts members of Jund Al-Sham Brigade in Quneitra pledging allegiance to the Unified Free Syrian Army and renaming it the 47th Brigade.
“We don’t want all these Islamic units such as Al-Nusra, ِAhrar al-Sham or Al-Muthana to remain in the region,” he said. At the moment, the entire province of Quneitra is in opposition hands with the exception of the provincial capital Khan Arnabeh and the Druze town of Hadher on the slopes of Mt. Hermon, which remains loyal to the Assad regime.
“There remain of course factions of the Free Syrian Army that refuse to unify, but with time and negotiations we will impose the control of the Unified Free Syrian Army,” he said. “We would like the neighboring countries to help us galvanize the Free Syrian Army.”
The fragmentation and weakness of Syria’s moderate fighting opposition has long worried Israel and the West. In June, the head of Israel’s Military Intelligence research branch estimated that 80% of Syria’s opposition combatants had “a clear Islamist agenda.” The Obama administration — while pushing congress for a $500 million aid package for moderate Syrian rebels which the US is training in Jordan and elsewhere — has remained doubtful of their efficacy.
“We don’t have a willing, capable, effective partner on the ground inside Syria right now,” Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said in October. “It’s just a fact.”
But the opposition member said that if properly funded, the new Unified Free Syrian Army would prove more than capable of defending Israel’s border along Quneitra and meeting the expectations of the West.
“Today, the Unified Free Syrian Army is attempting to emerge as the exclusive force in the area. It understands the requirements of neighboring countries and of residents in peace, stability and development,” he said. “Hundreds are approaching us daily, and we have recruited about 10,000 men who have registered their names in Quneitra and Daraa, though they receive no salaries and can defect at any moment. We aren’t receiving as much funding from the West as the Military Council or the Syria Revolutionaries Council. We need vehicles, we need fuel, and we need salaries for the soldiers.”
By rehabilitating damaged civilian infrastructure in Quneitra, the activist said, the West could boost the credibility of moderate fighting forces, steering local volunteers away from radical groups. Fuel prices in Quneitra have skyrocketed, reaching $4 a liter and bringing agriculture and transportation on the Syrian Golan to a near standstill, he noted.
“People are experiencing a real disaster,” he said.
“If we become weak and are unable to provide water, electricity, education and health, people will despair of us and join radical groups such as Al-Nusra and even ISIS, which has sleeper cells in area,” he said. “People all over the world follow leaderships that provide basic means of living.”