ShareThis Page
Nation

Fight has 'good,' 'bad' al-Qaida

| Friday, Jan. 10, 2014, 9:12 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Only on the complex and bloody battlefields of Syria could there emerge a schism that would seem absurd elsewhere: “good” al-Qaida vs. “bad” al-Qaida.

That concept is becoming increasingly accepted as Syrian fighters intensify their campaign to reclaim the mantle of the rebel cause from extremists who had become as formidable an enemy as President Bashar Assad, the autocrat they've failed to topple in nearly three years of war.

Analysts who monitor the Syrian insurgency caution that the rebel forces fighting or taking territory from the feared Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, are themselves no champions of a Western-style democratic plan for Syria. The fighters run the spectrum from avowed al-Qaida loyalists to ultraconservatives who want no cooperation with the West to two new groupings of more mainstream rebels who complain that the Obama administration has abandoned their struggle.

As a result, the analysts say, a development that from afar might appear to be encouraging — rebels uniting to isolate the most ruthless faction — in fact brings with it a host of caveats and new concerns, not least that ISIS will return with a vengeance.

And it doesn't resolve the fact that the United States still lacks a proven rebel partner in the conflict, a major snag to plans to build a strong opposition delegation to sit across from regime representatives at a long-anticipated peace summit that's scheduled to begin in just two weeks.

“Yes, we're closer to having a leadership of the opposition that can actually presume to call the shots in rebel Syria. But it's not one we're going to like very much,” said Joshua Landis, the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and the author of the blog Syria Comment.

In several instances, according to reports, ISIS is simply handing over posts to its sometimes-ally, the Nusra Front, a U.S.-designated al-Qaida affiliate that enjoys good relations with a cross-section of rebel brigades and which has assumed a mediator role in the violence. The brutalities of ISIS make the Nusra Front, itself no stranger to beheadings and kidnappings, look downright moderate by comparison.

While Nusra Front fighters occasionally have joined in the battle against ISIS on a localized basis, Syria observers say, as an organization its stance seems intentionally ambiguous. The real charge against ISIS comes from two factions that were formed of the remnants of the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army, and from the new ultraconservative powerhouse, the Islamic Front.

“Nusra has consistently played its cards right in Syria — it's been remarkably smart in managing its public relations,” said Charles Lister, who focuses on the Syrian civil war as a visiting fellow at the Doha Center of the Brookings Institution. “It has maintained healthy relations with rebel groups of all ideological kinds, and its military might and demonstrated capacity to positively influence battles has made it a highly influential group.”

The relationship to watch, analysts say, is how the Nusra Front interacts in the future with the Islamic Front. Both groups emphasize that their problems with ISIS aren't ideological, but because of their rival's imperious attitude and refusal to enter into power-sharing agreements. Their hope is that ISIS foot soldiers will drift away to either Nusra or the Islamic Front, preventing an intra-jihadist showdown in what's already a free-for-all.

Rebel supporters, Landis said, are now “on a charm offensive to portray Nusra as the ‘good al-Qaida,' “ an organization that's only focused on the Syrian arena, is playing nicely with rival factions, and which doesn't have ambitions to attack the United States or its allies.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.

click me