Islamists Winning in Syria

By Frykberg, Mel | The Middle East, February 2014 | Go to article overview

Islamists Winning in Syria


Frykberg, Mel, The Middle East


Al Qaeda-affiliated groups in Syria appear to be gaining the upper hand in the fight for control of the country, an alarming trend, which not only threatens regional stability but the interests of the West too. Nobody is more concerned about these developments than the Israelis who are analysing various prospective unfolding scenarios on their doorstep and possible manners in which to deal with them.

A PAPER BY THE MARYLAND UNIVERSITY start Consortium researchers concluded that these groups will pose an ever greater military threat by the end of 2015, while the military efficacy of competing groups such as the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Syrian President Bashar Assad's military forces will decrease.

The Islamists are growing in number and strength due to their military abilities and the flow of foreign fighters into Syria. Nearly half of the 100,000 rebel fighters seeking to oust Assad are either jihadists or hard line Islamists. The FSA has about 45,000 fighters while around 6,000-7,000 foreign fighters are members of the Nusra Front and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

Six months following the outbreak of the conflict in March 2011, the popular uprising in Syria gave way to organised resistance by the armed militias.

The first of these was the FSA, composed mainly of Syrian army deserters. The opposition hoped that it would eventually replace the army of the regime, attracting more deserters and serving to unify the various opposition groups.

However, internal dissent and a lack of foreign logistical support led to the disintegration of the national opposition.

The international community's feeble attempts to support the secular elements of the Syrian uprising have helped the Islamists to gain the upper hand. Even when the West decided to support the uprising it did not provide the moderate FSA fighters, not yet overwhelmed by Islamist forces, with the means to challenge the regime's military might.

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The United States and Europe gave regional actors a free hand to push their own contrasting strategic interests with Turkey supporting the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood while Saudi Arabia and Qatar helped finance and arm radical Sunni Islamist groups, especially those affiliated with Al Qaeda.

Russia, and to a lesser extent China, did their upmost to stop any serious intervention by the United Nations while Russia continued arming Damascus.

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Meanwhile, militias fighting under the black flag of Al Qaeda emerged, the most prominent being the Nusra Front.

Another Al Qaeda-linked group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has emerged as one of the stronger players in the Syrian civil war. In a bizarre turn of events the Syrian opposition claims that members of ISIS serve the Assad regime, not the Syrian revolution. This belief is supported by the Americans as well and will go down in history as one of the Middle East's more bloody conspiracy theories.

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The growing strength of ISIS is perceived as a threat in Iraq and Jordan causing them to reassess their support of the Syrian opposition, as well as the West's enthusiasm for the fall of Assad's regime. …

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