Syrian Rebel Groups Losing “Entire Units” to Al Qaeda-Linked Islamist Opposition Groups

Islamists and relative moderates are fighting for control of, and prominence within, the Syrian opposition. The Islamists – led by the Al Qaeda-linked Al Nusra front – have among other things attempted to impose Islamic law on areas they capture. The relative moderates are backed by the West.

The momentum is not with the relative moderates:

Syria’s main armed opposition group, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), is losing fighters and capabilities to Jabhat al-Nusra, an Islamist organisation with links to al-Qaida that is emerging as the best-equipped, financed and motivated force fighting Bashar al-Assad’s regime… Illustrating their plight, FSA commanders say that entire units have gone over to al-Nusra while others have lost a quarter or more of their strength to them recently.

This analysis emerges days after the Syrian army retook the strategic southern town of Khirbet Ghazaleh, a rebel loss that was explicitly attributed by opposition forces to the failure of the Jordanian-backed Syrian opposition military council failed to supply weapons to the town’s defenders. The loss will reinforce perceptions that Syrian Islamist groups uniquely have the resources and dedication to confront Assad.

The need to empower relative moderates has been at the core of arguments in the West in favor of lifting the arms embargo that has limited the flow of weapons to opposition groups. It is unclear whether the ban can be lifted – and the arms provided – in a way that relatively advantages moderate factions of the opposition. Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius today announced that, alongside pushing for easing the embargo, Paris will propose classifying the Al Nusra Front as a terrorist organization. The goal would be to create mechanisms for denying resources to Al Nusra-linked elements while expanding what the West provides to rebel groups overall.

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