ALEPPO, SYRIA – Protests in Syria’s northern city of Aleppo against the Free Syrian Army (FSA) highlight the waning influence of mainstream rebel groups and the rise of more disciplined and better-equipped radical Islamists.
Once a rare sight in Syria’s second-largest city and commercial hub, plagued since July 20 by deadly urban combat, the presence of Islamist fighters has now become increasingly felt.
“One morning I woke up and looked outside to see six armed men in black, wearing headbands and their eyes lined with kohl” in the tradition of the Prophet Mohammed, said George, a resident of the western Siryan al-Jadideh district.
Their ferocity and fighting skills have made the jihadist Jabhat al-Nusra, which is also known as the al-Nusra Front, “the dominant force in Aleppo now,” eclipsing the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Liwa al-Tawhid, which once was the strongest brigade in the city, said another Aleppo resident, Mustafa.
Within Syria, Islamist militants are known not only for their discretion, but also for their selflessness in combat, prompting protesters Friday to urge the FSA to man the front lines instead of staying in commandeered quarters.
Maher, a former clothing shop clerk and resident of the FSA-held district of Bustan al-Qasr, took part in a recent protest against looting by rebels who he says have taken over the homes of many families who have fled the violence.
It is the radical Islamists’ low profile that residents respect the most.
“They do not approach the people,” according to Maamoun, a resident of the southern district of Kalasseh.
But it is also difficult to communicate with the fighters because “some have a different accent, and others we can’t understand at all,” he added.
Mustafa, a 37-year-old teacher, lives with his wife and five children in Bustan al-Basha, a stronghold of two jihadist groups and Liwa al-Tawhid.
“We never see them, except during rebel or army attacks,” he said. “Al-Nusra and Ghuraba al-Sham show up in the neighborhood as soon as the army attacks and then disappear once the fighting is over.”
Al-Nusra remains a murky organization to outsiders, with its fighters refusing to speak to reporters.
Unknown before the uprising broke out in March 2011, al-Nusra has said in videos posted to jihadist forums that it carried out most of the deadly suicide bombings in Syria, including in Aleppo, Damascus and Deir Ezzor in the east.
Its counterparts are two large jihadist groups, Ghuraba al-Sham comprising mainly Turks and fighters from former Soviet bloc countries, and Ahrar al-Sham (Free Men of Damascus), composed largely of Lebanese and Iraqis.
The quality of their weapons and access to funding also sets the jihadist groups apart from the Free Syrian Army.
“Most FSA fighters are young. Some are even teenagers and carry unsophisticated weapons,” said civil servant Abdullah, 32, who lives in the army-held Old City.
“But al-Nusra fighters are older and have modern weapons and bullet-proof vests.”
The differences in funding of the various factions was clear during the holy fasting month of Ramadan.
“Al-Nusra fighters were feasting on grilled meat to break the fast at sundown, while the Free Army guys had to settle for sandwiches,” said Abdullah.
According to Hossam, a 35-year-old journalist living in the Old City, both groups engage in kidnappings.
“The rebels do it for ransom to pay their fighters and buy weapons, but al-Nusra never needs to negotiate — they kill their hostages.”
The Islamists have nevertheless found growing support among the general populace, while the mainstream rebels have been accused of acting like thugs.
A telling sign of its growing authority is that al-Nusra often mediates in disputes between rebel groups, according to Mujahid, age 30.
“There were clashes for one month between rebels in (the southern district of) Fardoss, until al-Nusra took control of the area and shared out the booty, mostly guns and ammunition,” he said.
The U.S. State Department expressed concern Thursday over the influence of fundamentalist groups in Syria, including al-Nusra.
Spokesman Mark Toner told reporters that groups like al-Nusra are increasingly “a matter of concern” to Washington as opposition groups struggle to topple the regime.
CNN reported on Wednesday that the U.S. State Department is planning to blacklist al-Nusra within the next week, designating it as a foreign terrorist organization. Toner declined to confirm the TV network’s report.
“Although they make up a relatively small part of the opposition to Assad, we know that these groups, al-Qaida and their ilk, try to take advantage of exactly the kind of environment that Assad has fostered over the last year or so,” Toner said.
“We’ve been very clear that they don’t represent the will of the Syrian people. And it’s important that the Syrian people get a government out of all this that’s representative of their desires and aspirations,” Toner said. “They don’t, certainly, want to trade one dictator for another.”
U.S. officials told CNN the United States hopes to blacklist al-Nusra just before the so-called Friends of Syria meeting set to take place in Morocco on Wednesday.
The designation will aim to sideline extremist organizations in Syria while enhancing support for the new political opposition group seeking to provide a credible alternative to the Assad regime.