BEIRUT – The public pledge of allegiance to al-Qaida by Syria’s fiercest rebel group, Jabhat al-Nusra, ultimately serves the interests of President Bashar Assad’s regime, according to analysts.
“It’s a point in the regime’s favor because it reinforces the official narrative that claims (the proregime army faces) terrorist groups backed by foreign forces,” said Damascus Center for Strategic Studies head Bassam Abu Abdallah. “The opposition’s stance is weakened before Syrian and international public opinion.”
Abu Mohammed al-Jawlani, chief of Jabhat al-Nusra, pledged allegiance Wednesday to al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is calling for an Islamic state in Syria and the “restoration of an Islamic caliphate.”
“The Syrian opposition cannot justify to the Europeans the jihadist presence in (the country). What will it do after this announcement? It’s embarrassing for the West, which is calling for democratic change in Syria,” Abu Abdallah said.
The insurgency is composed of four main elements: The mainstream Free Syrian Army, which says it is fighting to establish a democratic state, the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front, the more hardline Syrian Islamic Front, and Jabhat al-Nusra.
Experts say the Free Syrian Army comprises some 140,000 fighters, while Islamists number around 8,000. But the Islamists are better equipped and have impressed Syria’s population.
After Jabhat al-Nusra’s pledge of allegiance, Abu Abdallah believes the regime will now go all-out on the battlefield. “It’s a green light for the authorities,” he said. “The situation has become clearer. We are going to see major change on the ground, and intensified military operations to finish this group off.”
In combat zones across Syria, troops and rebels appear to have reached a stalemate — except in the south, where insurgents are advancing.
But Jabhat al-Nusra’s move is mainly seen as damaging international public opinion.
“It certainly puts Western states who oppose Assad’s rule in a sticky situation,” said Charles Lister, an analyst at Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center. “The West has suspected . . . al-Nusra of having al-Qaida ties for a long time, and that may well be a key reason for not wanting to arm any rebel group.”
Despite the difficulties, rebels may have a tough time cutting Jabhat al-Nusra out of the picture.
“Al-Nusra fighters have acquired a reputation inside the wider insurgency for military prowess and impressive bravery,” Lister added. “They’ve been involved in nearly every single major rebel success in Syria since August or September last year.”
For Thomas Pierret, an Islamic expert, “all one needs to do is look at the Western media frenzy” to realize the resonance of al-Nusra’s announcement.
“Assad can logically conclude that his opponents’ ideological excesses are more worrying to the West than the tons of explosives he is pouring each day on his population,” said Pierret, a lecturer at Scotland’s University of Edinburgh.
Rather than embarrass the West, the announcement has only given it “a new, comfortable pretext to justify their inaction. Despite what they say, somewhat unconvincingly, they don’t really want to help the opposition,” he said.