REYHANLI, TURKEY – While the emergence of al-Qaida’s Islamic State of Iraq and Syria as a major force in the Syrian civil war has caused deep concern for many rebels, one group’s fighters claim its presence has given them a popularity boost.
Until ISIS asserted its place in the war earlier this year, Jabhat al-Nusra had the reputation of being the most radical wing of the opposition seeking to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad. It was the first to claim responsibility for car bombings against government targets and was quickly designated a terrorist group by the United States.
But the newcomer, with its high proportion of foreign fighters, has eclipsed al-Nusra as it enforces bans on smoking, forces women to wear the veil, carries out public executions and clashes with other rebel groups in an attempt to gain control in opposition areas.
Kurdish groups control a large swath of northern Syria, and they are suspicious of Islamic groups that have moved into predominantly Kurdish areas in the chaos of the civil war. Clashes between their fighters and jihadists in northern and northeastern areas of the country have killed hundreds of people in the past months.
On Saturday, Syrian Kurdish gunmen seized a major border crossing with Iraq from al-Qaida-linked groups following intense infighting between rebel factions that raised concerns of a spillover, activists and an Iraqi official said.
The latest violence coincided with a visit by the U.N.-Arab League envoy to Iran, a staunch ally of Assad’s government, to press efforts for international peace talks aimed at ending the Syrian civil war, now in its third year.
The Kurdish militiamen captured the Yaaroubiyeh post in northeast Syria after three days of clashes with several jihadist groups, including al-Nusra and the ISIS. The border crossing point was under government control until March, when hard-line rebels captured it.
Amid concerns about the expansionist plans of ISIS, other groups are looking to al-Nusra as a counterbalance and have been teaming up with al-Nusra on the battlefield.
Al-Nusra fighters say the group itself is changing, benefitting from a drift of its more extreme members to ISIS and helping the group to present itself as a more mainstream — and more Syrian — force. That change comes amid an overall radicalization of the Syrian rebel movement and a weakening of moderate groups that has left the West wary of supplying support.
Abdul Kareem Dahneen, a 31-year-old from the northern city of Idlib who joined al-Nusra a year ago, said the group’s relations with Syrians have improved in recent months. He put that largely down to the departure of foreign fighters who traveled to Syria to fight for an Islamic caliphate and had different ambitions than the fighters who rose up to battle Assad.
“Of course this had an effect,” he explained. “Now with Jabhat we are more moderate with the people. The foreigners would see if you aren’t wearing a veil they might threaten to kill you. We would explain why it was haram (forbidden) and say you should stop. You make a choice.”
When ISIS emerged as a force in March, all the foreign fighters in his unit — 30 out of 40 men, hailing from places such as Chechnya, Tunisia and Algeria — left al-Nusra to join the group, he said. They packed up and started a new base less than 100 meters down the road.
He said the shift in perception of al-Nusra has helped make up for the drain in foreign fighters as Syrians who may have otherwise been dissuaded decided to join.
Mohammed, a 25-year-old al-Nusra fighter who would not give his last name, said he would have had reservations about joining the group before the foreigners left. “The very extreme foreigners went to (ISIS) and the Syrians stayed with al-Nusra,” he said. “We are Syrians. We refuse these extremists ways they are dealing with Syrians.”
Some rebel groups say they see al-Nusra as key to curbing ISIS’s expansion in rebel-held areas and are keen to reach out. Once focused on solo operations or on cooperating with the hard-line Islamist battalions, al-Nusra has been fighting alongside a much wider array of rebel groups in recent months.
“They can play a vital role,” said Rami Jarrah, a Syrian activist and co-director of the citizen journalist ANA New Media Association, whose Raqqa office was attacked and one of its employees kidnapped by ISIS last month. “We aren’t going to be able to take on ISIS without al-Nusra. Them being part of the solution is not crazy to us.”
Jarrah said al-Nusra’s designation by the United States as a terrorist organization proves a major hurdle to co-opting it in the fight against ISIS. But it is one that is unlikely to change.
Al-Nusra has claimed responsibility for bombings in Deir al-Zour and Damascus in recent weeks. Activists said it was also responsible for a suicide truck bombing that killed dozens in the city of Hama on Oct. 20.