The rebel assault against Al-Assad’s rule has reached a new plateau in recent weeks with the ragtag group of disparately identified fighters working cohesively to launch major offensives in the two critical cities of Damascus and Aleppo. All signs hint at an outside injection of support, either material or physical in recent weeks.
An uneasy collaboration of allies seems to have emerged in Syria to push the rebels over the line to a victory against Al-Assad, now seemingly close to ending this now nearly 17-month conflict.
The United States, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey have all openly admitted to providing monetary or material support. Meanwhile the nation’s own Kurds seem to have emerged as the real tipping force in the standoff between the rebels and Al-Assad and with them comes the powerful support of Iraq’s Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani.
With such a large conglomeration of actors, what didn’t seem to be lacking was the mention of two regional groups that have been reported widely in recent weeks as being party to the aims of the US-Saudi-Turkey and Qatari collaboration, the Turkish-Kurdish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Al-Qaeda, with little evidence of truth.
A report published by the New York Times last week presented evidence pointing to an Al-Qaeda presence in Syria. The NYT report stated that Bab al-Hawa a critical border crossing at the Turkish border has become a “congregation point” for jihadist fighters. There has been no indication of any terms between possible Al-Qaeda militants and the Kurdish forces that have strong control over Turkey’s border and such a truce mean an unprecedented presence of Al-Qaeda fighters within the Kurdish region.
An Al-Qaeda presence along the Syrian-Turkish border would need to exist in complicity with the PKK, a group with deep roots in Marxist-Leninist ideology. The PKK along with Syria’s powerful Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the Iraqi Kurds have staunchly resisted influence by or aid from Islamic militants. Indeed, Iraqi Kurds were successful in keeping Al-Qaeda out of their region throughout the conflict in Iraq.
Still, there are signs that the PKK’s role in the Syrian uprising is limited. While the KRG and the PYD have taken active roles in providing support to the resistance against the Al-Assad regime, the PKK has been hesitant due to Ankara’s anti-Assad stance. While the PKK seeks more autonomy, it also has different objectives from its Syrian and Iraqi counterparts who seek significant independence.
Cooperation between Al-Qaeda and Turkish militants are even more dubious. Confidence is so high for Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad over that critical border being impenetrable foreign fighters that he has turned parts of the border region between Syria and Turkey over to Kurdish forces while he reinforces his military operations in Aleppo.
Cooperation regionally among the Kurds is relatively rare. The head of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq, Massoud Barzani, has enjoyed a 2-year relationship with the Turkish government and has revealed that the KRG has been training Syrian Kurdish fighters in Iraq, sending them back equipped to fight, however, the cooperation between the KRG and the PYD is unprecedented.
The new cross border control the Kurds are managing leaves even less room for a resurgence of Al-Qaeda. Still, a video that surfaced in February showing masked fighters sitting in front of two large black Al-Qaeda flags and calling themselves the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Suicide bombings and other Al Qaeda-style tactics by opposition forces have also raised concern surrounding possible links between Syrian rebels and terrorist organizations.
Then reports arose of a group calling themself the ‘Soldiers of the Omar Farouq Brigade in Syria.’ Omar Farouq was a top lieutenant under Osama bin Laden and was killed in Iraq in 2006.
A TIME report examines the role of the jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusra li Ahl Ash-Sham a group that has taken responsibility for some large attacks, including a February bombing in Aleppo that killed 28.
The ‘jihadist’ style militants can appear like a growing Al-Qaeda presence but while the group asserts its jihadist identity, it vehemently denies any connection to Al-Qaeda. Jabhat has a strong presence in different towns of the Idlib province.
“I am a mujahid, but not al-Qaeda. Jihad is not al-Qaeda,” said a young fighter named Ibrahim to TIME.
The distinction is significant for reasons other than just accuracy alone. The United States Treasury Department has issued a waiver permitting logistical and financial support for the FSA. The move brings the US Government one step closer as an active supporter of Assad’s opposition, and bears massive ramifications if the FSA does have ties to Al-Qaeda militants.
Chinese and Russian vetoes in the United Nations Security Council have hindered attempts by the international community to further pressure Assad. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov blasted the US Government’s reaction to the Damascus bombing as a “direct endorsement of terrorism.”
But there are regional players who have much to gain from painting the rebel movement as rife with the infamous Al-Qaeda brand. Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari stated earlier this month that, “We have solid information and intelligence that members of Al-Qaeda’s terrorist network have gone to Syria.”
Al-Maliki’s government has said he, along with Algeria’s Abdelaziz Bouteflika, will not support the currently being discussed Arab League exit plan for Al-Assad. Painting the rebels as Al-Qaeda works in his favour, not only in that it pits him against Barzani, a leader he does not see eye to eye with on many issues, but protects him from the criticism Al-Assad faces, which he is vulnerable to.
Al-Qaeda has publicly praised Syrian rebel fighters and has urged them to wage jihad in Syria against the government. However, a tangible alliance would necessitate agreements between the FSA, the PKK, or external forces such as the USA and Saudi Arabia. All of these actors have fundamental differences from Al-Qaeda, making it seemingly improbable that the terrorist organization would come to terms with any of these factions.
Reporting contributed by Namo Abdulla