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    Jobar, a district of Damascus controlled by Jabhat al-Nusra militants (File)

    Forget Assad! US Should Focus on Al-Qaeda 'Building Proto-State' in Syria

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    Two radical groups that Russia considers terrorist organizations (al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda's offshoot in Syria, and its main ally, Ahrar al-Sham) have made every effort to create a proto-state based on Sharia law in Northern Syria, while the US has failed to address the issue, analyst Nicholas A. Heras wrote for the National Interest.

    "Beyond the [anti-Daesh] campaign, there is also a preventative counterterrorism campaign that needs to be waged in other areas of the country, as al-Qaeda and its enablers in the Syrian armed opposition seek to build a sharia state based on the teaching of influential global jihadi theorists," the researcher at the Center for a New American Security noted, referring to al-Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham.

    Active since late 2011, Ahrar al-Sham is one the largest rebel groups in Syria that has been fighting to oust the current government and establish its own state. It is said to have received assistance from Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

    Russia, Iran, Syria and several other countries consider Ahrar al-Sham to be a terrorist organization. In late April, Moscow asked the Counter-Terrorism Committee of the UN Security Council to put Ahrar al-Sham on its terrorist list, but the United States blocked the initiative.

    Moreover, a senior member of Ahrar al-Sham is said to have visited Washington in December. Labib al-Nahhas, foreign affairs chief for the group, reportedly met with lobbyist and experts on the Middle East while in the US.

     

    A man walks near damaged houses after Syrian rebels and the al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front took control of al-'Iss town, in Aleppo countryside, Syria April 2, 2016.
    © REUTERS / Ammar Abdullah
    A man walks near damaged houses after Syrian rebels and the al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front took control of al-'Iss town, in Aleppo countryside, Syria April 2, 2016.

    Formed in 2012, al-Nusra Front has been fighting to overthrow Bashar al-Assad and establish an Islamic state in Syria. Al-Nusra Front has been added to the UN list of designated terrorist groups and is considered as such by Russia and the US. It is estimated to have approximately 15,000 fighters.

    Last week, Russian Foreign Ministry's spokeswoman Maria Zakharova warned that al-Nusra Front frequently violated the ceasefire and was trying to draw those rebel groups that have agreed to uphold the truce into its terrorist activities.

    Al-Monitor echoed this sentiment, saying that al-Nusra Front "has intensified its own attacks throughout Syria, in direct violation of the ceasefire, sometimes in collaboration with other Salafi groups. Most notably, the al-Qaeda affiliate is reportedly seeking to establish its own 'emirate' around Idlib and is wooing Salafi fellow travelers to its cause."

    As a result of these efforts, al-Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham launched a joint attack on the Alawite village of Zara, located in the Hama province, killing 19 civilians. The Sana news agency described the tragedy that took place earlier in May as a "massacre."

    Militant group, members of Ahrar al-Sham brigade, one of the Syrian rebels groups
    © AP Photo /
    Militant group, members of Ahrar al-Sham brigade, one of the Syrian rebels groups

    "It is a matter of record, not speculation, that Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam have flourished and 'commingled' with [al-Nusra Front], as well as committing sectarian atrocities of their own," al-Monitor concluded.

    US Secretary of State John Kerry
    © AP Photo / Christophe Ena
    Despite mounting evidence pointing to the fact that al-Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham have become more active, the United States does not seem to be intent on stopping their ambitions of creating caliphates of their own.

    "The fact of the matter is that although the United States has provided military assistance to individual Syrian armed opposition groups led by 'trusted commanders' since 2012, reportedly via the CIA, it has not acted forcibly enough to leverage its influence within the rebel movement to prevent the development of an al-Qaeda proto-state in northern Syria," Heras observed.

    "Recognizing this reality, a pragmatic, responsible and forward-leaning US strategy in Syria will need to look less at Assad, and more at the threats that are developing within the Syrian armed opposition under the watch of the United States and its regional partners," he added.

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    Tags:
    terrorist groups, Islamic extremism, radical Islam, terrorism, geopolitics, Daesh, Ahrar al-Sham, Al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda, Syria, United States, Russia
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