Martin Chulov reports: Over the past six weeks a once co-operative arrangement between Aleppo’s regular Free Syrian Army units and al-Nusra has become one of barely disguised distrust.
A week of interviews with rebel groups in north Syria has revealed a schism developing between the jihadists and residents, which some rebel leaders predict will eventually spark a confrontation between the jihadists and the conservative communities that agreed to host them.
Some already talk of an Iraq-style “awakening” – a time in late-2006 as when communities in the Sunni heartland cities of Fallujah and Ramadi turned on al-Qaida groups in their midst that had tried to impose sharia law and enforce their will through the gun barrel.
“We’ll fight them on day two after Assad falls,” a commander said. “Until then we will no longer work with them.”
In recent weeks Liwa al-Tawhid and other militias who form part of the Free Syrian Army have started their own operations, without inviting al-Nusra along.
A raid on an infantry school north of Aleppo was one such occasion; so are attacks against Batallion 80 on the outskirts of the city’s international airport and a military base to the east, known as Querres.
“They are not happy with us,” the rebel leader said. “But they had been hoarding all their weapons anyway.”
Another significant issue for rebel leaders is what to do with state assets that have fallen into the hands of the opposition.
“They see stealing things that used to belong to the government, like copper factories, or any factory, as no problem,” said the rebel commander. “They are selling it to the Turks and using the money for themselves. This is wrong. This is money for the people.”
On Monday al-Nusra units went to a state-owned water factory on the Euphrates river. They invited regular rebel units to go with them as they picked through parts inside the factory for selling to whoever wanted them.
One unit did join the jihadists. Others refused.
“These are Syrian assets for Syrian people,” said a rebel commander who did not want to be named. “They see this as an open pasture for them to do as they please. Our job is to protect the state for life after Assad, not to destroy it.”
Money is flowing to al-Nusra. Members acknowledge that they receive cash from benefactors in the Sunni Arab world. But their coffers are also being filled with a garage sale of state assets, largely conducted by al-Nusra leaders.
A rebel unit pulled up on a main road in eastern Aleppo just up the road from the al-Nusra base. Pigeons circled over the city’s ancient citadel, which soared from a hilltop in the near distance.
Another rebel approached, this time to complain that young girls in his village had been pledged as brides to anyone who joined al-Nusra. “This is part of the employment benefits,” he said.
For now, community leaders seem to be able to say no to al-Nusra suitors who come calling, but fear these rights might be whittled away if the group consolidates its influence. [Continue reading…]