McClatchy reports: Two al Qaida-linked rebel groups in Syria appear to be distancing themselves from each other in what may be an effort by the Nusra Front, which the United States has branded as an international terrorist organization, to remain relevant amid signs that major portions of the Syrian population are chafing under harsh rule by conservative religious fighters.
A series of incidents in which residents and fighters in rebel-held areas have protested what they say is a heavy-handed approach to a raft of issues have put Nusra and the other group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, on the political defensive even as the umbrella group of rebels that the West recognizes, the Free Syrian Army, comes under pressure by the United States to reduce the groups’ influence.
“The jihadists are rightly worried that the U.S. will demand action against jihadists as a vetting bottom line. They talk a lot about the FSA being recruited by the CIA to fight them,” said Joshua Landis, an associate professor at University of Oklahoma who’s an expert on Syria.
When the Obama administration agreed last month to supply weaponry to the Free Syrian Army’s Supreme Military Council, it quickly became clear that ensuring that those weapons didn’t go to Nusra or the Islamic State was a major condition of the aid, which nevertheless has been slow to materialize. Adding to the tensions has been the killing by an Islamic State member of a commander from a pro-Free Syrian Army unit in the mountains along the Syrian coast, allegedly in a dispute over a checkpoint.
In an effort to tamp down the perception that the Free Syrian Army was powerless over these al Qaida-linked groups, a commander in the area said the Free Syrian Army had demanded an arrest. The Islamic State’s response was to order the arrest and trial of the suspected shooter.
That hasn’t yet happened. “There has been no reaction from his group,” said Tasmim al Laathiqiyah, a member of the Khalwah Bin al Azwar Battalion, a rebel unit affiliated with the Free Syrian Army. [Continue reading…]