A growing jihadist presence in Syria’s opposition

Syria Deeply interviewed Hassan Hassan: How prevalent are jihadist groups in Syria? How naturalized are they becoming within their respective areas of control, and how are they changing the nature of the opposition?

Hassan: Well it’s worrying and I’m convinced that these groups are here to stay. Whether it’s the Islamic State or al-Nusra, they’re not going anywhere. But at the same time, the conflict isn’t going away either. It’s intractable, and I don’t see a resolution to it any time soon. But the longer these groups stick around, the more acceptable their ideologies become.

Unless we can begin to establish some sort of calm in Syria, nobody is going to turn against al-Nusra and think of them as a ‘terrorist’ group. Al-Nusra is fighting the Assad government, and it has been quietly establishing control of both Idlib and Aleppo, especially since the Russian intervention. They’ve made a lot of progress since March of this year in quietly taking over Idlib, establishing the group as a “kingmaker.” After the Russian intervention, it’s been clear that they’re trying to replicate the Idlib scenario in Aleppo. Slowly, al-Nusra is establishing itself as the dominant force in the area. That’s coming a long way considering local nationalist rebels had always dominated Aleppo. Some of them might have been Islamists, but they were still committed to Syria. Now, you have al-Nusra slowly benefiting from the deepening crisis, especially after the Russian intervention, and it’s beginning to achieve some of its goals. This is a consequence of the global failure to end this crisis. We’ve allowed groups to entrench themselves throughout Syria, whether it’s ISIS in southeastern Syria and elsewhere, or al-Nusra in northern Syria and elsewhere. It’s a direct result of the lack of vision and the disproportionate focus on what is and will happen in Damascus.

But give these ideas time and they will entrench themselves. That’s the simple formula. This is exactly what al-Qaida is trying to do. They always talk about themselves as a trigger for ordinary people to take up arms and to consider jihad as a way of life and the way to free the Muslim world, to put it back on the map. That’s their vision and that’s what they’re trying to do. Winning hearts and minds to convince people that they’re freedom fighters, not terrorists. They’re gaining traction in Syria, but they’re not yet mainstream. [Continue reading…]

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