Numerous sources have confirmed to Al-Hayat that Jabhat al-Nusra has initiated a media campaign and is intensifying its military presence in order to win over popular support in various areas of northern and northeastern Syria. This comes at a time when two incidents of defection have been recorded from the ranks of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) to al-Nusra, as confusion spread among foreign fighters in Syria.
This all came to pass a few days after al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri announced in an audio message broadcast by Al Jazeera his decision to disband ISIS, while conserving the Islamic State of Iraq and endorsing Jabhat al-Nusra. This follows disagreements that erupted between ISIS commander Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and al-Nusra’s Mohammad al-Golani in April.
A report published by the Syrian Revolution General Commission stated that al-Nusra invited the inhabitants of Maarrat al-Nu’man in Idlib, in the northwest of the country, to attend a meeting to which activists and journalists were allowed access. The gathering took place in one of the city’s mosques, where one of the region’s religious leaders spoke about “the approach and doctrine espoused by members of Jabhat al-Nusra.” An audiovisual presentation of the faction’s most important military operations against the Syrian regime’s forces was also shown.
The opposition Zaman Al Wasl website reported that leaders of al-Nusra listened to the audience’s “essential fears concerning the organization, the problems that occurred between them and al-Nusra members, as well as ways to prevent such problems.” Talk also centered on Jabhat al-Nusra’s relationship with other armed factions fighting in Syria and “their future there once the regime falls.” The report also alluded to the efforts expended by al-Nusra leaders aimed at “restoring the image of jihadist organizations in Syria following the abuses and extremism suffered at the hands of ISIS.”
While some sources reported that ISIS forces “disorderly and rapidly retreated” during the night of Nov. 10 from the city of Raqqa, which has been under opposition control since March, eyewitnesses told Al-Hayat by telephone that ISIS snipers took to the roofs of tall buildings around the governor’s mansion used by ISIS as its headquarters in the city. The same eyewitnesses pointed out that al-Nusra fighters were now openly seen in the city for the first time since their role and that of Ahrar al-Sham and Ahfad al-Rasoul waned as the influence of ISIS increased there.
ISIS fighters previously stormed a number of other armed factions’ encampments in Raqqa and adjoining areas, in attacks similar to the one that targeted al-Nusra’s headquarters in the Hassakeh province city of al-Shadadi, in the east of the country. Furthermore, sources affirmed that after Zawahri’s speech, two “small defections” took place. The first was in Raqqa, where a group of ISIS fighters joined the ranks of Jabhat al-Nusra, while the second was in the al-Sakhour neighborhood of Aleppo, in the north of the country. This neighborhood has long been considered a stronghold for extremist fighters, including those who fought against the Americans in Iraq after 2003. ISIS seized the Aleppo Ophthalmological Hospital from Jabhat al-Nusra, transforming it into an administrative headquarters. They also captured al-Nusra’s military headquarters in the city of al-Dana, in Idlib’s countryside.
In addition, sources pointed to “great confusion” among the ranks of Syrian and foreign fighters belonging to ISIS following Zawahri’s communiqué. This forced them to decide between heading to Iraq through the Syrian border, or joining the ranks of al-Nusra and other opposition factions. Zahran Alwash, commander of the Army of Islam, which is made up of approximately 50 different fighting factions in Damascus, also opened a special office tasked with assimilating Arab and foreign fighters, whose number in Syria is estimated to range between 4,000-6,000 fighters, not including the Iraqis among them.
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