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Adnan Ali

Fears of Nusra Front expansion in southern Syria

The Nusra Front has made significant gains in the north of Syria [AFP]

Date of publication: 20 April, 2015

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Analysis: Civilians fear that al-Nusra Front will take over large swathes of Syria's south following the group successes on the northern battlefields.

Recent clashes between Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions and the Nusra Front in the southern Syrian city of Daraa have fuelled fears Nusra might seize control of large amounts of territory in the south, as has already happened in the north of Syria.

Nusra took control of large areas in the north of Syria by incorporating or driving out rival rebel factions.

Jordan, which shares a border with Daraa and Quneitra, the southern governorates at risk of being taken over wholly or in part by Nusra, is also uncomfortable about this prospect.

Nusra's treatment of civilians and other fighters

According to Major Abu Abd al-Latif of the FSA-affiliated Yarmouk Brigade, violations by Nusra fighters against civilians and FSA militants had recently increased. Nusra fighters had attempted to interfere in people's daily lives variously under the pretext of implementing sharia (Islamic) law or at their own personal whims.

The recent assault on a woman from Daraa was not the first incident of its kind, he said.

Latif told al-Araby al-Jadeed that Nusra's violations were not limited to the civilian population, but were also committed against fighters of other rebel factions. Many fighters had been arrested at Nusra checkpoints or in raids on FSA-controlled territory.

We used to ignore violations committed by Nusra as our main focus is fighting the Syrian regime... However, our patience is exhausted.
-Major Isam al-Rayyis

According to the major, the majority of the Nusra fighters were from the Hauran area in Syria, but the leadership consists mainly of foreign nationals, mostly from Jordan, so its leadership has no sympathy with the objectives of the Syrian revolution.

The Nusra leadership considers its current alliance with the rebel factions a temporary arrangement, he said, which it would not hesitate to discontinue if that suited its interests.

Latif confirmed that there are no less that 35,000 fighters affiliated to FSA present on the southern front, compared to around 2,000 Nusra fighters. The latter are allied with fighters from al-Mathna extremist movement, of whom there are only several hundred present in the region. Nusra fighters, Latif said, have a minimal presence in the eastern area of Daraa and were mostly clustered in the western part of the province and near Quneitra.

Major Isam al-Rayyis, spokesman of the Southern Front rebel coalition group, said: "In the past, we used to ignore violations committed by Nusra fighters seen as our main focus is fighting the Syrian regime... However, the patience of the Southern Front fighters has been exhausted, especially after Nusra fighters assaulted an elderly woman and detained two of our leaders of the southern al-Tawhid Brigade."

Rayyis added that "these violations are occurring more frequently, such as arresting individuals without legitimate or legal charges and abuse against civilians."

Many southern factions released statements condemning Nusra's actions, he said, and the detained fighters were released by Nusra six hours later.

In a statement posted on his Facebook profile page, Rayyis stressed "the condemnations issued by the various Southern Front factions were not a declaration of war, but were mainly to attest the factions' rejection of heretical ideologies whether practised by Nusra, the Islamic State group (IS) and others."

The Nusra Front did not comment on these accusations. Sources with close ties to Nusra said it presently does not seek to annoy regional or international players.

An affiliated military source revealed factions in the south were trying to form a coalition, to be known as al-Fath Army (or the Army of Conquest) in Daraa similar to the coalition that took Idlib in the north. The source said Nusra would be an active member of the coalition.

Al-Manara al-Bayda (the White Minaret), Nusra's media network, recently aired footage of a prisoner exchange between the Syrian regime and the Front. The regime released a Syrian woman from the Masalmeh family from Daraa in exchange for a regime soldier. This may have been an attempt by Nusra to address the accusations about the physical abuse of a woman from the Masalmeh family, possibly related to the woman they released, by its fighters.

This is an edited article from our Arabic edition.

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