The Al Nusrah Front for the People of the Levant, an al Qaeda-linked jihadist group that is fighting Bashir al Assad’s regime in Syria, and allied jihadist groups took control of the last major Syrian Army base in western Aleppo after a two-month-long siege. The base is believed to be involved in Syria’s chemical weapons program.
The Sheikh Suleiman base, or Base 111, fell to the Al Nusrah Front and “several Islamist rebel battalions linked to it,” a representative of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told AFP. Foreign fighters are also said to have played a key role in the assault that led to the fall of the Sheikh Suleiman base, while nearby units of the Free Syrian Army stood by and watched.
“Many of the fighters were from other Arab countries and Central Asia,” AFP said, based on observations from one of its reporters who covered the area. An estimated 300 to 400 Syrian soldiers defended the base before it fell to the jihadist alliance. Al Qaeda’s black flag of jihad was raised over one of the buildings on the base as the fighting took place.
The two other Islamist groups who fought alongside Al Nusrah were identified as the Mujahedeen Shura Council and the Muhajireen group, according to The Associated Press. The term muhajireen means emigrants, a strong indication that many of its fighters are from outside of Syria.
Some of the fighters who took the base are non-Syrian. One of the leaders involved in the battle to take the base identified himself to AFP as Abu Talha and said he was from Uzbekistan. Other foreign fighters said, “We are all mujahedeens and muhajireens.”
Captured base said to be part of Syria’s chemical weapons program
The Sheikh Suleiman base is rumored to be involved in the Assad regime’s chemical weapons program. The base “contained a clandestine scientific research whose purpose was unknown even to the rank and file,” AFP reported in late November, based on a claim from a soldier who defected.
US officials have expressed concern that the Syrian government has been preparing to use chemical weapons against the rebels after suffering a string of defeats throughout the country. The US is also training Syrian rebels in Jordan to secure chemical weapons sites in the event that the Assad regime falls, CNN reported.
The Syrian government has warned that rebels may also use chemical weapons after the Al Nusrah Front took control control of a chlorine factory in Aleppo last week.
Islamists hold sway over new rebel military command
The fall of the Sheikh Suleiman base to jihadist forces took place just days after the supposedly secular rebels established a joint military command that is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and individuals linked to the various Salafist-jihadist groups.
“Its composition, estimated to be two-thirds from the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies, reflects the growing strength of Islamist fighters on the ground and resembles that of the civilian opposition leadership coalition created under Western and Arab auspices in Qatar last month, France 24 reported.
Senior military officers who defected from the Assad regime as well as military commanders opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists were excluded from the joint command.
The Al Nusrah Front’s position on the newly established joint military command is unclear. In mid-November, the Al Nusrah Front and 13 other jihadist groups based in Aleppo rejected the Western-backed National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, and instead called for the establishment of an Islamic state.
“We declare our legitimate rejection of what came to be called the ‘national alliance.’ An agreement has been reached to establish a just Islamic State and to reject any foreign project, alliances or councils that are forced on us domestically from any entity, whatever it is,” according to a statement that was translated by the SITE Intelligence Group.
Al Nusrah becomes a dominant force in the Syrian insurgency
The Al Nusrah Front has by far taken the lead among the jihadist groups in executing suicide and other complex attacks against the Syrian military. The terror group has now claimed credit for 42 of the 51 suicide attacks that have taken place in Syria in the past 12 months. The group has also conducted numerous other attacks against the Syrian military and government.
The Syrian terror group is known to conduct joint operations with other Syrian jihadist organizations. In mid-November, Al Nusrah reported that it attacked a base in Idlib along with the Ahrar al Sham Brigades, and even shot down a Syrian MiG fighter aircraft.
The Al Nusrah Front is also known to conduct joint operations with the Free Syrian Army, which is often upheld as the secular resistance to Assad’s regime. On Oct. 11, Al Nusrah, the Free Syrian Army, and Chechen fighters overran a Syrian air defense and Scud missile base in Aleppo [see LWJ report, Al Nusrah Front commanded Free Syrian Army unit, ‘Chechen emigrants,’ in assault on Syrian air defense base]. In August, Al Nusrah said it attacked a police station outside of Damascus along with the Al Sahaba Battalion, a unit of the Free Syrian Army that operates in the capital [see Threat Matrix report, Al Nusrah Front conducts joint operation with Free Syrian Army].
Al Nusrah has become more appealing to Syrian rebels as the group’s fighters are better organized and have expertise from waging jihad in Iraq and elsewhere, and have integrated their operations with the Free Syrian Army.
Foreign jihadists have begun to pour into Syria to wage jihad against Assad’s regime. Fighters from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinian Territories are known to have been killed in Syria. Recently, two of Abu Musab al Zarqawi’s cousins were detained by Jordanian security forces after fighting in Syria.
Jihadists from the UK may be flocking to the Syrian battlefields as well. In mid-October, The Times reported that authorities had identified a Bangladeshi resident of London as the leader of a group of British jihadists seeking to fight in Syria. Scotland Yard seized computers and mobile phones from members of the group, which consists mainly of Londoners and includes seasoned Chechen fighters.
The US government is contemplating adding the Al Nusrah Front to the list of global terrorist groups, but some observers in Washington fear that designation would harm the overall insurgency.