Free Syrian Army fighters defecting to Al Nusrah Front

The Guardian reports that large numbers of fighters and even entire units from the Free Syrian Army are defecting en masse to the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. One FSA commander reported that more than 3,000 of the group’s fighters have defected to Al Nusrah over the past several months. Read the full article; here is an excerpt:

Illustrating their plight, FSA commanders say that entire units have gone over to al-Nusra while others have lost a quarter or more of their strength to them recently.

“Fighters feel proud to join al-Nusra because that means power and influence,” said Abu Ahmed, a former teacher from Deir Hafer who now commands an FSA brigade in the countryside near Aleppo. “Al-Nusra fighters rarely withdraw for shortage of ammunition or fighters and they leave their target only after liberating it,” he added. “They compete to carry out martyrdom [suicide] operations.”

Abu Ahmed and others say the FSA has lost fighters to al-Nusra in Aleppo, Hama, Idlib and Deir al-Zor and the Damascus region. Ala’a al-Basha, commander of the Sayyida Aisha brigade, warned the FSA chief of staff, General Salim Idriss, about the issue last month. Basha said 3,000 FSA men have joined al-Nusra in the last few months, mainly because of a lack of weapons and ammunition. FSA fighters in the Banias area were threatening to leave because they did not have the firepower to stop the massacre in Bayda, he said.

The FSA’s Ahrar al-Shimal brigade joined al-Nusra en masse while the Sufiyan al-Thawri brigade in Idlib lost 65 of its fighters to al-Nusra a few months ago for lack of weapons. According to one estimate the FSA has lost a quarter of all its fighters.

Al-Nusra has members serving undercover with FSA units so they can spot potential recruits, according to Abu Hassan of the FSA’s al-Tawhid Lions brigade.

Ideology is another powerful factor. “Fighters are heading to al-Nusra because of its Islamic doctrine, sincerity, good funding and advanced weapons,” said Abu Islam of the FSA’s al-Tawhid brigade in Aleppo. “My colleague who was fighting with the FSA’s Ahrar Suriya asked me: ‘I’m fighting with Ahrar Suriya brigade, but I want to know if I get killed in a battle, am I going to be considered as a martyr or not?’ It did not take him long to quit FSA and join al-Nusra. He asked for a sniper rifle and got one immediately.”

Keep in mind that earlier this year, the US government estimated that the Al Nusrah Front had more than 10,000 fighters in its ranks.

Despite the growing popularity of the Al Nusrah Front and mass defections of Free Syrian Army fighters and units to Al Nusrah, as well as top FSA leaders expressing their support for the al Qaeda group, the US government seems determined to fund the FSA and the umbrella Syrian Opposition Council, whose leader opposed the US’s designation of Al Nusrah as a terrorist group. With mass defections of FSA forces to Al Nusrah, there is no better way to ensure that US funds and weapons will fall into al Qaeda’s hands.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

Are you a dedicated reader of FDD's Long War Journal? Has our research benefitted you or your team over the years? Support our independent reporting and analysis today by considering a one-time or monthly donation. Thanks for reading! You can make a tax-deductible donation here.

Tags: , , ,


  • mike merlo says:

    one would think that by now the Intelligence Community would have figured out that our adversaries are quite proficient at Psyop’s, recruiting, ‘brainwashing,’ media savvy, technologically adept, etc., & adapted/adopted some semblance of applicable counter measures. A near Trillion dollar budget plus relations with a host of other Nations combating the same threat & ‘we’ still ‘behave’ like a bunch of clueless sycophants. What a joke!

  • larry says:

    That’s because no other rebel brigades are capable of consistently demonstrating battlefield competence. Forces loyal the Assad regime recently reestablished a land line to bases in the north after the All Nusrah Front left that region in the hands of other rebels to pressure Aleppo.

    They can only be in so many places at once unless their numbers grow and it seems rebel units of a more moderate political/ideological/religious persuasion may have come to similar conclusion and struck a deal with the devil.

    At least for now…

  • sundoesntrise says:

    The Al Nusrah Front is the MOST effective fighting force, yes, but to say that any other rebel brigades are ineffective is not true.
    Wide ranging brigades under the FSA gave Assad’s forces an extremely tough time before the Al Nusrah Front came around. People seem to forget these days that Assad’s survival can be pinned down to certain factors: The fanatical loyalty of his religious sect which is determined to stay in power at all costs; Russia, Chinese, Iranian and Hizbollah support; and Western inaction.
    Take those factors away and we would have already seen videos on Youtube of Assad being hung from a lamp post.

  • Will Fenwick says:

    The only forces we should be arming are those that we recruit and train ourselves with the possible exception of the Kurds in the north as they seem to be the only pro-western militia that has any level of competency and control over its own forces. If and when Assad and the Shias fall, Al Nusra will simply switch its focus to attacking the FSA and other pro-western groups to consolidate control over the country.

  • M.H says:

    Al Nusrah is working on winning civilians to their side. They are avoiding targeting civilians, minorities, and they have programs to support communities ravaged by almost two years of war. The aid work has won the group some support specially in the North and among rebel groups. They knew very well that the civilian support is very important.
    Some of the financial sources who support their social aid is financed by selling state assets and equipments. I think cutting the financial resources will impact the growing support.

  • DonM says:

    Well, if Syrians are leaving the FSA because they are not armed, then how does it follow that if they become armed through US assistance that they still leave the FSA – if not being armed is the reason they leave the FSA in the first place?

  • Moose says:

    The Guardian article reads like political propaganda advocating arms to the FSA. Here’s the last paragraph:
    “No one should blame us for joining al-Nusra. Blame the west if Syria is going to become a haven for al-Qaida and extremists. The west left Assad’s gangs to slaughter us. They never bothered to support the FSA. They disappointed ordinary Syrian protesters who just wanted their freedom and to have Syria for all Syrians.”
    The article also outlines the FSA’s willingness to implement protocols that will secure the arms it might receive.
    The article is a propaganda piece at a time when the EU arms embargo is about to end and our allies are increasing calls for greater involvement in the conflict. We’re going to jump on this bandwagon soon, just watch. It makes sense to me, but many of you are concerned. Here’s my reasoning:
    First, it matters what arms we give them (I don’t think we should provide surface-to-air missiles). Second, Jabhat al-Nusra is already flush with money and weapons, which is the primary reason FSA fighters are defecting to them. Third, it’s clear that we want Assad gone so we need to engage a group on the ground at some point. Fourth, the massive resources Iran and Hezbollah are spending on this conflict is to our advantage.
    Why not shape this conflict instead of sitting on the sidelines? The last time we allowed another country to provide arms on our behalf was in Afghanistan. Pakistan sent those arms to the most radical elements in Afghanistan and created the Taliban. Do you really want the Saudis and Qataris shaping this conflict? I say we help the FSA take out Assad and then unleash a massive drone and special ops campaign on the al-Nusra Front.

  • Neo says:

    As I see it, Syria is no longer about leveraging the civil war within the country, or even having a preference for either side. It is about containment, dealing with fallout from both sides, and dealing with the victor at the end, if there is a clear victor. I see staying out of Syria as more of a practical than a moral imperative, and staying out doesn’t have to be a strict imperative either. If situations arise that truly beg intervention, than so be it. Always keeping in mind one only wants to venture so far into the morass.
    ( I don’t share this view on Afghanistan. I believe a containment policy in Afghanistan is next to impossible if we bug out completely.)

  • Tunde says:

    The rebels are losing and everyone knows it. Kerry going to Putin for Russia’s support for negotiations has only strengthened the suspicion that the rebels will not triumph. It would be interesting to get an assessment of how the Quds force and Hiz’bullah helped reorganize Assad’s forces to more effectively combat the rebels.

  • sundoesntrise says:

    “The rebels are losing and everyone knows it.”
    The only reason Assad is still around is because outside foreign help, bolstering his army.
    You need to do a little better in hiding your biased views. The rebels still control more territory nationwide than Assad’s forces do. Amusing how the same people that are opposed to foreign intervention in Syria, such as yourself, seem to have literally no problem with the government using foreign forces of their own to squash a rebellion and slaughter the citizens of Syria.
    “Kerry going to Putin for Russia’s support for negotiations has only strengthened the suspicion that the rebels will not triumph.”
    Wrong. Kerry went to Putin because the U.S. is taking a step back, they are very cautious about Al Nusra now and they do not want to get in another cold war standoff with Russia over Syria. They are keeping their distance from the conflict because they do not want to risk losing their already strained relationship with Russia over this war.
    “It would be interesting to get an assessment of how the Quds force and Hiz’bullah helped reorganize Assad’s forces to more effectively combat the rebels.”
    Well, you could always use the world wide web to find that out. A town in the south was taken, and Al Qusayr is under a huge siege right now by those forces you speak of. They are intervening in key spots to help maintain Assad’s grip on power, opening up supply lines and keeping his Alawite heartland safe just in case they need to fall back there. Once again, the hypocrisy of anti-interventionists is amusing considering the only reason the Assad government is still in power is because of outside forces.

  • blert says:

    It’s so simple it’s embarrassing: they turned the fight over to the fanatical IRGC — and the al Qods crew.
    The secondary explosions the other day may give you some idea of just how much has been imported by way of the Damascus air bridge.
    Should it be shut down, Assad would be back in a fix.
    As for the fanatics gaining strength — don’t be surprised that — in the fullness of time — it turns out that they’ve been funded (and deviously directed) by Moscow and Tehran.
    Both know that al-Nusra poisons the well. Duh.
    The dunces in Syria — not so much.
    The NATO powers couldn’t think this far ahead.
    (The CIA found out that Tehran was constantly involved in the Iraqi campaigns — funding and inciting the SUNNIS — AQ in Iraq, in particular.)
    General Stanley A. McChrystal put an end to their top asset: Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Until that moment, Tehran had the Sunnis led around by the nose.
    It was not for nothing that Zarqawi spent so much energy killing all traditional Sunni tribal leaders. Without his organization, the Shi’ites in Tehran couldn’t touch them.
    In the meantime, he was stirring up the Shia — creating optimal fervor among the faithful. In direct consequence, the Sunnis were driven out of countless central districts of Iraq — sectarian cleansing.
    He did all of this — and on the cheap, too. All that Tehran had to do was keep him in clover. (Couriers were given free passage through Iran; AQ free room and board.) Then the raging bull would break every piece of China in the shop.
    It is always the case that the mullahs are willing to fight to the last Sunni — and to use cut-outs at every turn lest it become idiot obvious that they’re taking pot shots at NATO.
    Iran fully understands that when Assad falls they’ll be the next fall guy.
    Fracking is destroying their customer prospects. The correlation of forces is moving in the wrong direction.

  • blert says:
    A worthwhile read. ^^^^
    Israel is not prepared to tolerate Syria as an IRGC direct asset.
    The influx of Iranian ‘talent’ has to come to a halt.
    Assad is no longer a master of events — he can’t even protect his own throne.
    On the money front: Assad has to be absolutely broke.
    The only player covering his tab is Iran. Unlike the Soviets, Putin is unwilling to give his military equipment away.


Islamic state



Al shabaab

Boko Haram