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.