Two brigades of the Free Syrian army that operate in Raqqah province have joined the Al Nusrah Front for the People of the Levant, one of two official al Qaeda affiliates in Syria.
The Raqqah Revolutionaries Brigade and the God’s Victory Brigade have pledged loyalty to the Al Nusrah Front over the past several days, Reuters reported.
The Raqqah Revolutionaries Brigade is said to have more than 750 fighters in its ranks. The size of the God’s Victory Brigade, which announced its merger with the Al Nusrah Front on Facebook, was not disclosed, but it is said to have “15 battalions.” Battalions often have anywhere from dozens to hundreds of fighters.
The two brigades were part of the Free Syrian Army as recently as Sept. 9. The Raqqah Revolutionaries Brigade and the God’s Victory Brigade, along with two other FSA brigades, formed the Raqqah Military Council over the summer, purportedly as part of an effort to counter al Qaeda’s influence in the province, Allvoices reported two weeks ago.
Before the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, al Qaeda’s other official affiliate in Syria, clashed with another unit belonging to the FSA’s Raqqah Military Council in July, the head of the council said that “[t]here is no conflict between the military council and any other armed group: Neither the Nusra Front nor the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham,” Allvoices reported.
After the clash, the Raqqah council mediated the dispute and hundreds of fighters from the FSA brigade abandoned the city. “The council itself was not party to the dispute, but it did communicate with both sides to help broker a cease-fire,” a spokesman said.
Syrian rebels and entire units are known to have defected to al Qaeda’s affiliates and allies. In May, a Free Syrian Army commander said that over 3,000 FSA fighters as well as whole units joined the Al Nusrah Front over the course of several months.
In March, a Chechen commander who leads more than 1,000 foreign fighters formed the Jaish al-Muhajireen wa Ansar, or Army of the Emigrants and Helpers, and integrated several Syrian fighting units into the ranks. The Brigade of Khattab and the Army of Muhammad joined the Muhajireen Army.
The merger of two FSA units with al Qaeda comes as the US and European nations are seeking to step up the arming of Syrian rebels in the wake of a chemical attack outside Damascus that is said to have been carried by President Bashir al Assad’s forces. But as Islamist forces continue to grow and are now dominating the insurgency, the ability of the US to properly vet FSA units and prevent weapons from falling into the hands of al Qaeda and its allies becomes more difficult.
Just yesterday, the Wall Street Journal reported that an FSA weapons and ammunition depot was raided by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Long-awaited shipments of US military aid to the rebels, including lethal weapons, began arriving in August. The Supreme Military Council , which has complained of the inadequacy of US support so far, claimed on Sept. 12 that it had not received any of the military aid. In July, an ISIL leader claimed that the FSA is selling it weapons.
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