When al-Qaeda-affiliate, Al-Nusra Front took over the provincial city of Idlib and other strategic towns in northwestern Syria, many political opposition groups and figures deemed the move as yet another blow to Bashar Assad’s embattled regime. However, the so-called liberation of Idlib City at the end of March was not only a defeat for the Assad army, but for the local population in the city itself.

At the beginning of their takeover, al-Nusra attempted to soothe the population by issuing several declarations, reassuring the residents that now that Assad was gone they would enjoy total freedom. However, several weeks into its rule in Idlib, some local leaders of the group were tried by its sharia court after they frequented the Christian neighborhood in the city and told its residents that they were “brothers” of Muslims. Moreover, the group suspended the broadcast of Alwan Radio, a community radio station based in Saraqeb, Idlib, confiscated its equipment and didn’t allow a popular weekly publication to be distributed in Idlib and other areas under its control.

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Such acts are not new to the people of Idlib province. The group has previously conducted public executions, whippings, and persecuted civilians in areas it has ruled in northern Idlib. It has also imposed strict social codes on residents, especially on religious minorities and women.

Since its founding in late 2011 – in the wake of Syrian uprising, al-Nusra has made clear that its ultimate goal in fighting Assad is to establish an Islamic state in Syria. The group’s early intentions were crowned with an endorsement by al-Qaeda leadership. The longer the Syrian civil war dragged on, the better environment it became for groups such as al-Nusra for gaining a foothold and expanding its influence in conflict-ridden sections of the country.

The vast majority of al-Nusra’s fighters are Syrians. This is where the real danger stems from. Al-Nusra has been seeking to invest in Syrian youth through a set of slogans that seem closer to the Syrian mainstream mindset. The group capitalizes on fighting Assad to build its base in every corner of the country. It is arguably the most disciplined Sunni group that is fighting the Syrian regime. This alone has helped al-Nusra make a name for itself among Sunnis who have been oppressed by Assad’s Alawite-dominated regime.

On the other hand, ISIS, for example, will always be alien to the Syrian population. This is true for one simple reason: the majority of its fighting force is non-Syrian. In fact, ISIS is not necessarily interested in garnering popular support. The group is more interested in attracting foreign fighters to join them. Syria is merely a provisional hub for ISIS where it can build the basis for its caliphate. Unlike ISIS, al-Nusra intends to perpetuate its establishment in Syria. That’s why popular support is essential for its survival. Also, the group tries hard to show that its agendas are purely of nationalistic intent.

It is true that the majority of Syrians are moderate, but so are the Afghans. In countries where violence is raging, it is more likely for people to become radicalized – regardless of who is fighting whom. Historically, extremist ideology has attracted supporters in war-torn countries more than any other competing ideology. And therefore, it is safe to say Syrians who are currently sympathizing with al-Nusra were likely moderate before the uprising began in their country.

What is extremely dangerous now is that many within the western-backed opposition support al-Nusra and its latest gains in Syria? The same groups that receive political and material support from the United States are now tacitly – and even openly lately – expressing their support for the terrorist group in Syria. Now that the US and its allies are preparing to train moderate Syrian rebels, they should bear in mind that such rebels can shift allegiance at any given moment, favoring al-Nusra over other groups.

Al-Nusra has been able to form an army of political organizations, aid groups and local councils that present the group in multiple fronts. This has become something of a façade for a group that is designated as a terrorist organization by the US. For example, a lot of the international aid that goes into Syria eventually falls to the hands of groups that are run by al-Nusra. This way al-Nusra takes the aid, distributes to its own population and takes credit for it. This only increases its popularity among needy Syrians.

In this unpredictable chaos, one thing is certain. Al-Nusra will remain relevant in the Syrian crisis, because it is made up of Syrians. As long as there is a political and security vacuum in the country, groups such as al-Nursa will continue to exploit the local population in order to pursue their different objectives. The lack of a real moderate representation for Sunni communities in Syria has allowed al-Nusra to position itself as the sole protector of Sunnis in the face of Assad’s cruelties.

For the US to see favorable results from training Syrian rebels, it should carefully vet these elements within the opposition. Just because one group is perceived as moderate, it doesn’t mean that its loyalty on the ground is unquestionable. Therefore, the US and its allies must work closely with groups that have already shown their determination to fight ISIS and Assad. Time is running out and the longer this takes the more complicated for Syria and for the region. 

 

Kajjo is Syrian Kurdish journalist based in D.C.