The Al Nusrah Front for the People of the Levant, al Qaeda in Iraq’s affiliate in Syria, may be close to taking control of Deir al Zour, the last major city on the Euphrates River in the west. The al Qaeda group’s gains in the city take place just days after jihadists announced the formation of the “Sharia Committee for the Eastern Region” to govern areas under its control.
The Al Nusrah Front has seized control of several government installations in Deir al Zour, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a group that closely track the civil war, reported on its Facebook page.
“The Nusrah Front has taken over the National Hospital … which is in the al-Rushdi neighborhood,” in Deir al Zour “after violent clashes with regime forces; several of whom were killed,” the Syrian Observatory reported yesterday. “Rebels also took over the industrial institute earlier today after violent clashes with regime forces, several were killed there.”
The Syrian military is firing rockets and mortars into several neighborhoods, the human rights organization stated. The “bombardments” indicate that the neighborhoods are no longer under Syrian government control.
“The regime bombarded the Matar al-Qadim, al-Ummal, al-Huweiqa and al-Hamidiya neighborhoods, the Sitta ila Rubu’ area of the city was also bombarded. Clashes took place in the Sina’a neighborhood,” the Syrian Observatory continued.
The Al Nusrah Front and allied jihadist groups have been active in Deir al Zour. Late last year, the Al Nusrah Front banded together with nine other Islamist groups to create the “Mujahideen Shura Council” in the city.
The Mujahideen Shura Council in Deir al Zour was formed to “unite the ranks of the jihadi brigades in the Cause of Allah, organize the efforts and the attacks against the soldiers of disbelief and apostasy, and distinguish the ranks of truth from falsehood,” according to a statement released by the group in December 2012. The statement was obtained and translated by the SITE Intelligence Group.
“We call upon our sincere mujahideen brothers all over the strong Levant to unite their ranks in groups, pure of the filth of suspicious groups and the infiltration of people who have no qualities or faith, in order to clarify their banner and purify their path,” the statement continued.
The Al Nusrah Front in Deir al Zour is following al Qaeda in Iraq’s strategy to unite disparate jihadist groups. In the summer of 2006, al Qaeda in Iraq also formed a Mujahideen Shura Council to coordinate operations with various other jihadist groups in Iraq. Later that year, al Qaeda in Iraq formed the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) to serve as the political front, and the Mujahideen Shura Council was folded in under the ISI’s military wing.
Establishment of the “Sharia Committee for the Eastern Region”
The Al Nusrah Front and allied groups are consolidating their control over the Euphrates River Valley, while Al Nusrah is securing its lines of communications with its parent, al Qaeda in Iraq. The cities of Raqqah and Thawra are now under Al Nusrah’s control, and the group has established sharia, or Islamic law, in smaller towns, such as Mayadin along the river. Abu Kamal is under the control of the Free Syrian Army, but the Al Nusrah Front maintains influence in the border town. Abu Kamal has long been a rear base for al Qaeda in Iraq.
On March 9, the jihadist alliance in eastern Syria, which is led by the Al Nusrah Front, established the “Sharia Committee for the Eastern Region” to impose Islamic law.
“The Committee has taken the rights over the executive, legislative and judicial powers over large parts of the east of Syria: establishing a police force, courts, fatwa offices, overseeing humanitarian aid, and the role of guiding people on the right path of god,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported today.
Residents of Mayadin are protesting “the presence and control of the Nusrah Front over their community,” the Syrian Observatory reported.
The Al Nusrah Front is following the path of other al Qaeda groups in the region. For instance, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula created Ansar al Sharia, its political front, to govern areas of southern Yemen after taking control between May 2011 and May 2012.
Despite the Al Nusrah Front’s dramatic rise in Syria, the US government will begin to provide millions of dollars in aid to help Syrian rebel groups govern areas under their control. The money is being funneled to the Syrian Opposition Coalition and the Supreme Military Council “to provide concrete, nonlethal support to the Free Syrian Army,” the US State Department announced on Feb. 28
Both groups support the Al Nusrah Front. The president of the Syrian Opposition Coalition opposes the US’s designation of the Al Nusrah Front as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. The supposedly secular Free Syrian Army often fights alongside or under the command of the Al Nusrah Front. The Free Syrian Army and Al Nusrah have overrun Syrian military bases together, and they have even conducted a suicide attack in concert.