BEIRUT, Lebanon — The relationship between Syria’s Western-backed rebels and Al Qaeda has always been complicated.
While the groups share a very different vision for the future of Syria, one thing they seemed to agree upon, until very recently, was that the removal of President Bashar al-Assad came above all else.
In contrast to the Islamic State, whose ranks swelled with foreign fighters with other aims in mind, Jabhat al-Nusra fashioned itself as a primarily Syrian group — and won the support of Syrians for its successes against Assad’s forces.
The group’s effectiveness on the battlefield made it difficult for the moderate rebels to distance themselves, despite their ideological differences. They could ill-afford to lose the firepower they brought, even less the support of Syrians who viewed al-Nusra as their savior.
This led to a rather awkward situation whereby rebel groups like the Syrian Revolutionary Front (SRF) — recipients of weapons from the US and its Gulf allies — were openly cooperating with Jabhat al-Nusra, an official branch of Al Qaeda and for so long America’s public enemy No. 1.
SRF leader Jamal Maarouf, upon whose shoulders the West placed their hopes of stemming the tide of jihadists in Syria, said earlier this year that fighting Al Qaeda was “not our problem” and admitted to carrying out joint operations.
Assad’s supporters seized upon the message as proof that there were no moderate rebels. The reality is that this cooperation was likely necessary for them to survive.
Either way, Al Qaeda is now very much Maarouf’s problem.
Following months of tension, the last few days have seen al-Nusra seize several villages from the SRF. Clashes began on Sunday in the village of Al Bara, south of Idlib city. Since then a further seven villages in the surrounding area have fallen to al-Nusra fighters, before a 48-hour ceasefire was announced on Friday.
There were reports too of clashes between al-Nusra and the Hazm rebel group, also backed by the West, on the outskirts of Aleppo city.
Speaking in a video uploaded to YouTube on Friday, said to have been filmed near the new frontline in Idlib, Maarouf addresses al-Nusra's leader Abu Mohammed Al Jolani, saying he had "tarnished the name of Islam."
"Why do you fight us? Go away, fight the regime!" he says, adding: "You are nothing; you are just like Baghdadi ... you bastard," a reference to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State (IS).
It is significant, if not symbolic, that the area captured by al-Nusra was ground that the SRF had won from IS in an offensive in January this year.
Many within the Syrian opposition now speak of al-Nusra as a “Trojan horse” for IS, and suspect the two are working together.
“There is growing cooperation between ISIS and al-Nusra, especially in the northern Aleppo countryside,” says Oubai Shahbandar, senior advisor to the Syrian Opposition Coalition — the official opposition-in-exile. IS is also known as ISIS or ISIL.
“Many of the commanders I have spoken to report that al-Nusra forces have on numerous occasions paved the way for ISIS to move in. Now al-Nusra is attempting to infiltrate the areas that ISIS once controlled,” he said by phone from Turkey.
Evidence of cooperation between al-Nusra and IS is hard to come by. The two groups were part of the same organization until Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri disavowed IS. They have become bitter enemies since, but have cooperated out of necessity in certain areas, such as in the Qalamoun region on the Syria-Lebanon border.
Nonetheless, the reframing of the battlefield by the moderate rebels gives an indication of the way things may be heading.
The loosely affiliated brigades of the Free Syrian Army applauded when the US began bombing IS in Syria in September because they were already in open conflict with the extremist group across the north of the country. But a number of the same groups spoke out in opposition when the US also bombed bases belonging to al-Nusra, ostensibly to prevent an attack on US soil.
It remains to be seen whether the ceasefire in Idlib between al-Nusra and the SRF will hold. As it stands, the beleaguered brigades affiliated with the Free Syrian Army face three enemies — Assad’s army, the Islamic State, and now Jabhat al-Nusra.
The US has held out on providing meaningful support to Syrian rebels in the past over concerns that those weapons could end up in the hands of al-Nusra fighters. Now that a clear divide between the two has appeared, will that support be forthcoming?
That's certainly what many are hoping.
“We are defending our existence,” General Muhammad Hallak, of the Syrian Revolutionary Front, tells McClatchy. Without more support from the US, he adds, “we will withdraw our forces from the front with the Islamic State and the regime and work only to save ourselves.”
In the meantime, Assad benefits from the chaos. With his enemies turned on each other, his army has launched a renewed effort to cut off Aleppo from the north.