An al Qaeda-affiliated Islamist group fighting in the Syrian Civil War has reportedly reached Israel’s Golan Heights border with Syria.
According to Reuters, the Syrian al Qaeda-linked al Nusra Front rebels have staked their claim to the land.
One of the fighters compared his current ambitions to those of former al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. It reminded him of the 1980s mujahideen, a group led by bin Laden that attempted to fend off aggression from the former Soviet Union in Afghanistan. “This view reminds us of the lion of the mujahideen, Osama bin Laden, on the mountains of Tora Bora,” he said.
The Reuters report showcases two-fold why it is strategically important for al Nusra to control the territory. For one, they are within striking distance of their “infidel” enemy in Israel. Secondly, al Nusra is gaining strategic ground, as they are getting closer to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s main stronghold in Syria’s capital of Damascus.
“The regime has rung alarm bells, fearing that the fall of Nawa and Quneitra could open an axis towards Damascus,” said defected rebel Brigadier General Assad Zoubi.
Ehud Yaari of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy weighed in on the al Qaeda group’s close proximity to Damascus. “It’s a much shorter distance than that required for a push to Damascus from the rebels’ northern strongholds. The southern front, contrary to all previous expectations, may ultimately be the crucial one.” He continued, “Coalitions of rebels are proving effective against regime outposts.”
According to the report, the United States and Arab allies such as Jordan, UAE, and Saudi Arabia have been searching for “moderate” rebels against Assad’s Syria to counter the influence of al Qaeda groups in the opposition. The forces deemed to be less radical than most, such as the Free Syrian Army, expect to be in receipt of western aid within a few weeks.
The report goes on to explain that the al Qaeda-affiliated al Nusra Front has become a much more effective fighting force than the moderate rebels who maintain a temporary alliance with them. A rebel commander claimed al Nusra fighters are better paid and better organized than their secular rivals, and that they are better positioned to control the several vacuums of power that have been created as a result of the ongoing civil war in Syria.
A former Jordanian army general weighed in on al Nusra’s strengths: “These Islamist groups have become the main actors on the ground. The Free Syrian Army has disintegrated so the expansion of Nusra in rural Deraa is natural and expected – though it was delayed because of the force of tribalism,” he said.