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Tensions over Al-Qaeda efforts for influence in south Syria

Resistance to Al-Nusra Front (JAN), Al-Qaeda's wing in Syria, has begun to escalate its efforts in the southern province of Daraa, after the group arrested moderate rebel leaders last week, among them the head of the Daraa Military Council of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

Ahmad Al-Nemeh, a former air force colonel who defected and current Western-backed head of the FSA Daraa Military Council, was presented to a Shariah court last week with four other rebel leaders. JAN operated the court under the name of The Shariah Board in the Eastern Region.

According to Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Al-Nemeh succeeded in uniting rebel groups in the province. The British-based monitoring group added that the arrest came days after Al-Nemeh's announcement of the creation of a new group, the Rebels Front of Southern Syria. In his second year as head of the Daraa Military Council, Al-Nemeh seeks to unite the rebel groups and has asked rebel groups to join the new front.

JAN later released a statement declaring it would arrest anyone who is part of the new front. A unified front of rebels would challenge the growing power of JAN.

"Kidnapping Al-Nemeh raised questions about Al-Nusra," said Mohammed Al-Owed, a native Daraa journalist and former director of the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) in Daraa.

Al-Nemeh appeared on Tuesday in a YouTube video confession, looking tired and bruised after three days of interrogation. It is clear that he had been beaten. In the video, he confessed that he surrendered the village of Kherbet Ghazaleh to the regime in response to the orders of western donor countries. Observers are skeptical about how accurate his confession might be, given that he is under the threat of JAN.

A snapshot of the YouTube video published by JAN of Col. Ahmad Al-Nemeh's confession.

The arrests by JAN have outraged the general staff of the FSA. A day after the arrest of Al-Nemeh the FSA released a statement that condemned the incident, described JAN as "climbers on the revolution" and stated their will to release the detainees.

Abu Awos, a media activist from Daraa explained to MEMO that the people of Daraa are divided into two: some in support of JAN because as they are frustrated with the lack of the effect the Military Council is having, and others who consider the incident an insult to the FSA structure in the area.

In the meantime, the head of the Syrian National Coalition Ahmad Al-Jarba visited the United States to welcome US recognition of the Syrian opposition as a "foreign mission". Days after JAN's actions Al-Jarba said in his speech in the United States Institute of Peace that "the coalition is against Al-Qaeda and we don't recognise Al-Nusra [Front]", he called on all foreign fighters to leave Syrian territories.

Since its appearance in early 2012, JAN has been regarded as a group made up of Sunni fighters but not particularly hardline extremist. Their first statements claimed that they were in Syria to help the Syrian people overthrow the Assad government with no aspirations in taking over power.

Soon after, they declared loyalty to Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri and JAN's objectives shifted to creating an Islamic state in Syria.

In the south, JAN is one of the powerful armed factions with enough money and weapons to support its soldiers and therefore an appealing option for Syrians who wish to fight against the regime. JAN gained even more support from the Syrian street at the time that they began to fight its rival, the Islamic State in Iraq and Sham (ISIS), a group rejected by the Syrian people for their extremist agenda.

Most of the rebel groups in the area, such as the Islamic Front's Ahrar Al-Sham, have good relations with JAN; FSA brigades also routinely cooperate with the group.

"Al-Nusra Front has strong popularity in Daraa because of its successful military actions," said Qaisar Habib, a 30-year-old media activist from Daraa. Habib believes that it is not wise to fight Al-Qaeda and the regime at the same time.

"Fighting Al-Qaeda in this time is a progress for Al-Assad and will exhaust the rebels," Habib added noting that JAN is a main player in the military operations against Assad's regime.

Al-Nusra Front's spoils in Daraa after a battle they had with regime forces earlier this month.

Photo courtesy of JAN's Daraa official twitter.

Last week, JAN said it would agree to the orders from Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri to stop attacks on its rival ISIS. "We announce our acceptance of the orders of Sheikh Ayman Al-Zawahiri to stop any attacks against ISIS while ensuring they do not attack Muslims," the group said in a statement.

"To this day, it [JAN] has managed to convince people that it is different from ISIS," said Al-Owed, who is now a political refugee in France and believes that the upcoming days will show "the rest of the enclosed strings". Al-Owed stressed that Al-Qaeda's existence in Syria came as a result of the lack of support from the international community.

Al-Mu'tasim Billah, a media activist who reports closely on the rebels, said there are concerns among the population in the south that JAN will begin to resemble the extremist group ISIS.

Now, many hold the belief that JAN will expand its influence in the region and follow in the footsteps of ISIS.

"My opinion about Al-Nusra Front: there are big fears in the future," said Abu Awos adding that the Syrian people have many sects and communities.

"We are with the moderate Islamic rule, not the extreme."

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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