Al Qaeda militants have seized control of a town in northern Syria near the Turkish border from the Free Syrian Army. The fighting between the two groups opposed to Assad prompted Turkey to close one of its border gates to Syria. The recent clash highlights not only the diversity of Assad's opposition but also the influence jihadist fighters are having on the conflict in Syria.
The news comes a few days after Obama waived federal regulations on American arms sales in order to send non-lethal military assistance to some of Assad's opposition. The U.S. and other Western countries have been hesitant to send lethal military assistance to some members of Assad's opposition because of the possibility that weapons sent to selected rebels could end up in the hands of Al Qaeda-linked groups.
After the chemical attack near Damascus last month the Obama administration tried to downplay the number of extremists fighting within Assad's opposition. While testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Secretary of State John Kerry said that the number of extremists fighting with Jabhat al-Nusra, an Al Qaeda-linked group fighting against the Assad regime, is not as high as had been previously estimated:
SEN. JOHNSON: How do we know that Hezbollah, because they've been so cooperative with the Assad regime—how do we know that they already don't have access to chemical weapons? Do we have any feel for that at all?
SEC. KERRY: I think we need to talk about that in our classified session. But let me just say to you that in terms of the opposition numbers, you see ranges up to 80(,000), 90,000, 100,000 in total opposition. You see ranges from—well, I don't want to go into all the numbers, but in the tens of thousands in terms of operative, active combatants. The—I've seen some recent data on the numbers of the extremists in al-Nusra. They're actually lower than former expectations.
Even if there are, as Kerry says, fewer extremists among Assad's opposition than previously thought it is worth remembering that rebels with links to Al Qaeda are among the most effective and experienced fighters within Assad's opposition.
From the AP:
According to Charles Lister, an analyst with HIS Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Centre in Britain, al-Qaida-linked fighters make up between 10,000 and 12,000 of the insurgency's estimated 100,000-member force but wield far more influence because of their better discipline and battle experience.
Jihadis "represent a comparatively small minority of the total insurgent force, but as a result of superior finances, organizational capacity and individual fighter subservience to tight command and control structures, they have been able to exert far more of an impact on the conflict than some larger and more moderate insurgent forces," Lister said in a statement.