Syria's civil war: Will al Qaeda be the real winner?

A jihadist rebel group fighting against the Assad regime just joined forces with the global terrorist network

An Al Nusra fighter runs as the group's base is shelled in Raqqa province on March 14.
(Image credit: REUTERS/Hamid Khatib)

The leader of Syria's Al Nusra Front, an Islamist rebel group, pledged allegiance to al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri on Wednesday. The announcement came hours after al Qaeda's affiliate in Iraq said it had merged with the Syrian jihadists. Al Nusra, which the U.S. has already designated as a terrorist organization, has claimed responsibility for a rising number of deadly suicide bombings targeting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and his supporters. And the oath from Al Nusra chief Abu Mohammed al-Jawlani came after Zawahiri urged the Syrian group to replace Assad's government with an Islamic state, angering other rebels, who are fighting an ever bloodier civil war and hoping for free elections.

Reports of the merger between Al Nusra and al Qaeda in Iraq did not come as a shock. "There were numerous reasons to see al Qaeda's hand in the Al Nusra Front from the very beginning," says Thomas Joscelyn at The Weekly Standard. Clearly, the global terrorist network "has considered Iraq and Syria as one theater for war" since 2011, the year the uprising against Assad began. Still, this development promises to complicate the West's effort to help the Syrian opposition.

"The Obama administration, which took major criticism from Syrian rebels for tagging Al Nusra a terrorist organization," will be able to point to the now overt link between Al Nusra and al Qaeda as "final justification for its designation," says Jamie Dettmer at The Daily Beast. But this could mark a setback for the effort to arm and otherwise aid the rebels at war with Assad. The U.K. and France are "pushing to increase the flow of weapons to the Syrian rebels and for a European Union arms embargo to be lifted," but Germany and other European allies are resisting out of fear that the Free Syrian Army won't be able to keep Al Nusra from getting some of the weapons. Plus, now Assad has a way to support his "propaganda line that the rebellion is a foreign conspiracy relying on terrorists and foreign Jihadist fighters."

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That might just be the beginning of the new problems facing the anti-Assad side. With Al Nusra officially linked up with terrorists, the pro-democracy rebels have another fight ahead even if Assad falls. Already, Al Nusra forces have recently battled against rebels in the Farouq Battalions, who are thought to favor free democratic elections. "Rebel leaders in the north have grown increasingly wary of the jihadist group and have vowed to confront it," says Martin Chulov at Britain's Guardian, "setting the stage for a new phase of the civil war" in which the rebels fight over who will be left in charge once Assad is gone.

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