BEIRUT (Reuters) - Although al-Qaeda’s wing in Syria has rejected an international effort to halt nearly five years of conflict, its fighters have laid low, careful not to jeopardise the fragile agreement that has slowed if not entirely stopped the war.
Like Islamic State, the al Qaeda wing known as the Nusra Front is excluded from the U.S.-Russian “cessation of hostilities” agreement accepted by President Bashar al-Assad’s government and most of the groups opposing him.
On the eve of the truce, Nusra’s leader said attacks must be intensified: “We believe the only way to get rid of this regime is by fighting and not by truce,” Abu Mohamad al-Golani said in a voice recording.
Nusra fighters nevertheless have lowered their profile since the truce took effect, leaving some of their Islamic courts and reducing their presence at checkpoints.
“We’re not seeing them. Their movements are very limited. Some of them even withdrew to the Idlib countryside,” said Fadi Ahmad, spokesman for a rebel group in northern Latakia - an area where Nusra and other rebels have operated in close proximity.
“It might be because the people want a bit of calm,” he said, adding that his group had no contact with Nusra.
Nusra fighters contacted by Reuters, who spoke on condition of anonymity in an organisation hostile to Western media, said Golani’s speech rejecting the truce was meant as advice to other rebels, not orders to his followers to launch immediate attacks.
Nusra fighters are still certain the truce will collapse, but are keeping a low profile in the meantime so that ordinary Syrians will not blame them when shooting resumes, they said.
“We did not carry out any hostile acts and we will not do that because we respect the general decision taken by the rebels,” said a Nusra fighter in a town in northern Syria where the group has a presence alongside other rebel brigades.
“Even though we are convinced that it will not work and it is only a matter of time before it officially ends.”
Another Nusra fighter predicted the group would cooperate more closely with other rebels once the truce inevitably fails: “We are only part of this front and it is for the interest of the revolution.”
One source close to Nusra said another reason for the reduced activity was “opposition military setbacks”, which had made it difficult to carry out attacks. Syrian army offensives backed by Russian air strikes have forced many rebels into defensive positions.
Unlike Islamic State, which mostly holds territory in eastern Syria far from areas covered by the cessation, Nusra Front fighters are dispersed across western Syria alongside other rebel groups that have accepted the truce.
Many other rebel groups say they fear that Damascus or its Russian allies could use evidence of a Nusra presence as an excuse to resume fighting.
Al Qaeda-backed Nusra was once the most powerful Islamist group fighting against Assad. But its influence eroded somewhat after it split with Islamic State, which has declared its own “caliphate” and rejects the organisation founded by Osama bin Laden as no longer sufficiently militant.
Conflict with Islamic State weakened Nusra and drove many of its leaders underground. Still, its fighters remained a force to be reckoned with in Western Syria, where they have occasionally clashed with other rebels and crushed some groups that were backed by the West.
Rebels operating under the banner of the Western-backed Free Syrian Army argue that Nusra’s commitment to global holy war is against Syria’s national interest. Publicly rejecting al Qaeda is necessary for any group hoping to receive international support.
Attempts to encourage the Nusra Front to cut its links to al Qaeda have so far failed. Nevertheless, while the group has a large number of foreign fighters, Syrian insurgent sources say it is trying to present itself as more Syrian than before.
“We are working towards them disengaging from Qaeda and we hope that they do leave it. If the Syrians in the group do that, they would be serving their country in the best possible way,” said the head of one rival Islamist insurgent group, giving his assessment on condition of anonymity.
The let-up in fighting had given insurgents the chance to “put the house in order”, he said.
Additional reporting by Tom Perry in Beirut; Writing by Mariam Karouny; Editing by Tom Perry and Peter Graff