On October 10, the al-Qaida-affiliated jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusra announced that it and allied rebels had taken over Daraa al-Balad, the “old town” section of the capital city of Daraa province in southern Syria.
The city is divided into Daraa al-Balad and Daraa al-Mahata, the modern city. Al-Nusra’s local commander, Abu Abd al-Malik, gave a short speech in a video that showed rebel forces celebrating in the streets. This followed a day after al-Nusra announced the “liberation” of the Hajana army base located there, seizing quantities of weapons following weeks of effort.
Generic terms should not be used to gloss over what happened here – when Al Jazeera reported the operation, it repeatedly referred to the “Free Syrian Army” (FSA) as having scored a victory. But it did note that the two groups leading it were al-Nusra and the Islamic Muthanna Movement, a local jihadist group which, like al-Nusra, is entirely outside the FSA orbit. Government sources, emphasizing that the army was launching attacks on al-Nusra in Daraa al-Balad, emphasized only al-Nusra.
At no point has Daraa, strategically located between Damascus to the north and the main highway going into northern Jordan, had large swathes of territory fall to rebels as has happened elsewhere in the country. But a year ago the FSA-linked Daraa Military Council (Daraa MC) was the dominant rebel organization, with several dozen battalions having declared loyalty to it. Meanwhile al-Nusra also conducted sporadic operations in the province, without ever appearing to hold territory.
Jabhat al-Nusra’s preeminence in Daraa operations is clear now. In addition to taking the capital’s old city, Nusra was central to the takeover of the government’s customs offices near the Jordanian border in late September. It was more a symbolic than practical victory since Jordanian authorities will not let them use the crossing, but the groups involved were al-Nusra and its Salafist allies: Ahrar al-Sham (HASI), the Islamic Muthanna Movement, the Islamic Qadisiya Brigade, Bayt al-Muqadis Battalion and others.
In an unusually open interview published to coincide with the successful border operation, al-Nusra’s Abu Anas, the “emir” of the western part of Daraa, attempted to put forward an acceptable face for the group in the province. After discussing the border operation, Abu Anas emphasized al-Nusra’s cooperation with other Islamic groups and the lack of any desire to dominate areas freed from the regime. He talked about the Islamic court system established in eastern Daraa and explained how the justice was so fair that residents from western Daraa traveled there to have disputes heard. Abu Anas also distanced al-Nusra from summary executions, saying that Islamic punishments were meted out only after careful examination.
The Islamic Muthanna Movement is an exclusively Daraa-based Salafist group. Founded as the “Muthanna bin Haritha Vanquisher of the Persians Battalion” in 2012 – the historical figure having been a general in the 7th-century Muslim conquests – the group has moved from a minor to a medium-sized actor in the past five months. In May it promoted itself to being a mere battalion to a “movement,” and shortly thereafter two previously independent battalions joined it. Both used Salafist language and raised black-and-white Salafist-style flags with their names printed across the bottom, as al-Nusra does.
Islamic Muthanna’s choice of allies is consistent with this orientation. Aside from working with al-Nusra, a recent operation it announced on October 20 in Tafs (north of the capital) included an “operations room” that included the Aknaf Bayt al-Muqadis, a subunit of HASI, and three other Islamist groups. In another example from back in July, Islamic Muthanna undertook an operation near the border with al-Nusra and the Harmayn Brigade, another sub-unit of HASI. This is notable because nationally HASI is the closest of the major Salafist groups to the al-Qaida affiliates.
In a video reminiscent of the worst of jihadist propaganda, in March Islamic Muthanna published a video in which a member explained the fate of those who refused to defect from the regime. After giving the name and rank of an officer, the video showed his recently executed body, with cranial matter splattered across the side of the road.
The lack of similarly successful Daraa MC-linked operations raises questions about the efficacy of the mainstream FSA. Colonel Ahmad al-Naama, commander of the Daraa MC since mid-2012, was confirmed in the position on Sept. 30 after apparently settling a conflict with the FSA’s Supreme Military Council that dates back to June. But aside from minor operations they do not appear to be doing much.