Al-Qaeda affiliate nearly gone from southern Syria, opposition says

While Islamic State forces have been gaining control of territory in northern and central Syria, the US terror-listed group al-Nusra Front has all but disappeared from the southern provinces of the country, an opposition spokesman said Monday.

According to the Free Syrian Army spokesman, who covers the Daraa province in southern Syria from a base in Amman, Jordan, the number of Nusra fighters in the provinces of Quneitra and Daraa, adjacent to the Israeli and Jordanian borders, has diminished in recent weeks from 3,000 to no more than 700 fighters.

“A large number of them defected and joined other opposition factions,” the spokesman told The Times of Israel in a Skype conversation from Amman. “There were differences in religious orientation, since they [Al-Nusra] are extremists, and we are moderate Sunni Muslims.”

Last July, Syrian opposition sources had informed The Times of Israel that as many as 6,000 Al-Nusra Front fighters traveled south to Daraa and Quneitra, fleeing the Islamic State which had captured the Deir el-Zour province in northeastern Syria.

Moderate oppositionists active along the border with Israel have tried to convince Nusra fighters to leave the area and advance toward Damascus. They have also launched an educational and religious campaign to draw local fighters away from extremist ideologies.

According to the opposition spokesman, 80-90% of al-Nusra’s fighters are locals who share the basic goals of the other rebel units, differentiating the group from the Islamic State which is more active in the north and is mostly composed of foreign fighters.

Tactical differences which had pitted Al-Nusra against other local opposition groups have largely been resolved, he said.

Al-Nusra fighters have now moved northward from the town of Muzayrib to Tel al-Jabiyeh, northwest of Nawa.

The claim by the spokesman could not be immediately verified by The Times of Israel.

Last month, the Free Syrian Army joined forces with al-Nusra in combating Jaish al-Jihad, a group affiliated with the Islamic State and led by Abu Musab al-Fanousi, in the town of Qahtaniya, located some 300 meters from the border with Israel.

The spokesman said the Free Syrian Army and al-Nusra have regained control of the town, pushing Jaish al-Jihad fighters 40 kilometers (25 miles) south to the town of Jamlah, where the IS-affiliated group Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade is based.

According to the spokesman, the jihadist group maintains a presence in the nearby villages of ash-Shajarah, Bakkar, and Ein Dhakar in the southern Golan Heights, along the Israeli border.

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