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Does Al Qaeda Really Control Syria’s Border With Israel?

For all the talk about jihadi fighters at the gate, the reality is a bit more complex

On the surface, it was another victory for Al Qaeda.

Months after ISIS made its advance across Iraq and Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra—an Al Qaeda affiliate—reportedly captured the city of Quneitra from the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Located in the Golan Heights, 15 miles from the Syrian-Israeli border, it was supposedly a new stronghold from which the terrorist group could control the region.

Al Qaeda, it would seem, was standing at Israel’s doorstep.

The reality, however, is a bit more complicated. It wasn’t Nusra alone that steamrolled Assad’s forces. In truth, a surprising coalition of six different armed groups—including both Islamists and moderates supported by the United States—carried out the takeover.

Here’s a list of the militias that took part in the offensive:

Jabhat al-Nusra

Al Qaeda’s affiliate on the ground in Syria, this group is ISIS’ main jihadi rival. ISIS was itself once part of Al Qaeda, but was notoriously kicked out for its brutal tactics.

Harakat Ahrar al-Sham 

One of the most effective rebel forces in Syria, it has close ties to Al Qaeda and has fought against ISIS on several occasions. It’s also a member of the Islamic Front, a fellowship of Islamist militias fighting against Assad.

The Jihad Brigades in the Golan and Quneitra

This little-known group appears to be ideologically sympathetic to Al Qaeda (at least based on its social media activity). Another militia in Iraq goes by the same name, but it’s unclear if there is any relation between the two.

Jama’at beit al-Maqdis al-Islamia in the Golan and Houran

According to As-Safir, an Arabic language daily in Lebanon, this little-known Islamist militia has ties to ISIS, and its fighters consist of Egyptians and Palestinians.

Syria Revolutionaries Front  

Also known as the Syrian Rebel Front, this is an alliance of 14 brigades from the Free Syrian Army that formed an armed opposition group together. Membership consists of defected Syrian military personnel and volunteers who have been fighting the Assad regime since 2011. The effort began in 2013 in hopes of serving as a counterweight to the newly formed Islamic Front

Fallujah-Houran Brigade

One of the Free Syrian Army’s most prominent brigades, the group was once led by General Mohammed Yasser Aboud. A colonel in the Syrian Army who defected two years ago to join the rebels, Aboud was killed in battle in Daara, Syria, not far from Quneitra last year

Clearly, not all of these groups are brothers in arms. In fact, some are bitter enemies.

In the lead-up to the advance on Quneitra, the groups announced their coalition—though it’s still unclear exactly why they decided to join forces. Certainly, there are strategic concerns. In addition to its proximity to the Israeli border, Quneitra is also 43 miles from Damascus and could link the various rebel groups to other highly contested battle fronts near the Syrian capital.

Whether or not these groups will remain allies of convenience and find a way to govern Quneitra together is an open question. Some may be regretting the alliance already.

When the coalition took the city from Assad’s forces, Nusra abducted 45 United Nations peacekeepers. In response, the Fallujah-Houran Brigade quickly condemned the move, writing online (captured in the screen shot below) that the group was “not related to the harsh violation perpetrated by one of the Islamic factions during the battle.”

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