London / Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat – Am Islamist group calling itself the Al-Nusra Front to Protect the Levant claimed responsibility for last week’s explosions outside of security installations in Damascus, however doubts have been raised about this claim of responsibility after Islamists announced that they had not previously heard of this group and are unaware of its motivations. Syrian opposition figures have claimed that this group is backed by the al-Assad regime, and that its main objective is to defame the reputation of the Syrian revolution.
A statement, issued on the Islamist “Islamic Shemagh” website, by the Al-Nusra Front, claimed responsibility for a “series of military operations…most prominently against the [Syrian] Air Force and criminal security branches in Damascus.” The group also promised further attacks in retaliation to crimes committed by the regime.
The statement said “soldiers of the Al-Nusra Front to Protect the Levant have carried out a series of military operations in a number of [Syrian] governorates against dens of the [al-Assad] regime, most prominently against the Air Force and criminal security branches in Damascus. We would like to inform the regime that our response to the crimes it has committed in Karm al-Zeitoun – the killing of families, their children, women and the elderly, as well as the rape of women – is coming soon, God willing.”
The statement called on the al-Assad regime to “stop your massacring of the Sunnis, otherwise you will bear the sins of the Nusayris [Alawites]” adding “what is coming will be even more calamitous, God willing.”
However a number of prominent Islamists have raised doubts about this group and its claims of responsibility. Syrian Islamist Omar Bakri informed Asharq Al-Awsat that “the Al-Nusra Front is not known amongst Islamists or mujahedeen; no [Islamic] scholar or mujahedeen has recommended any such group. As for any group that puts forward its literature, we must first be sure of it and its system of operations before…even if a scholar or mujahedeen has recommended it on the Syrian scene.”
He added “as an expert in Islamic groups and organizations, I can say that the only confirmed link to this group…is that the jihadist DAWN media group has published its announcement claiming responsibility for the Damascus operation. However it may take time to investigate what other Islamist groups sponsor it.”
Bakri told Asharq Al-Awsat that “personally, we could say that this group’s actions have preceded its words.”
Omar Bakri, previously informed Asharq Al-Awsat in an interview conducted in January that “neither Al Qaeda nor Salafist Jihadist groups have any presence in Lebanon or Syria” adding “there are many Salafist individuals and youths committed to the course of true Salafist, but they are scarred without organization or a leader that forge them in the same melting pot.”
For his part, Sheikh Abu Basir al-Tartousi, announced his reservations about this newly-established Islamist group. He said “I have never heard about this group…or anyone belonging to it. However my lack of knowledge about them is not detrimental to them, so long as they are sincere and genuine mujahedeen.”
Al-Tartousi, a well-known jihadist figure, revealed that he has some “reservations” about this group, and the video clip it released which announces its presence on the jihadist scene. Al-Tartousi said that his reservations centred on the fact that “all those who appeared, even the spokesman, were hiding their features, which does not fit a group who is calling for the defense of the people of the Levant.
He added “the people of the Levant – who are being targeted – have freed their hearts from fear… everybody is protesting and fighting with their faces bare, facing the bullets of the tyrant and his regime. So the question that springs to mind is: how can the vulnerable Muslim people fight tyranny with their faces bare, revealing their names and identity – even women are doing this – whilst those who want to protect them are hiding their faces and identities?”
For his part, Haitham al-Maleh, head of the National Congress in support of the FSA, accused the al-Assad regime of “standing behind this group and others, with the objective of defaming the reputation of the Syrian opposition.” Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, al-Maleh stressed that “the opposition forces have no connection with this group, which they would not accept for a second” adding “everybody knows that the [al-Assad] regime has ties to Al Qaeda and that it is responsible for sending its members to the Nahr al-Bared [refugee] camp in Lebanon. We do not target civilians; rather it is the regime that does this.”
Al-Maleh, who is also a prominent member of the Syrian National Council [SNC], also stressed that “the Free Syrian Army [FSA] might target governmental installations, but it would never target civilians, because its main mission is to protect [Syrian] citizens.”
FSA Colonel Khalid al-Hammoud also strongly denied that his group has any ties to the Al-Nusra Front to Protect the Levant, speculating that “the Syrian regime was responsible for these explosions, and for creating this group to gain a foothold on the ground.” The FSA official told Asharq Al-Awsat that “the FSA does not have political or religious dimensions, our members belong to all different sects, and we also do not have any ties – as some have accused – to Al Qaeda; we are also not Islamists or extremists.”
He stressed that “the FSA’s operations are as far as possible from harming civilians” adding “we do not support suicide operations…we abide by the rules of war and international conventions.”
Colonel Khalid al-Hammoud said that groups such as the Al-Nusra Front, if they truly are Syrian opposition groups, only serve to “harm the FSA, the Syrian opposition, and the revolution.” He added “there are some small groups on the ground that seek to kidnap figures and demand ransom…such groups have no ties whatsoever to the FSA.”
The official Syrian Arab News Agency [SANA] announced that “an extremist Islamist terrorist group calling itself ‘Jabhet al-Nasra’ claimed responsibility for the two terrorist bombings that took place in Damascus on Saturday. The aforementioned bombings claimed 26 lives and wounded dozens of civilians and law-enforcement personnel, in addition to causing massive damage to buildings, homes and private properties in the blast sites.”