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The union with al-Qaida also poses risks for Jabhat al-Nusra.
Coming under the banner of a non-Syrian group could tarnish the group’s image in the eyes of some rebels and Syrian civilians, particularly if the group tries to impose its strict Islamic beliefs.
"It has the potential to backfire, and help marginalize the group from other fighting factions and from the civilian population," said Elizabeth O’Bagy of the Institute for the Study of War.
She said by email that the merger could prompt a growing number of Syrians to view Jabhat al-Nusra’s actions "as an outside imposition that is detrimental to Syria’s future."
For now, it is unlikely to undermine Jabhat al-Nusra’s standing in the eyes of the broader rebel movement, which desperately needs the group’s unmatched skills on the battlefield to defeat a government war machine that enjoys far superior firepower with its tanks, helicopter gunships, fighter jets and artillery.
Still, for rebels who favor a civil state in post-Assad Syria, the presence of jihadi fighters presents a dilemma: It helps their immediate goal of getting rid of Assad, but it hurts them politically to have a group designated as a terrorist organization on their side.
"Their thinking is ... ‘let’s deal with the problem right now of deposing the regime, and then take care of these rogue, radical elements later when we have international support,’ " Saab said. "For now, they need them. When everything is over, there’s going to be a huge fight over basically all of Syria."
Among those most concerned by the merger is Iraq, whose Shiite-led government has been trying for years to snuff out an al-Qaida-led Sunni insurgency.
In a column published Tuesday in the Washington Post, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki warned that a Syria controlled by al-Qaida and its affiliates "would be more dangerous to both our countries than anything we’ve seen up to now." He added that such a scenario "grows more likely by the day."
A top Iraqi intelligence official told The Associated Press in Baghdad that his organization has always known that "al-Qaida in Iraq is directing Jabhat al-Nusra." He said the groups announced their union because of "political, logistical and geographical circumstance." The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media, said Iraqi authorities will take "strict security measures to strike them."
Iraqi officials say the groups are sharing three military training compounds, logistics, intelligence and weapons, and are growing in strength around the Syria-Iraq border.
One of the most dramatic attacks by the group — and at the time the clearest indication of cross-border cooperation with al-Qaida in Iraq — came on March 4, when 51 Syrian soldiers were killed in a well-coordinated ambush. The Syrians had crossed into Iraq to seek refuge following clashes with rebels on the Syrian side of the border.
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