The Free Syrian Army (FSA), the main opposition group, is losing fighters and capabilities to Jabhat al-Nusra, an Islamist organization with links to al-Qaeda that is emerging as the best-equipped, financed and motivated force fighting Bashar Assad's regime, The Guardian reported Thursday.
Evidence of the growing strength of the Islamist organization underlines the dilemma for the US, Britain and other governments as they ponder the question of arming anti-Assad rebels.
According to interviews the British paper conducted with commanders in the FSA, in some parts entire units have defected to Jabhat al-Nusra, and in other cases commanders sometimes lost a quarter of their fighters. According to the report, Jabhat al-Nusra agents operate within other rebel organization and identify potential defectors and pull them in.
"Fighters feel proud to join al-Nusra because that means power and influence," said Abu Ahmed, a former teacher who now commands an FSA brigade in the countryside near Aleppo.
"Al-Nusra fighters rarely withdraw for shortage of ammunition or fighters and they leave their target only after liberating it," he added. "They compete to carry out martyrdom operations."
Ala'a al-Basha, commander of another brigade in the FSA, claims he warned the FSA chief of staff, General Salim Idriss, about the issue last month.
Basha said 3,000 FSA men have joined al-Nusra in the last few months, mainly because of a lack of weapons and ammunition. He explained that FSA fighters in the Banias area were threatening to leave because they did not have the firepower to stop the massacre in Bayda.
"Fighters are heading to al-Nusra because of its Islamic doctrine, sincerity, good funding and advanced weapons," said Abu Islam of the FSA's al-Tawhid brigade in Aleppo.
"My colleague who was fighting with the FSA asked me: 'I want to know if I get killed in a battle, am I going to be considered as a martyr or not'? IT did not take him long to quit FSA and join al-Nusra. He asked for a sniper rifle and got one immediately."