An expert's point of view on a current event.

Welcome to the Islamic State of Syria

Al Qaeda makes it official: The terror group is trying to extend its medieval rule from Baghdad to Damascus.

Jebhat al-Nusra
Jebhat al-Nusra

As soon as peaceful protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad turned violent in summer 2011, it was clear that al Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq — known as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) — would play a terrible role shaping Syria’s future. That reality was reemphasized on April 9, when ISI leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi publicly acknowledged that his organization had founded the preeminent Syrian jihadi group, Jabhat al-Nusra. Baghdadi then renamed their collective enterprise the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIGS).

Kudos to Baghdadi for confirming what has long been known. The United States had already listed Jabhat al-Nusra as an alias for al Qaeda in Iraq in December 2012, and the basic relationship between the Iraqi and Syrian branches of al Qaeda was easy to surmise when Jabhat al-Nusra officially declared its existence in January 2012. It’s no surprise ISI was quickly able to establish a foothold in Syria: The group had built extensive networks in the country since early in the Iraq war, and was reasserting itself in eastern Iraq, which shares a 376 mile-long border with Syria, in the years before the uprising against Assad began.

The relevant issue, then, is not whether Baghdadi’s statement is true. Rather, the important questions to ask are who made the branding decision, why the ISI acknowledged this relationship now, and whether the announcement will lead to changes in behavior by the jihadist group. In Syria, the looming question is how Jabhat al-Nusra’s open affiliation with al Qaeda will affect its relationships with other rebel groups fighting against Assad.

Perhaps the most interesting conclusion to be drawn from the creation of the ISIGS is that Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s titular head, still seems to be engaged in the operations of the terror group’s regional affiliates. The co-branding of the ISI and Jabhat al-Nusra was preceded on April 7 by an audio statement from Zawahiri urging Jabhat al-Nusra to establish an Islamic state and emphasizing the importance of the Iraqi branch of al Qaeda to that effort. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s subsequent declaration of unity — only a day or so later — suggests either a high-degree of coordination with Zawahiri’s PR team, or that he jumps quickly when the head man gives an order.

Zawahiri’s apparent ability to affect al Qaeda’s strategy in the Levant is somewhat surprising. In the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death, he is the world’s most wanted man, and a series of U.S. strikes on al Qaeda’s communication network after the bin Laden raid must have forced him deeper underground. Nonetheless, it is very hard to believe that the timing of the Zawahiri and Baghdadi statements are a coincidence. It seems that Zawahiri — like bin Laden before him — remains relevant to the operations of the network he heads.

But if Zawahiri’s continuing influence has been clarified, his judgment remains suspect. It wouldn’t be the first time he botched the terror group’s strategy in the region: In June 2006, he urged al Qaeda in Iraq to declare an Islamic state in a eulogy for the group’s slain leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. At the time, Zawahiri was worried that a precipitous U.S. withdrawal from Iraq would lead to internecine fighting among Iraq’s Sunnis, similar to the environment among Afghan mujahidin after the Soviet withdrawal in 1988. Zawahiri’s diagnosis may well have been accurate, but his prescription of an Islamic state was a disaster for the al Qaeda affiliate. The group tried to tighten its grip on governance, and in doing so hastened the Sunni backlash known as the Awakening movement, a breakdown that was also facilitated by extreme pressure on the al Qaeda network by U.S. forces.

Considering Zawahiri’s previous strategic thinking, it is easy to wonder whether his reasoning is similar when it comes to Syria. Perhaps the al Qaeda leader envisions that Jabhat al-Nusra and the ISI can forge a governing framework that will allow them to supplant their rivals in the rebel movement after Assad falls?

The answer may be simpler: Al Qaeda’s role in Jabhat al-Nusra is now widely acknowledged, making hiding behind localized branding no longer feasible. Considering that reality, it makes sense that the ISI — which fundamentally rejects the legitimacy of existing borders in the Middle East — would broaden its overt claim on territory, including parts of Syria.

The public unification of the ISI and Jabhat al-Nusra may not be universally popular — especially among Syrian recruits who were attracted primarily by the group’s military and organizational effectiveness, rather than its ideology. That may explain Jabhat al-Nusra leader Abu Muhammad al-Jolani’s disjointed statement released on April 10, in which he affirmed his allegiance to Zawahiri but rejected the idea of renaming Jabhat al-Nusra and reassured supporters that the group’s operations would not change.

Just as the ISI never threatened to control all of Iraq, the ISIGS is unlikely to attempt to control all of Syria. Rather, it will aim for the Sunni-dominated expanse between the Shia heartland in southern Iraq and the Assad-controlled highlands in western Syria.

Whatever Zawahiri’s rationale, this declaration carries risks for al Qaeda’s operation in Syria. In Iraq, the ISI earned a reputation — even among the Sunni population — as brutal and domineering. Jabhat al-Nusra has avoided some of those mistakes in the past year by collaborating with a range of Syrian militant groups, and has also effectively delivered specific services. But the declaration of an Islamic state will carry with it certain expectations from al Qaeda’s jihadi supporters, just as it did seven years ago in Iraq. One of those expectations is that the group will exercise control over territory — and that will mean confronting tribal groups and other Syrian rebels that may not be on board with Jabhat al-Nusra’s extremist vision. For better or worse, the reckoning between al Qaeda’s Syria affiliate and other rebels groups is beginning.

The unification of Jabhat al-Nusra and the ISI is likely to have a larger impact politically than it will operationally. The U.S. declaration that Jabhat al-Nusra was an al Qaeda affiliate may not have deterred states sponsoring militant groups in Syria; Those states will hopefully be more discerning now about which groups receive arms and resources. Perhaps most importantly, the range of militants — including some Salafi groups — that do not share al Qaeda’s fundamentally destructive worldview may finally reject the newly rebranded terror group. Such a development would be a piece of good news amidst the steady drumbeat of misery coming out Syria these days.

The United States, however, still
finds itself largely powerless to stop the terror organization. Washington simply does not have any good policy options in Syria, even though Jabhat al-Nusra’s new branding may lower the legal hurdles to targeting it with drones. Its strategy now must prioritize containing Syria’s unconventional weapons. Make no mistake, it would be a disaster if Assad transfers them to the Lebanese paramilitary organization Hezbollah, but it would be even worse if they fall into the arms of al Qaeda.

There are no euphemisms to conceal the human tragedy and geopolitical disaster that is unfolding in Syria. Bashar al-Assad must go for there to be peace. But so long as Jabhat al-Nusra remains the most powerful rebel group on the ground, Syria cannot even begin the hard work of rebuilding.

Brian Fishman is a counterterrorism research fellow at the New America Foundation.