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The Middle East Channel

Al Qaeda’s Syria Problem

The situation in Syria is bleak by any measure. The Assad regime continues its onslaught against rebel held territory in the north. The humanitarian situation worsens as refugees and internally displaced people endure a brutal winter. For their part, the opposition forces have succumbed to infighting and splintered into an incalculable number of factions, the ...


The situation in Syria is bleak by any measure. The Assad regime continues its onslaught against rebel held territory in the north. The humanitarian situation worsens as refugees and internally displaced people endure a brutal winter. For their part, the opposition forces have succumbed to infighting and splintered into an incalculable number of factions, the bulk of which are dominated by the various strands of Sunni fundamentalism. The Western-backed Free Syrian Army has almost completely dissolved. The entry of two al Qaeda affiliates into the war, Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN) and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), seems to make the situation even bleaker. Many fear that the crisis has opened an opportunity for al Qaeda to exploit, similar to the way it established a foothold during the Afghan civil war in the late 1980s and early 1990s and today infests ungoverned spaces like Somalia, the Sahel, and the Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier. Syria is certainly a rich prize for al Qaeda. Though espousing an ideology of universal jihad, operations in sub-Saharan Africa, Central Asia, and elsewhere were always a consolation. The group’s overriding aspirations have always been in the Arab world, within striking distance of the holy places of Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem. More than that, Syria is also eminently obtainable. Unlike in Iraq, where al Qaeda had to go up directly against U.S. forces, or Soviet-occupied Afghanistan, in Syria the superpowers have vacated the field, allowing al Qaeda to fight on a more even playing field. Al Qaeda has been waiting for this kind of fight. Documents captured from an al Qaeda safe house in Kandahar in 2002 show that al Qaeda sought to learn from other militant Islamist organizations and paid particularly close attention to Syria’s failed Islamic uprising in the early 1980s.

Yet despite these preparations and conditions, which on its face are conducive to success, al Qaeda and its affiliates seem unable to capitalize on this opportunity. Rather, examining the trilateral relationship between JAN, ISIL, and al Qaeda’s central command (AQC) under Ayman al-Zawahri reveals a movement debilitated by personal rivalries, ideological conflicts, and organizational dysfunction. The result has been both military setbacks and general embarrassment. Although it is far too early to write al Qaeda’s obituary, recent developments suggest an overall waning of al Qaeda’s role at the vanguard of global jihadi movement. Instead of a site for triumph, Syria may well become a quagmire, especially for Zawahri and AQC, with long lasting consequences.

JAN announced its entry into the Syrian civil war with a suicide bombing in the center of Damascus in January 2012. Many JAN fighters were veterans of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the organization founded by the Jordanian arch-terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and which later rebranded itself the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). Eager to strike a blow against what it saw as the axis of Shiite heresy running from Hezbollah in Lebanon through Damascus to Baghdad and finally Tehran, ISI inserted itself into the Syrian conflict as well. In April 2013, the emir of ISI, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, announced that JAN operatives were considered offshoots of ISI and therefore under his control as the emir, or territorial commander, of Iraq and Syria. Yet Abu Mohammed al-Joulani, the head of JAN, immediately refused to accept Baghdadi’s authority and instead publically affirmed (for the first time) his allegiance directly to Zawahri. But Joulani’s resistance failed to stop JAN’s fissuring. By some estimates over half of JAN fighters joined Baghdadi and the newly renamed ISIL. In June Zawahri interceded, releasing a letter addressed to both Baghdadi and Joulani ruling against the merger and indicating that he would send an emissary to oversee relations between the two groups, but this did not dampen the controversy. Baghdadi publically rejected Zawahri’s ruling, while ISIL forces went on a highly successful expansion campaign. By December ISIL had seized control over rebel-held enclaves in the north and northwest, including the vital supply lines connecting Aleppo with Turkey. It fought any group that stood in its way, including other local Islamist groups, and even remnants of JAN. For a few months, ISIL imposed its own style of Islamic rule, brutalizing its rivals and intimidating aid workers and journalists. It appeared as if ISIL was more interested in carving out an Islamic state in already liberated areas than fighting the Syrian army. The situation came to a dramatic head in January 2014, when a coalition of rebel forces, including Islamist groups, routed ISIL from many of its strongholds in northern Syria. In some locations JAN itself joined the fight against ISIL, although it maintained that such engagements were strictly for self-defense.

Such visible and dramatic infighting between ISIL, JAN, and AQC is significant in a number of ways. Most obviously, from a military perspective, ISIL’s losses in northern Syria represent a set-back for any ambition of establishing a base of operations in the Levant. Indeed, al Qaeda’s efforts to infiltrate the region was impeded in large part because nationally-oriented Islamic movements have beaten back groups with a broad transnational agenda and an inclination for imposition of draconian rule on a considerably more moderate population. ISIL is hardly a spent force. It is too strong to be defeated by a still fragmented rebel opposition, especially as the rebels must continue their fight against the regime as well. Aversion among Syria’s Islamist groups to spilling the blood of fellow mujahideen also limited their assault on ISIL. The Islamic State’s strategic depth in Iraq enhances its resilience. Indeed, in a demonstration of its prowess, ISIL took advantage of opportunities on the Iraqi side of the vast Jazeera desert, retaking Fallujah as the heart of the emirate. But by turning on fellow rebels in Syria, ISIL has lost credibility and is facing accusations that it has been serving the interests, intentionally or incidentally, of the Assad regime. Moreover, its manhandling of civilians further alienated the population, making it harder to recruit followers and retain local support. Recent events also signaled that the rebels will no longer accept silently ISIL’s abuses, especially when it targets members of other opposition groups.

The implications for AQC are also severe. Never the elegant and charismatic leader that Osama Bin Laden was, Zawahri more and more appears weak and ineffectual, unable to assert his authority. It was not just that he could not stop Baghdadi from going rogue, but that he allowed Joulani to carry on his public griping rather than consent to a shot gun wedding that would have allowed everyone to save face. The Iraqi franchise has long been a problem for al Qaeda. As early as 2005, captured documents reveal al Qaeda’s leadership considered AQI so bloodthirsty as to harm its global reputation. The further evidence of Baghdadi’s defiance in Syria only further damages Zawahri’s reputation and causes more embarrassment to al Qaeda as a whole.

These matters of personality, though, are compounded by apparent organizational and ideological challenges. If AQC’s strategy rests on exploiting zones of state frailty, then it must be able to coordinate this engagement. But it is increasingly difficult for AQC, secluded somewhere on the Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier and hounded by drone attacks and electronic surveillance, to effectively command and control operations in dynamic and far-flung battlefields like Syria. Like any franchise operation, AQC is beset by the challenge of overseeing local operations, the classic principal-agent dilemma. Al Qaeda’s organizational expansion was not cost free. That some of the franchises did not fully share AQC’s ideology and were willing to use violence with even less discrimination aggravated the problem of command and control. The case of ISIL shows just how acute this problem really is. But to cut off ties with ISIL or otherwise punish it would risk giving up on a group that has managed over the last 10 years to build up a formidable military in the center of the Arab world, something al Qaeda has struggled for decades to accomplish. Zawahri still insists on mediating, rather than disciplining ISIL. Indeed, when Zawahri finally addressed the fratricidal violence in Syria on January 23, his statement focused on the trivial call for unity among all jihadi groups and reminding them that the objective they all share is the establishment of an Islamic state. But Zawahri’s statement avoided any direct reference to ISIL (or JAN). Overall, Zawahri appeared timid; his call for the Islamist opposition to establish a Sharia Committee to arbitrate in cases of conflict between the groups could be construed as an implicit rebuke to ISIL, but he stopped short of accusing ISIL for wrong deeds even while he condemned charges of apostasy among the mujahideen. It is unlikely that such hedging would help Zawahri establish order in the Syrian arena or bolster AQC’s authority over ISIL. Ultimately, if Zawahri ever decides to take a stronger stance against ISIL he may find that such measures are too late to reverse the damage. 

The problem of control extends from top echelon to bottom of the ranks. In its inception, al Qaeda was bound by common experience as foreign Arab fighters serving in the Afghan resistance. Al Qaeda jealously demanded undivided loyalties and total discipline. Its small size made it easier to guarantee its members’ full commitment and obedience. Yet foot soldiers that comprise JAN and ISIL do not share similar levels of discipline, common commitment, or experience. They are too young to remember the triumphs of Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1990s. Their most recent experience probably involves being driven from Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead of ideology, many of al Qaeda’s fighters — like other combatants in civil wars — are motivated as much by pecuniary interests as by political objectives. They apparently have no compunction about switching sides to serve whoever offers the greatest promise for plunder.

The devolution of responsibility to the franchises also poses a problem for al Qaeda’s claim to champion jihad on a pan-Islamic scale. Al Qaeda has always decried what it saw as the artificial divisions imposed on the Muslim world as an imperialist plot to weaken the ummah (community). Waging jihad in one country, the way groups like Hamas in Palestine has, is strategic malpractice that forfeits the chance to leverage Islamic unity and in effect succumbs to the illegitimate state system. ISIL’s spokesman presciently and openly accused Zawahri and JAN of seeking to reinforce Sykes-Picot, the secret deal between Britain and France to divide up the Middle East after World War I. In effect, ISIL called al Qaeda’s ideological bluff in its commitment to a truly transnational campaign. Even if there are compelling tactical reasons to support the Syria-centered JAN over ISIL and effectively separate the Syrian from Iraqi front of the jihad, this just obviates the need for a global al Qaeda organization in the first place.

A slim silver lining to emerge for Zawahri and al Qaeda from Syria is the revitalization of JAN. JAN in many ways represents the image of the "good Al Qaeda" that Zawahri seeks to project. Unlike ISIL, it has stuck to its strategy of collaboration with other Islamist groups and prioritizing the overthrow of Assad. Emphasizing the provision of social services, Joulani’s group did not rush to impose draconian Islamic rules in its territory. ISIL’s retreat clears the way for JAN’s re-emergence. Fighters that previously belonged to ISIL are now shifting their allegiance to JAN. JAN is well positioned to absorb not only fighters disgusted by the violence of ISIL but also by former ISIL members seeking safety from the assault against the group. An emboldened JAN has already demonstrated its new prowess, expanding its control in Syria and increasing its operations against Hezbollah in Lebanon. JAN is also well-positioned to play the role of spoiler in any settlement negotiated between Assad and the more moderate rebel factions.  At the same time, JAN’s strong standing within the Syrian armed opposition may well protect it from demands that the rebels renounce and even fight the group

Though ISIL may be irretrievable, Zawahri continues to seek to assert his authority over the various al Qaeda franchises. To reduce his command and control problem he named, in 2013, Nasser al-Wuhayshi, once Bin Laden’s aide-de-camp and the head of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as his second in command. But the combination of puritanical ideology, discipline, and global operational reach that had made al Qaeda so fearsome has lost its magic. While al Qaeda now depends on its franchises to sustain its global reach the incidents in the last few months in northern Syria show al Qaeda as ideologically compromised and operationally unruly. These kinds of contradictions and inconsistencies may well cripple al Qaeda as a movement.

The West can claim little credit for al Qaeda’s troubles in Syria. It was, after all, the vacillations of the U.S. and European powers about whether and how to intercede that contributed to the festering of the Syrian war and opened the opportunity for al Qaeda to establish a foothold in the first place. From a humanitarian perspective, the fragmentation of Syrian opposition forces will likely only lead to the continuation of indecisive fighting, both internecine among the rebels and between rebels and the state, which ultimately prolongs and intensifies civilian suffering. If al Qaeda has lost credibility because of its overreaching in Syria, then the United States can just as easily be blamed for underplaying its hand and allowing tens of thousands of people to be slaughtered.

Nevertheless, the United States can capitalize on al Qaeda’s stumbles. Rather than viewing al Qaeda as a unitary actor and assuming that its franchises are extensions of Zawahri’s reach, the United States should adopt a more nuanced view of the network and its disparate nodes. Exploiting the internal tensions between AQC and its franchises can help hamper al Qaeda’s quest for military victory as well as prestige. By reaching out to the more moderate Islamist factions that have allied tactically with JAN, the United States can help further divide ISIL and JAN. Highlighting ISIL’s abuses and linking them to al Qaeda’s larger strategy may help dissuade young Muslims who would consider joining the global jihad. By reducing the enthusiasm to become foreign fighters in Syria, the United States will also lower the threat of zealous returnees from the Syrian conflict. Ultimately, though, these tactical measures must be couched in a broader plan to promote security, stability, and prosperity to the millions of Muslims in the Middle East, the surest way to confront jihadism.

Barak Mendelsohn (@BarakMendelsohn) is associate professor of political science at Haverford College and a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He is the author of Combating Jihadism: American Hegemony and Interstate Cooperation in the War on Terrorism (Chicago, 2009). Ariel I. Ahram is an assistant professor of government and international affairs in the School of Public & International Affairs at Virginia Tech. He is the author of Proxy Warriors: The Rise and Fall of State Sponsored Militias (Stanford, 2011).

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