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Al Qaeda Is About to Establish an Emirate in Northern Syria

After years on the back foot, the Nusra Front is laying the groundwork for al Qaeda’s first sovereign state.

Fighters from the al-Qaida group in the Levant, Al-Nusra Front,  stand among destroyed buildings near the front line with Syrian government solders in  Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp, south of Damascus on September 22, 2014. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says more than 180,000 people have been killed in the Syrian conflict since it erupted in March 2011, while the United Nations puts the figure at 191,000. AFP PHOTO/ RAMI AL-SAYED        (Photo credit should read RAMI AL-SAYED/AFP/Getty Images)
Fighters from the al-Qaida group in the Levant, Al-Nusra Front, stand among destroyed buildings near the front line with Syrian government solders in Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp, south of Damascus on September 22, 2014. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says more than 180,000 people have been killed in the Syrian conflict since it erupted in March 2011, while the United Nations puts the figure at 191,000. AFP PHOTO/ RAMI AL-SAYED (Photo credit should read RAMI AL-SAYED/AFP/Getty Images)

Al Qaeda has big ambitions in Syria. For the past three years, an unprecedented number of veteran figures belonging to the group have arrived in the country, in what can only be described as the covert revitalization of al Qaeda’s central leadership on Europe’s doorstep. Now the jihadi group’s Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front — having spent nearly five years slowly building deep roots in the country — is laying the groundwork for al Qaeda’s first sovereign state.

The Islamic State and al Qaeda use different tactics in Syria, but their ultimate objective there is the same: the creation of an Islamic emirate. Whereas the Islamic State has imposed unilateral control over populations and rapidly proclaimed independence, al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate has moved much more deliberately, seeking to build influence in the areas they hope to rule. This is a long-game strategy that the terrorist group began adopting in the late 2000s, first in Yemen, in 2011, and then in Mali, in 2012.

But the Nusra Front in Syria has proved the first potentially successful test case. After years of painstaking work to increase its sway in northern Syria, Nusra Front recently launched consultations within its own ranks and among some sympathetic opposition groups about proclaiming an emirate. Given the stakes involved, al Qaeda has recently transferred a number of highly influential jihadi figures from its central leadership circles into Syria. Their mission is to assuage the concerns expressed by other Syrian Islamist movements and those members of Nusra Front who, for now, oppose the idea of an independent emirate.

The presence of a militarily powerful and socially accepted al Qaeda emirate in northwestern Syria, led by several dozen veteran al Qaeda figures and heavily manned by local Syrian fighters, could have significant consequences for the Syrian crisis and for international security.

The formalization of Nusra Front’s power in northern Syria would harden the group’s stance toward Syria’s moderate opposition. Proclaiming an emirate would require the group to assert overwhelming control — including the imposition of a strict interpretation of sharia in the territories over which it would be asserting sovereignty. In all likelihood, incidents of capital punishment would dramatically increase, civilian freedoms would be restricted, and Nusra Front’s tolerance of nonreligious, nationalist, and civil opposition bodies would decline.

The international implications of an emirate proclamation would be even more significant. The combination of an al Qaeda emirate and a revitalized al Qaeda central leadership in northern Syria would represent a confidence boost for the jihadi organization’s global brand. Al Qaeda would present itself as the smart, methodical, and persistent jihadi movement that, in contrast to the Islamic State, had adopted a strategy more aligned with everyday Sunni Muslims. Eventually, the decision would be made to initiate the plotting of foreign attacks, using Syria’s proximity to Europe and al Qaeda’s regional network to pose a far more urgent threat than the group ever posed in Yemen and Afghanistan. Should the Islamic State continue to suffer losses to its territorial claims in Iraq and Syria, we might also see some defections to the emboldened al Qaeda affiliate next door.

How close is al Qaeda to proclaiming a Syrian emirate? Nusra Front seems to have slowed its emirate plans, at least temporarily, during Syria’s recent cessation of hostilities. That had allowed Syrian Islamist opposition groups to express their hostility to the group’s emirate plans. Some even raised the idea that Nusra Front should break its ties to al Qaeda in order to further integrate into the mainstream “revolutionary opposition.”

“For a short time, some consultation began outside of al-Nusra, but the response was very negative,” one well-connected Syrian Islamist said. “Syrians do not want an emirate.”

The influential Syrian Islamist continued: “Since then, al-Nusra has refocused the consultation to within its own community, as that experience made some of al-Nusra’s Shura Council want to wait longer [before establishing an emirate], while others say it is their right to do it now. It is a very difficult discussion.”

But now, with the cessation of hostilities effectively over and the political process in Geneva falling apart, Nusra Front’s leverage on the ground is increasing once again. The group is rebuilding a military coalition and plans to soon initiate major offensive operations south of Aleppo in order to spoil an attempt by the United States and Russia to introduce a truce in that city.

If such escalatory conditions persist, the West’s best hope of thwarting al Qaeda’s ambitions is to dramatically scale up assistance to vetted military and civil components of the mainstream opposition inside Syria. Nusra Front has acquired its influence in Syria precisely because more moderate elements of the opposition have received insufficient backing to compete with its battlefield power and capacity to control territory. That needs to change.

Whether we like it or not, the United States and its allies are now in an urgent battle for influence with al Qaeda’s most effective and successful affiliate yet. The consequences of ignoring, or losing, that battle are potentially catastrophic.

Al Qaeda Central comes to Syria

Veteran and senior al Qaeda figures began arriving in Syria in mid-2013, seeking to bolster Nusra Front’s leadership. The Islamic State’s aggressive emergence in Syria in April that year had resulted in the defection of a majority of Nusra Front’s foreign fighters to its side, spurring al Qaeda to reassert its jihadi “weight” there. Among the earliest arrivals were a third cousin of Osama bin Laden, Abdulmohsen Abdullah Ibrahim al-Sharikh (known as Sanafi al-Nasr); al Qaeda’s leader in Iran, Muhsin al-Fadhli; several veteran commanders on Saudi Arabia’s most wanted list, including Abdullah Suleiman Salih al-Dhabah (Abu Ali al-Qasimi); and major Syrian jihadi figures with decades of combat experience, like Radwan Nammous (Abu Firas al-Suri) and Abu Hammam al-Suri.

For al Qaeda, establishing a durable presence in Syria represented an invaluable opportunity. The country is close to Europe, shares a border with Israel, and can benefit from jihadi facilitation, recruitment, and logistical support from Iraq, Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon. Theologically, Syria also stands at the heart of many apocalyptic prophesies from the Hadith regarding the end of the world and armies of holy warriors emanating from its territories.

From mid-2012 until mid-2014, Nusra Front had emphasized its military contribution and aversion to corruption while downplaying its jihadi ideology. Syrians had therefore accepted and often even embraced its role on the battlefield, even as they privately expressed concerns about its long-term intentions. However, the Islamic State’s proclamation of a caliphate in June 2014 posed a substantial challenge to the jihadi credibility of Nusra Front, which until that moment had controlled no territory unilaterally, frequently cooperated with nationalist forces to govern areas, and was only imposing a bare minimum of sharia law.

In the time since, the al Qaeda affiliate has slowly revealed more and more of its extremist face while trying to avoid risking its accepted status within the mainstream opposition. Nonetheless, concerns about Nusra Front’s long-term intentions for Syria did begin to emerge among other opposition groups in late 2014 — around the same time that the United States initiated airstrikes against apparent Nusra Front cells allegedly planning attacks on the West.

This sparked the group’s partial “re-moderation” in late 2014 and early 2015, with al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri even secretly ordering the adoption, again, of a more moderate, friendly face for the organization and the cessation of foreign plotting. Nusra Front subsequently assumed a lead role in capturing much of northern Idlib province from Bashar al-Assad’s regime between March and June 2015, recementing its status as an invaluable ally to the revolution.

Nusra Front’s emirate takes shape

By mid-2015, Nusra Front had become a dominant military power in much of Idlib. Only the Syrian Salafi group Ahrar al-Sham wielded comparable power in the region. Despite having initially proclaimed its intention to share power and govern together with other civilian and military opposition bodies, Nusra Front soon launched unilateral attempts to rule over parts of Idlib city and the towns of Jisr al-Shughour and Ariha.

Despite local civilian resistance, Nusra Front has remained determined to establish its influence, steadily expanding the scope of its control. In particular, the establishment of the “Liberated Districts Administration” as a body in charge of a broad range of governance activities indicated the group’s intent to formalize its control over territory and population. By summer 2015, following Nusra Front’s withdrawal of forces from northern Aleppo, Idlib had quite clearly emerged as the center of al Qaeda’s Syrian project.

As Nusra Front attempted to consolidate its control in Idlib, bolstered by the newly arrived forces from northern Aleppo, perhaps the most influential living al Qaeda figure other than Zawahiri crossed into northern Syria. Having been released from an Iranian prison as part of a prisoner swap deal with al Qaeda’s Yemeni affiliate, former Egyptian special forces Col. Saif al-Adel was allegedly expressly ordered by Zawahiri to aid Nusra Front. “This is all part of al Qaeda’s plan,” a senior Salafi figure based in Idlib said. “Saif al-Adel is here to ensure that Zawahiri’s project in Syria is realized. Al-Sham has become everything to al Qaeda’s global strategy.”

Almost certainly traveling with Saif al-Adel were three other key al Qaeda figures, all of whose histories connected them to the movement’s highest levels of leadership. Of the three, two were Egyptian nationals — Abu al-Khayr al-Masri and Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah (also known as Abu Mohammed al-Masri). Both have been implicated in the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa; Abu al-Khayr also was a former aide of Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and happens to be married to one of Bin Laden’s daughters. The third individual was a Palestinian-Jordanian, Khaled al-Arouri, who is married to a daughter of Islamic State founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. If these three figures are still in northern Syria together with Saif al-Adel, then the significance of Al-Qaeda’s presence in Syria arguably now outweighs its presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

What’s clear is that shortly after Adel arrived in northern Syria, Nusra Front initiated discussion within its senior leadership regarding the group’s overall strategy and the feasibility of establishing an emirate in Idlib. The discussions were seen as so important that two of Nusra Front’s most senior figures in southern Syria were transferred to Idlib so that they could take part, according to sources speaking to this author. One, Sami al-Oraydi, was the chief sharia official in Nusra Front and thus the group’s de facto deputy leader. The other, Iyad al-Toubasi (known as Abu Julaybib), was one of Nusra Front’s seven founding members in October 2011 and had gained notoriety in the south for having led a covert assassination campaign against opposition figures who resisted Nusra Front’s influence.

Coming amid Russia’s intervention in Syria, Abu Julaybib’s arrival in northern Syria in late 2015 has been widely interpreted as a sign that Nusra Front is preparing for similar targeted attacks against any detractors of its emirate plans. “It’s a really scary move, to be honest,” a Latakia-based Islamist commander said. “Everyone knows what Abu Julaybib is capable of, and, given the circumstances, it can only point to one thing: more death.”

Influential Nusra Front clerics then began an informal consultation process with a small number of conservative sheikhs in Idlib, Latakia, and Aleppo to judge the appetite for the group’s plans. “They didn’t get the answers they were looking for,” the Idlib-based Salafist told me. “It was a big shock to them. They really didn’t expect it.”

Concerned by this early opposition, Nusra Front changed tack. In January, the group convened a meeting of leaders of armed groups in Idlib and proposed a grand military merger. In doing this, Nusra Front exploited its principal source of leverage over opposition groups: Although the vast majority of Syria’s opposition opposed an overt al Qaeda project on Syrian soil, the global jihadi movement’s Syrian affiliate remained an invaluable ally on the battlefield.

While some groups in the room indicated an interest in a merger, Ahrar al-Sham rejected the proposition altogether due to Nusra Front’s allegiance to al Qaeda. Two sources who requested anonymity claimed Nusra Front’s leader, Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, had used that initial meeting as a sounding board for his emirate plans, by meeting on the side with two smaller jihadi factions — Jund al-Aqsa and the Turkistan Islamic Party — both of which expressed their support.

Challenged by a fragile calm

Already discouraged by the early negative responses, the cessation of hostilities that went into effect in large parts of Syria in late February posed a second challenge to Nusra Front. As its influence in Syria was directly linked to its capacity to demonstrate value on the battlefield, the decline in violence catalyzed a dramatic re-empowerment of Syria’s moderate protest movement and the revitalization of the most moderate elements of the opposition.

In parts of Idlib, some protests even began to adopt slogans hostile to Assad’s regime and al Qaeda. In the town of Maarat al-Numan, Nusra Front’s patience wore out on March 11, when its fighters violently dispersed demonstrators and attacked the bases of the 13th Division, a Free Syrian Army (FSA) group vetted by the CIA and supported through a multinational command center in Turkey. The expulsion of the 13th Division from Maarat al-Numan sparked days of protests in Idlib and further afield, some of which (here, here and here) included leading members of Ahrar al-Sham. For the first time in several years, al Qaeda’s strategy in Syria appeared to have failed the group.

Nusra Front quickly identified the cessation of hostilities as a threat to its influence and set about attempting to undermine it. Beginning around March 20, the al Qaeda affiliate convened a series of meetings with armed opposition groups active in northern Hama, Latakia, and southern Aleppo, with the intention of persuading them that their interests were better served in fighting than in supporting the political process in Geneva.

“They presented some convincing arguments,” an opposition commander who attended one of the meetings said. “But mostly, it seemed we were being threatened: If we didn’t join the operation, we would be seen as an enemy.”

Three weeks later, simultaneous offensives were launched in all three operational zones — all led by Nusra Front. Within hours, Nusra Front had regained its status as a necessary opposition ally in its bitter and brutal revolutionary struggle, while the moderate opposition reassumed secondary importance. Remarkably, even the units of the 13th Division — which Nusra Front had openly attacked in Maarat al-Numan just weeks earlier — joined the offensive in southern Aleppo.

While opposition groups had felt under increasing pressure to retaliate against continued regime violations of the cessation of hostilities, it’s unlikely that they would have been able to mount a significant offensive in northern Syria absent Nusra Front’s military power.

“Don’t you think we would prefer not to have al-Nusra in our trenches?” one FSA commander asked. “They represent everything we are opposed to. Sometimes, they are the same as the regime. But what can we do when our supposed friends abroad give us nothing to assert ourselves? We rely on others only because we cannot do the job by ourselves.”

Now that fighting has resumed, Nusra Front has allegedly intensified its consultation process surrounding its plans for an emirate in Idlib. On al Qaeda’s invitation, Rifai Ahmad Taha, a highly influential Egyptian jihadi figure, crossed into northern Syria on April 1 from Turkey. Taha was a jihadi of serious repute: He was a founding member of Egypt’s radical al-Gamaa al-Islamiyya, suspected of involvement in the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in east Africa, and was a signatory of Osama bin Laden’s 1998 fatwa against the United States and Israel.

Though invited as an “independent” mediator, Taha in his job, according to three Islamist sources in Idlib and Aleppo, was to encourage unity within al Qaeda’s three circles of leadership (one other source claimed Taha was also in Syria to engage with those who advocated Nusra Front’s breaking of ties with al Qaeda). The first circle of leadership with whom he would engage consisted of Nusra Front’s core leadership surrounding Jolani, which had begun advocating a return to a “long-game” approach. The second included hard-line factions of Nusra Front’s military and religious leaders, who were pushing for the establishment of an emirate. And the third comprised an emerging and separate al Qaeda Central grouping, which wanted an emirate established as soon as possible, to serve as a stepping stone for a resumption of external attack plotting.

Stopping Nusra Front’s emirate

Taha, however, would not serve as a mediator for long. He was killed in a U.S. drone strike only four days after arriving in Syria. Alongside him was Abu Omar al-Masri, the former right-hand man of Emir Khattab — a Saudi jihadi famous for his leadership in Chechnya — who had been active in Syria as early as 2012. Since Taha’s death, Nusra Front has continued to very slowly expand the breadth of its consultation process, seeking to win some level of acceptance for its emirate plans.

Internally, the al Qaeda affiliate remains split on how fast to establish the emirate. In the end, developments on the battlefield may play a role in determining the outcome of these debates.

While a renewed cease-fire would likely spoil al Qaeda’s plans, a steady escalation of hostilities could potentially provoke a level of desperation within opposition ranks that may provide space for some limited level of grudging acceptance of the emirate. A rejuvenated version of the “Army of Conquest,” a rebel coalition including Nusra Front, now looks set to emerge in Idlib and Aleppo, as a consequence of the discussions initiated by the al Qaeda affiliate in January. This development indicates that some Syrians have already begun to tighten their cooperative bonds with Nusra Front, albeit out of a perceived military — and not ideological — necessity.

Given the resumption of fighting in Syria, and the corresponding rise in Nusra Front’s fortunes, the group will almost certainly follow through on its plans and establish an emirate in Idlib by the end of 2016. It is now up to the United States and its allies to determine which portion of Syria’s mainstream opposition is confident enough to resist such a move. The first step is acknowledging that the vast majority of Syria’s mainstream opposition rejects, in principle, the presence of an al Qaeda emirate in their country and the imposition of transnational jihadi objectives onto Syrian soil.

However, the West has not yet demonstrated its determination to provide sufficient support to the opposition so that it can offer a viable alternative to Nusra Front’s influence as a potential government in northern Syria. In the city of Maarat al-Numan, the 13th Division rebel group has been linked to local civil society bodies and a moderate judicial system headed up by several moderate Sunni sheikhs. However, these institutions weren’t powerful enough to effectively confront Nusra Front. And rather than offer significant help to one of its most prominent and popular Syrian “assets,” the United States simply stood by and watched silently as the 13th Division was attacked in Maarat al-Numan, and ultimately defeated, by al Qaeda.

There is still an opportunity to rescue some of this lost opportunity. However, it will require a substantial expansion of military, political, and financial assistance to a broad spectrum of Syria’s opposition. There are currently more than 50 separate FSA groups that have been vetted by the CIA, all of which operate in coordination with locally legitimate civil, political, and judicial bodies. In dramatically expanding its support, the West should embrace an “ink spot” strategy that empowers these opposition strands in tandem. The aim should be to establish a gradually expanding network of empowered, internationally backed, and genuinely influential opposition communities, whose individual successes empower the others and provide a barrier to al Qaeda influence.

If Western policymakers continue on their current course, however, al Qaeda will continue to advance along its path toward an emirate. Only by empowering local groups opposed to its transnational jihadi agenda can we avoid gifting northwestern Syria to al Qaeda on a silver platter.

Photo credit: RAMI AL-SAYED/AFP/Getty Images

Charles Lister is a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute and a senior consultant to The Shaikh Group’s Track II Syria Dialogue Initiative. Follow him on Twitter at: @Charles_Lister.