The Islamic State’s main rival has just broken ties with al Qaeda, but don't expect it to moderate its jihadi goals. It's actually laying a trap for the United States.
- By Charles ListerCharles 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.
The jihadi group Jabhat al-Nusra announced on July 28 that it had severed all ties to al Qaeda and established a new movement in Syria: Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, or “the Front for the Conquest of the Levant.” The unprecedented move was formally sanctioned by al Qaeda’s senior leadership and comes as the group has also revealed its leader’s identity for the first time.
In a video statement televised simultaneously on pro-opposition Orient News and on Al Jazeera, Jabhat al-Nusra leader Abu Mohammed al-Jolani — whose real name was separately revealed to be Ahmed Hussein al-Shara — presented the split as one driven by a desire “to form a unified body” of Islamist forces and to bring together the disparate factions of Syria’s revolution to best ensure the credible defense of Islam from attack. Continuing a long-held theme, Jolani introduced Jabhat Fateh al-Sham as a movement that would exist to “protect” and to “serve,” rather than to rule or oppress. He also said that the international community’s increasing attention to the group, due to its al Qaeda links, was a reason for “the complete cancellation of all operations under the name of Jabhat al-Nusra.”
Nobody should be confused by this maneuver: Jabhat al-Nusra, which is also known as the Nusra Front, remains as potentially dangerous, and as radical, as ever. In severing its ties to al Qaeda, the organization is more clearly than ever demonstrating its long-game approach to Syria, in which it seeks to embed within revolutionary dynamics and encourage Islamist unity to outsmart its enemies, both near and far. In this sense, the Nusra Front (and now Jabhat Fateh al-Sham) differ markedly from the Islamic State, which has consistently acted alone and in outright competition with other Islamist armed factions. Instead of unity, the Islamic State explicitly seeks division.
Ultimately, while this may be a change in name and formal affiliation, Jolani’s group will remain largely the same. Therefore, this is by no means a loss to al Qaeda. In fact, it is merely the latest reflection of a new and far more potentially effective method of jihad focused on collective, gradualist, and flexible action. Its goal is to achieve recurring tactical gains that one day will amount to a substantial strategic victory: the establishment of an Islamic emirate with sufficient popular acceptance or support.
Al Qaeda’s central leadership has played a significant role in determining the trajectory of this move, which was underlined in the sequencing of the announcement. Six hours before Abu Mohammed al-Jolani appeared on television, Nusra Front media wing al-Manara al-Bayda (the White Minaret) published an audio statement in which al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and his deputy, Ahmed Hassan (Abu al-Khayr), gave their public blessings for the severance of ties. “The bonds of Islamic brotherhood are stronger than any obsolete links between organizations,” Zawahiri said. “These organizational links must be sacrificed without hesitation if they threaten your unity.”
That Abu al-Khayr also spoke was especially interesting, given the likelihood that he has been based inside Syria since at least late 2015, as I revealed earlier this year.
The Nusra Front also published the first confirmed photo and then video footage showing Jolani, who had previously insisted on concealing his face. Intriguingly, despite dissolving his ties to al Qaeda, Jolani appeared dressed in green military fatigues and a white headdress in what appeared to be a clear attempt to replicate well-known images of Osama bin Laden. In the video address, Jolani was also flanked by two key al Qaeda-linked figures, including Ahmed Salameh Mabrouk (Abu Faraj al-Masri), a veteran jihadi figure with experience fighting in Egypt, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Sudan, Russia, and Azerbaijan. Having been Zawahiri’s closest aide through the 1990s, Mabrouk’s laptop was famously captured by the CIA in Baku, Azerbaijan, and described as the “Rosetta Stone of al Qaeda.”
Simply put, al Qaeda is coordinating its Syrian affiliate’s dissolution of ties to its own core leadership for the sake of preserving the long-term viability of the Nusra Front and its jihadi strategic objectives. The ideological ties between al Qaeda and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham remain strong.
This latest development comes at a particularly sensitive time, as the United States and Russia look determined to launch some level of military operations against the Nusra Front in Syria. Despite repeated overt and covert attempts to encourage Syrian opposition groups to “decouple” themselves from areas in Syria where Nusra Front is present, mainstream U.S.-vetted rebel groups have not changed their areas of deployment. For many Syrians, withdrawing from these front lines is seen as tantamount to betraying five years of blood lost to secure any military gains. For some, it would also mean betraying an armed group, the Nusra Front, which has consistently and effectively fought alongside them since 2012.
By dissolving its ties with al Qaeda, Nusra Front has made certain that it will remain deeply embedded within opposition front lines, particularly in the northern governorates of Aleppo and Idlib. Any airstrikes by foreign states targeting the group will almost certainly result in the deaths of mainstream opposition fighters and be perceived on the ground as counterrevolutionary. Consequently, a mission defined by Moscow and Washington in counterterrorism terms would in all likelihood steadily broaden the spectrum of those potentially defined as “terrorists” — to the substantial detriment of any future solution to the Syrian crisis.
The revolution’s reaction
Syrians within the armed opposition have been calling for the Nusra Front to separate itself from al Qaeda since Abu Mohammed al-Jolani’s public pledge of bayah (allegiance) to al Qaeda in April 2013. Jabhat al-Nusra’s increasing conservatism since mid-2014 and its periodically aggressive actions against U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions have intensified such calls for Nusra Front to clarify its allegiances: to Syria, or to al Qaeda?
In the past, these concerns have likely hampered the Nusra Front’s capacity to recruit at its fullest potential rate. Moreover, several influential Islamist commanders active in Latakia, Idlib, and Aleppo have repeatedly told me that they have been working quietly to discourage young Syrian men from joining al Qaeda in Syria.
Armed and civilian Syrians within the opposition community similarly believe that by peeling the Nusra Front away from al Qaeda, the task of ultimately separating their “sons” and “brothers” from the jihadi movement would be made easier. By splitting the group from the al Qaeda leadership, they hope that its internal structures would lose some of their resiliency, and joining more mainstream opposition groups could become a more attractive prospect. Should Syria suddenly experience a period of relative calm, then this goal may not be as unrealistic as it unfortunately is today.
Although many Syrians still remain justifiably concerned about Jabhat Fateh al-Sham’s extremist foundations, the fact that the group has now made what many will perceive as a major concession puts it in an extremely advantageous position. Whether they say so publicly or not, a significant portion of Syria’s mainstream opposition will see this as a positive step and move to embrace Jolani’s call for unity. Therefore, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham will now seek to intensify its long-standing call for large-scale mergers and military coalitions in key areas of the country.
The most significant potential consequence of this latest development would be a merger of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham with the Syrian Salafist group Ahrar al-Sham. However, such an undertaking appears still to be some way off, as it continues to face significant structural and organizational obstacles. What is more likely in the immediate term is an increase in region-specific coalitions, in which multiple armed groups seek to integrate their military commands in order to present more effective challenges to their adversaries on the battlefield. Existing rebel coalitions in Idlib and Aleppo — particularly Jaish al-Fateh — will in all likelihood form the basis for such military unity initiatives.
By paving the way towards such a dynamic, Jolani has laid down a gauntlet to Syria’s opposition. The most moderate FSA groups will be forced to choose between military and revolutionary unity, or operational isolation and subjugation. In short, Jabhat al-Nusra is taking yet another step toward shaping the orientation of the Syrian opposition in its favor.
Al Qaeda’s plan
Jabhat al-Nusra and al Qaeda may have publicly split, but the organizational and ideological ties that bind them will prove harder to erase. Al Qaeda has been deploying senior veteran figures to Syria from across the Islamic world since 2013 in order to bolster the jihadi credibility of the Nusra Front, and to take advantage of Syria’s chaos to establish a safe haven capable of long-term transnational jihadi operations. These individuals will remain in place to seek the very same objectives as they did when they first arrived — and just like Nusra Front’s senior leadership, none of them will suddenly forget their global jihadi roots. After all, al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri himself stated in March 2016 that one’s relationship to the international jihad (read: al Qaeda) should not be seen as an obstacle to attaining “the great hopes of the Islamic nation.”
A central facet of al Qaeda’s operating strategy in Syria has been the creation of a localized jihad, which has evolved from an elite-driven project to a popular Islamist revivalist trend led by the masses. By and large, Nusra Front’s modus operandi until late 2015 focused upon establishing and then consolidating this first “elite” stage of the Syrian jihad, in which they and a select number of smaller jihadi units tacitly loyal to al Qaeda took the lead in promoting the jihadi cause in Syria. From the end of 2015, however, an internal assessment was made that a sufficient base of opposition society had been socialized into supporting the group’s rising stature. Jolani had pointed to this socialization strategy as early as December 2013, when he claimed that “Syrian society has indeed changed much; it is not the same pre-revolution society. There will be a historical mark of pre- and post-jihad in al-Sham.”
Since late 2015, the Nusra Front was transitioning from an elite-driven jihad into its second phase, which encouraged the development of a mass movement calling for Islamic rule in Syria. As the Syrian opposition’s perceptions of international abandonment have solidified, the Nusra Front’s message of “unity” has had more of a welcoming audience, though its al Qaeda connections have been the primary obstacle to its realization.
While it focused on spoiling international efforts to launch a political process and to sustain a cessation of hostilities inside Syria, the Nusra Front secretly proposed a grand merger with opposition groups in January 2016 in exchange for its potential breaking of ties to al Qaeda. Those discussions have continued ever since, frequently attracting prominent jihadi figures linked to al Qaeda to travel into northern Syria to mediate, one of whom was killed in a U.S. drone strike in April 2016. Things came to a head in early July, when a number of senior Nusra Front figures looked set to splinter off and establish a new faction called al-Harakat al-Islamiya al-Souriya, or “the Syrian Islamic Movement.”
Jolani perceived this as an ultimatum to his authority, so he swiftly called Nusra Front’s Shura Council together in an ultimately successful attempt to keep his movement together, which I first revealed on July 23.
The Nusra Front’s goal is simple: It seeks to build an expanding blanket of legitimacy in Syria, which one day in the future will be of imperative importance in justifying the establishment of an Islamic emirate. The group has consistently demonstrated an impressive ability to act in accordance with the sensitivities of Syrians living within its midst. Rarely has it stepped too far out of line, such as to spark a challenge to its authority that it could not manage. Although it did float the idea of an emirate earlier this year, it proved deeply unpopular for a variety of reasons — one being the group’s al Qaeda affiliation.
Problems for Washington
As Jabhat al-Nusra’s long game plays out in Syria, it poses a significant challenge to the international community. Although a great many differences remain between the United States and Russia, it is hard to imagine a scenario in which some level of airstrikes are not launched against Jabhat Fateh al-Sham — or whatever the group wants to call itself. There seems little space for turning back, and policymakers will rightly not see the Nusra Front’s disaffiliation from al Qaeda as making it a more moderate organization.
Perhaps more significantly, this latest development has also made it entirely feasible that regional states, notably Qatar and Turkey, could now attempt to provide direct material support to the group. Turkey in particular is likely to use the argument that, having announced a severing of its ties to al Qaeda, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham is as legitimate a partner as Washington’s preferred anti-Islamic State ally, the Kurdish YPG.
Placed in this quandary, international military action against Jabhat al-Nusra does seem all but inevitable. At the same time, however, the consequences for doing so have become even more concerning. Ultimately, what remains of the mainstream opposition risks being dragged into an international escalation that appears fueled by a desire to combat al Qaeda with an insufficient appreciation for the complexity of Syria’s broader dynamics.
Charles Lister’s paper, “Profiling Jabhat al-Nusra,” was published on July 27 and is available here.
Fadi al-Halabi/AFP/Getty Images