In a recent report, the Institute for the Study of War warned that the Islamic State is not the only jihadist threat out of Syria. Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaida affiliate in Syria, has long been prominent and poses an ongoing security challenge to the West.
“The Syrian war has provided Nusra a nearly ideal environment within which to implement this strategy on behalf of al-Qaida, and Nusra has enjoyed worrying success to date,” writes Jennifer Cafarella, the author of the report.
The report comes as European security officials warn of the global security risk posed by Western jihadi fighters returning to their home countries after seeing battle in Syria. Following a series of deadly attacks in Paris last week, one suspect is believed to have fled to extremist havens in Syria.
Cafarella spoke to Syria Deeply about why Jabhat al-Nusra is difficult to contain or defeat inside Syria and how it poses a threat to global security.
Syria Deeply: Do ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra share similar goals in Syria? In what ways do they collaborate, in what ways do they compete?
Cafarella: They share the goal of the establishment of an Islamic caliphate. In long-term strategic objectives they are united in that way. However, in terms of short-term objectives and the path they regard as legitimate in establishing a caliphate, they are at odds. There is tension and competition between Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS through the methodologies that they regard as legitimate and the objectives that naturally fall out of those methodologies.
For example, Jabhat al-Nusra prioritizes establishing inroads with local populations and establishing a network of support with local leaders, which creates the requirement for them to tailor its behavior in order to secure those forms of support. ISIS establishes top-down control and seeks to rule through fear and aggressive coercion. These methodological differences have battlefield effects and put them in competition in various ways.
Syria Deeply: How geographically dispersed is Jabhat al-Nusra? Where does it enjoy a military advantage? What are its key military strengths?
Cafarella:Nusra withdrew from its previous stronghold in Deir Ezzor in July 2014 after ISIS declared the establishment of its caliphate, which Nusra does not recognize. That decision effectively separated JN and ISIS into different areas of operation. The one area in which the two groups have remained in contact since July 2014 has been north of Aleppo city, where an ISIS attempt to advance towards the Turkish border into rebel territory was resisted by Nusra with support from local rebels. That battlefront has decreased in the amount of kinetic activity since the ISIS attempt for Kobani beginning in late 2014 ramped up. Nusra enjoys a number of strongholds in western Syria where ISIS does not have a presence.
Nusra began to establish its direct control of Idlib after it withdrew from Deir Ezzor in July 2014, carving out an area of terrain along the Turkish border that it later extended down into the Jabal al-Zawiya area of southern Idlib province, at the expense of the Syrian Revolutionaries Front.
It maintains an overt military presence in a number of other locations inclusive of the eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus as well as Deraa, where it continues to support the campaign led by the Southern Front to clear large areas of Deraa and Qunietra province from the regime. It maintains a presence in Aleppo city itself, where it contributes to the continued rebel defense against the regime attempt at encirclement. Nusra and ISIS forces have tacitly cooperated in Qalamoun in operations against Hezbollah and the Lebanese armed forces in the Bekaa Valley and Arsal.
Syria Deeply: How powerful is its presence inside Syria, relative to other groups?
Cafarella: Nusra’s strength doesn’t come from overwhelming numbers or diffuse direct presence, but in the way in which it augments military operations and the extent to which rebel forces rely on their asymmetric capabilities. It isn’t dominant in terms of the amount of terrain it controls, but rather in which it’s a key ally to a wide majority of Syrian rebels.
Syria Deeply: At times the moderate opposition has relied on Jabhat al-Nusra as a partner in fighting President Bashar al-Assad. Does that suggest the group is somewhat intertwined with moderate groups?
Cafarella: Absolutely. Nusra seeks to contribute to rebel operations in order to embed within rebel ranks.
Syria Deeply: How has Jabhat al-Nusra’s allegiance to al-Qaida shaped its actions on the ground?
Cafarella: Nusra maintains its direct relationship with al-Qaida. Jabhat al-Nusra leader Abu Mohammed al-Joulani has pledged allegiance to al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. It is expected that Nusra will continue to follow the guidance received by al-Zawahiri, which includes the housing and likely facilitation of the al-Qaida core group in Syria.
Syria Deeply: How has Jabhat al-Nusra managed to win over local support? What’s driving the recruitment of its fighters?
Cafarella: A primary driver is the military contribution that Nusra can make. A prominent recent example is the seizure of the Wadi Deif military base in Idlib and the related Ahrar al-Sham attack on Hamadiyeh military base, which was in some ways facilitated by Nusra. In conducting effective military operations against the regime, Nusra requires a high level of local support and legitimacy. Additionally, it conducts a soft power campaign in order to win local civilian support by providing humanitarian assistance, rule of law and implementing governance that local leaders buy into and thus provide legitimacy to Nusra structures.
Syria Deeply: How difficult would it be to defeat Jabhat al-Nusra and eliminate it from Syria? What would be required for that to happen?
Cafarella: In order to defeat Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, it is a requirement to disaggregate them from within the base of the Syrian opposition. In order to counter their high level of influence, which continues to grow as moderate and Islamist rebels continue to be disillusioned by the lack of international engagement in Syria and by the failure of the current U.S.-led coalition to take on the Assad regime rather than independently targeting ISIS, it is necessary to provide the Syrian opposition with an alternative ally in the fight against the Assad regime.
Syria Deeply: What are the long-term ramifications of the rise of Jabhat al-Nusra within Syria’s borders?
Cafarella: The long-term implications include successes for the entire al-Qaida global network … The presence of the Khorasan Group in Syria is testament to the safe haven that Nusra has been able to establish for al-Qaida in Syria. It has long-term implications for the global war on terror as well as the state of the Syrian revolution itself and the ability to counter violent extremism from ISIS and a growing al-Qaida presence inside the country.
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