While the world has focused in recent months on ISIS, the al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra will likely continue to steadily expand and consolidate its power in northern Syria as it drives to become a long-term political player in the country, a leading analyst has said.
“Through alliances with certain groups, acquisitions and defeat of others, Nusra aims to strengthen its footprint and widen its influence in the north, and present itself as the primary force fighting the Assad regime on the ground. The more powerful Nusra seems, the more it can attract local support. Nusra seems to be on the way to achieving that, and of course with Idlib is an example of that,” Lina Khatib, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, told Syria Deeply.
Last Saturday, the group displaced government forces from northerly Idlib, the second provincial capital lost by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in the four-year conflict. Raqqa fell to the Islamic State two years ago. The capture of Idlib, strategically located near a main highway linking Damascus with Aleppo, highlights the growing power of extremist groups, who now control about half the country. It also poses questions about the role they will play in the future of Syria as both the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra race to become the strongest actors in Syria.
*Jabhat al-Nusra has cooperated with other Syrian rebel factions to conduct well-coordinated attacks against the Assad government, helping it achieve success on the ground and gain local support. Notably, the fighting for Idlib included on-the-ground cooperation between the Nusra Front and non-Islamist factions.
Additionally, thanks to its gains against the regime, the U.S. airstrikes against the group further increased the group’s popularity among some Syrians who felt dismayed that the West did not act forcefully enough against Assad.*
The strikes also strained inter-rebel relations. Those who have been receiving U.S. funding – such as the Hazm Movement – were accused of being traitors to the cause of fighting the regime and were subsequently ousted from areas they controlled.
Lina spoke to Syria Deeply about the Nusra Front’s game-changing rise in Syria.
Syria Deeply: Idlib is the second urban center lost by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime since the start of the Syrian war in 2011. What is the significance of this victory for Jabhat al-Nusra? What does it mean in the broader context of Syria’s battleground?
Lina Khatib: The fall of Idlib is very significant – it’s only the second city that the regime has lost since the fall of Raqqa in the hands of the Islamic State. The significance of Idlib is that it saw cooperation amongst several factions that have worked together under the umbrella of Jaysh al-Fatah, including Islamist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham as well as groups linked with the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Until very recently, we saw only sporadic cooperation between Islamist groups, but in this case there was on-the-ground cooperation between Islamist groups and brigades within the FSA. The offensive also had the blessing of regional powers, which marks a significant change in the dynamic of the Syrian conflict as regional actors who are opposed to the Assad regime seem to be realizing the value of cooperation over competition.
Syria Deeply: The Nusra Front, al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria, has neither the wealth nor the weapons of its rival, the self-proclaimed Islamic State. At some point it looked like it was losing the battle to ISIS, but in October 2014 – shortly after the start of the US-led international coalition’s airstrike campaign against the Islamic State and the Nusra Front in Iraq and Syria – the group began to display new vigor. What’s behind its rise to power?
Lina Khatib: The rise of Jabhat al-Nusra happened over a period of time and it was largely because it managed to present itself as credible to Syrians on the ground. While a lot of people look at the popularity of Nusra as a sign of increasing radicalization amongst the rest of Syrians, the reality is that a lot of people are becoming sympathetic to Nusra simply because it’s achieving a degree of credibility because it’s been consistently fighting the Syrian regime since its emergence in the conflict.
The other way in which Nusra has gained people’s confidence is through presenting itself as fighting corruption in Syria. For a population that has been exhausted by transgressions of the civil war, especially the rise of warlords – many of which were unfortunately created with the FSA – Jabhat al-Nusra has come to be regarded as a savior from corruption. It has capitalized on its popularity through local buy-in that is based on providing a sense of security and defense, as well as potential liberation from the Assad regime, and social and economic protection through fighting warlords.
Syria Deeply: In what ways does it relate/differ to ISIS in its implementation of its ideology?
Lina Khatib: Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State share the same ideology, however the Islamic State is very totalitarian in its application of this ideology. When the Islamic State takes hold of a new area, the first thing it does is show people that it’s implementing Sharia law, while Jabhat al-Nusra is more sensitive to Syrian society and doesn’t want to repel people. Although it has indeed engaged in brutal activities in areas under its control, with public execution for example, it does not regard the implementation of its ideology as a priority. Its priority is to attract population to gain local buy-in. Because it is more flexible in the way it implements its ideology, it is more appealing to people living in areas under its control.
Syria Deeply: At some point in time Jabhat al-Nusra was assisting the opposition in its goal of defeating the regime. The vast majority of those who supported it were not driven by ideology, but by anti-Assad sentiment. Why did it change its tune and turn its back on moderate opposition groups last fall? How did it justify going after those groups?
Lina Khatib: Jabhat al-Nusra has attacked groups that it regards as military challenges to its existence. The groups it attacked have mainly been brigades affiliated with the FSA, like the Syrian Revolutionaries Front (SRF) and the Hazm Movement. In attacking those groups, Jabhat al-Nusra has used two different frameworks to justify its acts. With the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, it attacked them saying that it was a reaction to the corruption of the SRF and their imposition of taxations and other kinds of transgressions on the local Syrian population. With the Hazm Movement, it framed the attack as about being against a movement that was supported and funded by the United States at a time when the U.S. was leading an international coalition that was targeting Jabhat al-Nusra. They [Hazm Movement] were framed as being a traitor to the cause of fighting the Assad regime.
However, the real reason Jabhat al-Nusra attacked those groups was because it regards them as a challenge – they are the two largest brigades in the north of Syria and are some of the best funded. Jabhat al-Nusra had a very material goal to achieve in attacking those groups, which is to seize their weaponry, which has of course allowed Jabhat al-Nusra to become stronger in its own activities in the north and expand its operations, like the one in Idlib.
Through alliances with certain groups, acquisitions and defeat of others, Jabhat al-Nusra aims to strengthen its footprint and widen its influence in the north, and present itself as the primary force fighting the Assad regime on the ground. The more powerful Nusra seems, the more it can attract local support. Nusra seems to be on the way to achieving that, and of course with Idlib is an example of that. Now that it has asserted itself through the attack on the SRF and Hazm, it can cooperate with key groups as long as they aren’t regarded as a key threat.
We are seeing a very delicate cooperation with Ahrar al-Sham, more cooperation with other FSA brigades, and Nusra is careful not to use Idlib as the capital of a Nusra emirate because this would make it lose local buy-in in the area.
If anything we are seeing the establishment of a military civilian council to govern the province of Idlib, which I think is a step in the right direction. If Nusra, through the example of Idlib, appears to be heading more towards pragmatism and away from being driven by ideology, I think it is a positive development that I hope continues. It’s a change in the trajectory of operations within the Syrian conflict.
Syria Deeply: Where does Nusra fit in the future of Syria? What are Nusra’s ultimate goals beyond defeating the regime? To what extent are we seeing the fragmentation of Syria and how will it enable groups like Jabhat al-Nusra to make a power play?
Lina Khatib: Jabhat al-Nusra is doing all of this not only to defeat the regime, but in order to present itself as a political actor in Syria. It knows that it will be very difficult for it to overwhelm the regime militarily, but the more it can achieve on the ground in terms of military victory, the higher its political status will be further down the line when negotiations over the Syrian conflict become concrete, especially by regional actors.
It is aiming to take as big a share of the pie as possible in whatever governance compromise happens in Syria when a serious agreement about ending the conflict happens. We should not look at Nusra’s activities as being about ideology because they are primarily driven by power ambition.