There have recently been reports warning that al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaida-affiliated group in Syria, is determined to declare its own Islamic emirate in Syria in the near future, but these warnings are likely jumping the gun.
The argument goes that Nusra’s long-term objective is establishing an Islamic emirate in Syria, but unlike the Islamic State (ISIS) they want to do so by winning the hearts and minds of the people. Two main obstacles prevent the Nusra from doing so – al-Nusra’s affiliation with al-Qaida, many of whose members do not support the establishment of a caliphate, and most Syrians’ objection to the idea.
Supporting these predictions is the recent arrival of senior al-Qaida figures in Syria, which is seen as the group’s attempt to secure enough support for the emirate by convincing other groups to join. Analysts have also interpreted al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri’s recent audio message as public approval for al-Nusra to dissociate itself from its parent organization in order to establish an emirate.
Although these arguments are valuable, al-Nusra Front is still facing many internal and external challenges, which prevent it from announcing its emirate. Moreover, these developments can also be understood as merely an attempt to help al-Nusra overcome the increased threats and the lack of support it is facing.
Al-Nusra Front was established in Syria in late 2011 and it gained a high profile among Syrians due to its valuable military contribution. The group made a name for itself fighting corruption and providing services, while avoiding politics and intervening in people’s lives, the combination of which gained it the support of local communities. However, in 2014, the group started to change its soft power strategy and began attacking some of the opposition groups, including those that receive U.S. support, to eliminate any potential threat and to impose unilateral control over the areas that will be part of its future emirate. This shift in the group’s strategy damaged al-Nusra’s public support and created tension with other rebel groups.
Most Syrians reject al-Nusra’s plan to establish an emirate, and there is no indication that they will change their position anytime soon. There has been an increase in the number of demonstrations against al-Nusra, indicating continued public anger at al-Nusra’s imposed rule – any attempt to create an emirate will likely do more harm to the group’s popularity. People in Maarat al-Numan, Idlib, recently demonstrated in response to al-Nusra’s attack on the 13th Division, a Free Syrian Army (FSA) group that receives U.S. support. People in Attareb have demonstrated regularly against the jihadi group since al-Nusra defeated Haraket Hazem (another FSA, U.S.-supported group) there in 2015.
The demonstrations against al-Nusra reached a new level recently. People in Kafranbel moved from only demonstrating against the group’s violations to attacking one of the group’s checkpoints and burning it. These kinds of incidents did not exist before, but are now becoming more common. People know that the implementation of Sharia law (Islamic law), with which al-Nusra has upset Syrians by starting to implement it in some areas, will become harsher as soon as the Islamic emirate is established. Thus it will likely create more anger toward al-Nusra and prevent the group from gaining the local support it wants for its emirate.
The military advantage that al-Nusra can provide to rebel groups in their fight against Assad will not be enough to pressure those groups to accept al-Nusra’s emirate. According to Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, a Syrian Islamist told him that Syrians responded very negatively to al-Nusra suggesting the establishment of an emirate. The United States and Russia are putting rebel groups under enormous pressure to distance themselves from al-Nusra. And although rebel groups are cautious of publicly distancing themselves from al-Nusra, they have accepted many agreements that clearly exclude it. The most important one was the cessation of hostilities agreement that was implemented at the end of February 2016, which excluded al-Nusra and ISIS. This agreement posed a threat to al-Nusra, because it showed that rebel groups are willing to abandon the extremist group despite its military prowess.
The resumption of fighting in Syria and the breakdown of the cease-fire has allowed al-Nusra to improve its cooperation with other rebel groups. However, this cooperation is a tactical one and not an ideological one. Al-Nusra needs rebel groups because they provide it with legitimacy and the support of their constituencies, which makes it more difficult to eliminate the group. Thus, al-Nusra Front is at risk of losing its allies if a long-term solution is reached. In this context, some experts interpreted al-Zawahiri’s audio message to be reassuring rebels that al-Qaida does not intend to unilaterally control Syria. According to Syria analyst Sam Heller, “Zawahiri’s discussion of an Islamic government seemed mostly theoretical. He was speaking broadly about the mujahedin’s ultimate aim in Syria, not issuing an urgent call for the creation of an Islamic emirate.”
The same may also explain sending senior al-Qaida fighters to Syria to help restore al-Nusra’s relations with other groups. According to Lister, when Nusra was in a crisis in 2014, after ISIS was established and many of al-Nusra’s foreign fighters defected to join the new group, al-Qaida sent a senior leader to restore the group’s standing in Syria. The recent arrival of senior leaders certainly does not improve Syrian perceptions of the group.
It is also worth comparing ISIS’s establishment of a caliphate to any al-Nusra attempt. The element of surprise allowed ISIS to drive out rebel groups, many of which lacked experience and were not well established, whereas the groups in western Syria are more experienced. Communities did not resist ISIS much because it initially promised services, stability and fair treatment based on Sharia law in an area that the Syrian government had traditionally neglected. The ISIS caliphate was also established when rebel groups controlled much more territory, and were able to relocate to western Syria to continue the fight against Assad. Rebel groups now only control a fraction of their former territory and cannot relocate if al-Nusra establishes an emirate.
The establishment of ISIS’s caliphate made areas under its control safer because the Syrian regime avoided fighting it, whereas the establishment of al-Nusra’s emirate will make fighting it a priority. Local groups are aware of al-Nusra’s intentions and actively opposed them, especially after seeing the results of the ISIS experiment. Furthermore, al-Nusra has been popular because it works with other groups, but establishing a caliphate will likely isolate and weaken it.
There are others obstacles to a Nusra emirate. Even conservative Muslim scholars like Syrian jihadist scholar Abu Basir al-Tartusi have not endorsed it. The establishment of an emirate would make targeting al-Nusra and other groups affiliated with it a priority for Russia and the U.S.-led coalition. Rebels who support the emirate would be excluded from any political solution, and would likely be designated as terrorist groups. Furthermore, establishing an emirate would require al-Nusra to distance itself from al-Qaida in order to gain the support of other groups, but without its parent organization it would be much weaker and most likely unable to sustain itself.
Al-Nusra’s long-term goal will remain creating an emirate in Syria, but it is unlikely to realize that soon. Doing so would contradict the basis of its success in Syria up until now. Al-Nusra will continue to remain where it is strongest – woven into the opposition, where it can sustain its popularity through battlefield successes. And even if al-Nusra decides not to create its Islamic emirate soon, it will continue to be a threat to moderate Syrians and to any inclusive political settlement.
This article was originally published by the Atlantic Council and is reprinted here with permission.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.