Some analysts regard Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate as a greater long-term threat to Western security than ISIS.
And the US might be missing out on a golden opportunity to move against the group.
Over the past month, residents of the Idlib province have taken to the streets to protest both the authoritarian regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Jabhat al-Nusra. The latter is also known as the Nusra Front, Al Qaeda’s branch in Syria.
A partial ceasefire that includes regime forces, Syria’s allies, and rebel groups (not including ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra) led to a break in violence that allowed civilians more leeway than they previously enjoyed.
The protests could provide a crucial opening for the US to support the moderate Syrian opposition and push for a political solution that includes Assad leaving power, but experts doubt that the US will make use of it.
Ahmad al-Soud, the commander and founder of the US-backed Free Syrian Army group known as Division 13, told Business Insider that residents of Maaret al-Nouman in Idlib wanted to send a message with these protests that they’re opposed to Assad as well as terrorist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS (also known as the Islamic State, ISIL, or Daesh).
“Protesters wanted to show the world that they are against Al Qaeda’s ideology, that they are … moderates and that as Syrians we reject Al Qaeda’s ideology and support the FSA because they want a simple, secular state,” al-Soud told Business Insider last month through a translator.
“[Protests were] all across Syria. It was all revolution flags,” he said.
And since Jabhat al-Nusra is trying to lay deep roots in Syrian society by gaining popular support before cracking down on the population, it has been reluctant to treat protesters too harshly.
Jabhat al-Nusra has been gaining support in Syria partly by helping moderate opposition groups fight the Assad regime, which these groups consider their main enemy even as the US and other Western powers focus on beating back ISIS.
But there’s a big problem with Jabhat al-Nusra’s strategy: It’s inherently dependent on continued fighting in Syria. Without a civil war, and without Assad in power, Jabhat al-Nusra would have a harder time gaining support and aligning with moderates.
“What’s been fascinating from the cessation of hostilities is that it’s revealed for the first time the biggest weakness in Al Qaeda’s strategy in Syria. And that is that it is inherently dependent on a continued level of intense conflict in Syria,” Charles Lister, a fellow at the Middle East Institute who has written a book on the insurgency in Syria, said at an event in Washington, DC, last Friday.
That intense conflict over the last five years has provided Al Qaeda with an opportunity to demonstrate its worth on the battlefield to the Syrian opposition and to the civilian support base. Without an intense level of conflict, the people came back to the streets and started chanting things, which fundamentally object or fundamentally contradict Al Qaeda’s stated objectives in Syria.
Al Qaeda opposes any flag other than its own, but in Maaret al-Nouman, protesters were carrying the flag of the revolution.
“Everywhere people were protesting, they had the revolution flag,” al-Soud said of the early days of the protests. “The revolution flag is something Nusra is against. They say any flag but ‘there is no God but God’ and their Al Qaeda trademark below it, that’s the only flag you’re allowed to fly in Idlib, according to Nusra.”
This brought tensions between Jabhat al-Nusra and the moderate opposition to a head — the group reportedly made some illicit arrests and attacked FSA headquarters — but their attempt at a crackdown ended up backfiring.
The crackdown “has now sparked 20 days in a row of protests by women, children, the elderly, and young men against Jabhat al-Nusra’s control of Idlib,” Lister said. “This is something we’ve never seen before and it’s a huge opportunity to undermine Al Qaeda’s long-term future in Syria. Unfortunately, as of now, there’s very little that we as the West have done to take advantage of this.”
‘Our options down the road are going to be significantly less’
The West has a small window to act, according to experts.
“This is the first time this opportunity has arisen and it won’t be there for very long,” Lister said. “Al Qaeda has taken a step back and it has refused to subjugate these protests so far. If it does, and it will one day choose to do so, those protests will end like that and they will probably never come back again.”
Genevieve Casagrande, a Syria research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, said that as the Syrian conflict drags on, extremist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra will eventually to weaken the moderate opposition.
“The US is at large risk of losing potential partners in Syria,” Casagrande told Business Insider. “Jabhat al-Nusra is eating away at these moderate groups, and they will one day succeed. It’s only going to fuel further radicalization and the spectrum is going to start inching farther and farther toward Salaafi-jihadi groups.”
The best way to achieve a solution to Syria’s civil war is through these moderate opposition groups, but if Jabhat al-Nusra moves to target these groups and remove them from the battlefield, “our options down the road are going to be significantly less,” Casagrande explained.
And as long as Assad stays in power, moderate rebels will be spread too thin to make a significant dent in the extremist groups on the Syrian battlefield.
“Right now the opposition is most threatened by the Assad regime, and at the end of the day, the opposition seeks to bring about the overthrow of the Assad regime, and so it is very difficult for any opposition group to justify attacking any group like Jabhat al-Nusra,” Casagrande said.
Jabhat al-Nusra and its Islamist allies, however, in many cases outgun moderate opposition groups and could attack both them and the Assad regime.
“Jabhat al-Nusra is a stronger opposition group than any of these FSA-affiliated factions currently,” Casagrande said.
“And if the US isn’t willing to put incentives on the table” for these groups to fight Jabhat al-Nusra, she continued, “It’s almost impossible to ask a group to go ahead and turn on Jabhat al-Nusra, especially with Jabhat al-Nusra’s large number of allies in Syria, which include Ahrar al-Sham, which is one of the largest and most influential groups on the battlefield.”
Al-Soud confirmed this line of thinking. He said the Syrian people “reluctantly allowed Nusra into Syria because our main enemy is the regime.”
“After the regime is gone, we will continue to fight anybody who tries to implement their will against the people,” he said.
While civilians in Maaret al-Nouman continue to resist jihadist influence, it will “become increasingly difficult” for groups like Division 13 to keep Jabhat al-Nusra out of its territory, according to Casagrande.
Casagrande said that in order to turn the tide against the extremists, the US would have to take a firmer stance on overthrowing the Assad regime. It would also have to provide more support to the moderate rebels fighting the regime.
“If the US isn’t willing to match what Jabhat al-Nusra is currently bringing to the opposition” in terms of fighting the Assad regime, “I don’t see any other incentive that would be worth it or acceptable,” Casagrande said.
There has been some discussion within the US government about how to support groups like Division 13 in undermining Jabhat al-Nusra, Lister said.
“Certainly this is an issue seen as urgent within administration circles,” Lister told Business Insider. “My scepticism, though, lies in the fact that we’ve seen people talking about these things before and nothing very much ever happens.”
He said that if the US doesn’t take advantage of the opportunity that’s come up with the protests and the ceasefire in the short-term, the government should start looking toward a long-term political solution to the civil war.
“I fear for the future unless we continue to take advantage of the fact that the moderate opposition still is there,” Lister said.
“If we don’t take advantage of that, those people will become so disillusioned with Syria and the future, but also … with the international community,” he continued. “We’ll see more displacement, more refugees. They will choose to leave the country because they have given up hope, and who will fill that vacuum? Groups like Nusra.”