Jabhat al-Nusra: An Enduring, Yet Imperfect Adversary

Photo Credit: Counter Jihad Report

By Sam Rosenberg, Guest Contributor

Over the past several years, Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) has built a sustainable organization in Syria that will not easily be defeated. Since its establishment in 2012 during the Syrian Civil War, JN has shown that it has learned from al-Qaeda’s past mistakes. The group established deep ties to the local population, cementing popular support by recruiting locally, avoiding excessive civilian casualties, and delaying the imposition of overly harsh sharia laws. However, JN is not perfect. The group’s most significant weakness is its dependence on continued fighting in Syria’s civil war. The group’s ties to al-Qaeda also present unique challenges. The US-led air campaign, however, has not yet significantly affected JN like it has other groups, such as the Islamic State. That may change, should the focus and intensity of air operations shift. JN’s future prospects, therefore, are largely dependent upon four factors: popular support, continued conflict in Syria, management of the al-Qaeda brand, and US-led airstrikes. In sum, the group is focused on a ‘Syria-First’ strategy and will forgo attacking the West, at least in the short-term. If, however, JN networks and bases of support remain in place, they will likely lay the ground-work for an al-Qaeda emirate in Syria, one that will likely develop the capability and resources to strike the West in the future.

In many ways, JN is the product of both civil unrest in Syria and the Iraq War. Spurred by anti-government demonstrations throughout the region, Syrians took to the streets in March 2011 to protest against their government.[i] President Bassar al-Assad’s forces responded swiftly, firing on protesters and cutting off electricity and communication links to the protesters’ encampments. In one day alone, Assad’s forces killed over 100 demonstrators.[ii] As the protests expanded, Assad released a large number of jihadists from Sednayya prison in a series of amnesties between March and May 2011.[iii] According to William McCants, a Middle East expert with the Brookings Institution, Assad intended to “foster violence among the protestors” and give his regime “a pretext for a brutal crack down.”[iv]

Encouraged by the prisoner release and the ongoing volatility in the region, Ayman al-Zawahiri ordered Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of al-Qaeda’s Iraqi Branch, to “form a group and send it to [Syria].”[v] Baghdadi directed one of his Syrian operatives, Abu Muhammad al-Jalani, to manage the effort.[vi] Jalani eventually named the organization Jabhat al-Nusra. JN launched its first major attacks in December 2011, killing at least 40 people.[vii] Over the next several years JN expanded, growing into a modest militant organization with approximately 2,000 fighters and bases of support in Damascus and Dera‘a in the south, and Idlib and Aleppo in the north.[viii] The group seized major military facilities in northern Syria in September 2012 and January 2013 and established itself as formidable member of the Syrian opposition.[ix] As of 2014, the RAND corporation estimated the group to have between 5,000 and 6,000 members.[x]

The rise of JN did not sit well with Baghdadi, who worried that the Syrian enterprise would outpace his own efforts in Iraq. Disagreements over strategy and resources also added to tension between the two groups.[xi] In April 2013, Baghdadi publicly announced that Nusra was a branch of the Islamic State and it would be incorporated into a new organization, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (the Levant). Upset by the announcement and Baghdadi’s attempt to claim credit for Nusra’s accomplishments, Jalani declared independence from the State and swore allegiance directly to Zawahiri. Eventually, Baghdadi appealed to Zawahiri to settle the dispute. Zawahiri sided with Nusra and directed the Islamic State “to renounce its claim on Syria and go back to Iraq.”[xii] With Zawahiri’s decision, Nusra became al-Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria.

JN has built a sustainable presence in Syria that will not be easily defeated. The group accomplished this feat in three different ways. First, Nusra established deep ties to the local population by embedding itself within the Syrian opposition movement, regularly collaborating with other rebel groups and recruiting heavily from the local population.[xiii] According to Jalani, roughly 70% of Nusra members are Syrian.[xiv] Since 2012, most of the rebel groups in Syria have either fought alongside of or collaborated with JN, suggesting the group may be indispensable in the fight against the Assad regime.[xv]

Second, JN exploited the lack of political settlement in the Syrian civil war to reinforce its message. As long as fighting continues and Assad remains in power, JN can credibly claim to be the vanguard of the opposition and the protector of Sunni Muslims in the country. The group has had five years to make this argument, and it will likely become more indelible the longer the population is exposed to it.

Third, although JN initially behaved like the Islamic State, turning a blind eye to civilian casualties, the group has since taken steps to limit the extent of its extremist behavior.[xvi] The group mostly avoids suicide attacks on civilians and it has temporarily renounced hadud (fixed punishments in the Quran and Hadith).[xvii] The group also includes locals in matters of government, often establishing joint Shari’a committees to adjudicate disagreements and to provide goods and services.[xviii]

Nusra is not without fault. The group’s most serious weakness is its dependence upon continued fighting in Syria. Without intense levels of conflict, JN’s popular support weakens and locals question the group’s motives. This is because the fighting allows JN to demonstrate the group’s utility within the opposition movement to other rebel groups and to the Syrian people.[xix]

Recent developments in Idlib province, Nusra’s strategic heartland, reinforce this point. In February 2016, a nationwide ceasefire brokered by the United States and Russia provided the space for protesters to resume demonstrations. Men, women, and children took to the streets, speaking out against both the Assad regime and Nusra’s fighters. By March, the demonstrations escalated into a shooting war between a Free Syrian Army unit, Division 13, and members of JN in the city of Ma’arat al-Nu’man.[xx] Nusra eventually expelled Division 13, further angering the locals and sparking over 20 consecutive days of protests.[xxi]

Despite the backlash against Nusra, the group still maintains support throughout Idlib province and elsewhere in Syria.[xxii] As of early 2016, it appears unlikely that Nusra will be “discernibly isolated” because neither the West nor the opposition has made a concerted effort to exploit the fissures between the group and the population.[xxiii] Moreover, it appears that most Syrians see the Assad regime, not JN, as the more significant threat to the stability in the country. According to one Charles Lister, a Syria expert with the Brookings Institution, “ideological differences and politico-ideological objectives are more likely than not to be put aside in favor of continuing a fight with a better chance of success.”[xxiv] That fight, of course, is the war against the Assad regime. What remains uncertain, though, is Nusra’s ability to salvage its reputation and popular support if these protests continue or expand.

The link to al-Qaeda, while lucrative in terms of material and operational rewards, ultimately restricts Nusra’s operations, making it more likely than not that Nusra will follow a ‘Syria-first’ strategy and forgo attacking the West, at least in the short term. In an interview with al-Jazeera, Nusra leader Abu Muhammad al-Jalani explained that Zawahiri wants Nusra to focus only on Syria. According to Jalani, Nusra “received clear orders not to use Syria as a launching pad to attack the U.S. or Europe in order to not sabotage the true mission against the regime.”[xxv] While it is dubious at best to take a militant leader at his word, the group seems to have followed that edict, so far focusing almost exclusively on its self-professed top priority, “capturing Damascus and toppling the Assad regime.”[xxvi]

In addition to restricting Nusra’s operations to Syria, the al-Qaeda connection also turns away potential collaborators too wary of al-Qaeda’s bloody history. For example, recent merger talks between Nusra and several other rebel groups came to a standstill over Nusra’s ties to al-Qaeda.[xxvii] While Nusra has worked closely with many of the rebel groups in the past, there may be a limit on cooperation with Nusra simply because of its connection with al-Qaeda. Therefore, the long-term viability of Nusra is, in many ways, tied to al-Qaeda. If the group retains the connection to al-Qaeda, it may not reach its full potential in Syria; on the other hand, if the group relinquishes the connection to Zawahiri’s organization, it will likely lose significant material and operational support, but it may gain additional popular support in Syria.

It is unlikely that Jalani will declare independence from al-Qaeda. He is reportedly a devout al-Qaeda operative, not the type to break an oath of allegiance for a simple power play against the opposition. What is possible, but perhaps not likely, is that Zawahiri would temporarily release Nusra from the al-Qaeda brand, which would allow the group to further embed itself within the Syrian opposition movement. Nusra could then rejoin al-Qaeda at a less divisive time. Deeper and more durable ties to the opposition would position Nusra more advantageously in a post-Assad Syria, perhaps even laying the groundwork for a new al-Qaeda emirate in the Middle East.[xxviii]

Airstrikes will also affect JN’s long-term prospects. Since September 2014, the United States has been leading an air campaign against the Islamic State and JN in Iraq and Syria, spending over $6.5 billion dollars and launching more than 11,000 airstrikes.[xxix] Some accounts argue that the campaign is overly focused on the Islamic State, largely ignoring JN fighters in Syria.[xxx] If this is true, an ISIS-centric strategy could one day lay the foundation for a new al-Qaeda emirate in the Middle East — one that would presumably accumulate the necessary capabilities and resources to attack the West.

If, on the other hand, the military campaign intensifies and puts more significant pressure on Nusra, the group may disperse and revert back to a more clandestine terror group rather than a relatively overt insurgency. In this scenario, JN may feel compelled to launch attacks against the West in order to protect the group’s image and bolster recruitment. Other jihadist groups such as the Islamic State, al-Shabaab, and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula have all responded to attacks against their organizations by lashing out abroad.[xxxi] JN has yet to do this, perhaps because the group is not yet under enough pressure.

JN has built a sustainable presence in Syria that will likely present an enduring challenge in the region for years to come. The future direction of the group is largely dependent upon four factors. First, the success of Nusra is tied to how it manages popular support. So far the group appears to have adopted a long-term approach to Syria, embedding with the opposition, recruiting locally, and delaying the imposition of harsh Islamic punishments. If the group deviates from this strategy, it may be isolated from the opposition, making it more difficult to operate in or base attacks out of Syria. Second, Nusra is dependent upon continued conflict in Syria. Without intense conflict, the group will likely be challenged by the local population, who already at times questions their motives and their intentions. US airstrikes and JN’s connection to al-Qaeda will also shape the future trajectory of the organization. If airstrikes continue to focus on the Islamic State, JN will likely retain the capability to build an al-Qaeda emirate in Syria and launch attacks in the future against the West. Moreover, if the group successfully manages its al-Qaeda ties, it will be able to further integrate into the Syrian opposition, better positioning the group for a post-Assad Syria. No matter the outcome, JN will likely be an enduring yet imperfect adversary for years to come.

[i] Charles Lister, The Syrian Jihad, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), Kindle edition, p.11.

[ii] Lister, The Syrian Jihad, p. 54.

[iii] Lister, The Syrian Jihad, pp. 52-54.

[iv] William McCants, The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015), p.85.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Lister, The Syrian Jihad, p. 60.

[viii] Charles Lister, “Profiling the Islamic State,” (Doha: Brookings Institution, December 2014), p. 13.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] “Japbhat al-Nusra,” Mapping Militant Organization, Stanford University, accessed 12 April 2016, available from https://web.stanford.edu/group/mappingmilitants/cgi-bin/groups/view/493.

[xi] McCants, The ISIS Apocalypse, pp. 89-90.

[xii] McCants, The ISIS Apocalypse, p. 92. Likely concerned about setting a poor precedent, Zawahiri eventually renounced all ties with the Islamic State, effectively expelling the group from al-Qaeda in February 2014.

[xiii] Ibid., p.88.

[xiv] In this interview, Jalani states that 30% of his group is composed of foreign fighters. Through deduction, one can than estimate that the other 70% is Syrian. “Nusra Leader: No End to Conflict with ISIL in Syria,” Al Jazeera, accessed 11 April 2016, available from: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/06/nusra-leader-conflict-isil-syria-150604021024858.html%3E.

[xv] Lister, The Syrian Jihad, p. 8.

[xvi] McCants, The ISIS Apocalypse, p. 85.

[xvii] McCants, The ISIS Apocalypse, p.85. Information regarding the renouncement of hadud can be found here: Charles Lister, “Experts Weigh in (Part 3): What is the Future of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State,” The Brookings Institution, accessed 11 April 2016, available from http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/markaz/posts/2016/02/24-experts-weigh-in-alqaida-isis-lister-mccants.

[xviii] McCants, The ISIS Apocalypse, p. 88.

[xix] Charles Lister, Presentation to the Middle East Institute, accessed 10 April, available from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p6g-j7mgC0Q&feature=youtu.be&t=15m47s.

[xx] Sam Heller, “Al-Qaeda is Screwing Up in Syria,” The Daily Beast, accessed 11 April 2016, available from http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/04/05/al-qaeda-s-screwing-up-in-syria.html.

[xxi] Lister, Presentation to the Middle East Institute.

[xxii] Hellner, “Al-Qaeda is Screwing Up in Syria,” The Daily Beast.

[xxiii] Lister, The Syrian Jihad, p. 392.

[xxiv] Lister, The Syrian Jihad, p. 392.

[xxv] “Al-Qaeda Orders Syria’s Al-Nusra Front Not to Attack West,” BBC, accessed 11 April 2016, available from: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-32913509

[xxvi] Ibid.

[xxvii] Lister, “Experts Weigh in (Part 3): What is the Future of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State,” The Brookings Institution.

[xxviii] Lister, “Experts Weigh in (Part 3): What is the Future of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State,” The Brookings Institution.

[xxix] Lister, Presentation to the Middle East Institute.

[xxx] Fredrick W. Kagan et. al, Al Qaeda and ISIS: Existential Threats to the U.S. and Europe, (Washington, DC: Institute for the Study of War, 2016).

[xxxi]Seth G. Jones, “ISIS Will Become More Deadly Before it Dies,” Slate, accessed 12 April 2016, available from: http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/foreigners/2015/11/isis_will_become_more_deadly_as_it_loses_territory.html.


About the Author

CPT (P) Sam Rosenberg is an infantry officer in the U.S. Army who is currently attending Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program as a General Wayne A. Downing Scholar of the Combating Terrorism Center, USMA. Sam is a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan. 

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