December 18, 2014
On December 15, al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat a-Nusra and hardline Islamist militia Ahrar a-Sham launched a coordinated assault to overrun Syrian government forces in the Wadi a-Deif and al-Hamidiya military bases in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province. The victory highlighted the ongoing cooperation between Jabhat a-Nusra and other hardline groups, even as Nusra pushes to dominate northwestern Syria at the expense of weaker opposition militias.
Nusra’s gains come amidst a broader reshuffling of Syria’s salafi opposition. Nusra has increasingly emphasized its identity as a transnational jihadist group after declaring its own Syria-based “caliphate” last July, while Ahrar a-Sham has sought to maintain its cooperation with Nusra while still engaging more mainstream groups with whom Nusra has openly clashed.
Noah Bonsey is a Beirut-based Senior Syria Analyst at the International Crisis Group, where he specializes in jihadist movements and Syria’s armed opposition.
He tells Syria Direct’s Brent Eng that Ahrar a-Sham’s balancing act “may ultimately prove unsustainable” as Nusra openly fights, and wins against, US-backed groups. Bonsey warns that American-led airstrikes have had the undesired effect of “damaging the credibility of groups [within the opposition] willing to work with the US.”
Q: What are your thoughts on the Khorasan group and how did striking Ahrar a-Sham in Idlib [in early November] fit into that strategy?
One, we still don’t know exactly what happened with the Ahrar strike; what exactly was hit or to what extent it was intentional. The US lumped it in the category of strikes against “Khorasan” and offered no further detail. So there are a lot of unanswered questions, both about the Ahrar strike and the identity and scope of what the US calls “Khorasan” itself.
What we can say is that it was the only instance in which Ahrar was hit. Even this one strike certainly carries significant ramifications, but it doesn’t seem to indicate a broader US effort to target the group.
In terms of hitting Nusra targets (which the US labels as linked to Khorasan), I think it’s a classic case of the tension between a narrow counter-terrorism focus and a broader political and military strategy to deal with the Syrian conflict and the rise of ISIS.
Striking Nusra, or elements of Nusra, may seem logical in the context of a “counter-terrorism” approach, but one of the risks of that approach is that you may be doing more to fuel the appeal of jihadis than you are accomplishing in diminishing Nusra’s (or Khorasan’s) capabilities.
We don’t really have enough information to fully measure the costs and benefits of US strikes yet, but it’s clear that the strikes have damaged the credibility of groups [within the opposition] willing to work with the US, and have helped Nusra and ISIS market their own narratives.
Nusra’s recent expansion in Idlib province suggests the group has gained strength since the strikes began, largely at the expense of mainstream factions.
Q: Why do you think the Pentagon is so keen on distinguishing Khorasan from Nusra?
The US is seeking to distinguish between Nusra itself, and an element within it that is particularly close to al-Qaeda central and supposedly involved in planning for operations outside Syria. We don’t know to what extent that’s accurate, we don’t have the information to judge.
What we can say is that in terms of strategic messaging, the US is seeking to signal that it is not targeting Nusra everywhere. Targeting Nusra as an organization nationwide would be very controversial among Syrians who support the opposition, due to Nusra’s reputation for positive contributions in the fight against the regime. So focusing on Khorasan appears to be an effort to minimize backlash from the strikes.
In practice, however, it’s not clear that this effort is working.
Q: Has there been an effort in Arabic by the American government to communicate this message to the wider Syrian public?
I think the American communications effort has been weak on this front. No one had ever heard of Khorasan until a week before the strikes, when the name of the group was floated in major American news outlets for a few days. To Syrians within the opposition, this did not come across as particularly credible; this deep into the conflict, many have a hard time believing there is this thing called Khorasan that they’ve never heard of. Regardless of whether or not the US distinction is accurate, the communications strategy accompanying it has been ineffective.
Aside from the messaging question, there is the bigger issue of the scope of the strikes themselves. Few within the mainstream opposition object to strikes against ISIS, but we have to bear in mind that the regime continues to kill far more civilians (and rebel fighters) than ISIS does.
So when the US strikes not only ISIS, but Nusra as well, and in one instance Ahrar a-Sham, all while leaving the regime free to barrel bomb civilian neighborhoods–of course people are going to be upset. No amount of message-packaging is going to compensate for that apparent double standard.
Q: How can we best judge the regional differences in the Nusra hierarchy, especially the differences between its willingness to work with US-backed rebels in Daraa (in the battle for Sheikh Miskeen for instance), and its expulsion of the SRF and Harakat Hazm and increased unilateral movement in Idlib and the north?
The inner-workings of Nusra are opaque, but there are increasing indications of significant strategic differences within the organization’s leadership. In an important shift, Nusra in Idlib is now implementing a strategy similar to the one ISIS pursued in fall 2013.
It is employing divide-and-rule tactics to expand its area of dominance, is increasingly willing to combat mainstream factions, and is prioritizing the immediate and unilateral imposition of its interpretation of sharia in areas under its control. In the south, Nusra has refrained from such naked territory grabs (though relations with some rebel groups are nevertheless fraying).
The fact that Nusra in the south has hewed closer to the more consensual approach that initially enabled it to build a strong reputation among rebels may be linked to the influence of senior Nusra figure Abu Maria al-Qahtani. Al-Qahtani relocated to the south from Deir al-Zor, where he became famous for prioritizing consensus with mainstream rebels in opposition to ISIS.
Q: What do you make of Ahrar a-Sham’s shifting role in the conflict, particularly as it simultaneously absorbs smaller battalions and appears to align itself closer to Nusra?
Ahrar a-Sham’s role is pivotal within the armed opposition. It straddles the ideological and political divide separating moderate Islamist factions (which welcome engagement with Western states) from the salafi-jihadis of Jabhat al-Nusra (who view those same states as enemies).
Ahrar differs from al-Nusra on key strategic and ideological issues. For instance, Ahrar maintains positive relations with Turkey, which lists al-Nusra as a terrorist organization; Ahrar also defines its goals as limited to Syria, and its leaders have publicly criticized al-Nusra in certain instances for prioritizing its salafi-jihadi agenda above the interests of the Syrian rebellion as a whole.
In recent months, Ahrar a-Sham has taken steps to align itself politically with the mainstream, non-jihadi armed opposition, including through changes to its political platform and through joining the Revolutionary Command Council, a fledgling rebel umbrella body that contains a broad range of rebel factions but excludes al-Nusra and other salafi-jihadi groups. Ahrar has withstood strong criticism from prominent jihadi voices for these decisions, including from figures associated with al-Nusra.
At the same time, however, on the ground Ahrar a-Sham’s level of military cooperation with al-Nusra remains robust. This is especially notable in Idlib, where Ahrar’s relationship with al-Nusra has remained close despite the latter’s campaign to assert unilateral control in parts of the province by driving out Western-backed groups.
Notably, in one case, local Ahrar elements appear to have joined with Nusra against a Western-backed faction, even as Ahrar’s central leadership publicly criticized Nusra’s attack. Thus in addition to questions regarding the intentions of Ahrar’s current leaders, there is also the difficult matter of assessing their degree of command and control.
Ahrar’s current balance between expanding political engagement with the rebel mainstream on one hand, and continuingly close military cooperation with al-Nusra on the other may ultimately prove unsustainable. The creation of the RCC represents a step toward pragmatic rebel political engagement, while Nusra in northern Syria is lurching in the opposite direction, as its focus on establishing dominance in Idlib alienates it from much of the rebel mainstream.
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