Commentary by Wajdi Mallat – 5 August 2014
When the Islamic State blitzed through Iraq and took Mosul and much of western Iraq, it brought global attention to the schism that jihad has undergone over the past year: Al Qaeda was longer at the forefront of extremist Sunni groups. As global media frantically pushed the narrative that ISIS (or ISIL or IS now) was an offshoot of Al Qaeda that was deemed too extremist for Bin Laden’s successor al-Zawahiri, it cited the differing strategy that the Islamic State and Jabhat al Nusra – the al Qaeda group in Syria – would utilize.
While Jabhat al Nusra would often cooperate with moderate rebel groups (much to the chagrin of the West and the delight of Assad) in order to topple the greater evil of the Assad regime, ISIS chose to almost only fight against rebel groups (once more to the delight of Bashar al Assad) to remove what it deemed to be corrupt elements of Jihad. But the end objective was the same: the creation of an Islamic state. The primary difference between Jabhat al Nusra and ISIS had been not ideology, but the order of priorities, at least until last month. Nusra has begun to fight against moderate rebels from the Free Syrian Army who it previously coordinated with, and these clashes appear to be the start of a full conflict between Jabhat al Nusra and the moderate opposition.
With ISIS’s surge in popularity and renown, Jabhat al Nusra has been pushed aside, and it now faces the threat of marginalization. On social media, the group has been ridiculed by the more tech savvy ISIS over its cooperation with moderate rebels. This marginalization extends to the media released by the two groups, as ISIS regularly produces professionally edited videos to entice potential followers, which Nusra cannot compete with. On the ground, Nusra has been unable to sustain control of areas, and most notably ISIS was able to drive the group out of the Deir Ezzor province in early July. Due to these defeats, the morale of the group has plummeted, and numerous Nusra fighters have defected to ISIS, some at gunpoint, but others have lost faith in the group’s cause after witnessing the success of their rivals. As Nusra attempted to figure out its response to its waning popularity, it remained quiet while ISIS took the headlines.
Since its split with ISIS, Jabhat al Nusra has struggled to maintain its popularity. While Jabhat al Nusra has some foreign fighters, most of the foreign fighters in Syria defected to ISIS after the official split between Al-Qaeda and the group. Additionally, many of Nusra’s fighters joined the group for a salary and better resources that more moderate elements of the Syrian rebels could not provide, not because they share the ideology of the group. This does not discount that many of Nusra’s fighters do support the group’s extremist goals, but it explains the group’s willingness to cooperate with other, less extremist, rebels, most notably the Free Syrian Army and the Islamic Front.
While it has led to success on the ground, this coordination has harmed both sides’ credibility. Opponents of arming moderate rebels have pointed to these coordinated operations to prove that the weapons would fall into extremists’ hands. Meanwhile, Nusra’s claim to be the leading jihadist group has suffered from its alliance with moderate rebels who do not adhere to its political agenda.
Over the past two weeks, Nusra has been trying to address its waning popularity. In a leaked speech in early July, Nusra’s leader al-Joulani announced the creation of an Islamic emirate in Syria in an attempt to compete with the Islamic Caliphate of ISIS. Nusra accounts denied that it was an official announcement, as Nusra was awaiting the approval of scholars before it would announce an Islamic state, which served as a rebuke to the Islamic State. But the clarification statement also made clear that Nusra would not cooperate with rebels whose vision did not match that of Nusra. Subsequently, Jabhat al Nusra announced that it would withdraw from the Shariah board in Aleppo and the eastern Ghouta suburb of Damascus that had been in place for a year and a half, as it did not believe that the board’s other members – including the Islamic Front – were committed to the program it espoused.
However, all these changes in Nusra’s rhetoric did not match its strategy on the battlefield until late July, when it ambushed brigades of the Syrian Revolutionary Front in the countryside of Idlib. The group, led by Jamal Maarouf is a part of the Free Syrian Army and has developed a reputation of being moderate, but also one mired by corruption. To justify its betrayal of the SRF, Jabhat al Nusra labeled the group as corrupt, but it also appears ready to use this accusation to widen its attacks against other elements of the moderate opposition.
While Nusra’s attack against the SRF was not the first incident of rebel infighting, moderate rebel groups fear that Nusra is imitating ISIS’s policies, and their response to this attack signals that. In their announcement, the groups stated that they would cease all coordination with Nusra, and they demanded that Nusra return to fighting the regime in Aleppo. As was the case with ISIS, which initially coordinated with the FSA, the moderate rebels have been forced to reevaluate their relationship with Nusra, and the result may be another fracture in the opposition to Bashar al Assad.
Jabhat al Nusra now faces a defining moment in its fight in Syria. It could fully commit to follow ISIS’s footsteps by turning on the moderate rebels and consolidating control of territory that it currently dominates in a move to establish its emirate. While this strategy may help it repair its reputation as an Islamist group, it will isolate it within the Syrian war and increase the probability that its worse case scenario of an Assad victory will come to fruition. However, Nusra will lose even more of its supporters to ISIS if it continues to coordinate with moderate rebels. For now, Jabhat al Nusra appears to be moving to fully commit to turning on the rebels, but this course of action will fracture an already disorganized opposition and may be another step to the defeat of the Syrian Revolution.
Wajdi Mallat is a student at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan. He tweets @wajdicm.