FPI Bulletin: The Danger of Ignoring Al-Qaeda in Syria

May 11, 2016

Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra (the Nusra Front), has been planting deep roots while the U.S. and its allies focus on the struggle against the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh). For years, al-Nusra has been patiently laying the groundwork for the establishment of its own Islamic state in Syria. The United States cannot afford to wait until it has defeated ISIS before confronting al-Nusra, since focusing on ISIS alone risks facilitating al-Nusra’s expansion. 

Al Nusra in Syria

Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, recently warned, “After years of painstaking work to increase its sway in northern Syria, Nusra Front recently launched consultations within its own ranks and among some sympathetic opposition groups about proclaiming an emirate.” This move, Lister says, will “almost certainly” come as soon as the end of this year. 

Declaring an Islamic state would be a stark departure from al-Nusra’s established method.  “Whereas the Islamic State has imposed unilateral control over populations and rapidly proclaimed independence,” Lister notes, “Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate has moved much more deliberately, seeking to build influence in the areas they hope to rule.” Jennifer Cafarella an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), writes, “Jabhat al-Nusra is leveraging its battlefield contributions to create relationships with civil society, civilian populations and other Syrian opposition groups. It then manipulates those relationships in order to achieve dominance. And it directly targets U.S.-backed groups, and defeats them when it can, in order to ensure that moderate forces do not find footing in a new Syria.”

The Nusra Front is an integral component of the global al-Qaeda network led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, erstwhile deputy of the late Osama bin Laden. In a thorough study of al-Nusra’s objectives and capabilities, Cafarella and her co-authors observe, “Al Qaeda devotes significant resources to its Syrian base, including having sent a team of veteran operatives to advise, train, and share strategic and tactical expertise.” After ISIS broke away from al-Qaeda’s global network in 2013, the network’s leadership strove to rebuild al-Nusra, the affiliate most damaged by the schism with ISIS. Lister recounts how “Veteran and senior al Qaeda figures began arriving in Syria in mid-2013, seeking to bolster Nusra Front’s leadership.” The extent of Zawahiri’s influence over al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate is aptly demonstrated by al-Nusra’s acceptance of a new strategy dictated by Zawahiri in 2015, which called for a more cooperative stance toward the rest of the Syrian opposition.

Though al-Qaeda has not made a final decision regarding the establishment of Syrian emirate, its consequences would be severe.  Lister observes, “The combination of an al Qaeda emirate and a revitalized al Qaeda central leadership in northern Syria would represent a confidence boost for the jihadi organization’s global brand. Al Qaeda would present itself as the smart, methodical, and persistent jihadi movement that, in contrast to the Islamic State, had adopted a strategy more aligned with everyday Sunni Muslims.”  “Eventually,” warns Lister, “the decision would be made to initiate the plotting of foreign attacks, using Syria’s proximity to Europe and al Qaeda’s regional network to pose a far more urgent threat than the group ever posed in Yemen and Afghanistan.

The Cost of American Passivity

The success of al-Nusra is directly tied to the United States’ hesitation to take a firm stand against the Assad regime and its patrons in Tehran and Moscow.  “The dominant narrative within the Sunni Arab population of Syria,” observe Cafarella and her co-authors, “is that the West is backing the Alawites and Iranians in their efforts to subjugate and oppress the Sunni.” With the U.S. uninterested or incapable of protecting the victims of Assad’s brutality, “the Sunni Arab population sees Jabhat al Nusra’s combat power as part of its own defense against the existential threat of Alawite-Iranian aggression.” 

Fortunately, many Syrians who appreciate of al-Nusra’s contributions on the battlefield do not necessarily sympathize with its extremist ideology. According to Lister, “the vast majority of Syria’s mainstream opposition rejects, in principle, the presence of an al Qaeda emirate in their country and the imposition of transnational jihadi objectives onto Syrian soil.” “Don’t you think we would prefer not to have al-Nusra in our trenches? They represent everything we are opposed to,” one commander of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) told Lister. “But what can we do when our supposed friends abroad give us nothing to assert ourselves? We rely on others only because we cannot do the job by ourselves.”

While U.S.-backed Kurdish forces have reclaimed a substantial amount of territory from ISIS in northern Syria, a reliance on Kurdish or other minority forces will not be effective against al-Nusra, because al-Nusra is not geographically isolated. Therefore, Cafarella and her co-authors recommend, the U.S.-led coalition must “fundamentally alter its approach” from one that relies on ethnic minorities to one that “operates within the Sunni Arab community itself.”  

The U.S. must also abandon its self-defeating effort to facilitate a diplomatic solution to the Syrian conflict while allowing Assad and his patrons to enhance their leverage via success on the battlefield. According to a new report from the Center for a New American Security, “Unless the United States significantly increases and sustains its support for moderate rebel groups to force a shift in the battlefield, the diplomatic process is most likely to fail because there are few incentives for the Assad regime to relinquish power.” The report argues, “The primary U.S. effort should be on a bottom-up strategy for building cohesive, moderate armed opposition institutions with a regional focus that is tailored for each individual region within Syria.” Over time, the U.S. should incentivize these regionally-focused groups to form broader coalitions with a unified command.

Can the White House Learn?

The Obama administration has tentatively indicated that it may soon be ready to give meaningful support to the mainstream Syrian opposition.  Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters on May 3 that Syria must begin a political transition by August 1, or the U.S. would pursue a “very different track.” When testifying before the Senate in February, Kerry had first warned of a “Plan B” for Syria that Washington would implement if Moscow did not help to secure a political solution to the conflict. In discussing potential support for rebels fighting the Moscow-backed regime, Kerry said, “This can get a lot uglier.” In April, the Wall Street Journal reported that “Plan B” would consist of providing “vetted rebel units with weapons systems that would help them in directing attacks against Syrian regime aircraft and artillery positions.”

The unfortunate truth is that “Plan B” should have been “Plan A” four years ago, and certainly after Assad’s August 2013 chemical weapons attack against a Damascus suburb that killed more than 1,400 people.  By now, it should be clear to Kerry that Syrian regime officials will refuse to negotiate a political transition away from Assad if they do not feel pressure on the battlefield. Thus, there is little reason to wait until August while brutal attacks continue. The time for “Plan B” is now.

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
Read More