Brookings terrorism expert Charles Lister, who focuses particularly on extremist groups within the Syrian rebel universe, like (especially) Jabhat al-Nusra, broke a potentially significant story on Twitter yesterday:
It’s past “tomorrow” in Syria and as far as I can tell there’s been no announcement of a split, so this report remains unconfirmed. And as it’s Sunday, and late, and this whole thing amounts to one giant shrug emoji
I hope you’ll forgive me if I don’t have any particularly impressive insights about it right now. Jabhat al-Nusra (“the Support Front”) is, until further notice of course, al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate. It is also an active participant in the Syrian civil war, fighting, of course, on the side of the Syrian rebels. Unlike its former al-Qaeda cousin, ISIS, Nusra has chosen to work within the broader rebel…whatever it is. Coalition, I guess, but that implies levels of collaboration that don’t always exist among Syria’s various rebel factions. Where ISIS made the decision back in 2013-early 2014 (or had the decision made for it) to wage war against both the other anti-Assad forces and Assad himself (and, truth be told, until fairly recently it focused a lot more on fighting the former than the latter), Nusra has opted to fight alongside several other rebel groups, usually of the extreme Salafi variety (in particular Ahrar al-Sham). ISIS decided very early on that its goal was to create a new state, and to do that it had to carve out territory at everybody’s expense. Nusra, by contrast, has been focused on defeating Assad first, then worrying about territory after–though that may be changing.
Nusra’s alliance with Ahrar al-Sham in the “Army of Conquest” (Jaysh al-Fatah) has produced some of the rebels’ (from now on when I say “rebels” you can assume I’m excluding ISIS) biggest and most enduring victories of the war, in Idlib province. Jaysh al-Fatah’s conquest of Idlib back in took an entire province of Syria out of Assad’s hands and put him in enough peril that Russia was finally motivated to immerse itself in Assad’s problems–though it’s worth noting that for all Russia has done to turn the tide of the war, especially around Aleppo, Idlib is still in rebel hands.
Jabhat al-Nusra’s close affiliation with other rebel factions has been something of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it’s undeniable that Nusra has been one of the most effective rebel fighting forces. The Idlib offensive wouldn’t have happened without them. On the other hand, the United States, for obvious reasons, won’t directly arm or aid rebel groups with known links to al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate. That’s not to say that US weapons haven’t found their way to Nusra, just that it’s had to happen by circuitous routes. And rebel supporters in, for example, and just hypothetically speaking, the Persian Gulf can’t really touch Nusra (not openly, anyway) either, also because of its al-Qaeda ties. So for some time now, there has been a growing sense that Nusra might break ties with al-Qaeda and change its #brand to something less toxic. Other Syrian factions like Ahrar al-Sham have reportedly been encouraging this step, as have the aforementioned but still totally hypothetical Gulf patrons, but Nusra hasn’t actually been willing to cut the cord yet. Instead, they’ve tried doing some genuine PR work to portray themselves as really reasonable, moderate dudes who just want to do right by Syria, not the hardcore jihadi terrorists you’d expect they’d be because of the fact that they’re AQ franchisees.
Only the PR campaign hasn’t worked. The US still won’t overtly get anywhere near Nusra or groups collaborating with them, and has instead been negotiating with Russia on combining their air campaigns over Syria–to target ISIS, of course, but also to target Nusra without spillover onto rebel groups Washington considers more moderate (so far Russia has largely been unwilling to make that distinction). Those negotiations haven’t really gone anywhere yet, but if they do it could make things more difficult for those rebel groups that have been working with Nusra to keep working with Nusra. The Obama administration has reportedly been telling rebels with whom it has any sway to make a clean break with Nusra in order to get themselves out of the way of airstrikes, and has been telling reporters that it sees Nusra as nearly as big a threat to the United States as ISIS. Nusra’s #brand may be more toxic than ever. But there’s likely little the rebels can actually do to separate themselves from Nusra, so tightly are they interconnected, and that’s even assuming they would want to do so. As desperate as the situation in Aleppo is, it’s almost inconceivable that other rebel factions would want to worry about divesting themselves of their relationship with, again, a group that has had proven battlefield success against Assad’s forces. Something has to give.
Something else, besides Aleppo and those US-Russian talks, has changed in the Nusra-AQ dynamic recently involved a statement from one of al-Qaeda’s spiritual leaders:
Analysts and people close to Nusra reportedly indicated that about a third of the group was prepared to renounce terrorism and that the split had the backing of a leading cleric.
Influential Jordanian-based Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi supported cutting ties with al-Qaeda, according to The Times. “If the name of Nusra is a justification to target its affiliates, then changing or abdicating it is not abdicating the Koran,” he wrote in a statement. “And disengaging [from al-Qaeda] is not apostasy when there’s a need.”
It’s also worth noting that in May, al-Qaeda’s nominal boss, Ayman al-Zawahiri, reportedly gave his blessing for Nusra to establish an “emirate” in Idlib in order to compete with ISIS. There wasn’t any talk about Nusra dropping its al-Qaeda affiliation at that point, but it’s clear that everybody’s been thinking about new steps for Nusra to take. And this leads to the key question: would Nusra be quitting al-Qaeda, if that’s indeed what happens, with al-Qaeda’s tacit approval? I mean, look, we can talk about how Nusra is full of reasonable guys who aren’t interested in, I don’t know, massacring Alawite civilians or whatever, but talk is all that would be. The same people will still be running Nusra, or whatever they decide to call it after the hypothetical split, and there’s no reason to expect that those people have suddenly changed ideologies. It wouldn’t be at all out of the question for Nusra’s leadership to wink-wink their way out of al-Qaeda while the heat is turned up, with the understanding that they’ll still be in the fold for all purposes except outward appearances.
It also wouldn’t be out of the question, assuming the split is genuine (or, hell, maybe even if it isn’t) to see this move cause a revolt among die-hard AQ supporters within the group. So you might see Nusra itself splintering at some point. Nusra’s hope will be that eliminating its connection to al-Qaeda (at least overtly) will open the groups with which it collaborates up for more assistance from the US, and will open those groups as well as Nusra itself up for more assistance from the Gulf. And hey, if Russia and the US are going to start collaborating on striking Jabhat al-Nusra, maybe it’s best if Jabhat al-Nusra no longer exists. For this all to work the way they want it to, though, Nusra needs the US and its allies to avoid checking out the man behind the curtain. We’ll see.
One fun thing to watch will be to see which Serious US National Security Figure first pushes the idea that the US should directly arm whatever Jabhat al-Nusra decides to call itself after the divorce. Hell, two-time “America’s Next Top General” champion David Petraeus was pushing the idea of arming “moderate” Nusra elements months ago, when Nusra was still very much part of al-Qaeda. Imagine how much people will push for it if Nusra divests itself of that baggage.