Friday, September 12, 2014

Back to front - How Jabhat al-Nusra might fare in the anti-Islamic State campaign

An interesting subtext of President Barack Obama’s campaign to “ultimately destroy” the Islamic State (ISIS) is what it will mean for the rival Jabhat al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria.

While ISIS has alarmed most countries, the Nusra Front has played its cards carefully. It has not imitated the barbaric behavior of its jihadist counterpart; it has focused on Syria, even if it ultimately seeks to create a Muslim caliphate there; and it has maintained collaborative relations with Syrian rebel groups, unlike ISIS, which has sought mainly to overpower them.

The Nusra Front must look at Obama’s declaration of war against ISIS with mixed feelings. America is the enemy, but its bombing of ISIS may permit Al-Qaeda to regain the initiative among transnational jihadist groups thanks to the elimination of a group that rejected the leadership of Ayman al-Zawahiri.

By contrast, the Nusra Front has been cultivating, for lack of a better word, an “accommodating” public image. For instance, it has been more flexible in dealing with the Lebanese soldiers and policemen it recently abducted in Arsal. Four Sunni soldiers and one policeman were released by the group on August 30.

The Nusra Front also allowed the family of a Christian captive, George Khoury, to meet with him earlier this week. And more generally, the group has been responsive to mediation efforts, unlike ISIS, which beheaded two soldiers, one of them a Sunni. This provoked sectarian tensions in the Beqaa Valley, showing how the group seeks to gain from sectarian polarization.

The brutality of ISIS is reminiscent of that of the late Abu Musaab al-Zarqawi, who headed Al-Qaeda in Iraq. Zarqawi’s savagery brought a rebuke from Al-Qaeda’s leadership, which charged that such actions were only alienating Muslims. According to David Ignatius, near the end, Osama bin Laden “was haunted by the mistakes al-Qaeda had made,” above all its wanton killings. His state of mind was revealed in documents taken from the Al-Qaeda leader’s hideout in Abbottabad.   

Where ISIS has used the Syrian war to pursue an agenda of aggrandizement – which involved, for a time, collaborating directly or indirectly with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad – the Nusra Front has focused on a Syria-first agenda. Its priority is the end of Assad’s rule, which is why the group has retained some support among rebel militias.

Particularly interesting has been the Nusra Front’s efforts to shape the way it is perceived. Recently, it captured 45 Fijian United Nations peacekeepers in the Golan Heights. One of its principal demands for their release was that it be removed from a UN terrorism blacklist. On Thursday the peacekeepers were released, although its condition had not been met. 

This striving for reinvention raised interesting questions. Was this a tactical move by the Nusra Front, at a time when it seeks to present itself as a contrast to ISIS in Syria, and in that way rally support among Sunni Muslims? Or does it reflect a more profound change in direction by Al-Qaeda, perhaps reflecting the doubts bin Laden himself had about his organization?

How might Obama’s campaign against ISIS affect the Nusra Front? American officials noted that Obama might expand American airstrikes into Syria under the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, which targeted Al-Qaeda. They said that “the Islamic State’s ‘long-standing relationship’ with al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden is sufficient to be covered by the statute.”

Does that mean that the Nusra Front may also soon find itself in the Americans’ crosshairs? It’s conceivable, although hitting the group could greatly benefit the Syrian regime, which is fighting the Nusra Front in the south of Syria, around Damascus, and in Qalamoun, along the Lebanese border.

More likely, the Obama administration does not want its campaign against ISIS to strengthen Assad, which may be to the advantage of the Nusra Front. The American plan to train moderate Syrian rebels, even if it takes time, would be intended to allow them to impose their will on the ground, and perhaps marginalize those such as the Nusra Front once this happens.

Obama cleverly linked the $500 million in aid to the Syrian rebels he had announced several weeks ago to the anti-ISIS crusade, tying Congress’s hands. Congressional approval of the money was never guaranteed, but now that this aid is a key component of the president’s broader plan to defeat ISIS in Syria, it is difficult for Congress to turn Obama down. On Thursday House Republican leaders said they would support Obama, even if there are doubts about his strategy. 

America’s decision to enter Syria, albeit in a limited way and perhaps not immediately, will alter calculations on the ground. Once the United States is in, “moderation” will become the new catchphrase. This, in turn, could mean a transformation and new alliances among groups fighting Assad rule, who will seek to take advantage of the campaign against ISIS.

There have been reports that some Salafist groups such as Ahrar al-Sham, whose senior leadership was decapitated this week, could have been planning a reorientation. As Charles Lister of the Brookings Doha Center has written, “speaking both in public and in private, senior political officials began as early as April 2014 to present a more moderate and cooperative stance, especially in terms of the group’s religio-political objectives.”

This is hardly to suggest that the Nusra Front is contemplating taking a similar path. The problems between the group and the Americans are very real. But as the Obama administration fights ISIS, it will see that some jihadist groups are more equal than others in the eyes of some of its Arab allies. The Nusra Front is apparently playing on this ambiguity. That could pay off, and the Obama administration will have to address it before long.

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