Leader Development & Education for Sustained Peace Program: Cross-Cultural, Geopolitical & Regional Education

In Review – Syria: Not Quite the “Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria”

From our 12 April LDESP Middle East News Update.

In early April, the Al Qaeda affiliate in Iraq announced its official union with its counterpart that emerged during the two-year conflict within Syria. Immediately, there were questions as to the validity of the statement, especially after the leader of the Syrian AQ affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra cautiously distanced his group from the statement. The announcement and affiliation finds the U.S. and Bashar al-Assad’s regime in agreement as the Syrian government responded to the news by calling on the United Nations to recognize Jabhat al-Nusra as a terrorist organization.  Some, like Washington Institute for Near East Policy fellow Aaron Zelin responded saying that this announcement only reiterates the need for U.S. leadership in helping the mainstream rebels contain the jihadists.

Cake celebrating the merger of the Islamic State of Iraq and Jabhat al-Nusra of Syria, from a Salafi-Jihadi Appreciation Page on Facebook

Cake celebrating the merger of the Islamic State of Iraq and Jabhat al-Nusra of Syria, from a Salafi-Jihadi Appreciation Page on Facebook

Others apprehensively concede that the U.S. has only a list of bad options in dealing with the situation in Syria. Brian Fishman, a counterterrorism research fellow at the New America Foundation, who has been following the developments of salafi-jihadi groups in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, analyzed the implications of the announcement on a merger, the future of Jabhat al-Nusra, and the role of AQ central leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in “Welcome to the Islamic state of Syria”:

“As soon as peaceful protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad turned violent in summer 2011, it was clear that al Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq — known as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) — would play a terrible role shaping Syria’s future. That reality was reemphasized on April 9, when ISI leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi publicly acknowledged that his organization had founded the preeminent Syrian jihadi group, Jabhat al-Nusra. Baghdadi then renamed their collective enterprise the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIGS).

Kudos to Baghdadi for confirming what has long been known. The United States had already listed Jabhat al-Nusra as an alias for al Qaeda in Iraq in December 2012, and the basic relationship between the Iraqi and Syrian branches of al Qaeda was easy to surmise when Jabhat al-Nusra officially declared its existence in January 2012. It’s no surprise ISI was quickly able to establish a foothold in Syria: The group had built extensive networks in the country since early in the Iraq war, and was reasserting itself in eastern Iraq, which shares a 376 mile-long border with Syria, in the years before the uprising against Assad began.

The relevant issue, then, is not whether Baghdadi’s statement is true. Rather, the important questions to ask are who made the branding decision, why the ISI acknowledged this relationship now, and whether the announcement will lead to changes in behavior by the jihadist group. In Syria, the looming question is how Jabhat al-Nusra’s open affiliation with al Qaeda will affect its relationships with other rebel groups fighting against Assad.

Still image from video shows Al Qaeda's second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahri speaking from an unknown location

Reuters © Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri speaks from an unknown location, in this still image taken from video uploaded on a social media website June 8, 2011. REUTERS/Social Media Website via Reuters TV.
Image source: “Syria’s Nusra Rebels Say Support Qaeda’s Zawahiri,” Reuters

Perhaps the most interesting conclusion to be drawn from the creation of the ISIGS is that Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s titular head, still seems to be engaged in the operations of the terror group’s regional affiliates. The co-branding of the ISI and Jabhat al-Nusra was preceded on April 7 by an audio statement from Zawahiri urging Jabhat al-Nusra to establish an Islamic state and emphasizing the importance of the Iraqi branch of al Qaeda to that effort. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s subsequent declaration of unity — only a day or so later — suggests either a high-degree of coordination with Zawahiri’s PR team, or that he jumps quickly when the head man gives an order.

Zawahiri’s apparent ability to affect al Qaeda’s strategy in the Levant is somewhat surprising. In the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death, he is the world’s most

wanted man, and a series of U.S. strikes on al Qaeda’s communication network after the bin Laden raid must have forced him deeper underground. Nonetheless, it is very hard to believe that the timing of the Zawahiri and Baghdadi statements are a coincidence. It seems that Zawahiri — like bin Laden before him — remains relevant to the operations of the network he heads.

(…) The public unification of the ISI and Jabhat al-Nusra may not be universally popular — especially among Syrian recruits who were attracted primarily by the group’s military and organizational effectiveness, rather than its ideology. That may explain Jabhat al-Nusra leader Abu Muhammad al-Jolani’s disjointed statement released on April 10, in which he affirmed his allegiance to Zawahiri but rejected the idea of renaming Jabhat al-Nusra and reassured supporters that the group’s operations would not change.

Just as the ISI never threatened to control all of Iraq, the ISIGS is unlikely to attempt to control all of Syria. Rather, it will aim for the Sunni-dominated expanse between the Shia heartland in southern Iraq and the Assad-controlled highlands in western Syria.

Whatever Zawahiri’s rationale, this declaration carries risks for al Qaeda’s operation in Syria. In Iraq, the ISI earned a reputation — even among the Sunni population — as brutal and domineering. Jabhat al-Nusra has avoided some of those mistakes in the past year by collaborating with a range of Syrian militant groups, and has also effectively delivered specific services. But the declaration of an Islamic state will carry with it certain expectations from al Qaeda’s jihadi supporters, just as it did seven years ago in Iraq. One of those expectations is that the group will exercise control over territory — and that will mean confronting tribal groups and other Syrian rebels that may not be on board with Jabhat al-Nusra’s extremist vision. For better or worse, the reckoning between al Qaeda’s Syria affiliate and other rebels groups is beginning.

The unification of Jabhat al-Nusra and the ISI is likely to have a larger impact politically than it will operationally. The U.S. declaration that Jabhat al-Nusra was an al Qaeda affiliate may not have deterred states sponsoring militant groups in Syria; Those states will hopefully be more discerning now about which groups receive arms and resources. Perhaps most importantly, the range of militants — including some Salafi groups — that do not share al Qaeda’s fundamentally destructive worldview may finally reject the newly rebranded terror group. Such a development would be a piece of good news amidst the steady drumbeat of misery coming out Syria these days.

The United States, however, still finds itself largely powerless to stop the terror organization. Washington simply does not have any good policy options in Syria, even though Jabhat al-Nusra’s new branding may lower the legal hurdles to targeting it with drones. Its strategy now must prioritize containing Syria’s unconventional weapons. Make no mistake, it would be a disaster if Assad transfers them to the Lebanese paramilitary organization Hezbollah, but it would be even worse if they fall into the arms of al Qaeda.

There are no euphemisms to conceal the human tragedy and geopolitical disaster that is unfolding in Syria. Bashar al-Assad must go for there to be peace. But so long as Jabhat al-Nusra remains the most powerful rebel group on the ground, Syria cannot even begin the hard work of rebuilding.” (Foreign Policy Magazine)

As Fishman explains, the AQ affiliation is a double-edged sword, especially given their bad reputation in and around Iraq, as well as the fact that many of the opposition consider themselves to be seculars liberals. The small town of Kafranbel presents a microcosm of this dichotomy. Syria Deeply, an excellent source of news and analysis, published an article highlighting an interesting angle of the Syrian conflict: “In Kafranbel, Witty Slogans and Encroaching Islamists”:

“For almost two years, Kafranbel, a small town in Idlib, has enthralled Syrians with its witty banners and cartoons, delivering a message of peaceful defiance that made it an icon of the revolution. But today its residents are split: on one side, ardent supporters of a democratic Syria, on the other, those who seek an Islamic state led by extremists such as Jabhat Al Nusra.

Nestled among rocky hills 6 miles west of Maarat Alnuman, Kafranbel became the source for the most progressive messages of the Syrian revolution, delivered via English banners and clever cartoons. Many activists contributed to this effort, led by Raed Fares.

(…) When the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt successfully toppled their dictators, Fares and some of the lawyers that frequented his real estate office were inspired. “We sprayed anti-regime slogans in town in February 2011, but didn’t think to document it (…) “That night, a pro-Assad rally was held in Kafranbel, but that only increased our resolve,” he said. The following week Kafranbel joined the protest movement, and in subsequent weeks, Fares began tailoring messages to an international audience.

Paradise: One of the many witty cartoons by opposition in Kafranbel, Idlib Province.  Image source: “Signs of Occupied Kafranbel” Facebook Page

Paradise: One of the many witty cartoons by opposition in Kafranbel, Idlib Province.
Image source: “Signs of Occupied Kafranbel” Facebook Page

Fares discusses the overall message with Ahmad, the cartoonist, each week, deciding what events they should comment on and what demands they have for the world and the political opposition abroad. “A few weeks ago we decided to devote the protest to rising sectarian rhetoric,” he said. “We always have one sign or image against sectarianism.”

Islamic extremism is the top priority for Fares and his secular-minded peers these days. He met with a local emir of Jabhat Al Nusra, which the U.S. designated a terrorist organization with ties to Al Qaeda in Iraq, a few weeks ago, and the emir said he wanted to raise their flag at Kafranbel’s protests. Fares refused, and now the town holds two protests each week.

“They don’t like being called extremists but the truth is they are,” Fares said. “They want to impose their views on everyone. They see Islam through a pinhole and I see it through a window.”

(…) The confrontation in Kafranbel today is in the realm of ideas, and Fares hopes that it will remain that way. Nusra and other extremist groups have a “totalitarian vision for Syria that is the same as the regime’s and I fought the regime,” he said. Nusra and its followers deny the existence of a revolution in Syria, Fares said, claiming that revolution is “just a word invented by Che Guevara, and that we are in jihad. I’m not a jihadist, I’m a revolutionary.”

But Fares says Nusra hasn’t replicated the Syrian military’s brutal tactics, occupying towns, burning homes and killing civilians. So, Fares said, the secular movement in Kafranbel will resist the Islamist in the same way they faced the Assad regime, using nonviolent action.” (Syria Deeply)

However, the dichotomy of jihadist versus secular oversimplifies Syria’s robust opposition movement. Again, as Fishman mentioned in his Foreign Policy article excerpted above, elements of Jabhat al-Nusra are wary of alienating potential allies in a post-Assad Syria. In fact, given Al Qaeda in Iraq’s bad reputation and ultimate failures in Iraq and surrounding countries, it is imprudent for Jabhat al-Nusra to completely associate themselves with the brand. Time reporter Rania Abouzeid tells the fascinating story of a Jabhat al-Nusra fighter who returns to a house where he carried out a raid, to smooth over any bad feelings, “In Syria, The Jihadist Campaign for Hearts and Minds”:

Rania Abouzeid, Time reporter, “In Syria, the Jihadist Campaign for Hearts and Minds”

Rania Abouzeid, Time reporter, “In Syria, the Jihadist Campaign for Hearts and Minds

“The bespectacled Jabhat al-Nusra fighter behind the wheel was five minutes early for our 9 a.m. appointment. Kalashnikov rifle slung across his shoulder, he stepped out of the car to open the front passenger door for me. “Good morning,” the young Syrian said after we were both seated. He placed the Kalashnikov near the gear stick. “Are you scared of me?”

I smiled at his choice of greeting, told him I was not. “Good,” he said, as he unfastened the black headscarf he kept wrapped around his face to conceal his identity. The piece of fabric fell away, revealing a bushy black Salafi-style beard (no mustache) and a broad smile with a gap between his two front teeth. “See, I’m not scary,” he said, smiling before securing the scarf back across his face, covering everything but his brown eyes.

Jabhat al-Nusra was one of three Islamist groups that spearheaded the brief battle to capture Raqqa city in early March, making it the first of Syria’s 14 provincial capitals to fall from President Bashar Assad’s grip. The Jabhat is an ultraconservative fighting force the U.S. considers a terrorist outfit because of its ties to al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) — links that AQI apparently confirmed in an audio statement on 9 April. On 10 April, Jabhat al-Nusra’s emir Abu Mohammad al-Golani said his group was not consulted ahead of the AQI statement, but he nonetheless pledged his allegiance to al-Qaeda leader.

Several weeks earlier, the Jabhat fighter and two colleagues had led eight vehicles of fighters, including a truck mounted with a 12.7-mm antiaircraft gun, in a raid deep in Raqqa province on the home the judge had fled to after the rebel victory, the same home we were now heading toward. The judge was detained — like many senior members of the regime in Raqqa city, including the governor and the head of the Baath Party who both remain in rebel custody — but the judge was freed shortly after the raid, as soon as his role in aiding the Islamists had been determined.

We stopped at a local patisserie, where the Jabhat fighter — Kalashnikov in hand, scarf across his face — bought several kilos of sticky, syrup-drenched Arabic sweets for the family we were going to see. He hadn’t been back to the home since he’d raided it. “There was a young girl there,” he said of that night as we got back in the car. “She grabbed my legs and said ‘Please, uncle, don’t take baba [Dad].’ I was really affected by that.”

(…) It wasn’t the first time the Jabhat member said he’d returned to see a family in a home he’d raided. He said he hadn’t come back for the man and his wife who had lied to him and said the judge was not in the house. He’d come back for the children. “I tell the guys that we are all ambassadors. I am an ambassador for Jabhat al-Nusra, and I am a person who pays more attention to children than adults. A child is the only person who is still innocent,” he said as we headed back to Raqqa city.

“Do you remember when you were a child, if somebody did something bad to you, you remember it,” he said. “What we did that night might change their life, they may never forget it, or it might alter their personality. Now, they will remember that I came back to see them.” (Time)

pbs-frontline-merged-logoMUST WATCH – Syria Behind the Lines: PBS’s Frontline recently released a 53-minute long documentary offering an incredible view into the everyday lives of both sides of the Syrian conflict. (Watch online)

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