Under Pressure, Syria's Rebels Face al-Nusra Quandary

By Charles Lister | Senior Fellow - The Middle East Institute | Jul 18, 2016
Under Pressure, Syria's Rebels Face al-Nusra Quandary
Bread line in beseiged Aleppo

This article was first published on the Huffington Post.

For several days now, upwards of 300,000 people living in opposition-held areas of Aleppo city have existed in a state of de facto siege. As forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad closed down the opposition’s last remaining route into the city, sources within the city reported that supplies of critically important fuel and flour are already running low, while food prices have risen 400% in 48-hours. Fruit, vegetables and meat were fast disappearing.

On 15th July, the Council of Free Aleppo issued an “Urgent Report” describing the “fierce attack” ongoing on 64,000 families living in the area and pleaded for international assistance. Sadly, little help appears to be on the way. Last week, the UN assessments of people living in besieged areas of Syria stood at roughly 600,000; this week, that number should rise by 50%, as 300,000 more find themselves encircled in the ruins of eastern Aleppo. 

In recent days, opposition-controlled areas of the city and its outlying areas have been struck by barrel bombs, heavy artillery, air-dropped sea mines and cluster munitions containing incendiary thermite, which burns at 2,500°C - all with minimal comment from the world’s diplomatic community. Desperate attempts by opposition fighters from the city’s 50-group Free Syrian Army (FSA)-led Fatah Halab coalition to repel besieging forces have resulted in dozens of fatalities.

“It is a very difficult situation, we are now besieged completely,” Sheikh Abdullah Othman told this author, while speaking as the political chief of the U.S.-vetted FSA group Al-Jabhat al-Shamiya and as the leader of Aleppo’s Islamic Council.

The Jabhat al-Nusra Issue

As the unthinkable was becoming a reality in Aleppo, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry held a day of talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow and agreed to a series of undetermined terms for bilateral cooperation against terrorism in Syria. A key component of Secretary Kerry’s attempt to close the gap with Russia is the Obama administration’s assessment that Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra now poses a national security threat to the United States and must therefore be more determinedly combated.

Although Jabhat al-Nusra has a negligible presence within Aleppo city, it is active on a small-scale in its Bustan al-Qasr and al-Shaar districts, as well as in the city’s northern outskirts in Al-Mallah, Hreytan and Handarat. Elsewhere, the Al-Qaeda affiliate remains a dominant force across much of Idlib governorate and in Aleppo’s southern countryside, in northern Hama and in parts of northern Latakia. For all these areas, Jabhat al-Nusra continues to operate alongside or in close proximity to a wide array of mainstream opposition forces. Whether as a dominant force or not, Jabhat al-Nusra will now inevitably form a component of more strategic opposition attempts to break the siege of Aleppo from outside. Sizeable operations are currently being planned from the city’s northern, western and southern countrysides.

The U.S. has long been plagued by this inconvenient “marbling” dynamic – in which Jabhat al-Nusra has embedded itself deeply within Syrian revolutionary dynamics and established a relationship of military interdependence with the opposition. As a highly capable military actor, Jabhat al-Nusra’s role within opposition offensive and defensive operations remains of critical value. Consequently, months of U.S. covert attempts to convince opposition forces to “de-couple” themselves from front-lines on which Jabhat al-Nusra was present have been consistently spurned. As one of the most powerful opposition leaders in Aleppo governorate told this author, “If we withdrew from some of these positions, it would mean we were effectively ceding territory to the regime. This is impossible to consider under existing conditions.”

“The Americans refuse to strengthen the factions,” said Zakariya Malahfji of Tajamu Fastaqim Kama Umrit, an FSA group vetted by the United States and present in Aleppo city. “But at the same time, they object to us allowing al-Nusra to help in our battles. This is illogical.” Another senior U.S.-vetted figure from Aleppo who requested anonymity, was similarly frustrated: “Our situation in Aleppo has been desperate for so long, but Americans seem happy to watch us suffer and die. We are desperate and we’ll accept support from whoever will give it, so long as it contributes to defending against the [Assad] regime.”

Such arguments have had little policy effect in Washington DC, within an administration that appears increasingly resistant to activating real pressure on Assad as a means of securing a meaningful political process. Therefore, absent a substantial shift in conditions on the ground, the likelihood of mainstream opposition forces de-linking themselves from Jabhat al-Nusra looks highly improbable. As a senior Ahrar al-Sham leader told this author, “physical de-coupling is really difficult due to the nature of the front-lines where factions overlap in order to repel attacks. [Meanwhile, foreign] military pressure will make all factions operate more closely, since the alternative means defeat.”

Notwithstanding such Syrian nuance, an intensification of U.S. and Russian military action against Jabhat al-Nusra seems now to be only a matter of time. Should opposition forces indeed refuse to de-couple, inter-group cooperation will indeed likely intensify even further in response to the heightened external threat. This will then place a vast array of mainstream opposition forces back onto Russia’s target-set, though this time with apparent international legitimacy. As senior Jabhat al-Nusra leader Mustafa Mohamed Farag exclaimed: “Jabhat al-Nusra does not live in a bubble. It lives amongst the Muslims over thousands of square kilometers. Where are [the U.S. and Russia] going to target Jabhat al-Nusra alone? Jabhat al-Nusra are too deeply rooted into society to be exterminated as per US-Russian plans.”

The long-term consequences of such a scenario for the anti-Assad movement can only be assessed as negative. Some Syrians across the country’s north are therefore preparing themselves for a new phase of conflict, in which territory may be lost but resistance stays alive. “It’s likely that we’ll enter into a period of guerrilla warfare - a war of the streets, of bombings and raids,” said Malahfji.

The Syrian Islamic Movement?

Within this dynamic of opposition reflection, several highly influential figures within the mainstream Syrian Islamist and Salafi-Jihadi communities have come together in recent weeks to discuss a potential solution to the greater Jabhat al-Nusra quandary. In a series of secret meetings held in Aleppo’s western countryside and in Idlib - which until now have not been made public - it has been proposed that a potentially sizeable portion of Jabhat al-Nusra’s Syrian force break away from the Al-Qaeda affiliate and form a new independent faction, Al-Harakat al-Islamiya al-Souriya, or the Syrian Islamic Movement.

A key figure involved in this effort is Sheikh Saleh al-Hamawi, a Syrian from the Hama town of Halfaya who along with six others, founded Jabhat al-Nusra in October 2011. He was later expelled from Jabhat al-Nusra in July 2015 for his outspoken criticism of the group’s increasingly aggressive practices. Speaking to this author, Hamawi confirmed that “negotiations” were ongoing and that the ‘Syrian Islamic Movement’ name had indeed been put forward. “Soon, there will be an ultimatum made to al-Nusra: either disengage [from Al-Qaeda] and merge with major Islamic factions, or face isolation socially, politically and militarily [from the revolution].” Four other prominent Islamists similarly confirmed that the proposal was being developed, two of which identified two other leading Jabhat al-Nusra figures considering breaking away: founding member and former de facto deputy leader Maysar Ali Musa Abdullah al-Juburi (Abu Mariya al-Qahtani) and the group’s current Emir of Aleppo, Abdullah al-Sanadi.

This is not the first time that Hamawi and Juburi’s names have emerged as key figures proposing a possible break with Al-Qaeda. Since at least late-2014, both figures have been revealed as those most willing to question the strategic value of remaining loyal to a foreign and unpopular jihadi movement (Al-Qaeda). Soon, their views saw them acquire the label “doves” within Syria’s revolutionary Islamist communities and attracted the attention of both Turkey and Qatar, which have at times covertly attempted to encourage Jabhat al-Nusra or portions of the group to break away from Al-Qaeda. It stands to reason that one or both of these countries may well be promoting this new effort, especially given the involvement of Ahrar al-Sham in allegedly facilitating some of the discussions and the apparent imminence of strikes on Jabhat al-Nusra.

One influential opposition figure expanded upon the process further. “Around one third of al-Nusra may join [the new movement] as they want to avoid being targeted and to lead a national faction away from Al-Qaeda. But they are facing great pressures, especially from [jihadi group] Jund al-Aqsa… and it is not proving easy for some to consider breaking their loyalty to [Jabhat al-Nusra leader] al-Jolani. If it will happen, it could be soon.”

Another senior figure in Ahrar al-Sham meanwhile, refused to comment in detail on the secret talks, insisting that “it is better kept silent for now, it is already a fragile process.” He did however, argue that Syrian efforts to split the ‘less bad’ from the ‘bad’ of Jabhat al-Nusra stood a better chance than external pressure on the opposition. “Real pressure on some to de-link from Al-Qaeda should come from the factions and the population, and this is ongoing. Escalating the pressure on the factions [from outside] could jeopardize any potential smooth split from within al-Nusra.”

Tackling Jabhat al-Nusra

Despite the potentially significant practical on-the-ground consequences of what is being proposed, the viability of the outcome is far from certain and Jabhat al-Nusra itself remains an avowed affiliate of Al-Qaeda that seeks eventually to establish Islamic Emirates in Syria. Moreover, its powerful and growing presence in northern Syria has led to the establishment of a “safe base” for the emergence of a new core of Al-Qaeda’s global leadership. The long-term threat that this reality poses is clear and unavoidable - and it must be confronted. However, external military action by itself will only embolden the jihadi group’s conspiratorial narrative, which effectively paints the international community as intrinsically hostile to the anti-Assad movement.

Instead, any military action against Jabhat al-Nusra should be strictly limited to the targeting of senior leadership figures, while broader measures focused upon civilian protection and the preservation of Syria’s mainstream opposition should be prioritized. Clearly, Jabhat al-Nusra is not altogether a unitary organization. Syrians have long claimed that a portion of the jihadi group’s manpower are not in and of themselves committed transnational jihadis. A more durable strategy against Jabhat al-Nusra should seek to exploit this dynamic, rather than ignore it. A more durable strategy should also acknowledge the international community’s fundamental failings thus far to prevent the Assad regime’s daily committing of war crimes against his own people. That very fact has fed Jabhat al-Nusra’s narrative, recruitment and credibility on the ground every day since mid-2012.

If there has been one moment when Jabhat al-Nusra looked most vulnerable in Syria, it was during the early weeks of the recent Cessation of Hostilities (CoH), when a period of relative calm saw the most moderate nature of the anti-Assad revolution dominate over and above all other dynamics. Jabhat al-Nusra became virtually impotent overnight. That CoH was gradually eroded however, first by repeated Assad regime violations and later by Jabhat al-Nusra, which sought to re-establish more favorable conditions of chaos and warfare.

Unfortunately, Syrians are unlikely to trust another attempted CoH, especially if paired with foreign air strikes against Jabhat al-Nusra and any opposition group operating in close proximity to it. At a minimum, a significantly more assertive imposition of calm will be necessary this time around, with discernible and consequential costs for violations guaranteed by the United States. The leaked U.S. proposal to Russia does stipulate a hoped-for grounding of the Assad regime’s air force, but remarkably makes no mention of the equally dangerous use of artillery and medium-range ground-to-ground missiles. Moreover, no enforcement mechanisms are proposed and no consequences determined for violations. Such half-measures aimed at protecting civilians will not work this time around.

As influential Islamic cleric Sheikh Hassan al-Dugheim makes clear, Syria’s mainstream opposition will also demand and require expanded levels of support should they be expected to de-couple themselves from Jabhat al-Nusra, while abiding by broader ceasefire-like conditions. “It will not be possible to isolate al-Nusra without a no-fly zone, fully guaranteed by the international community, along with much stronger support to the Free [Syrian] Army. Without this, it is inconceivable. We would risk losing everything.”

While it does remain feasible to defeat ISIS independently from attempts to solve Syria’s broader crisis, Jabhat al-Nusra’s fate is intrinsically linked to the conflict’s outcome and how it ends. External intervention against Al-Qaeda without concerted and guaranteed efforts to protect civilians and safeguard the mainstream opposition will undoubtedly fail. In fact, it will further embolden extremism and directly erode crucial levels of moderation within a still considerable portion of the opposition. Any hoped-for political settlement to the Syrian crisis will demand a core representation of on-the-ground opposition actors. It remains the international community’s responsibility to ensure such a prospect remains possible.