The Rise of al-Nusra

The supposed 'merger' between the Syrian opposition group 'Jabhet al-Nusra' and Al-Qa'ida in Iraq is nothing new. But it underscores the Jihadist takeover of the Syrian opposition while moderates remain weak and divided and the humanitarian crisis worsens.

By Ranj Alaaldin

The leader of Jabhet al-Nusra, a prominent jihadist group fighting Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria, announced on Wednesday its allegiance to the leader of Al-Qa'ida Ayman al-Zawahiri. The statement comes just a day after the Islamic State of Iraq , also known as Al-Qa'ida in Iraq (AQI), released an audio message announcing the extension of its 'Islamic State' into al-Sham (the Levant), effectively declaring, officially, the link between the two organisations. Many media commentators mark this as a significant milestone, while other observers are clear that the two organisations were always one and the same.

The al-Nusra front was declared a terrorist organisation and blacklisted by the US State Department last December because of its links to AQI. The group captured the attention of the international community after carrying out a series of sophisticated suicide attacks on government targets inside Damascus and has gained widespread prominence within and beyond Syria because it engages regime targets directly, conducting small-arms ambushes and assaults on isolated army outposts. The organisation is now at the forefront of the most successful rebel attacks in the field as the Syria conflict enters its third year.

Al-Nusra's declaration of allegiance to Al-Qa'ida is significant because it is testament to the ascendancy of the group, the following it commands and the confidence it boasts inside Syria. Up until now, the group has avoided such expressions of allegiance, with the aim of broadening its support base inside Syria and sustaining the cooperation of other rebel groups with different ideological colourings.

Filling a Vacuum

The rise of al-Nusra is attributable to the lacklustre performance of Syria's mainstream opposition forces: their lack of organisation, internal squabbling and lack of legitimacy inside Syria allowed for more organised movements like al-Nusra to dominate the resulting gap that emerged and position itself as the dominant military force on the ground.

Reports have also suggested that al-Nusra has started to provide basic services to populations in the areas it controls or dominates inside Syria. The group has acquired support and legitimacy amongst the Syrian people, firstly, because of its audacious attacks; secondly, because it's Islamic credentials make it a more 'purer' opposition group among a radicalised Syrian population. Finally, Al-Nusra has gained ground because the main umbrella opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), has been derided for being beholden to foreign interests, and for putting personal interests ahead of the broader objectives of the revolution. 

According to former jihadi fighters, al-Nusra is also a secretive organisation and elitist, making it appealing to Syrians who wish to play their role in the revolution but for a respectable organisation that also offers prestige and impressive military training.[1] According to those same sources, the group has somewhere between 5,000 to 10,000 fighters. However, it has additional fighters in the thousands known as 'affiliate fighters', who fight for the organisation but are yet to become official al-Nusra fighters or members. For that, fighters must first prove their worth and then the support of at least two commanders. Upon recommendation, they acquire membership, status and a chance to play a potential role in the post-Assad Syria.[2]

The link between al-Nusra and the AQI is logical and should not be surprising. Al-Nusra is formed of fighters who took part in the post-2003 armed campaign against US forces in Iraq, jihadists who essentially crossed into Iraq from Syria to commit terrorist atrocities against US and Iraqi targets. Most of AQI's fighters were foreign jihadists from neighbouring countries, in particular Syria. Al-Nusra's leader, Jawlani, has himself acknowledged that he fought in Iraq alongside AQI.

Today, AQI still remains a menace for Iraq's security apparatus and, ten-years on, the favour is being returned as both men and resources are being devoted to the battle against Assad's forces.[3] Al-Nusra, like Syria's other rebel groups, has secured both recruits and supplies from neighbouring Iraq in the north-western Sunni-dominated towns along the Syrian border, where Iraq's Sunnis continue their four-month protests against perceived discrimination from the Shia-led government of Iraq.[4] Sources within Iraq have also disclosed that al-Nusra had been operating intensely over the past three months to secure these supply lines, so that it consolidates its position and prevents any rival groupings from mounting a challenge against the organisation.[5]

al-Nusra Front thumbLinks with the Iraq Insurgency

Al-Nusra fighters are, therefore, battle-hardened fighters who bring to Syria the tactics and experience that allowed them to launch some of the worst of terrorist atrocities against US forces and Iraqi civilians. As in the case of post-Qadhafi Libya, where Islamist militias continue to dominate with Gulf backing, militant groups like al-Nusra are expected to play a commanding role in the post-Assad Syria. As in the case of Libyan Islamist groups, al-Nusra receives its funding from private donations in the Gulf.

That makes the case for Western intervention in Syria all the weaker. Western governments could opt to directly fund and arm moderate movements inside Syria to counter al-Nusra but, with US support, the Arab world and Turkey have already attempted this and they have failed to match the prowess and dominance of the organisation.[6]

Options Ahead

There are few good policy options available. Pumping more weapons into Syria, tried and tested already, could further destabilise the security environment. Instead, the West should look to continue building the technical and organisational capacity of the SNC and, perhaps, in time, the SNC will get its house in order in ways akin to the Libyan opposition, which also struggled to organise itself into a reliable and effective fighting force during the formative stages of the Libyan uprising. 

What the West must not forget is that al-Nusra's most potent enemies lie within Syria itself. The post-2003 Iraq example shows that it is imperative to build on engagement with moderate paramilitary forces as well as tribal networks that have no desire to cede territory to jihadists like al-Nusra, either in the interim or in the post-Assad Syria.

Ranj Alaaldin is a doctoral student at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is also a senior analyst at the Next Century Foundation. @RanjAlaaldin

The views expressed here are the author's alone and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.


[1] Author interview with a former jihadi based in London; interview with a former member of the Iraqi insurgency based in London

[2] Ibid.

[3] Author interview with Iraqi government official based in Baghdad

[4] Ibid. See also: Syrian Rebels Tied to Al Qaeda Play Key Role in War, New York Times,  8 December 2012.

[5] Ibid. Author interview with a member of the Dulaimi tribe based in Baghdad; interview with former jihadi fighter, see Ibid. See also: 'Syria turmoil stirs Iraqi tribal sympathies, hopes', Reuters, 31 October 2012.

[6] 'Arms Airlift to Syria Rebels Expands, With Aid From C.I.A.' New York Times, 24 March 2013


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