In an announcement that surprised few, Al Qaeda in Iraq has officially incorporated the Syrian militant group Jabhat al-Nusra. With the merger, the two groups will know be known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.
News of the merger first appeared yesterday, when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, head of the Islamic State in Iraq, the local Al Qaeda affiliate there, released a statement about the joining of forces.
Today Jabhat al-Nusra’s leader, Abu Mohammed al-Jawalani, released a statement saying that he had not been informed of the union prior to Mr. Baghdadi’s announcement. Mr. Jawalani added that the group’s conduct in Syria would not change, regardless of Mr. Baghdadi's remarks, or Jabhat al-Nusra's pledge of loyalty to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of Al Qaeda, that same day.
Official remarks from either leader are unlikely to have a significant impact on the situation inside Syria or affect the position of international policymakers, who have opposed arming rebel groups like Jabhat al-Nusra because of suspected ties to Al Qaeda. The remarks only confirm what many people have long suspected.
The US State Department classified Jabhat al-Nusra as a terrorist organization in December, largely because of its alleged ties to Al Qaeda in Iraq. At the time, US officials already accused the Iraqi organization of controlling Jabhat al-Nusra, saying in an official statement that, “al-Nusrah has sought to portray itself as part of the legitimate Syrian opposition while it is, in fact, an attempt by AQI to hijack the struggles of the Syrian people for its own malign purposes.”
Jabhat al-Nusra is widely seen as one of the best supplied militant groups fighting on behalf of the Syrian opposition, with much of its support believed to come from the Gulf countries. The group's access to supplies and resources, in addition to its reputation as an honest broker, have helped it become one of the fastest growing opposition groups.
Despite the group’s classification as a terrorist organization, it has grown substantially in popularity among Syrians. It is viewed as one of the most effective fighting groups among the opposition and has developed a reputation as one of the most honest organizations when it comes to providing government services in opposition-controlled areas.
“Many Syrians are aware of Jabhat al-Nusra’s ideology, but because they’re providing these basic needs they’re essentially okay with it for right now,” says Aaron Zelin, a fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
He adds that with the link between Jabhat al-Nusra and Al Qaeda now official, however, Syrian civilians' opinions could change. “One could see a potential scenario where people see this as now being some kind of outside imperialism from jihadists," Mr. Zelin says.
Syria has traditionally been a moderate country and home to some of the region's most secular thinking. As the revolution has unfolded, however, conservative ideologies have grown in popularity. Now an estimated one in five fighters are jihadis. The growing embrace of conservative thinking concerns a number of Syria watchers because of its implications for the future of the traditionally moderate country.
Still some analysts say that the popularity of such groups may be more the result of their ability to get resources than a widespread ideological shift.
“The groups that have joined with more conservative groups are still made up of people who are not Islamists or Salafists. They’ve joined Salafist groups because it’s the best way to get resources, but that does not mean they’re Salafists,” says Joseph Holliday, a senior research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War who specializes in Syria. “The vast majority of these Islamist groups are fundamentally Syrian nationalists.”