Why Al Qaeda just got jilted in Syria

The Nusra Front has split from Al Qaeda over competing visions for the future of jihad. Al Qaeda wanted to take a page from the ISIS playbook. Nusra wants to establish a new model. 

Khalil Ashawi/Reuters/File
Members of Al Qaeda's Nusra Front drive in a convoy as they tour villages in the southern countryside of Idlib, Syria, in this file photo.

The split between Al Qaeda and its Syria affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra announced Thursday is not simply a squabble over battlefield considerations or terrorist lists. It is a struggle over the future of global jihad.

Seeking to reclaim its status as the leader of global jihad, Al Qaeda central leadership has recently pushed its Syrian ally to unilaterally declare an Islamic “emirate” in its territories, mimicking the success of the so-called Islamic State, Al Qaeda and Nusra sources say. 

For Nusra, Al Qaeda’s top-down approach represented the past – a model of insurgency and terror built for a different era. Building a society from the ground-up though local alliances and providing basic services to earn residents’ trust is the future.

It is a path that Islamist groups like Hezbollah have taken before. But for a militant group explicitly aiming to create a separate state, the move is a first. 

“We are forging a new path – a path for all Syrians, and all Muslims,” says Abu Mohammed Al Urdoni, the nom de guerre of a Jordanian operative within Nusra, now rebranded Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham, or Front for the Conquest of Syria.

“We are here to serve the people, protect the people, and liberate the people – not to rule them.”

The schism is significant for the region and for the evolution of terrorist groups more broadly. While declaring an “emirate” would have grabbed headlines and attracted recruits, analysts say that Nusra’s decision to stick to its grass-roots approach stands a better chance of embedding the organization into Syrian society for decades to come.

It creates a sharp contrast with the brutal rule of Islamic State, not to mention Al Qaeda’s own ambitions in Syria. In that way, if Nusra is successful, it could provide a model for other jihadists to emulate.

In his first-ever public appearance – to announce the split – Nusra leader Abu Mohammed Al Jolani repeatedly referred to the group’s “service” of Syrians, casting Nusra’s new organization as for “the people.”

“This new organization aims … to serve the Muslims, attend to their daily needs and ease the hardships in every possible way,” Mr. Jolani said in a statement, aired by Dubai-based Syrian opposition station Orient News.

Jolani repeated the group’s desire to “unite the people of” Syria and  “ensure security, stability, and a dignified life for the people.”

Winning hearts and minds

With its break from Al Qaeda, Nusra looks to build on Syrians’ dependence on the group for everything from bread to traffic control.

In the towns and villages it controls, Nusra has established shariah courts to settle local disputes according to Islamic law, deployed traffic police, and even opened up price-controlled bakeries to provide bread at affordable prices.

Nusra launched its own public sector works department in the northern Syrian city of Idlib to provide electricity and water across the city its surrounding villages – and in the past six months has expanded those services to Hama and Aleppo.

Providing services has endeared Nusra to many Syrians who have been without bread, electricity, and water for nearly three years. According to researchers, 3,000 recruits have come from Idlib alone in the past four months.

Such evidence suggests that the movement is succeeding in its attempt to build popular support through services before unveiling its strict, militant version of Islamic governance.

Manu Brabo/AP/File
A Free Syrian Army fighter walks through a street in Aleppo, Syria, in this 2012 photo.

Nusra is also working to build coalitions with mainstream Islamist militias such as Ahrar as-Sham and even Western-backed rebel groups like the Free Syrian Army, which – with fewer arms and less funding – rely on its firepower in joint operations. By making militias and locals dependent on it, Nusra has created an insurance policy against the kind of United States-backed Sunni tribal revolt that drove Al Qaeda from western Iraq in 2007-08. 

Yet Nusra has remained hesitant to declare an independent emirate, in part out of fear of such a revolt. In particular, it remains reluctant to police residents’ private lives – by banning smoking or requiring attendance at prayers – or to force residents to pledge allegiance to Nusra leader Jolani or central Al Qaeda leadership. Both Syrian residents and Nusra operatives told the Monitor that women are not forced to don the full-face veil or be accompanied by male guardians, as in Islamic State-controlled territories.

“Jabhat al-Nusra’s entire methodology is geared toward transforming Syrian society so that Jabhat al-Nusra ultimately answers a popular demand for an emirate rather than imposes one by force,” says Jennifer Cafarella, a Syria analyst at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War. 

A clash of visions

The exact nature of the relationship between Al Qaeda and Nusra had been disputed. Nusra has received significant funding, arms, and fighters from abroad. It has retained significant independence from central Al Qaeda leadership but still respected its word.

Al Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri, who is believed to be based in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, did not publicly call for Nusra to establish an Islamic emirate until May. But senior Al Qaeda leaders reportedly pressured their Syrian affiliate privately the year before.

“There’s been a high-level, but quiet turf war for control of Al Qaeda’s interests in Syria for some months now, no doubt about it,” Charles Lister of the Middle East Institute said in an email.

Khalil Ashawi/Reuters/File
A defaced image of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad is pictured on a wall in Idlib province in June.

Al Qaeda’s ambitions to create an emirate have come to the forefront because of several factors. The forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have rallied (thanks to Russian support), the collapse of the Islamic State caliphate now seems imminent, and pressure is building on the Nusra-held territory in Aleppo and Idlib. 

From Al Qaeda’s perspective, it was now or never to announce an emirate.

But for Nusra, its ties to Al Qaeda have gone from an asset to a liability.

One key ally, Ahrar al-Sham, has been the “strongest and most consistent opponent of Nusra’s relationship to Al Qaeda.” 

If Nusra is going to build support for its rule from the ground up, Ahrar al-Sham will be crucial, says Mr. Lister, who has warned that Nusra poses a greater long-term threat than the Islamic State.

“Nusra is acutely aware that they need to retain the support of key Syrian Islamist opposition groups like Ahrar al-Sham if they’re to ever have a chance of turning military dominance into overt territorial rule,” he adds. 

Unrest among hardliners 

There are already signs of the challenges that Nusra faces. Mr. Urdoni, the Jordanian Nusra operative in southern Syria who spoke with the Monitor via an encrypted conversation, reported that 20 fighters under his command, fed up with the group’s gradual approach, had threatened to defect if the group does not act and “fully implement shariah” in all of its territories. 

According to Urdoni, Nusra’s Syrian leadership has established shariah committees in the various cities it currently controls to appease its more hard-line base and “explore ways Nusra can expand the powers of its shariah courts to govern education, health, finance, and other sectors of daily life.”

As of mid-July, the committees’ work was nonbinding, and all “administrative” matters have been put on hold in favor of military operations. In addition, the court’s powers have yet to be expanded.

But experts warn that the group’s militant, ultraconservative interpretation of Islam will arise in every aspect of daily life – and eventually will have to be imposed by force.

It remains unclear what type of future relationship the new Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham will have with Al Qaeda.

Mr. Zawihiri’s deputy has released an audio statement giving Al Qaeda’s “blessing” for the split while urging other jihadist factions to “unite.”

But some jihadists reject both models.

“ISIS rules by fear, not by shariah [Islamic law], while Nusra rules by its self-interests, rather than the Quran,” says a disillusioned fighter who worked for both organizations and did not want his nationality or location to be published for fear of retribution. “Neither of them represent a true Islamic state, and neither of them will succeed – no matter what they are called.”

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