ARCHIVED - Chapter 4 - The impact of the Russian strikes on the creation of an al Nusra Front
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The Western attacks on ISIL, as well as the Russian military support of the Assad regime against moderate opposition forces, have allowed Jahbat al-Nusra to consolidate popular support with the Syrian population and other anti-regime militias. The group has become critical to the survival of the anti‑regime resistance and smaller militias are increasingly merging with it to survive. Al-Nusra is an Al‑Qaeda affiliate and is steadily transforming the ideology of opposition forces and the civilian population. It is committed to Al‑Qaeda’s global ambitions and is close to achieving a de facto Islamic emirate in northwestern Syria. If the Syrian regime makes further advances, the principal remaining Islamist hold‑out, Ahrar al‑Sham, could well ally formally with Jabhat al-Nusra. The consolidation of a geographic base would give the latter a platform for attacks against the West.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is neither the only nor the most dangerous jihadist threat the West faces today. Al-Qaeda remains strong and continues to grow globally, benefiting from an international fixation on ISILFootnote 33 . The West’s focus on a narrowly defined anti-ISIL mission provides Al-Qaeda with time and freedom to generate local support to lead the global jihadist movement after ISIL’s defeat. Syria is an important test case for this dangerous future. Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, is cultivating deep relationships with Syrian populations and armed opposition groups fighting against the Syrian regime. It does intend to lead future attacks against the West, but only once it has achieved local support that the West cannot easily reclaimFootnote 34 . Jabhat al-Nusra’s deep intertwinement with a dependent and increasingly loyal support base in Syria makes it more dangerous than ISIL, which rules by force and does not enjoy the same popularityFootnote 35 . Jabhat al-Nusra will use this durable support base to facilitate attacks against the West in the future. Western initiatives to work with Russia against ISIL in Syria both overlook Jabhat al-Nusra and ignore the impact of Russia’s intervention in Syria, which is generating support for Jabhat al-Nusra and acceptance of Al-Qaeda’s intent to wage global jihad.
Jabhat al-Nusra is one of Al-Qaeda’s strongest affiliates and intends to create an Islamic emirate in Syria as a component of a future global Al-Qaeda caliphateFootnote 36 . By early 2016, Jabhat al-Nusra had achieved significant momentum towards this objective in northwestern Syria by using its own highly skilled fighting force to provide military support to the Syrian armed opposition and secure terrain within which the opposition can govern. In the absence of Western assistance, Jabhat al-Nusra’s support is critical to the survival of the Syrian opposition in many areas, especially under the heightened strain of Russia’s air campaign, examined more fully below. Jabhat al-Nusra translates its military alliances with Syrian opposition groups into the transformation of Syrian society, using governance structures and expansive religious outreach to transform the ideology of the Syrian opposition and Syrian civilians over timeFootnote 37 . Its primary source of strength is therefore its intertwinement with the Syrian opposition and civil society, which enables its transformational agenda. It maintains a Syrian face to legitimise its presence, but has foreign-fighter contingents and carefully maintains relationships with global Al-Qaeda networksFootnote 38 . It is exploiting the opposition’s reliance on it to transform its base in Syria into a staging ground for global jihad, as this report will demonstrate.
Jabhat al-Nusra’s deep intertwinement with a dependent and increasingly loyal support base in Syria makes it more dangerous than ISIL…
Russia claims to be fighting Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIL in Syria, but in reality it is supporting the Assad regime against the Syrian opposition. Russia’s strategic objective in Syria is to preserve its client regime by defeating Syrian opposition forces and forcing the US to agree to a negotiated settlement that preserves the regime. Russia advertises its Syrian campaign as one aligned with Western interests by claiming it targets "terrorists", but an examination of Russia's airstrikes since October 2015 proves that Russia is clearly targeting Syrian opposition groups, including groups that receive limited US support. Russia is not meaningfully targeting ISIL. Its aerial campaign has instead enabled the regime to recapture key terrain from the opposition at the entrance to the Alawite coastal heartland in Latakia Province and to position for the encirclement of opposition forces inside the city of AleppoFootnote 39 .
Meanwhile, Jabhat al-Nusra’s methodology positions it to rise as the Syrian opposition fragments under Russian pressure. The group plays a large role against Russian-enabled operations by the Syrian regime alongside other Syrian Salafist-jihadist groups. It has deployed significant reinforcements to Aleppo while maintaining strong support for opposition defences in Latakia ProvinceFootnote 40 . The Syrian Salafist-jihadist group Ahrar al-Sham, an ally of Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, also offers combat power and command‑and‑ control capabilities to more mainstream opposition groups in northern Syria. The contributions and relative strength of Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham encourage smaller opposition groups to merge under their leadership in order to survive the mounting military pressure. Three foreign-fighter groups based in northern Syria immediately pledged allegiance to Jabhat al-Nusra as Russia Syria in late 2015Footnote 41 . Two long-standing opposition groups in Aleppo also quickly merged under Ahrar al-ShamFootnote 42 . Numerous other opposition groups in the province received US support and still remained independent from Jabhat al-Nusra as of February 2016, but face a siege in the city of Aleppo that they may not surviveFootnote 43 . Additional mergers under Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham are likely if the opposition in Aleppo does not receive international support. Eight groups in Aleppo Province agreed to unite under the leadership of Ahrar al-Sham’s former leader Hashim al-Sheikh on 16 February 2016, demonstrating continued momentum towards the group’s consolidation of power in the province. Ahrar al-Sham will almost certainly help Jahbat al-Nusra rise because they are allies and share the desire to unite the opposition under joint leadership. Even if they compete, Ahrar al-Sham’s strength is a victory for Al-Qaeda because Ahrar al-Sham pursues a theocracy in Syria that will be vulnerable to penetration by Al-Qaeda religious scholars in the long term.
Despite its stated intent, Russia’s intervention is helping Jabhat al-Nusra transform the Syrian opposition and establish a base for attacks on the West.Jabhat al-Nusra and Syrian Salafist-jihadist groups, including Ahrar al-Sham, initially began to broadcast messages calling for emigration into Syria in June 2015 after seizing the provincial capital of Idlib from the Syrian regime. They used a new social media outlet titled al‑Muhajirun, or “emmigrants”, to call on foreign fighters to come fight the Syrian regime while advertising a high quality of life in opposition-held Idlib ProvinceFootnote 44 . A related English-language magazine also began to showcase foreign-fighter groups that contributed to military operations in Idlib Province and to advertise the intent of these groups to return to their home countries to fight in the futureFootnote 45 . The distribution of propaganda featuring foreign fighters with global ambitions normalises the concept of future global operations by Al-Qaeda from Syria. Russia’s air campaign has accelerated Jabhat al-Nusra’s ability to propagate this narrative by degrading the opposition to an extent that has led Syrians originally opposed to outside intervention to support calls for foreign fighters. Media outlets and Sharia bodies linked to Jabhat al-Nusra and Syrian Salafist-jihadist groups now describe the war against the Assad regime as a religious obligation for Sunni Muslims. Jabhat al-Nusra and even non-Salafist Syrian opposition groups have also begun to broadcast calls for mass mobilisation of Sunnis globally to fight in Syria under the slogan “Syria is in need of men”. Jabhat al-Nusra will continue to leverage its role in battles against the Assad regime in order to legitimise the transformation of Idlib Province into a support zone for future global jihad as long as the Russian air campaign continues.
The distribution of propaganda featuring foreign fighters with global ambitions normalises the concept of future global operations by Al-Qaeda from Syria.
Jabhat al-Nusra’s success places it within reach of an Islamic emirate in northwestern Syria in the near term. It likely will not declare an emirate directly, as doing so would encourage Western action against it, but conditions are set for the emergence of one in all but name. Jabhat al-Nusra reportedly called for a full merger of opposition groups in Idlib Province in early February 2016, indicating that it believes it is close to achieving its objectives in northern Syria. According to unconfirmed reports, Ahrar al-Sham resisted the merger, likely in order to continue to build its own strength. It is unclear how long Ahrar al-Sham will continue to resist Jabhat al-Nusra’s efforts to consolidate the opposition under one jihadist banner, however. The fall of the city of Aleppo to pro-regime forces could be sufficient to prompt Ahrar al-Sham to accept a merger in both Idlib and Aleppo Provinces in order to prevent a full defeat of opposition forces in northern Syria. Such an outcome would place Al-Qaeda at the helm of the Syrian revolution in northern Syria and greatly accelerate the success of its religious agenda.
There are still mainstream opposition groups that remain independent of Jabhat al-Nusra in northern Syria. Current trend lines point to the disappearance of these groups, however, and the consolidation of power by Jabhat al-Nusra and its close allies. By allowing Russia to continue its air campaign and refusing to intervene to bolster the strength of Syrian opposition groups in northern Syria, the Western countries may be passively assisting Jabhat al-Nusra and its allies build an emirate for Al-Qaeda and a base for future attacks against the West. The outcome is potentially more dangerous than a temporary stagnation of the anti-ISIL campaign.
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