Jabhat Al Nusra is back in Syria ... with a vengeance

Rebel fighters celebrate at the Mihrab roundabout in the Idlib city centre, after they took control of the Syrian city. Khalil Ashawi / Reuters
Rebel fighters celebrate at the Mihrab roundabout in the Idlib city centre, after they took control of the Syrian city. Khalil Ashawi / Reuters

Almost two years ago, Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat Al Nusra received the first of a series of heavy blows in Syria. That blow was the unilateral announcement by Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi that the group was a franchise of his organisation in Iraq and that the two would be merged under the ISIL banner in Syria.

Jabhat Al Nusra engaged in drawn-out battles with ISIL that resulted in the eradication of its branch in Deir Ezzor, its most powerful and strategic outpost at the time. The Al Qaeda affiliate subsequently engaged in hostilities with other rebel forces in northern and southern Syria, before it received another hit when ISIL announced its “caliphate” last year. Since last summer, its bases, weapon depots and cells have been targeted by the American-led air strikes.

But Jabhat Al Nusra is now back – with a vengeance. On Saturday, the group gained a major victory against the Al Assad regime in northern Syria. The takeover of the second provincial capital by the anti-Assad forces is both strategic and symbolic. The first provincial capital, Raqqa, was taken by ISIL, and the second by its ideological sibling. The Jabhat Al Nusra victory comes two months after the group made another major rebel gain in Wadi Al Daif, a massive regime encampment in Idlib.

Both victories represented far more than mere territorial gains for Jabhat Al Nusra. They delivered a blow to moderate forces. Since the takeover of Wadi Al Daif, Jabhat Al Nusra moved quickly to dismantle two of Syria’s most powerful moderate groups: the Syrian Revolutionary Front and the Hazm Movement. The former helped to expel ISIL from Idlib and much of Aleppo in early 2014. The latter was directly backed by the US with advanced anti-tank weapons. Thanks to its gains against the regime, Jabhat Al Nusra’s campaigns against these groups were broadly welcomed by ordinary Syrians.

More importantly, the group’s gains are poised to receive a critical endorsement by the Syrian opposition. The National Coalition’s interim government has reportedly chosen Idlib as its headquarters as it intends to move inside the country.

The relocation, along with noticeable positive attitudes towards the group, is bringing Jabhat Al Nusra into the mainstream. While Syrians have consistently downplayed Jabhat Al Nusra’s extremist agenda, many still viewed it with suspicion. These attitudes might be changing in some circles.

The interim government cannot hope to dislodge or sideline Jabhat Al Nusra as it relocates to Idlib. Instead, it is clear that the government would be under the auspices of an Al Qaeda affiliate. If that happens, Jabhat Al Nusra will have come full circle. At this time two years ago, as the US treasury designated Jabhat Al Nusra a terrorist organisation, the National Coalition’s then leader Moaz Al Khatib rejected the designation and defended the group.

Jabhat Al Nusra has not only recovered from the hard-hitting challenges to its existence over the past two years but it is also better positioned to grow and dominate in opposition-held areas. It is steadily growing in northern and southern Syria and becoming more entrenched within its terrain as its potential rivals receive little support from inside and outside the country.

It is important to emphasise that new moderate groups are mostly incarnations of previous moderate elements. That means every time a moderate faction is dismantled by groups such as Jabhat Al Nusra or ISIL, it further undermines future plans to organise and back moderates. In this sense, time is on the side of extremists like Jabhat Al Nusra.

In addition to Syria’s internal dynamics, Jabhat Al Nusra stands to benefit from recent changes in the regional landscape, including the more marked role of Iranian-backed groups. Unconfirmed reports indicate that Arab countries along with Turkey might become far less focused on extremist forces in the fight against the Al Assad regime.

Nothing is likely to stand in the way of Jabhat Al Nusra’s nascent project of controlling northern Syria. The situation at hand is a product of confused policies and lack of support for the nationalist forces in Syria, and beyond.

Hassan Hassan is a Middle East analyst and co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror

On Twitter: @hxhassan

Published: March 31, 2015 04:00 AM

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