If the United States and Russia do not see that Al Qaeda’s main Syrian franchise is benefiting from the peace process, they should look again. In recent months, Jabhat Al Nusra has led a number of battles against the forces of Bashar Al Assad in the north, while poorly-executed ceasefires are causing people to question the efficiency of nationalist forces.
The reactions of some Syrians in the opposition towards the regime losses, especially in the context of the government’s violations of the recent truces, were captured by one activist’s Facebook post: “Some of us take to the streets to protest against Jabhat Al Nusra and demand that it breaks away from Al Qaeda,” he wrote. “Had jihadist groups like Jabhat Al Nusra done everything we wanted them to do, the only place in which we could raise our revolution’s flag today would be in Taksim Square in Turkey.”
For Jabhat Al Nusra, the gains against the regime do not have to hold. Mr Al Assad can retake the areas, but the fact that it is battling the regime while other forces stand by watching weakens the latter’s stance in the eyes of some Syrians. Jabhat Al Nusra has even produced footage of its recent operations using drones, including an ambush against a foreign fighter, the blowing up of a Baath party building and the storming of a government base in Aleppo.
Jabhat Al Nusra announced over the weekend that they had captured or killed dozens of pro-government fighters in Khan Touman and Al Khalidiyah in southern Aleppo. Iran admitted that 13 of its Revolutionary Guards had been killed during those battles in what Reuters described as Tehran’s biggest single-day loss in Syria. The Turkistan Islamic Party, a member of the Nusra-led Jaish Al Fateh, also published pictures of detained Iranian soldiers.
The news about the killing of so many elite Iranian operatives was celebrated not only inside Syria but also in the wider region. When the main rebel fighting forces, especially Ahrar Al Sham and Jaish Al Islam, agreed to participate in the Riyadh conference that would precede a UN Security Council enforcement of a political transition in Syria in December, Jabhat Al Nusra made it clear that it opposed such engagement.
Its leader, Abu Muhammed Al Jolani, speaking to four Syrian journalists in December, said the political process was a ploy to rebrand the regime and that his group would continue to fight. He warned that rebel groups accepting concessions would lose the support of their rank-and-file.
Jabhat Al Nusra’s clear stance paid off. Every time the political process is shown to be insincere or when violations of the cessation of hostilities go unpunished, Jabhat Al Nusra’s view is vindicated. As discussions about the peace talks began last year, I told western officials involved in the process that the group’s strategy was to show to Syrians that the international community was not their friend and that the lack of a peace process would be better than a botched one that weakens the other opposition forces.
In an audio statement in October, Al Jolani adopted a new tone when he attempted to convince Syrians to reject the Vienna peace process, reverting to slogans raised by activists in the early months of the 2011 uprising.
In his conversation with Syrian journalists two months later, he also struggled to explain why his group would seek to spoil the ceasefire in Eastern Ghouta near Damascus after it was revealed that Jaish Al Islam agreed with the Russians on a truce. Jaish Al Islam’s former leader, Zahran Aloush, was then killed by a Russian air strike, and the internationally brokered ceasefires failed to end the regime’s indiscriminate tactics. So Al Jolani seemed prescient.
Today, Jabhat Al Nusra feels confident that it was right to reject or oppose peace talks. The plan to exclude it, rather than make ceasefires contingent on the group’s acceptance, which would pit it against rebels or civilians who support such deals, might have seemed better than legitimising it through political engagement. The plan might also be to slowly disentangle the group from the opposition forces by striking it, punishing those who work with it and engaging those who don’t.
But such a plan might begin to work if the process ends the regime’s terror tactics and leads to genuine change. From the regime’s perspective, keeping Jabhat Al Nusra on the loose means the most effective force on the frontlines, which operates throughout the country, is under no pressure to cease fighting while the regime is expected to end its targeting of the rest of the opposition.
The peace process is flawed however one views it. In the meantime, Jabhat Al Nusra is gaining ground and popularity.
It is presenting itself as the force that would fight until the end without compromising on the core objective of bringing down the regime of Mr Al Assad. It is betting on the world’s inability to secure a fair deal in Syria.
Hassan Hassan is a resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy and co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror
On Twitter: @hxhassan