The Dawn of Mass Jihad: Success in Syria Fuels al-Qa`ida’s Evolution
September 7, 2016
Abstract: Jabhat al-Nusra’s decision to decouple itself from its external affiliations and to rebrand itself as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS) is merely the latest move in the organization’s ‘long game’ in Syria. Though its Syrian audience has praised the move thus far, the group has also lost several senior leaders who were unhappy at the disengagement from al-Qa`ida. Al-Qa`ida is itself increasingly evolving into an idea adopted and empowered by largely autonomous affiliates whose individual strategies have become explicitly local. Consequently, JFS represents a formidable movement in Syria, whose localist focus should be seen as a harbinger of a new era of more broadly supported, more sustainable and, thus, more dangerous jihadist militancy.
After a series of coordinated leaks and media releases, Jabhat al-Nusra announced on July 28, 2016, that it had dissolved all “external” ties and “in serving the people of al-Sham” had renamed itself Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, or the Front for the Conquest of the Levant. The group’s leader, Ahmed Hussein al-Sharaa (Abu Mohammed al-Julani), revealed his face for the first time as part of this consequential rebranding exercise that was aimed at distinguishing his movement’s activities in Syria from those of the transnational al-Qa`ida organization. Situated at either side of al-Julani during his video statement, however, were his chief aide and sharia official Abdulrahim Attoun (Abu Abdulrahman al-Shami) and jihadist veteran figure and former confidante of al-Qa`ida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, Ahmed Salameh Mabrouk (Abu Faraj al-Masri).
Earlier in the day, Jabhat al-Nusra’s media wing, Al-Manara al-Baydha (the White Minaret), had issued an audio statement from al-Zawahiri’s new deputy, Ahmed Hassan (Abu al-Khayr al-Masri), who is likely now based in Syria. In it, Abu al-Khayr made clear that as an organization, al-Qa`ida “blessed” any initiative aimed at separating Jabhat al-Nusra from the global movement for the sake of furthering the jihad in Syria. An older recording of al-Zawahiri was added to the statement, in which he asserted that “the bonds of Islamic brotherhood are stronger than any obsolete links between organizations … these organizational links must be sacrificed without hesitation if they threaten your unity.”
The intended message was therefore very clear. Jabhat al-Nusra was presenting itself specifically to a Syrian opposition audience as breaking away from any internationalist objectives in favor of dedicating itself exclusively to the local Syrian cause. Although this emphasis on localism had been a consistent and significant facet of Jabhat al-Nusra’s modus operandi in Syria since mid-2012, many Syrians across the opposition spectrum had long maintained quiet concerns over the possibility that the group’s ties to the transnational al-Qa`ida movement would one day see its objectives in Syria diverge from those of the revolution. By renaming itself and adopting a new brand, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham was primarily seeking to assuage these Syrian concerns in order to permanently seal its pivotally preeminent military role within broader opposition operations. Consequently, as this author assessed in these pages one year ago, Jabhat al-Nusra represents a wolf in sheep’s clothing and is as much of an immediate threat to Syria’s opposition as a long-term threat to international security.
This uncoupling was by no means an easily made decision. A number of Jabhat al-Nusra’s senior leadership figures had been considering the value of formally breaking ties with al-Qa`ida since 2013, but had consistently come up against strong resistance, particularly from Jordanian and Egyptian members of the group’s Majlis al-Shura. After the rise of the so-called Islamic State in mid-2014 encouraged an internal assessment out of which Jabhat al-Nusra deemed it necessary to begin revealing more of its real hardline Islamist nature, some of the ‘doves’—such as founding members Saleh al-Hamawi and Maysar Ali Musa Abdullah al-Juburi (Abu Mariya al-Qahtani)—became increasingly outspoken. For this, al-Hamawi was formally expelled from Jabhat al-Nusra in mid-2015.
What changed this time around? As Syria’s political process treaded water in early 2016 and as hostilities steadily escalated following a short-lived cessation of hostilities, Jabhat al-Nusra found its relationship of military interdependence with the mainstream opposition to be stronger than ever. At a time of great pressure, Jabhat al-Nusra’s effectiveness on the battlefield was arguably being perceived as more important than ever by opposition groups and their civilian support base in northern Syria. Consequently, the group accepted into its ranks at least 3,000 Syrians from Aleppo and Idlib alone between February and June 2016.
Al-Julani thus sought to exploit this advantage by proposing a grand merger with opposition groups across northern Syria, but he was quickly rebuffed due to his group’s links to al-Qa`ida. In the weeks and months that followed, a substantial but highly secretive initiative was launched in which Islamist figures—both Syrian and foreign, and some previously linked to al-Qa`ida and others entirely independent—began lobbying Jabhat al-Nusra leaders and military commanders to consider more seriously separating themselves from al-Qa`ida. Many of these leaders crossed frequently between Turkey and northern Syria, conducting intensive shuttle diplomacy and consultation while using the safety of Turkish territory during pauses in the talks.
Screen capture from an October 27, 2015, video entitled “Al-Sham, the Graveyard of the Invaders” (“Al-Manara al-Bayda’: Aleppo’s Reporter,” Jabhat al-Nusra)
One of these individuals, Egyptian national Rifai Taha, was killed in a U.S. drone strike in April, although one Islamist source told this author that the target of the strike was likely the earlier mentioned former al-Zawahiri confidante, Ahmed Salameh Mabrouk:
Abu Faraj and Rifai Taha had attended a meeting together. After the meeting, at the last minute and I do not know why, Rifai took the car intended for Abu Faraj and departed. I saw this myself. This was Abu Faraj’s car that he regularly used to move between safe houses. It was that car that was targeted by the drone.
As conflict steadily reassumed priority, rumor began to abound in June that the United States and Russia were actively considering enhanced cooperation on Syria, including in coordinating military action against Jabhat al-Nusra. It was within this context that the lobbying initiative gained real traction. By mid-July, approximately one-third of Jabhat al-Nusra’s entire force—including al-Qahtani and the Emir of Aleppo, Abdullah al-Sanadi—had tacitly agreed to splinter off and establish a new independent faction, Al-Harakat al-Islamiya al-Souriya, or the Syrian Islamic Movement. Al-Hamawi confirmed the development to this author at the time, adding that “soon, there will be an ultimatum made to al-Nusra: either disengage [from al-Qa`ida] and merge with major Islamic factions, or face isolation socially, politically, and militarily.”
Within days, al-Julani had called Jabhat al-Nusra’s Majlis al-Shura together to discuss the issue once again. Having already acquired al-Zawahiri’s permission and the consent of his deputy, Abu al-Khayr, the decision to announce a separation from al-Qa`ida was merely an issue for internal deliberation. According to one independent figure involved in the previous lobbying initiative and present around Jabhat al-Nusra’s debates, “it was not easy … several leaders were strongly against the proposal and some even stormed out of the meetings.”
Two of those who left were Jordanians: Jabhat al-Nusra’s de facto deputy leader Dr. Sami al-Oraydi and the group’s Emir of Latakia, Iyad Tubasi (Abu Julaybib). According to four informed sources, both leadership figures refused to sign onto the formation of JFS when the final decision was made on July 26, although al-Oraydi avoided formally leaving the group altogether. That al-Qahtani was re-promoted back into JFS’ Shura Council, however, underlined the shift that had taken place. Along with at least seven others, including former military chief Abu Hammam al-Suri (Farouq al-Shami), senior al-Qa`ida figure Sayf al-Adel was also said to have held out, likely choosing to operate as a roving jihadist figure with his al-Qa`ida credentials intact. Al-Oraydi ceded his position as de facto deputy leader but had chosen not to formally leave JFS, at least not yet. By late August, many of these individuals were actively considering the establishment of a separate and likely covertly operating jihadist movement dedicated to pursuing more traditional, transnational objectives from within Syrian territory.
In the wake of JFS’s emergence, the newly rebranded group played a critically important role in early August in breaking the siege of opposition-held eastern Aleppo. Images of armed groups subsequently driving into Aleppo with pickup trucks full of fresh food—the first such supplies in weeks—provided JFS with an invaluable ‘debut’ as part of what had been an especially broad-spectrum opposition operation. In keeping with this theme of enhancing unity (through which JFS can more effectively gain and consolidate influence) and by exploiting emotions peaked by the successful Aleppo offensive, JFS-linked figures began calling for formal mergers.
By mid-August, sizeable portions of Ahrar al-Sham were in direct talks regarding a potential merger, the initial aim of which would be a formal amalgamation of Jaish al-Fateh factions (JFS, Ahrar al-Sham, Faylaq al-Sham, Ajnad al-Sham, Liwa al-Haq, and Jaish al-Sunnah). Al-Qa`ida-linked jihadist groups Jund al-Aqsa and the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) were also involved. While merger advocates emphasized the importance of unity to further military effectiveness, opposition factions remained hesitant to endanger their relationships of support with regional states like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar. Intriguingly, CIA-vetted Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions were simultaneously in the midst of negotiating possible mergers themselves, in anticipation of Islamist unity and likely further irrelevance on the ground.
While some extent of enhanced unity appeared inevitable, the precise outcome of all of these talks remained unclear at the time of publishing, though the trend toward military unity seemed inevitable.
Al-Qa`ida Central in Syria
Since at least early 2013, influential al-Qa`ida veterans began traveling to Syria under what appeared to be orders from central leadership. This was a reflection both of a perceived need to add to Jabhat al-Nusra’s growing stature and jihadist credibility in Syria as well as to preempt an effort by the Islamic State to subsume the group—something Jabhat al-Nusra had been aware of since late 2012 and that took place in April 2013 when al-Qa`ida in Iraq leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced Jabhat al-Nusra was part of its network. Throughout the remainder of 2013, some of these al-Qa`ida Central (AQC) arrivals (notably, Saudi national Abd al-Muhsin Abdullah Ibrahim al-Sharikh, aka Sanafi al-Nasr) were initially instrumental in operationalizing links between Jabhat al-Nusra and the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, thereby securing a relationship that resulted in a series of deadly attacks in Lebanon that year.
As the Islamic State achieved global infamy in 2014, al-Qa`ida continued to deploy AQC figures to Syria in what was fast becoming a clear attempt to build the “safe base” that al-Zawahiri had advocated for in his September 2013 “General Guidelines for Jihad.” In tandem with these arrivals, the dynamics within Jabhat al-Nusra’s Majlis al-Shura had also begun to shift with Egyptian and Jordanian figures asserting increasing levels of influence. The often more pragmatic al-Qahtani was demoted; Saleh al-Hamawi sidelined; and hardliners like al-Oraydi, Abu Hammam al-Suri, and Abu Julaybib were promoted.
As Jabhat al-Nusra’s internal makeup and ideological perspective evolved, the U.S. government began claiming in the second half of 2014 that much of the newly arrived AQC-linked contingent in Syria had formed the “Khorasan Group” as an external operations wing operating out of the north of the country. This alleged plotting of ‘external’ attacks was used to justify the initiation of an air campaign against al-Qa`ida targets in Syria from September 2014, which Syrians subsequently perceived as attacks upon their military ally Jabhat al-Nusra and thus as counter-revolutionary.
Despite the group’s discernible shift toward increasingly hardline salafist-jihadist positions, the fallout over the airstrikes served as the first truly overt demonstration of Jabhat al-Nusra’s greater popularity in rebel-controlled areas of Syria than the West. The group’s strategic emphasis on localism, gradualism, and controlled pragmatism—the “long-game” approach—paired with its military preeminence on the battlefield provided insurance that any external assault on Jabhat al-Nusra would only distance ordinary Syrians further from the ‘international community.’
While the benefits of this long-game approach had thus been demonstrated in late 2014, al-Qa`ida’s central leadership was nevertheless sensitive to attracting unnecessary international attention to Jabhat al-Nusra’s presence in Syria. Consequently, as this author revealed later that year, al-Zawahiri sent a secret letter to al-Julani in early 2015, ordering the group to cease any external attack-plotting and institute a number of steps aimed at further embedding within broader revolutionary dynamics. The formation of the Jaish al-Fateh coalition of Islamist armed groups in March 2015[a] and its steady conquest of Idlib governorate was then the clearest evidence of Jabhat al-Nusra’s increasingly public emphasis on military unity, which would come to define the group’s overarching message well into 2016.
By late 2015, the influx of influential al-Qa`ida jihadis reached its apex with the reported arrival of Egyptian powerhouses Saif al-Adel, Ahmed Salameh Mabrouk (Abu al-Faraj), and al-Zawahiri’s new number two, Ahmed Hassan (Abu al-Khayr). The resulting presence of so many individually influential al-Qa`ida veterans on Syrian soil, including the deputy leader of al-Qa`ida, represented nothing short of a major revitalization of the jihadist movement within the context of a particularly brutal and intractable conflict. Syria was undoubtedly at the heart of al-Qa`ida’s evolving international strategy.
From ‘Elite’ to ‘Mass’ Jihad
Jabhat al-Nusra’s jihad in Syria has thus far experienced two distinct phases, the second of which only began in mid-2016. The first phase, as the group has frequently explained, was an ‘elite’-driven project in which the group and its highly experienced leadership sought to grow roots in Syria, to embed within revolutionary dynamics, and to influence the trajectory of the conflict and the opposition itself toward accepting more and more of an Islamist framework. The elite-driven nature of this first phase was deemed necessary because pre-revolution Syrian Sunni society had been insufficiently exposed to the purism of their faith and was therefore not only ill-equipped to initiate a viable Islamist movement but also unlikely to support one.
It was for exactly this reason that Jabhat al-Nusra’s first years of activity in Syria were so explicitly focused on military matters—in contributing toward a shared Syrian resistance to the Assad regime. Throughout this period, Jabhat al-Nusra formed and shaped battlefield alliances and sought to demonstrate its military value to Syria’s mainstream opposition. The group aimed to build up a relationship of interdependence through which it could slowly socialize communities into accepting the presence of a highly conservative, jihadist movement in its midst.
A core component of this strategy from the start was Jabhat al-Nusra’s self-presentation to Syrians (its sole audience) as literally a ‘front’ (al-jabha) for ‘support’ (al-nusra). Although it did little to hide its jihadist roots, Jabhat al-Nusra explicitly avoided styling itself as an outsider force, but instead sought to be perceived as a vanguard dedicated to supporting a popular uprising and protecting its Sunni adherents from suppression by a brutal and heretical dictatorship.
This period of ‘elite’-driven jihad was itself shaped by two core ideological tenets, which together formed a strategy of continuous and socially sustainable gains. The first of these tenets was qital al-tamkin, or a battle for the consolidation of one’s presence within territory. In contrast to the more individualistic qital al-nikaya (or fighting to hurt the enemy and its interests), qital al-tamkin places an overarching emphasis upon a jihad that seeks to methodically acquire and consolidate influence over territory, through which one then builds support within the Muslim masses over an extended period of time. The second tenet was riayat al-masalaha wa mani’ al-mafasid,’ or minding one’s interests and avoiding spoilers, which explicitly demonstrates the group’s long-game approach of advancing the cause of jihad initially within the national confines of Syria and slowly enough to grow sustainably and to avoid attracting powerful adversaries.
This emphasis upon localism and the sustainable acquisition of territory is a core facet of al-Zawahiri’s personally developed model of jihad. Jabhat al-Nusra and its leadership in Syria clearly saw the value in pursuing this approach, as it had been described by al-Zawahiri himself in his 252-page book from 2001, The Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner:
The jihad movement must adopt its plan on the basis of controlling a piece of land in the heart of the Islamic world on which it could establish and protect the state of Islam and launch its battle to restore the rational Caliphate … The jihad movement must [also] become closer to the masses … we must win the people’s confidence, respect, and affection.
Throughout this first phase, Jabhat al-Nusra also sought to build a protective infrastructure of tacitly loyal jihadist groups that would insulate it from threats or competition from the Islamic State and that would augment its influence on the battlefield. The arrival of senior al-Qa`ida figures from across the Islamic world played an especially critical role in solidifying relationships of tacit allegiance between these small jihadist units, like the TIP and Harakat Sham al-Islam and Jabhat al-Nusra itself.
At certain points, Jabhat al-Nusra directly managed the formation of such loyalist factions, as in early 2013 when al-Julani was aware that the Islamic State had deployed senior figures into northern Syria in preparation for a hostile takeover of his forces. In reaction, he dispatched a close confidante, Mohammed Yusuf al-Athamna (Abdulaziz al-Qatari), to break away and form a new group, Saraya al-Aqsa, as an umbrella for loyalist muhajireen (foreign fighters). The formation of this group, now known as Jund al-Aqsa, almost certainly saved Jabhat al-Nusra from internal collapse during the Islamic State’s emergence in April 2013, during which much of its remaining muhajireen were poached by the then Iraq-based movement.
Throughout 2015, Jabhat al-Nusra began to test the viability of transitioning into its second phase, ‘mass’ jihad. The success of Jaish al-Fateh in Idlib had proven that when it came to military activities, Jabhat al-Nusra could shape dynamics and the trajectory of fighting to suit its interests. After all, Idlib had been the group’s key zone of investment for almost a year prior to launching the operation that led to Idlib city’s capture in March 2015. Russia’s military intervention in September 2015 and the reported arrival of senior al-Qa`ida figures shortly thereafter appeared to catalyze the shift toward realizing the ‘mass’ movement.
Consequently, al-Julani’s proposal of a grand merger in January 2016; Jabhat al-Nusra’s overt spoiling of the cessation of hostilities (COH) in early April; and the group’s rebranding as JFS in July all represent a move toward this second phase of mass-driven jihad in Syria. This appears to be because Jabhat al-Nusra assessed that its first phase of elite-driven jihad had reached its greatest potential. And it was also because the prospect of military action against its assets due to intensifying international concern surrounding the group’s expanding influence in Syria necessitated another step toward embedding itself within broader armed opposition dynamics.
Within this context, the controversial al-Qa`ida affiliation remained Jabhat al-Nusra’s key barrier to consolidating its expanded influence into a durable mass movement. As JFS’ newly appointed Director of Foreign Media Relations Mustafa Mahamed Farag (Abu Sulayman al-Muhajir)—an Australian-Egyptian leadership figure—explained, “organizational affiliations are usually temporary” and Jabhat al-Nusra’s time to advance beyond its external link to al-Qa`ida has now passed.
“Once the goal of that affiliation can no longer be met, or a larger, more important goal cannot be achieved as a result of that affiliation, then it is time to move on. At the time, Jabhat al-Nusra had a relationship with Al-Qaeda. It served a purpose by funneling a global, Islamic support of jihad into the local Syrian arena. It was able to support an already very popular jihad with the brand that many mujahideen identified with. By doing this, Jabhat al-Nusra was able to focus the efforts of the youth and channel their energies into an Islamic and justified, moral cause. The need for that no longer exists, however. The break was also required in order to fulfill our communal obligations to the Muslims in Syria. The practical implications of this split include the full independence we now enjoy, which gives us more freedom in decision-making. It also removed potential obstacles that stand in the way of a long hoped-for unification of ranks.”
The fact that the newly named JFS was able to follow up its rebranding by leading an expansive offensive that broke the intensely emotive siege of eastern Aleppo city in early August provided the group with a public relations win of immeasurable value. Behind the scenes, meanwhile, JFS then paired its military advantage on the ground with the intensified lobbying effort pushing for mergers with opposition groups. Although most groups involved still harbored serious concerns, the likelihood of some consequential mergers appeared greater than ever before. Clearly a sub-set of Syrian rebels perceived JFS’ emergence as a significant-enough ‘concession’ to revolutionary demands as to more seriously entertain the idea of combining forces.
Al-Qa`ida’s Operating Model Evolves
Spurred on by Jabhat al-Nusra’s steady growth in influence and confidence in Syria, al-Qa`ida as a transnational movement has itself evolved increasingly toward pursuing a model of decentralized jihad in which largely autonomous affiliates seek to operate within exclusively local theaters of populist battle. In a sense, al-Qa`ida has become more of an idea or model for jihad than it has continued to represent a discernible organization. By following al-Qa`ida’s strategic guidance and by continually adapting to evolving local Syrian circumstances, Jabhat al-Nusra has demonstrated the intrinsic advantages that result from pursuing a long-game approach that keeps the potentially toxic al-Qa`ida brand at arm’s length.
Ultimately, the newly rebranded JFS will seek exactly the same strategic objectives that Jabhat al-Nusra did, namely the future establishment of an Islamic Emirate in Syria from which broader international objectives might one day be realized. Having deployed a substantial number of AQC figures into Syrian territory and placed them both within and outside of JFS’ command structure, AQC and al-Zawahiri are in a position to present themselves as ceding external (or extra-Syrian) authority over the group.
In reality, however, JFS merely represents the latest stage in the jihadist movement’s long-game strategy, which is now focused on broadening the appeal of its jihadist project; isolating Syria’s opposition further from the international community and vice versa; and undermining the long-term credibility of more moderate opposition ideals. Throughout this new phase, JFS will, in all likelihood, hope to find itself in a position eventually to acquire a critical mass sufficient to support the establishment of an Islamic Emirate in northern Syria (likely in Idlib). Crucially, JFS will only seek to achieve this goal once a consultation process determines that doing so would not result in overwhelming local opposition. Jabhat al-Nusra already made one such outreach attempt in early 2016 and received strong resistance.
That al-Qa`ida has undertaken this evolution is an indication both of its own internal strategic learning and a recognition of the relative isolation of AQC from rapidly evolving and complex zones of jihad in Syria and Yemen. It is likely also a reflection of a perceived need to adapt to operating in a qualitatively different way than the Islamic State. Instability in the Middle East and North Africa looks set to last for many years, likely for one or two generations. As such, the continual development and refining of this long-game model appears to be the most sustainable jihadist project in existence and promises to make the al-Qa`ida idea a formidable threat to local, regional, and eventually international security for many years to come.
Abu Muhammad al-Julani flanked by Abdulrahim Attoun (right) and Ahmed Salameh Mabrouk (Jabhat Fateh al-Sham)
This approach does, however, bring with it one potential challenge, namely the reality that increasing localism and the resulting erosion of traditional al-Qa`ida transnationalism and ideological absolutism provides openings for opposition groups to steadily constrain remaining JFS extremist tendencies and isolate them from any future united force. Thus far, this appears to have been a principal reason for senior-level defections from JFS following its formation, given the danger of mergers with more mainstream opposition groups. Certainly some Syrian advocates of unity with JFS see such a consequence as an important motivation, as one Aleppo-based leader explained:
“Unity by itself has an important military value to us, in fighting the regime. However, we are also aware that some within [JFS] have ideas that contradict those of the [Syrian] revolution. When factions join [military] operations rooms, decisions are made by consensus. The same rule would apply if we merged with [JFS]. The most difficult voices inside the jihadi factions would become a minority and Syrian limitations would quickly be established. This is what some in al-Qa`ida are afraid of.”
Analysis following Jabhat al-Nusra’s rebranding into JFS has justifiably contained a substantial dose of skepticism. Indeed, it remains highly unlikely that JFS now represents anything substantially different than before. However, it would be a mistake to interpret the group’s identity change solely through a Western-centric counterterrorism lens and to dismiss it as wholly irrelevant. The rebranding was an exercise aimed almost exclusively at a local Syrian audience, as the group announced it was breaking all external ties relating to allegiance and strategic instruction. Crucially, this does not mean JFS has no ties to al-Qa`ida per se, but rather that it claims not to have any ties of allegiance or strategic instruction to or from al-Qa`ida outside Syria. It is precisely this foreign influence that Syrians have consistently pushed back against and as it is internal dynamics that they feel they can continue to control.
This internal-external distinction is critically important as al-Qa`ida had already established its own leadership authority inside Syria prior to the announcement, while the true tactical and strategic value of allegiance and instruction from AQC in Afghanistan-Pakistan had already proven itself of minimal importance. Recent comments made by Abu Sulayman al-Muhajir made the internal-external distinction patently clear:
“[Jabhat al-Nusra] was an official branch of [Al-Qa`ida]. We reported to their central command. We worked within their framework. We adhered to their policies … With the formation of JFS, now we’re a completely independent entity. We don’t report to anyone or receive directives from any external entity. If dissolving external organizational affiliations will remove the obstacles on the path of unity, then it must be done.”
As previously stated, three separate Islamist sources have confirmed to this author that at least 10 senior Jabhat al-Nusra figures—including al-Julani’s deputy al-Oraydi—had refused to sign-up to the JFS formation, while at least 200 of its fighters have quietly defected to other jihadist groups, primarily Jund al-Aqsa.While al-Oraydi maintained his quiet opposition to JFS, founding Jabhat al-Nusra member Iyad Tubasi (Abu Julaybib) publicly announced his break from JFS on August 23, rebuking the group’s “disengagement” from al-Qa`ida. Two other senior leaders, Abu Khadija al-Urduni and Abu Hammam al-Suri, were, according to two Syrian sources, set to leak reports of their defection as well, with the latter having already submitted a resignation letter to al-Julani earlier in August.
Such discord would suggest that something of substance had indeed changed organizationally. Certainly, the fear that mergers with less extreme opposition groups might dilute JFS’ ideological purity is emerging as a serious point of contention within JFS’ al-Qa`ida ‘old guard.’ That dynamic should be a matter of as much focus as the potential that JFS’ rebranding was a sophisticated ruse. After all, much of the lobbying effort by non-al-Qa`ida Syrians was undertaken precisely so as to give the Syrian mainstream more of an opportunity to constrain extremist elements within Jabhat al-Nusra. Some of those pursuing mergers maintain that same mindset.
Whether this claimed step toward complete localism—for the time being—is fully embraced by Syrians remains to be seen, though conversations this author has conducted with leadership figures from 32 key armed opposition groups spanning from U.S.-vetted FSA factions to Ahrar al-Sham indicated that all perceived the formation of JFS as a positive move and as a “concession” to revolutionary demands.However, as Ahrar al-Sham’s Director of External Relations Labib al-Nahhas has made clear, Syrians still expect to see more discernible evidence from JFS that “disassociating is not only organizational.” In other words, JFS behavior also needs to change.
In the immediate term, JFS will continue to place a dual emphasis on military activities (in order to underline the value of inter-group cooperation on the battlefield) and on rebel unity (in order to consolidate and embed its growing influence into the heart of Syria’s revolution). This issue of ‘unity’ will form a core basis of the group’s messaging, both in seeking continued battlefield success and in protecting the ‘revolution’ from external threat. At a certain point, after a series of demonstrated military successes and possibly also military mergers, JFS will also seek to expand its activities into the political arena by pushing its more geopolitically isolationist vision upon the broad spectrum of the opposition.
At its core, JFS will remain a locally focused organization whose transnational tendencies and ideological foundations will remain largely discrete so long as the anti-Assad revolution remains a more valuable mechanism for mobilization and for the continued long-term viability of the jihadist project. Should Abu Julaybib’s breaking away and Abu Hammam al-Suri’s ‘resignation’ from JFS be followed by further defections, the possibility that components of the Syrian opposition might then seek to dilute JFS’ remaining and most extreme jihadist tendencies by explicitly agreeing to merge with the group should not be discounted.
Notwithstanding JFS’ continued focus on the long-game and localism, some level of intensified international military action against the group also seems highly likely, given declarations made publicly by both the United States and Russia. That in and of itself will make it all the more likely that JFS will aim to draw more of the mainstream opposition further into its operational orbit to prevent external pressure from successfully decoupling opposition groups from working with it. Intensified efforts will doubtlessly also be invested by JFS to secure the formal subsuming of friendly jihadist groups already under the al-Qa`ida umbrella. Moreover, international attempts to further the political process through ‘regimes of calm,’ ceasefires, or even a new COH will almost certainly be actively spoiled by JFS in order to sustain the conflict upon which it relies.
Photo from Jabhat Fateh al-Sham’s official Twitter and Telegram accounts purportedly depicting its battle against the Syrian Army on August 23, 2016, on the outskirts of al-Zara village on Homs’ northern suburbs (Jabhat Fateh al-Sham)
Despite its localist focus, JFS should still be perceived as a substantial threat given its deep roots within conflict dynamics and the strong likelihood that it will therefore remain a highly sophisticated and capable armed actor into the long-term. However, policymakers must urgently recognize that JFS represents an extremely different challenge than that posed by the Islamic State. Precisely because it has invested so heavily in embedding within populist revolutionary dynamics and has established such a durable relationship of interdependence with opposition factions, the strategy to counter it must necessarily take a more holistic form. Within this context, any possible external attack-plotting is far more likely to emanate from JFS defectors than from JFS itself.
Given the underlying strategy behind JFS’ formation and the clear need to remain locally focused in order to further grow and consolidate the group’s overarching influence, it remains unlikely that JFS itself would initiate external attack-plotting. However, JFS alone does not represent the entirety of al-Qa`ida’s de facto presence inside Syria. Notwithstanding the likelihood that Abu al-Khayr is in Syria, a concentric circle of al-Qa`ida-linked jihadist support groups surrounding JFS retains substantive links to al-Qa`ida’s transnational structures. For example, the former military leader of Jund al-Aqsa—French-Algerian national Said Arif—was killed in one of a series of U.S. drone strikes targeting Khorasan Group leaders in May 2015. He was later described as “a major recruiter of foreign fighters.”
Outside of armed groups altogether, influential al-Qa`ida-linked figures like Rifai Taha had been known to travel in and out of Syria through Turkey. Therefore, should al-Qa`ida itself choose to initiate external attack-plotting, it seems unlikely that it would choose JFS as the structure out of which such plans would emanate. Doing so would contradict and endanger the methodical progress made by the group over the past five years. A splinter group like the one al-Adel and other al-Qa`ida figures are considering creating could be a possible vehicle for external plotting in the future.
Moreover, JFS’ intensifying focus on merging with opposition factions in Syria means that at least in the medium-term, any scope for reintroducing a transnational vision into the group’s overt strategic vision looks to be significantly constrained. Even Ahrar al-Sham is highly unlikely to ever entertain the prospect of members of an expanded Syria-based Islamist movement actively advocating for or acting upon plans to attack the West.
Intensified external intervention against JFS, meanwhile—as it is individually or as a movement enlarged by mergers—in Syria would undoubtedly serve to give JFS more credibility within broader opposition circles, but retaliation through foreign attacks, at least for the foreseeable future, would remain a step too far, even for some of the most conservative Syrian oppositionists. “Under no circumstances can we as the Syrian people ever accept that our territory be used for terrorism abroad, not by Daesh or any other party,” one Ahrar al-Sham official told this author in August 2016.
It is a highly unfortunate reality that many Syrians living in opposition areas of Syria perceive JFS as a more determined and effective protector of their lives and interests than the United States and its Western allies. This credibility issue is arguably the principal mechanism that has allowed JFS and Jabhat al-Nusra before it to acquire such substantial acceptance within communities that would otherwise have rejected jihadis aligned with al-Qa`ida from living and operating within their midst. In any strategy aimed at undermining JFS, due consideration should be given to prioritizing the protection of civilians as the group’s fate is inherently interconnected with the outcome of the Syrian conflict.
At its heart, JFS has thrived in Syria as a result of two interrelated realities: on the one hand, consistent conflict, instability, and the regime’s unchallenged mass killing of civilians, and on the other hand, an insufficiently supported and protected mainstream, moderate civil, political, and armed opposition. If reversed, these two realities could become JFS’ greatest vulnerabilities.
To tackle the first of these two realities, the United States and its international partners should consider urgently prioritizing the protection of civilians in Syria. While the establishment of formal safe or no-fly zones appears to be an increasingly unlikely scenario, the United States could credibly threaten limited punitive military measures for especially flagrant acts of targeted civilian killing by the Assad regime, the aim of which would be three-fold: to demonstrate to Syrian civilians that the United States was determined to protect their lives; to induce a period of relative calm across the country by curtailing Syrian government aggression; and thereby to impose pressure on the Assad regime to pursue a political solution. All three outcomes would diminish JFS’ advantages on the ground and from its broader narrative of the conflict. To best avoid detrimental reactions to punitive military measures, Russia would necessarily be pre-informed and given a time-limited period to leverage its influence over the Assad regime.
To tackle the second reality, the United States and its international allies must acknowledge the interrelation between a weak or insufficiently supported moderate opposition and a stronger JFS and its circle of jihadist allies. JFS only enjoys the acceptance and support of opposition societies because no better alternative exists. It can be argued that a confident, well-supported, and protected vetted opposition remains the best and only durable option available to securing a mainstream Sunni Arab role in determining Syria’s future and in providing a sociocultural alternative to JFS’ pseudo-revolutionary narrative. At least 69 such vetted factions currently exist across Syria, though they have never received enough support to produce credible moderate opposition dominance.
In short, due to the very nature of JFS’ long-game approach and its extensive roots and interdependent relationship with Syria’s ‘revolution,’ combating it must necessarily be about far more than mere kinetic counterterrorism actions. JFS will never be destroyed altogether, but rather its largest structures can be degraded and its most extreme elements isolated through the two policy facets described above. If the unique nature of JFS’ long-game strategy and presence in Syria is not fully acknowledged and should orthodox counterterrorism measures be brought against it by external powers in isolation from other measures, JFS will only reap the benefit.
Charles Lister is a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute and a senior consultant to The Shaikh Group’s Syria Track II Dialogue Initiative. His book, The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency, was published in February 2016, and his 50-page Brookings Institute report, “Profiling Jabhat al-Nusra,” was published in July 2016. Follow @Charles_Lister
[a] At its first phase of operations, Jaish al-Fateh contained Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, Jund al-Aqsa, Liwa al-Haq, Jaysh al-Sunna, Ajnad al-Sham, and Faylaq al-Sham.
 Lisa Barrington and Suleiman Al-Khalidi, “Syria’s Nusra Front says ending al Qaeda ties; U.S. fears for Aleppo,” Reuters, July 29, 2016.
 Charles Lister, “Al Qaeda Is About to Establish an Emirate in Northern Syria,” Foreign Policy, May 4, 2016.
 Charles Lister, “The Nusra Front Is Dead and Stronger Than Ever Before,” Foreign Policy, July 28, 2016.
 Charles Lister, “Al-Qa’ida Plays a Long Game in Syria,” CTC Sentinel 8:9 (2015).
 Charles Lister, Twitter, July 15, 2015, 12:46 PM.
 Charles Lister, “Al Qaeda Reaps Rewards of U.S. Policy Failures on Syria,” Daily Beast, July 6, 2016.
 Charles Lister, “What is the Future of al-Qaida and the Islamic State?” Brookings Institution, February 24, 2016.
 Author interviews, three Islamist figures, May-August 2016.
 “US air strike kills senior al-Qaeda leader,” Al Jazeera, April 8, 2016.
 Author interview, Syrian Islamist figure, August 2016.
 Charles Lister, “Under Pressure, Syria’s Rebels Face al-Nusra Quandary,” Huffington Post, July 18, 2016.
 Author interview, July 2016.
 Author interviews with two Syrian Islamist figures, July 2016.
 Author interview, Syrian Islamist figure, August 2016.
 Author interviews, Syrian opposition leaders, August 2016.
 Abu Jarir ash-Shamli, “Al-Qa’ida of Waziristan: A Testimony from Within,” Dabiq, issue 6, pp. 40-55.
 Charles Lister, The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency (London: Hurst, 2015), pp. 193-201.
 Lister, “Al-Qa’ida Plays a Long Game in Syria.”
 Ayman al-Zawahiri, “General Guidelines for Jihad,” al-Sahab Media, September 14, 2013.
 Charles Lister, “Profiling Jabhat al-Nusra,” Brookings Institution, July 2016, p. 15.
 Charles Lister, “An internal struggle: Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate is grappling with its identity,” Brookings Institution, May 31, 2015.
 Lister, “Al Qaeda Is About to Establish an Emirate in Northern Syria;” Karen DeYoung and Adam Goldman, “Is al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria no longer a ‘sideshow’? Washington Post, July 20, 2016; J. J. Green, “Mysterious al-Qaida figure emerges in Syria,” WTOP, November 5, 2015; Thomas Joscelyn, “Al Qaeda insider returns to Twitter, discusses global leadership,” Long War Journal, March 16, 2016.
 Lister, “Profiling Jabhat al-Nusra,” Brookings Institution, July 2016; Lister, “The Nusra Front Is Dead and Stronger Than Ever Before,” Foreign Policy, July 28, 2016.
 Senior Jabhat al-Nusra figures and influential Al-Qaeda-linked ideologues like Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi have often made reference to the value of these ideological tenets in relation to the jihad in Syria.
 Lister, “Profiling Jabhat al-Nusra,” p. 26.
 Ayman al-Zawahiri, Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner, December 2001.
 Lister, “Profiling Jabhat al-Nusra,” p. 33.
 Lister, “Al Qaeda Is About to Establish an Emirate in Northern Syria.”
 Murtaza Hussein, “Militant leader talks about break with Al Qaeda and possible Syrian rebel merger,” Intercept, August 23, 2016.
 Lister, “Al Qaeda Is About to Establish an Emirate in Northern Syria.”
 Author interview, Aleppo-based opposition leader, August 2016.
 Bryony Jones, Clarissa Ward, and Salma Abdelaziz, “Al-Nusra rebranding: New name, same aim? What you need to know,” CNN, August 2, 2016; Mustafa Mohamed Farag’s full comments are available at https://justpaste.it/wvdv.
 Author interviews, three Syrian Islamist figures, August 2016.
 Author interviews, August 2016.
 Author interviews, Syrian opposition figures, July-August 2016.
 Author interviews, Syrian armed opposition groups, August 2016.
 “An exclusive interview with Al-Hayat newspaper with foreign relations officer in Ahrar al-Sham,” ahraralsham.net, August 12, 2016.
 “Algerian jihadist killed in Syria in May: French officials,” Agence France-Presse, September 17, 2015.
 Dania Akkad, “US drone strike in Syria killed mediator trying to rein in al-Qaeda,” Middle East Monitor, May 9, 2016.
 Author interview, Ahrar al-Sham official, August 2016.
 Lister, “Al Qaeda Reaps Rewards of U.S. Policy Failures on Syria.”