How Al Qaeda is Winning in Syria
Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, entered Syria in late 2011. By mid-2014, it had grown from a moderately-sized force bedeviled by conflict with more powerful armed groups to one of the few remaining key players in Northern Syria. During its early years, the group’s main and only focus was on its military operations against the Syrian regime. It rarely interfered in civil affairs and local governance. Since July 2014, however, al-Nusra has deliberately leveraged its powerful status to assert itself as a key revolutionary force, gradually insinuating itself into governance roles with the goal of implementing al-Qaeda’s political vision in Syria.
Unlike the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which relies on intimidation and shocking levels of violence to rule local populations in areas it holds and to market itself among global jihadis, al-Nusra uses persuasion and gradual change to increase its influence and control. This strategy is clearly informed by al-Qaeda’s past failures to establish grassroots support in Iraq. The Islamic State in Iraq’s defeat in 2007 was largely due to its failure to tend to its base or maintain a working relationship with nationalist Iraqi insurgents and local power brokers. By contrast, a gradual approach has allowed al-Nusra to root itself in Syrian society and present its project as one the few remaining viable alternatives for the Syrian people, making a Syria ruled by al-Qaeda a scenario more plausible than ever before.
Al-Nusra starts with embedding itself in the opposition and then incrementally moving to subsume, purge, or dominate revolutionary forces, both civilian and military. It has used this approach throughout Syria. Unlike ISIL, al-Nusra’s logic of control is defined by achieving a loose military and political dominance, rather than complete control, although the latter is its long-term objective. The group carefully chooses when and where to assert its authority to maintain a careful balance between its long-term aims—full control and establishing an Islamic Emirate in Syrian—and the need to appease revolutionary forces and the local population. Upon entering new territory, for example, al-Nusra often refrains from imposing its control on the population or governance institutions. Instead, it initially shares control with the groups already in power on the ground, even if they are secularists and oppose al-Nusra’s visions for Syria. Al-Nusra uses this approach to prevent an abrupt rejection by the local population that may result in a full-fledged confrontation with opposition armed groups, as well as to diffuse its presence in opposition-held areas. But sharing control does not necessarily foster agreement. It is a tactic to delay confrontation until al-Nusra has the military and political means to dispense with its temporary allies and purge, or subsume, their members.
This gradualist approach dovetails with al-Nusra’s strategy to gain genuine grassroots support for its long-term political project. Gaining the acceptance of the Syrian people is the heart of al-Nusra’s Syria strategy. It relies on a persuasive approach to expand its influence, ideology, and, eventually, control. Al-Nusra uses this gradual approach to pursue a social reform agenda, using soft tactics to gain local support and buy-in to their long-term vision for Syria. This often means beginning with da’wa, or proselytization, which al-Nusra frequently deploys through its publications, public events, and everyday interactions with non-members. It often launches a string of extensive da’wa campaigns, led by local and foreign clerics and fighters. These campaigns double as recruitment events and as platforms to promote their political project. Beyond large public events, al-Nusra places men on street corners and markets to preach its ideology, provides shari’a courses, sends mobile da’wa caravans to rural areas, posts manifold leaflets and billboards, replaces mosques leaders with men more sympathetic to the group’s ideas, and hosts local children’s competitions testing knowledge of the Quran and other Islamic texts and history.
These efforts are not limited to areas where al-Nusra has presence. According to some activists interviewed by the author, al-Nusra sends its da’ween to Free Syrian
Army (FSA) and Ahrar al-Sham-held territories, and even to recruit members and factions of other armed groups to its cause, as it did with in al-Bareh, Idlib. Further, al-Nusra has increasingly prioritized tightening its control over institutions through which it indirectly influences and transforms Syrian society. These institutions range from shari’a courts and shura councils, to military alliances’ shari’a commissions. One of al-Nusra’s most salient tools is its shari’a courts. Unlike other armed groups, al-Nusra always ensures that its affiliated shari’a courts are professional and effective, endowing each with an executive security force to enforce its rulings. As a result, al-Nusra-affiliated courts have long compared favorably with those of its rivals, which are known to be ineffective, biased, and without the power to enforce their decisions. The declining Free Judicial Council is a case in point. In several areas in Idlib, interviews with residents and activists that I conducted indicated that people trusted and therefore preferred al-Nusra-affiliated shari’a courts. “If a court can’t enforce its ruling, no one would trust it or use it,” a lawyer from Idlib Province told me. He added that secular courts affiliated with FSA groups do exist, but due to their inability to implement their rulings, few local residents go to these courts.
Control of the judicial system gives al-Nusra powerful influence inside communities. First, it enables the group to rule and adjudicate based on its own interpretation of the law, which is Salafi and hardline. This in turn molds societal norms and pressures communities to conform to al-Nusra’s ultra-conservative tenets. Second, control of the judicial system in some cases may give the group possession of essential processes and documents such as marriage certificates, deeds, and bills of sale. In many cases, al-Nusra courts have been successful in seizing private and public property. Al-Nusra is slowly rendering a large portion of the population beholden to it for essentials such as proving lineage, land ownership, marriage, and other matters of personal law. As it embeds itself in the fabric of Syrian society, the group is able to influence the societal norms of the Syrian population.
Al-Nusra’s strategy of conditioning the environment for its future consolidation of power, and eventual sole rule, also relies on purging civil society groups, local governance institutions, and armed groups with democratic outlooks, and replacing them with its own institutions. Since July 2014, al-Nusra has displaced, harassed, and imprisoned dozens of civil activists. In nearly all cases, al-Nusra used courts and governing authorities to restrict the activities of civil society actors. Local aid organizations and civil society groups are required to obtain written approval from the shura council (which al-Nusra dominates) before embarking on any work. These restrictions often prevent these organizations from working in areas where al-Nusra has influence, especially when the group requires civil society activists to disclose the names of their donors and the objectives of their work. As a result, work that promotes democratic values, civil governance, or human rights are often rejected, further increasing al-Nusra’s monopoly over shaping and indoctrinating local communities.
Further, al-Nusra also encroached on several local councils—which are community-based service-provision organizations that are often funded by international aid organizations—to assert its authority over them, but with little success. The main factor behind al-Nusra’s failure in this area is its inability to replace the services these councils provide as well as Ahrar al-Sham’s opposition to al-Nusra’s expansionist tendencies. In one interview I conducted, a civil activist in Saraqib City, for example, said that al-Nusra attempted to install its own people in the local council, but failed following popular outcry and protests by local residents supported by Ahrar al-Sham. Al-Nusra also tried to do the same with in Salqeen and Kfar Nubul, but failed after Ahrar al-Sham intervened. Nonetheless, if Ahrar al-Sham does not intervene in the future, there will be little that these councils and their communities can do to survive al-Nusra’s political project in Syria.
Before disbanding these councils, however, al-Nusra seeks to present the local population with alternative organizations to replace those it attacks. Several al-Nusra-affiliated education, service provision, and religious organizations emerged in Idlib Province following Jabhat al-Nusra’s surge in 2014. Al-Nusra provides basic services to communities where it has a presence as an alternative to these elected councils. In the North, al-Nusra started its own service provision organization, the General Services Management (GSM), although it has yet to be able to provide the bare minimum of basic services to all areas where it has presence. GSM provides water and electricity services to several local communities in Aleppo, Idlib, and Hama provinces. Al-Nusra also supports local bakeries in some areas and controls market prices through its courts and Islamic police. Although service provision remain at low intensity, with time and enough resources, al-Nusra will likely seek to completely replace local councils with GSM to present itself to the Syrian people as a viable alternative to the secular opposition.
Jabhat Al-Nusra also attacked and purged several FSA-affiliated armed groups, citing a variety of justifications (of varying legitimacy), from corruption to local feuds, almost immediately upon its re-entry into Idlib Province. One of the first groups targeted by al-Nusra was the Syria Revolutionaries Front (SRF), led by Jamal Ma’rouf, a well-known warlord in Idlib Province. Al-Nusra used corruption within the SRF ranks as a pretext to declare war. The real reasons behind al-Nusra’s aggression, however, went far beyond SRF’s small-time oil smuggling operations. First, al-Nusra wished to expand and take over the lucrative smuggling operations SRF controlled. The easiest and arguably only way to accomplish this at the time was through seizing SRF territories. Second, SRF relations with the United States posed a strategic threat to al-Nusra’s presence in Syria. The list of FSA-groups to have come under al-Nusra’s ax is long, including Jabhat Haq, Abu al-Alamayn Brigade, Division 30, Liwa al-Ansar, and most recently Division 13, all of which are FSA-affiliated armed and some of which are backed by the United States.
Despite a clear popular uproar against al-Nusra’s crackdown on FSA-affiliated groups, it has emerged from the resulting scandals relatively unscathed. In the past year, several anti-al-Nusra popular protests erupted in Aleppo and Idlib Provinces. Unlike ISIL, al-Nusra responded to these protests with restraint. Although it used force to disperse some of these protests, it refrained from using excessive violence. Instead, al-Nusra either waited for protests to taper off, or staged its own counter-protests, sometimes even peacefully infiltrating rival protests with its own flags and demonstrators.
Purging these groups was a strategic decision to increase al-Nusra’s influence and condition the north for eventual al-Nusra rule. To date, there remain numerous FSA-affiliated groups active in al-Nusra’s sphere of influence, but none these pose a strategic threat to al-Nusra’s presence. This is especially true in Idlib and Hama Provinces, where groups such as Fursan al-Haq and Saraqib Revolutionary Front have been fighting the regime alongside Jabhat al-Nusra, despite the former having received military aid from the United States. Nevertheless, if al-Nusra continues its policies, even these groups will not survive its expansion and will likely disband, leaving their revolution to be hijacked by al-Nusra.
Although some have suggested that al-Nusra “will almost certainly follow through on its plans and establish an emirate in Idlib by the end of 2016,” it would not be wise to expect such a precipitous timeline: Al-Nusra shares control with powerful Islamist armed groups, namely Ahrar al-Sham, whose political goals run counter to those of al-Nusra. Ahrar al-Sham will almost certainly reject, and is likely to halt, such a move. Being pragmatic, al-Nusra is mindful of its inability at this time to purge Ahrar al-Sham without endangering its survival in Syria. For al-Nusra to move against such a formidable competitor, a fundamental change in the power balance in Idlib Province is necessary—one that is unlikely to occur in seven months.
Nonetheless, al-Nusra’s gradual and very steady expansion of influence is not declining in any major way. Its well-trained fighters continue to win battles and play an important role in combating the Syrian regime and its allies, which remains the main priority to many pro-opposition Syrians. Its courts and influence over shura councils allows al-Nusra to shape Syrian society according to its own interpretation of Islam and implement al-Qaeda’s vision. It has positioned itself so that no major power in the north can move against it—be it Ahrar al-Sham and other armed Islamist groups—without severely endangering their own military standing. Barring a major change, such as a shift in the U.S.-led coalition policy towards attacking al-Qaeda in Syria or a change in Ahrar al-Sham’s current position towards al-Nusra, it is possible that we will see al-Qaeda ruling parts of the country in the foreseeable future—and end all hopes for a democratic Syria.
Yasir Abbas is a senior analyst with The Stabilization Network (TSN), a Washington, DC-based CVE and conflict stabilization consultancy. Prior to his work with TSN, Abbas served as an interpreter and adviser with the U.S. Army in Iraq between 2005 and 2009 where he assisted in organizing the Awakening Movement in the Taji area north of Baghdad. This article is based on nearly two years of closely monitoring Jabhat al-Nusra media, military, and governance activities in traditional and social media, coupled with dozens of interviews with Syrian civil activists, journalists, and local governance officials. You can follow him on Twitter at: @Yabbasharb.