There have been reports this week that Jabhat an-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, has agreed to a truce with the Islamic State (I.S.), under which they will focus on common enemies—namely the rebels, the Kurds, and the Americans—but there are reasons to doubt these reports.
Earlier this week, Nusra deputised Jaysh al-Muhajireen wa-Ansar (JMA) to represent it in a meeting in Raqqa City, the capital of I.S.’s Caliphate, to try to bring about a reconciliation between the Salafi-jihadists, if only against the common American foe that was now targeting both of them inside Syria. It did not work because the I.S. refused the offer.
JMA has largely stayed out of the jihadist infighting, and is indeed now in a formation, Jabhat Ansar ad-Din, formed in late July, which comprises the main independent jihadist units: Katibat al-Khadra (an Idlib-based Saudi outfit), Harakat Sham al-Islam (a Moroccan outfit based around the Sahel Front), and Harakat Fajr a-Sham (a mostly Syrian unit with an important Turkish contingent that is concentrated in Aleppo). This independence seems to have been one factor in Nusra choosing JAM to represent it. Another appears to be that the designated emissary, Salakhuddin Shishani (Feyzulla Margoshvili), who leads Imarat Kavkaz (Caucasus Emirate), speaks Russian, and the I.S. representative was the infamous Abu Omar a-Shishani.
At the meeting Margoshvili told the I.S. that Nusra had seen that there were democrats in its ranks and it had co-operated with democrats, and would now cleanse these elements, but implored the I.S. to see the bigger picture of their common enemy. The I.S. responded today that this was the purest trickery: Nusra was clearly still in the ranks of the taghut (idolaters) i.e. apostates, a charge they could only be exculpated of by giving baya (allegiance) to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his Caliphate.
This is important background to the report by the Associated Press on Thursday that representatives of the Islamic State and Jabhat an-Nusra met at a farm house in Atareeb on Nov. 2 and struck an agreement to halt the I.S.-Nusra infighting.
“According to the opposition official, the meeting included an IS representative, two emissaries from Nusra Front, and attendees from the Khorasan Group … Also reported present at the meeting was Jund al-Aqsa, a hard-line faction that has sworn allegiance to IS; and Ahrar al-Sham“.
Other than halting the fitna (strife), the there was an agreement to open up new fronts in northern Syria, specifically against the Kurds. (These two aims are really one: the Kurdish spectre has united even warring Arab insurgent formations.) But before they get to the Kurds, Nusra and I.S. “agreed to work to destroy the Syrian Revolutionaries Front”.
The AP report adds that the I.S. “offered to send extra fighters to Nusra Front for an assault it launched last week on” Harakat Hazm when Hazm tried to intervene to stop Nusra’s attack on the Syrian Revolutionaries’ Front (SRF). That decisive attack, which drove the rebellion from its positions in Idlib Province and Hazm from its headquarters in Khan as-Subul, did in fact happen on Nov. 2.
“IS sent about 100 fighters in 22 pickup trucks but Nusra ended up not needing the assistance, [the rebel source] said, because Hazm decided not to engage in the fight. Sixty-five Hazm fighters defected to Nusra, he said.”
There have also been other reports that “ISIS sent more than a hundred fighters in a 22-vehicle column to assist … al Nusra in the final assault on … the Syrian Revolutionaries Front,” but they just do not ring true.
“Cooperation, however, would fall short of unifying the rival groups, and experts believe any pact between the two sides could easily unravel. … American intelligence community has not seen any indications of a shift in the two groups’ strategy, but added that he could not rule out tactical deals on the ground.”
In truth, as the story I began with illustrates, even this level of co-operation seems doubtful.
Argument has been heard, as have rumours, as far back as late September, just after the U.S. airstrikes inside Syria began, that an I.S.-Nusra alliance, tactical or otherwise, was emerging as a result of the U.S. airstrikes targeting both groups; they’re under attack anyway, why not join forces? was the logic. The Guardian reported: “A senior source confirmed that al-Nusra and Isis leaders were now holding war planning meetings.”
The implication is that Nusra should have been left alone, and that is certainly true for as long as these airstrikes target only insurgents and not the regime. The effect of the strikes was to make it appear that the nationalist rebels had much more American support than they actually do, or that they soon would, and thus incentivised Nusra—which is not a “rebel” group, given that its leadership is foreign and its intentions are global—to destroy the nationalists before they could take hold and scupper their plains for an Islamic Emirate in the Levant. This was very helpful to the regime and the Salafi-jihadists, and extremely damaging to the rebellion and the actors supposedly supported by the West. The dynamics however do not favour a reconciliation between I.S. and Nusra.
In the Telegraph, Eugenio Lilli of King’s College London mentioned that Nusra and I.S. “are said to have teamed up against … Assad’s and Hizbollah’s forces in areas along the Syria-Lebanon border.” The reference here is to Qalamoun and Arsal, and yes the two groups have co-operated there. But this neglects the fact the groups operating under I.S. and Nusra colours in that area are geographically isolated from their central leaderships, and more importantly from the mechanisms of control—money and weapons very much among them—that can be exerted to direct policy.
Nusra’s nation-wide control mechanism has broken down, and thus it has regional branches pursuing sometimes-contradictory policies. The Idlib branch of Nusra alleged to have struck this deal seems unlikely to have done so since among the main intentions of Nusra openly attacking the rebellion in this area was to assert its control in a way that would give it something to show for the years of fighting and would also give it something to show in its ideological war with the Islamic State. Inviting in I.S. jihadists—especially ones that were not even needed—would therefore be directly in opposition to what Nusra was hoping to achieve.
The question then becomes: What is going on here?
A clue is the identification of the sources as coming from among the opposition, with only one named (Abu Musafer), and his “exact location” and affiliation (given only as the “Free Syrian Army”) unstated. This leads to the suspicion that these sources come from in and around the SRF, which has a great interest in portraying the I.S. and Nusra as one and the same to enlist the U.S. in a campaign to help the SRF recover its positions—which are its home-towns and -villages—in Idlib. Nusra’s leadership and the “Khorasan Group” within Nusra are indeed the same as the I.S., but much of Nusra’s rank-and-file is there for reasons of resources and military power against the regime, and could be pulled into the mainstream insurgency if time and resources were applied. The focus on Nusra also removes focus from the SRF which has problems of popularity that gave Nusra its opening. The SRF has been associated with banditry, a by-product of the fact that the rebellion has never been properly supported while Salafists have always had ample funding. Nusra, by contrast, is associated even by its enemies with clean governance. This is why there has been such little popular backlash against Nusra driving out the SRF.
The war in Syria has national, regional, and global implications but many of the actors actually on the ground have profoundly provincial aims, which they seek to accomplish by enlisting foreign patrons. In this case, if this suspicion is correct, it is the SRF trying to make up for a deficiency in local popularity and power with U.S. airstrikes. It could work—and I think helping the SRF recover control of Idlib is one of the better options left to us—but, as the efforts of Norwegian film director Lars Klevberg show, the means matter as much as the ends, and the obligation to truth holds regardless.
Perhaps I’m wrong in this specific; perhaps some kind of local ceasefire was organised between the Islamic State and Jabhat an-Nusra at the beginning of this month. As the example of Qalamoun demonstrates there are exceptions to the general rule of I.S.-Nusra conflict. But the breach in the global jihadist movement that began in April 2013 is beyond repair, and while some Salafi-jihadists around the world might try to straddle this divide, its epicentre is Syria, and on the ground there the I.S. and al-Qaeda are in a fight to the finish.