Jabhat an-Nusra, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, has driven one of America’s oldest allied rebel groups in Syria from its headquarters. Nusra began its assault on Division 13 on Saturday night and by yesterday morning Nusra had looted the rebels’ weapons and Division 13’s leader, Ahmad as-Saoud, was in Turkey. This is the third major such incident, and each time the United States has done nothing to rescue its designated proxies. The U.S.’s rapprochement with the Islamic Republic of Iran has set conditions in Syria that make it easier for al-Qaeda to spread.
The Syrian Revolutionaries’ Front and Harakat Hazm
Overnight October 31/November 1, 2014, just after the U.S. began airstrikes in Syria against the Islamic State (IS), Nusra dismantled the Syrian Revolutionaries’ Front (SRF) in Idlib Province, the stronghold of Nusra’s most powerful and ideological branch, and also home to Division 13.
SRF had been supported by the Central Intelligence Agency, which had, since June 2013, been supporting vetted moderate rebels inside Syria—now totalling some thirty-nine groups and more than 40,000 fighters, whose record of maintaining the weapons supplies they’re given and fealty to the laws of war is—especially in the circumstances—near-unblemished.
The CIA program, however, has been plagued from the beginning by being chronically under-resourced and the U.S. has refused to protect its own assets, whether attacked by the regime, the Russians, al-Qaeda, or IS. The net result was that U.S.-supported groups became a target of extremist groups like Nusra—which the U.S. has for years urged rebels to attack—but the rebels were reliant on an inconsistent supply system and were not actually backed by the U.S. if it came to a confrontation. It was a policy that did enough to provoke the extremists and not enough to strengthen or protect the moderates; it was almost designed to discredit the U.S. as a worthwhile interlocutor and empower the jihadi-Salafists. SRF was a victim of this short-sighted policy.
The reaction was somewhat muted from other rebels because SRF and its leader, Jamal Marouf, had a reputation for banditry. Marouf’s men had looted resources to secure their militia, which did not have sources of finance as reliable as the Salafists. The disorderliness of the SRF was used by the U.S. as a reason for keeping its distance. SRF, unsurprisingly, got no more effective or honest in the absence of U.S. engagement and direction.
At around the same time Nusra was also attacking Harakat Hazm, a secular rebel group composed of 4,000 men, led by defected officers, and the White House’s favourite rebel group.
After SRF was routed, four of the then-sixteen vetted groups were immediately dropped by the U.S., and in December 2014 resources to the remaining twelve were severely cut without warning. Some rebel groups were relying on sixteen bullets per fighter. Hazm lost half of its funding.
In late February 2015, Hazm came under attack again and on March 1 announced it was dissolving itself into the larger, Islamist coalition, al-Jabhat al-Shamiya (The Levant Front). Other parts of Hazm later joined Jaysh al-Thuwar, an Arab battalion attached to various armed coalitions dominated by the Kurdish PKK.
Division 13, al-Qaeda’s Syrian Strategy, and the Ceasefire
The pattern of SRF and Hazm has repeated with Division 13. One of the oldest Free Syrian Army-branded, U.S.-vetted groups, Division 13 has about 2,000 fighters, headquartered in Maarat al-Numan in Idlib, but the group has also fought in Aleppo, notably as part of the recent effort by the rebellion to repel a Russian-backed PKK attack on the Azaz corridor that was the final Aleppine supply-line from Turkey.
Nusra was joined by Jund al-Aqsa, a group set up as an al-Qaeda front that appears now to be (unofficially) pro-IS, in attacking Division 13. At least seven Division 13 soldiers were killed and about forty arrested by the morning of March 13; there is a claim the captives were all by the night-time.
Nusra has, as part of its strategy to secure itself a long-term base for the restoration of the caliphate and the use of terrorism abroad, taken significant efforts to embed itself in rebel dynamics as a means to shield its jihadi agenda, to foster co-dependency not only with a desperate rebellion fighting virtually alone against between three and five State powers depending on how you calculate it, but among local populations, too.
Despite the pressures for insurgent unity—and simple survival, especially since the Russian intervention—Division 13 was among the groups that had eschewed cooperation with Nusra. The lessons from what has befallen Division 13, namely that it is more dangerous to be a U.S. ally than an enemy, do not favour Western security.
The “cessation of hostilities”—which is really a reduction of hostilities—that took effect on February 27 is little more than a cover for the regime and its Russian and Iranian backers to catch their breath from their recent aggression, while continuing to wage their war—albeit at an overall reduced rate—on key fronts. But even the lessening of violence has had a significant impact on insurgent dynamics.
Ninety-seven rebel groups signed on to this “ceasefire,” which excluded both Nusra and IS. Since Russia was bombing whatever it wanted by calling them Nusra, it gave Nusra a certain freedom. It also meant that other rebel groups were hindered in mobilizing to respond to violations of the ceasefire. Was it worth incurring Russia’s wrath to respond? What could they do anyway? Would the population under their control turn against them if their action induced Russia to bomb their area?
When it was Nusra, not Russia, that used the ceasefire to attack the rebels the problem of mobilization persisted: Nusra fight the regime and the U.S. wouldn’t even support you if you took on Nusra, so why make yourself a Nusra target? Moreover, the U.S. has all-but sided with the regime in Syria, both de facto in terms of its military action, which only hits IS, Nusra, and some non-transnationalist rebel groups (whether on purpose or not we do not know), and increasingly in the political negotiations.
Nusra is taking a risk for its long-term strategy in this. It is difficult to dissociate Nusra’s behaviour from that of what it calls the “Khawarij” (IS). On Friday, with the reduction in airstrikes, the population and the FSA-style rebels took to the streets again for massive, peaceful anti-regime protests all across Syria. Nusra had tried to shut down the protest in Maarat an-Numan. (Saoud himself has attended these rallies.) During the attacks on Division 13 on Saturday, protesters took the streets in the pitch-black to demand Nusra cease and desist.
Nusra’s hard edge—the real al-Qaeda—has been seen a few times over the last few years, perhaps most notably in July 2014, after IS stormed into Iraq and declared its caliphate, when a leaked recording revealed their plan for an “Islamic Emirate” in Syria. The thinking—as with anointing Taliban leader Mullah Umar as the “counter-caliph“—was that while al-Qaeda’s calls for the caliphate as the end not the beginning of their program, they could not beat IS’s something with nothing. Nusra had been fighting for three years in Syria and held very little territory; a semi-caliphate would allow al-Qaeda to do battle with IS on more firm ideological footing.
For some activists, Nusra’s aggression against Division 13 is basically the return of the Emirate project. Ahmed Alwan, a senior cleric in Maarat an-Numan, said: “It’s going to be one faction after another because Nusra wants to be the paramount force here [i.e. in Idlib].” Another activist put it more bluntly: “This is Raqqa 2,” referring to IS’s takeover in October 2013 of the city that is now its capital, after the rebels had taken it from Assad that April.
The U.S.’s Pro-Iran Tilt is Helping Sunni Jihadists
There is little appetite, with the rebellion already fighting Assad/Iran and IS, to open up a third front against Nusra, especially because Nusra is so effective in fighting the regime, but the concern is there. To untangle Nusra from the rebellion, composed demographically largely of the Sunni Arab population which is needed for the U.S. priority of sustainably defeating IS, would require giving the armed opposition another option: it would have to be more beneficial to be a U.S. ally than to collaborate with Nusra. This would involve the U.S. being committed to the overthrow of the Assad regime. It does not involve the U.S. invading Syria, but having as its operating paradigm the deposition of Assad.
At the present time, U.S. policy effectively cedes Syria to Iran as a sphere of influence and gives Assad a security guarantee. Assad being off-limits was seen with the train-and-equip program, where the Pentagon recruited rebels to the anti-IS fight on condition they stop being rebels—that is to say abandon their fight against the regime. Add to this the U.S. striking at IS in eastern Syria while allowing Assad (and now Russia) to attack mainstream rebels in western Syria, and providing direct support to Iranian proxies in Iraq, and the U.S. is underwriting the expansion of Iranian hegemony.
The U.S.’s pro-Iran tilt plays directly into IS’s propaganda, which says there is an American-Iranian conspiracy against the Sunnis. If Sunnis believe IS will be replaced by Iran, they will stick with IS. And the escalated assault on the Syrian population by Russia and Iran since September last year, unhindered by the U.S. which is unwilling to provide even anti-aircraft weapons to CIA-supported rebels that were systematically targeted by Russia, is pushing insurgents toward reliance on Nusra.
The ability to paint moderate rebels who work with the U.S. as effectively working with the regime, since the U.S. is aligned with it, enables Nusra present itself as the lead bulwark against Assad/Iran and to monopolize power by destroying the moderate groups needed in the anti-IS fight with less local resistance, though the massive reaction against Nusra for pushing Division 13 out—and the near-silence over SRF’s dissolution—has shown that rebel missteps matter, too.
The sense that only the extremists can help against the regime is also being furthered by, for example, the U.S. repeatedly sabotaging offensives by the rebel Southern Front near Damascus for fear it might actually collapse the regime, and Jordan’s fear of losing the buffer on its border. When rebel collaboration with foreigners results in the fulfilment of the foreigners’ interests and nothing for the rebels, as has also recently happened with Turkey, it leaves the extremists more space to operate.
The U.S. putting primary focus on IS in Syria might be considered an error when Iran is forming a Russian-underwritten beachhead on NATO’s doorstep, transferring tens of thousands of Shi’a jihadists, many with Western blood on their hands and who are integrated into Iran’s global terrorist network. But even on the most cynical enemy-of-my-enemy reading, siding with Assad/Iran fails: the regime is militarily incapable of defeating IS, even if it had the will, and it simply doesn’t. In the short term the regime—and its supporters Iran and Russia—have every interest in making the IS problem worse to destroy the mainstream opposition and force a binary choice between the dictator and the terrorists.
Allowing the Syrian war to run on this long has given Nusra space to deeply entwine itself in rebel dynamics and Sunni Arab areas. Decoupling Nusra and mobilizing this constituency against IS is only possible once the Assad regime is gone; it gets harder every day he remains in power and the war continues.
It makes no sense militarily to allow groups like Division 13, SRF, and Hazm that are either already decoupled from Nusra or operating with minimal tactical cooperation to be destroyed; rebuilding is far more difficult than preservation. Now would be the moment to exploit the fissure between Nusra and the rebels, and empower the latter to be free of the former.
Letting rebel groups that engage in little or no tactical cooperation with Nusra also makes no sense politically. If the mainstream rebellion is eliminated and there was only Assad, al-Qaeda, and IS left, a U.S. alliance with Assad could be passed off as the “practical” option. The U.S. not exerting itself to rescue rebel groups it purportedly supports from attacks by al-Qaeda is furthering the sense that the U.S. isn’t exactly opposed to this outcome, and regards the moderate rebels as a nuisance, which does not help the U.S.’s ability to recruit rebel allies against IS or al-Qaeda.
Put simply, the U.S.’s pro-Iran tilt is alienating potential allies in Syria and beyond, hampering the fight against IS, and allowing al-Qaeda to expand and entrench in Syria long into the future.