Is Jabhat al-Nusra Breaking Apart?


Aron Lund has a great analysis of a possible break within the organization of Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN) / Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS); this has huge implications for the future of Syria. Will ISIS face a Sunni awakening like in Iraq, or will they succeed in dominating the Syrian-led Jabhat al-Nusra? Many rank-and-file Nusra fighters are deeply wary of al-Joulani’s declaration/renewal of loyalty to al-Qaeda central, and have every reason to fear a takeover by al Baghdadi’s more violently sectarian faction (Islamic State of Iraq), but are also afraid of open conflict between al-Joulani and al-Baghdadi which will only help the Assad regime (perhaps conclusively).

Will the core of JAN take this opportunity to align themselves with the more mainstream Salafi/Jihadi groups like Ahrar al-Sham? Or does this mean the domination of the Syrian branch with the more established Iraqi wing of al-Qaeda? In the long-term, this may be to the advantage of the Syrian people, but in the shorter term, this will have a degrading effect on the current strategic situation vs. the Assad regime; already we have signs that JAN fighters are withdrawing from Aleppo, presumably to regroup against the dissension in their own ranks. As has been true throughout the revolution, the greatest aid to the Assad regime is the fragmentation and infighting among opposition groups. However, this displays a fundamental difference between the two sides: active debate and “pluralism” (of a sort) have defined the opposition, while the regime responds to any perceived danger of dissension among Alawites by committing acts of provocation and terror against Sunnis (as in Bayda, Banyas), and thereby driving Alawites back into the arms of the regime whether they like it or not.

Syrians love to express their historical “moderation” and openness, and one can see how this would clash with the extremist views of al-Qaeda in Iraq (Islamic State of Iraq). The timing, however, could be better for the opposition, as the regime gains ground in Homs and nearby in Qusayr.

Aron Lund asks, Is Jabhat al-Nusra Breaking Apart?

The background

If you follow Syria, you’re already familiar with the outlines of this, but here’s the very short version:

In a recorded voice statement released online on April 10, 2013, Jabhat al-Nosra’s leader Abu Mohammed al-Joulani confirmed that his group had been created with assistance from the Iraqi al-Qaida wing (called the Islamic State of Iraq, ISI). He also ”renewed” his pledge of allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the international al-Qaida leader, leaving little doubt that he had been a sworn al-Qaida member all along. At the same time, Abu Mohammed distanced himself from the suggestion that a total merger had been agreed between Jabhat al-Nosra and the ISI. This was in response to a statement put out on the previous day (April 9) by the ISI emir, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who had said that both groups would now merge into something called the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (let’s abbreviate it ISIS).

200px-Flag_of_Islamic_State_of_Iraq.svgIn sum, there was no dispute between the Syrian and Iraqi leaders about the fact that Jabhat al-Nosra is an al-Qaida faction ultimately loyal to Zawahiri, but they differed on whether it would be absorbed into a regional umbrella (ISIS) constructed from the Iraqi franchise (ISI) or retain its own separate identity within the international al-Qaida framework.

Syrian opposition groups reacted negatively, including the main Islamist formations, although most tempered their criticism by stressing the positive contributions of Jabhat al-Nosra to the uprising so far. For some responses to the Abu Mohammed and Abu Bakr statements by Islamist groups in Syria, see a previous post of mine on Syria Comment, and these translations on Hassan Hassan’s site.

Says Sands

After Abu Mohammed al-Joulani’s strange semi-rebuttal to Abu Bakr on April 10, both groups fell silent, and everybody seemed to be waiting for an explanation. None came. Now, suddenly, several media reports have been published, suggesting that the dispute hasn’t been resolved but is in fact growing worse. In some of these reports, purported Jabhat al-Nosra fighters even talk about the group splitting apart or losing members, although they differ on who is leaving and for what reason.

Phil Sands – who wrote this sadly beautiful last letter from Damascus a couple of months ago – offers one take on these events in The National.

He quotes a Jabhat al-Nosra member from Damascus as saying that ”everyone I know was surprised by the statement; it was more than we’d expected to hear”, meaning the pledge of allegiance to Zawahiri. The Jabhat al-Nosra member now worries that there will be clashes between Jabhat al-Nosra and the Western/Gulf backed factions grouped under the FSA label, after Jabhat al-Nosra came out of the closet as an official al-Qaida franchise.

The gist of Sands’s article is that locally recruited and/or pragmatic fighters are upset with Abu Mohammed al-Joulani’s pledge of allegiance to Zawahiri and al-Qaida, because it will make it harder for them to focus on fighting Assad. (They’re probably right about that.) There’s no claim of an open split in the group, yet, but it does indicate internal tension between locally-minded grassroots fighters and the globalist, Qaida-connected leadership…

More at Syria Comment…