March 17, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: Al-Qaeda and the Kurds See a Changing Syria

• Rebel groups and civilians protested against Jabhat al-Nusra in Idlib on March 14, a sign that the al-Qaeda affiliate might have overstepped

• Jabhat al-Nusra has tried to tie itself to the rebellion, but the tenuous ceasefire has widened the space between the group and the larger fight against Assad

• The Western-supported rebel group known as Division 13 has been fighting Jabhat al-Nusra for several days as tensions around Idlib increase

• In the meantime, Syrian Kurds have announced their intention to form a federation of their territories in northern Syria—a move with enormous reverberations.


Two of the most powerful elements in the Syrian civil war have made significant moves this week, though only one was made from a position of strength. Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, pushed back against unprecedented local opposition, while the Kurds have announced their intention to create a federation comprising three areas in northern Syria controlled by Kurdish forces. Both moves have significant near-term implications for the peace process and long-term consequences for Syria’s future.

Since its inception, Jabhat al-Nusra has successfully portrayed itself as integral to the Syrian revolution. With deep ties to Syria and various rebel groups, Jabhat al-Nusra has maintained good relations with even relatively moderate rebel groups, unlike the so-called Islamic State. The group’s terrorist foundations and ideology mattered less than its military prowess to rebel groups desperate for help. Recent events in Idlib during the tenuous ceasefire, however, have shown that the group’s assertiveness and toxic ideology matter a great deal when the fighting pauses.

On March 11, people in Maarrat al-Numan gathered to peacefully protest the Assad regime, able to do so only because of the ceasefire. Many waved the flag of the revolution. Jabhat al-Nusra fighters, opposed to any flag other than their own, stormed into the crowd and assaulted civilians. In doing so, the group shed its mask of revolutionary solidarity and revealed its true extremist nature. The backlash from civilians and other rebel groups was significant. On March 14, the Jabhat al-Nusra headquarters in Maarrat al-Numan were overrun by members of the Western-backed Division 13, as well as by local civilians. 

The conflict between Division 13 and Jabhat al-Nusra was inevitable, given their proximity and opposing ideological bents. Jabhat al-Nusra seized a Division 13 weapons warehouse last week and on March 16 attacked several more Division 13 positions in Idlib province. Meanwhile, the protests against the terrorist group have spread to surrounding towns—a sign that the group has overplayed its hand. The group conflated support for its military assistance with support for its ideology and, ultimately, its rule. Whenever Syria emerges from war, its future depends on rejecting and dismantling Jabhat al-Nusra as well as the Islamic State.

Of similar importance to Syria’s future is the announcement by the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) that it is prepared to create an autonomous federalized territory in northern Syria. The Kurdish forces have been among the most effective forces fighting the Islamic State, and have maintained control of three regions along the Syrian/Turkish border for some time. At the insistence of Turkey, the Kurds have been excluded from the ongoing peace talks in Geneva; the announcement of a Kurdish federalized territory shows that facts on the ground matter more than words at a table.

While the Russians have signaled they would at least consider some federalization of Syria, the Assad regime strongly opposes the notion. This issue might be the only one on which Assad and Turkish President Erdogan agree. More than anything, the Turkish government fears an autonomous Kurdish zone on its border. The current level of tension between Ankara and its Kurdish citizens is at an all-time high, and even the voiced prospect of a Syrian Kurdish federation will send tensions even higher.

How Syria handles Jabhat al-Nusra is as important as how Syria and the region handles the Kurdish issue. Neither issue can be ignored for much longer; the peace talks and Syria’s future depend in no small measure on how the two issues are addressed.


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