March 5, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: The Challenge of Removing al-Nusra from al-Qaeda

• With the anti-regime situation in Syria in dire straits, there are now media reports of efforts to pull Jabhat al-Nusra away from its alliance with al-Qaeda and transform it into a legitimate and prominent opposition group

• JN has become the most effective anti-Assad regime group fighting in Syria while at the same time it is the official al-Qaeda branch there—a situation that presents obvious problems for governments needing the former but fighting the latter

• There would be many serious challenges in trying to de-couple the military and organizational power of al-Nusra from its embrace of the violent ideology of bin Ladinism and al-Qaeda

• Were such efforts made to remove al-Nusra from al-Qaeda, the Islamic State would likely benefit by absorbing disillusioned extremist members who want nothing to do with moderation or regional-support.


With the collapse of much of the ‘moderate’ armed opposition to the regime of Bashar al-Assad, the most effective anti-regime group now fighting in Syria might be the al-Qaeda (AQ) affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra (JN). There are now unconfirmed media reports of efforts made by regional countries such as Qatar and Turkey to, in effect, detach JN from AQ and to transform it into a legitimate opposition group. Were such an effort to take place, it would face immense challenges and questions; the foremost being whether such a task is even possible or desirable.

A fundamental issue is JN's embrace of the violent ideology of bin Ladinism and AQ, and is a rightfully designated terrorist group. Its leadership and members have all sworn allegiance to AQ. As hard as it is to de-radicalize an individual who has embraced violent extremism, attempting to do the same for an entire group would be nearly impossible. Some JN leaders might be convinced that their best chance to overthrow the Assad regime and play a role in Syria’s future lies in renouncing their bonds with AQ in exchange for regional support. But the extremist rank and file likely didn’t join the group out of hopes for tactical moderation and geopolitical acceptance. The Islamic State would be more than happy to mock its extremist rival’s rejection of extremism and to accept its disillusioned members into the Islamic State. To separate from AQ, JN scholars would have to in essence declare al-Qaeda and Ayman al-Zawahiri un-Islamic in order to break the bay’a (oath), which would both demoralize JN fighters and delight the Islamic State.

And a JN removed from AQ on paper wouldn’t mean an anti-AQ JN at heart. The history of attempts to turn extremist groups into non-extremist, well-behaved proxies is riddled with failures and devastating blowbacks. JN was formed to spread bin Ladinism into Syria, and its members are true adherents of that ideology. Even if the de-coupling of JN from AQ were attempted (and there would be endless extremist religious scholarly debates and fatwas over such a move), it wouldn’t de-couple the extremists from extremism. It would just be a re-branding or repackaging of the same. One can try to take the JN out of AQ, but it might prove impossible to take the AQ influence out of JN.

For their part, the Assad regime and Russia, its primary supporter, would seize on any effort to legitimize JN as proof of their assertions that the civil war is really a war between the government and terrorists and that regional interference in an internal conflict is causing more terrorism instead of reducing it. Highlighting the extremism of its opponents has been the Assad regime’s best defense against the even worse atrocities its military has inflicted on the Syrian people. They don’t like the reality of fighting JN but the optics of fighting AQ have benefits.

Again, the media reports of a potential non-AQ JN are unconfirmed. But, if in some form they're accurate, it's another indication of just how bad the situation is in Syria, with an AQ affiliate perhaps seen by regional governments as the best means to dislodge Assad. This also highlights the continued misaligned goals between two camps on Syria: regional powers like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, which believe taking on Assad needs to be the focus; and those (primarily Western) powers who believe that ridding the battlefield of the Islamic State and the so-called Khorasan Group, an AQ sub-element supported by JN, will allow the battle to then shift to one between indigenous non-extremist rebel groups and the regime. The fate of much more than Syria hinges on how this disconnect is resolved.


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