National Security

U.S., anti-Assad rebels in Syria remain at odds over role of al Qaida’s Nusra Front

A member of Jabhat al Nusra, a radical Islamist group linked to Al Qaida, watchs a gas production plant, July 27, 2013. (Andree Kaiser/MCT)
A member of Jabhat al Nusra, a radical Islamist group linked to Al Qaida, watchs a gas production plant, July 27, 2013. (Andree Kaiser/MCT) MCT

To the United States and its allies, the Nusra Front is a fearsome al Qaida affiliate whose extremist ideology has no place in a future Syria.

To many Syrian rebels, however, Nusra fighters are vital warriors in the battle to topple President Bashar Assad, even if the moderates don’t share the group’s end goal of a religious state.

This disconnect has existed since the early days of the Syrian conflict, when the Obama administration first designated Nusra a foreign terrorist organization. It explains in no small part why Western nations have been slow to offer lethal aid to moderate rebels who maintain close relations with Nusra.

But it’s taken on new significance as the Obama administration rolls out a Syria strategy that focuses on counterterrorism, seemingly leaving the anti-Assad struggle as an afterthought.

Now, the United States is going after not only the Islamic State, but also the Nusra Front and other militant Islamist groups, over the objections of many moderate rebel factions who note Nusra’s value against Assad’s forces.

Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby told reporters this week that because both the Islamic State and Nusra “were born” from al Qaida, “in our minds, from a military perspective, they are very much one and the same.”

U.S. actions have spoken clearly on the topic. In its first aerial attacks on Islamists in Syria on Sept. 23, the United States hit not only Islamic State positions but eight bases belonging to the Nusra Front, reportedly killing around 50 fighters. Obama administration officials identified the targets as the Khorasan group, a unit of senior al Qaida figures whose activities the United States had been monitoring for months as it sheltered with Nusra.

The next day, the Treasury Department designated six suspected Nusra associates as global terrorists, tying them to al Qaida recruiting and fundraising efforts throughout the world. One of the designated men was a suspected jihadist trainer who sought explosives for Nusra; U.S. information on his activities stretched back to 2005.

The moves infuriated rebels and puzzled some analysts, who questioned the wisdom of attacking groups that, however distasteful, remain the vanguard of the anti-Assad fight.

“If indeed we end up hitting Nusra hard, then we’re forcing the opposition to choose a side,” said Faysal Itani, a Syria specialist with the Washington-based Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. “And we’re depriving them of a key asset when, at the same time, we don’t have a plan to boost their capabilities fast enough to make up for the loss of Nusra.”

Perhaps that’s because the United States doesn’t plan to boost their capabilities. Statements from U.S. officials make little or no mention of a role for the most familiar of the so-called moderate rebel factions, who enjoy little trust among U.S. officials in large part because they routinely rely on Nusra fighters as the shock troops in joint operations. The rebels counter that they’re dependent on the jihadists only because the United States and other Western powers failed to arm the more moderate fighting groups.

Weary of this chicken-and-egg debate, the Obama administration has decided to start from scratch, building a U.S.-backed Syrian paramilitary whose members will go undergo intense vetting and training before hitting the battlefield. Still, that effort only covers about 5,000 troops and is expected to take months, causing some Syria specialists to warn of an even weaker opposition if the U.S. continues to target the most powerful rebel forces at a time when there’s no comparable moderate army to fill the vacuum.

The risk of empowering an al Qaida affiliate is a small price to pay for Nusra’s contributions on the battlefield, said Jeffrey White, a former senior Defense Intelligence Agency analyst who’s now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank.

“We are degrading, by hitting Nusra, the capability of one of the most effective combat forces against the regime and against Hezbollah,” White said, referring to the Lebanese Shiite Muslim militia that has sent troops to help defend the Assad government. “Do we really want to do that? A broader campaign against Nusra needs to be carefully thought through.”

The Obama administration has been thinking about – many would call it struggling with – the Nusra question for years. U.S. officials first recognized that al Qaida in Iraq had become active in Syria’s anti-Assad struggle in early 2012, shortly after Nusra had announced its existence. Near the end of 2012, as Nusra took on an increasingly more prominent role in Syrian rebel victories, the United States designated it a foreign terrorist organization, saying it was an alias for al Qaida in Iraq; the United Nations, Britain, Turkey and some Arab states followed suit.

Rebels were angered then, too. The U.S.-backed opposition coalition’s leader called on the United States to reconsider the designation, more than two dozen rebel factions signed a petition of support for Nusra, and thousands more took to the streets in protest, some carrying signs that read, “We are all Nusra Front.”

The designation from Washington had little resonance on the battlefield, however. Nusra fighters and more moderate rebels continued joint operations, and Nusra proved critical in battles in southern Syria, in the contested, shell-blasted suburbs of Damascus, and in Qalamoun, a strategic region on the country’s southwestern border with Lebanon. The group’s notorious suicide bombers breached hard-to-get targets such as military installations and other fortified positions.

“Where there’s something that can’t be taken out, send in Nusra, and they’ll be happy to take it out for you,” Itani said of the rebels’ view.

In October 2013, 10 months after the U.S. had labeled Nusra a terrorist organization, the advocacy group Human Rights Watch, in a report on rebel atrocities during an offensive in Latakia province, urged the moderate rebels to “cease cooperation and coordination with and support to armed groups credibly found to perpetrate systematic abuses against the civilian population.” It specifically named the Nusra Front and the Islamic State, which was then called the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, in addition to three other organizations.

The moderate rebels eventually did break with the Islamic State in January of this year, after the Islamic State moved to seize large swaths of northern Syria in its push to establish a caliphate straddling Syria and Iraq. Nusra also broke with the Islamic State over its expansion into Syria, but it reaffirmed its loyalty to al Qaida leader Ayman al Zawahiri, the successor to Osama bin Laden.

Now moderate rebels insist that Nusra is a more palatable ally than the Islamic State, which they accuse of being in league with the Assad government, and they reacted angrily to the U.S. attacks that struck Nusra bases last month. One faction that’s received U.S. weapons condemned the strikes and charged that the Assad regime stands to benefit from the West’s “absence of a real strategy to bring it down.”

Within days, Nusra’s leader, Abu Mohammad al Jolani, released an audio message vowing retaliation in the “homes” of Western and Arab nations that belong to the anti-extremist coalition.

“The U.S. wants Assad gone, but it wants Assad gone by the so-called ‘right’ organizations,” said Caitlin Ryan, who teaches courses on terrorism and Middle East politics at Ohio University. “You can’t start selectively targeting bits of that opposition and expect that other parts of that opposition aren’t going to be angry.”

For all the trepidation over the consequences of striking Nusra, there are supporters of the U.S. stance.

Iraq’s recently chosen president, Fuad Masum, a Kurd, called the U.S. strikes against Nusra and affiliates “an excellent start” at an appearance last week at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. When asked whether hitting the Nusra Front would hurt the anti-Assad cause, Masum seemed nonplussed: “It is a big threat to the region. Nusra is also a terrorist organization.”

At a hearing on the Islamic State last month, Sen. Christopher Murphy, D-Conn., was one of several lawmakers who voiced concern about the Nusra Front’s spoiler potential. He noted “a variety of reports,” including very recent ones, that show U.S.-backed forces working in tandem with Nusra.

“How can you give us confidence that we are not going to train a fighting force that’s then going to enter a battle with a known affiliate of al Qaida?” Murphy asked Secretary of State John Kerry.

“There’s no fail-safe, obviously,” a glum-faced Kerry replied. He conceded that while the United States had greatly improved at vetting and building command and control structures, “in the end, there probably will be some strange-bedfellow moments in the course of this kind of battle.”

Murphy acknowledged the difficulties, but added that he hoped that a rebel force that’s dependent on al Qaida is “not a reality that we’re prepared to accept.”