Syria Project

Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria

The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) is not the only Salafi-Jihadist threat emanating from Syria. Its prominence in U.S. policy has overshadowed a threat of similar magnitude from Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), the official al-Qaeda (AQ) affiliate in Syria. JN rivals ISIS as a sophisticated, intelligent, strategic actor in the region and continues to enjoy a dangerous freedom to operate in Syria. The two groups share common goals, including a revived Islamic Caliphate.

Jabhat al-Nusra Deepens its Foothold in Northwestern Syria

Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) seized large swaths of the Jabal al-Zawiya area of southern Idlib Province (in northwest Syria bordering Turkey) from Free Syrian Army (FSA)-affiliated groups beginning in late October 2014 (see fig. 1). JN, the official al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, began to carve out direct territorial control in Idlib Province beginning in July 2014, and its advance in southern Idlib has considerably extended its stronghold in the province.

Increased Rebel Unity Threatens Assad in Damascus and Southern Syria

Rebel gains in southern Syria and efforts to sever regime supply routes north and south of Damascus indicate that the regime has lost momentum in the capital region. Rebel alliances show greater cohesion in this zone, as well a greater cooperation with Jabhat al-Nusra, while the regime is showing signs of severe manpower shortage. The regime is attempting to fill its ranks with new conscripts and reservists. The regime will likely need to reinforce its southern front in order to reverse rebel gains, though it is likely that the regime will need to sacrifice efforts elsewhere in order to provide sufficient support.

Jennifer Cafarella


Jennifer Cafarella is the inaugural National Security Fellow at the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a position created to sponsor rising national security leaders. Ms. Cafarella’s work focuses on U.S. defense strategy including how the U.S. must adapt to current and future threats. She is an established expert on Syria, the Middle East, and jihadism.

ISIS Governance in Syria

By Charles C. Caris & Samuel Reynolds
The Islamic State’s June 2014 announcement of a “caliphate” is not empty rhetoric. In fact, the idea of the caliphate that rests within a controlled territory is a core part of ISIS’s political vision. The ISIS grand strategy to realize this vision involves first establishing control of terrain through military conquest and then reinforcing this control through governance. This grand strategy proceeds in phases that have been laid out by ISIS itself in its publications, and elaborates a vision that it hopes will attract both fighters and citizens to its nascent state. The declaration of a caliphate in Iraq and Syria, however, raises the question: can ISIS govern?

Assad Strikes Damascus

Damascus is the Syrian regime’s center of gravity. The capital of Syria has long been viewed by the rebel forces as the key to winning the war in Syria, and its loss is unthinkable for Bashar al-Assad. Thus the struggle for Damascus is existential for the regime as well as the opposition.

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