ISW Resources on Jabhat Al- Nusra: Al-Qaeda's Syrian Affiliate

Updated July 25:

Since 2014, ISW has been tracking Jabhat al- Nusra, the official al- Qaeda affiliate in Syria. ISW believes that Jabhat al- Nusra poses one of the most significant long-term threats of any Salafi- jihadi group. ISW recognizes ISIS and al Qaeda are Salafi- jihadi military organizations with distinct sources of strength and maintains that U.S. strategy must operate against both ISIS and Jabhat al- Nusra simultaneously. Focusing on an "ISIS first" strategy will result in Nusra continuing to grow stronger.


Recently, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius cited ISW's work on Jabhat al- Nusra in "A new jihadist threat may be on the horizon in Syria."


How Turkey Could Become the Next Pakistan (July 19, 2016)

By Jennifer Cafarella

"An empowered al Qaeda with a durable safe haven in Turkey will pose an even greater threat to Europe and the American homeland than ISIS in the long term. Al Qaeda prioritizes cultivating local support among Sunni populations in Syria and the Middle East, but intends to conduct spectacular attacks in the West and is developing the capability to do so. The future war against al Qaeda will be more difficult to win even without direct Turkish backing because of how al Qaeda is embedding itself into the local population. A partnership with al Qaeda is not the most likely option for Erdogan to take because of its severe implications for NATO and American national security. It is a much more dangerous future scenario for the U.S. than even the loss of Incirlik as a base for anti-ISIS operations, however."


Read the full piece here.


Why the Most Dangerous Group in Syria Isn't ISIS (February 26, 2016) 
By Jennifer Cafarella By Jennifer Cafarella

Originally Posted as an Op/Ed on CNN

Excerpt:  "But momentum is not the same as winning, and the U.S. has fallen into a number of traps in Iraq and Syria -- the most deadly of which has been set by al Qaeda. Jabhat al-Nusra, al Qaeda's Syrian affiliate, is more dangerous than ISIS -- and while the two groups share the common goal of establishing a global caliphate, they are using different means to achieve it. ISIS may be better at generating headlines, but its headline-grabbing seizures of key Iraqi and Syrian cities -- not to mention its ruthless attacks on Western targets -- have made it the focus of American military efforts in those countries. Al Qaeda, meanwhile, has been quietly playing the long game. America's focus elsewhere has played directly into the group's hands, allowing the group to exploit its time out of the spotlight and set up a return to the global stage once ISIS is defeated."  

Read the full article here.

Syrian Armed Opposition Forces in Aleppo (February 13, 2016)
By Jennifer Cafarella and Genevieve Casagrande

 Key Takeaway:  The United States faces a geostrategic inflection in Syria that it has not yet fully recognized. The “cessation of hostilities” declared on February 11, 2016 permits Russia and the Assad regime to continue targeting U.S. allies in Aleppo under the pretext that the opposition in the city consists predominantly of al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nusra. The Russian view of the situation in Aleppo is false and deliberately distorting. There are multiple opposition groups within Aleppo that are distinct from Jabhat al Nusra, do not share its vision, and which the United States must support and strengthen. The U.S. must take steps to achieve three objectives: 1) to prevent Jabhat al Nusra from assuming leadership of the Aleppo-based opposition, 2) to avert the humanitarian catastrophe of a siege of Aleppo City, and 3) to shape the reactions of partners such as Turkey. This report assesses the opposition powerbrokers in Aleppo and their mobilization for the siege in order to help facilitate intelligent policies to achieve the first objective. It recommends that the United States, rather than pursuing a false “cessation of hostilities” that does not protect Aleppines, take three steps to secure its interests and those of the Syria people: humanitarian airdrops to Aleppo, material support to opposition groups in Aleppo distinct from Jabhat al Nusra, and a creation of a humanitarian safe-zone north of Aleppo. 

Read the full article here.

U.S. Grand Strategy: Destroying ISIS and 
al Qaeda (Report 3)

Jabhat Al- Nusra and ISIS: Sources of Strength (February 2016)
By Jennifer Cafarella, Harleen Gambhir, and Katherine Zimmerman

The key findings of U.S. Grand Strategy Report Three are:

  •  ISIS and al Qaeda are Salafi-jihadi military organizations with distinct sources of strength.U.S. strategy must operate against both ISIS and Jabhat al Nusra simultaneously. 
  • Current U.S. policy appears to assume that depriving ISIS of its control of Mosul or ar Raqqa will lead to the organization’s collapse.Jabhat al Nusra draws strength from its intertwinement with Syrian Sunni opposition groups. 
  • All operations against Jabhat al Nusra and ISIS must be integrated into a single coherent strategic concept that takes account of the divergence of interests between the U.S. and its European partners, on the one hand, and Russia, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia on the other.
  • The U.S. and its Western partners will have to conduct multiple simultaneous and successive operations whose exact course cannot be described fully in advance. 

Read the full report here.


U.S. Grand Strategy: Destroying ISIS and 
al Qaeda (Report 2)

Competing Visions for Syria and Iraq: The Myth of an Anti-ISIS Grand Coalition (January 2016)
By Frederick Kagan, Kimberly Kagan, Jennifer Cafarella, Harleen Gambhir, Christopher Kozak, Hugo Spaulding, and Katherine Zimmerman

The key findings of U.S. Grand Strategy Report Two are:

  • The U.S. must accomplish four strategic objectives in Iraq and Syria to achieve vital national interests and secure its people: 1) destroy enemy groups; 2) end the communal, sectarian civil wars; 3) set conditions to prevent the reconstitution of enemy groups; and 4) extricate Iraq and Syria from regional and global conflicts.
  • Any American strategy must take urgent measures to strengthen Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi and prepare contingency efforts for his fall. The collapse of the Abadi government and return of his predecessor Nuri al Maliki would be disastrous for the fight against ISIS.
  • Ongoing international negotiations within the Vienna Framework are bypassing essential requirements for long-term success in Syria. Re-establishing a stable, unitary Syrian state that secures American interests requires the U.S. and its partners to 1) destroy ISIS, Jabhat al Nusra, and foreign Salafi-jihadi groups in Syria; 2) identify and strengthen interlocutors representing the Syrian opposition; 3) facilitate a negotiated settlement between the Syrian regime and opposition; 4) obtain regional acceptance of that settlement; 5) establish peace-enforcement mechanisms; and 6) reconstruct state institutions. 
  • The Salafi-jihadi militant base in Syria poses a threat to the U.S., but the U.S. must not simply attack it because that would put the U.S. at war with many Sunnis who must be incorporated into a future, post-Assad inclusive government. 
  • The superficial convergence of Iranian, Russian, Turkish, and Saudi strategic objectives with those of the U.S. on ISIS as a threat masks significant divergences that will undermine U.S. security requirements.

Read the full report here.


U.S. Grand Strategy: Destroying ISIS and 
al Qaeda (Report 1)

Al Qaeda and ISIS: Existential Threats to the U.S. and Europe (January 2016)
By Frederick Kagan, Kimberly Kagan, Jennifer Cafarella, Harleen Gambhir, and Katherine Zimmerman

The key findings of U.S. Grand Strategy Report One are:

  • Salafi-jihadi military organizations, particularly ISIS and al Qaeda, are the greatest threat to the security and values of American and European citizens. 
  •  Syrian al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nusra poses one of the most significant long-term threats of any Salafi-jihadi group. 
  •  ISIS and al Qaeda are more than terrorist groups; they are insurgencies. 
  •   Current counter-ISIS and al- Qaeda policies do not ensure the safety of the American people or the homeland.
  •  American and Western security requires the elimination of ISIS and al Qaeda regional bases and safe-havens. 

Read the full report here


The Myth of Partnering with Assad, Russia, and Iran Against ISIS (December 16, 2016)
By Jennifer Cafarella 

Al-Qaeda and ISIS are competing for the allegiance of Sunnis globally, and the sacrifice of Syria’s Sunni population in favor of a partnership with Russia and Iran would provide momentum to both terrorist groups. In the short term, this will jeopardize the anti-ISIS. ; The U.S. will have created a much more resilient enemy by ensuring that enemy has popular support. The alienation of Sunnis in Syria, and likely Iraq, will combine with the radicalization produced by the ongoing crackdown on Muslim communities in Europe in the aftermath of the Paris attack. The long-term strategic implications are hard to imagine.

Read the full article here.

Syrian Opposition Guide (October 7, 2015)
By Jennifer Cafarella and Genevieve Casagrande

This reference guide provides a baseline for identifying Syrian opposition groups. The guide aims to permit researchers to track how groups realign as the Russians commence operations. It seeks to inform the development of policies that aim to protect Syrian rebels willing to cooperate with the U.S. in order to defeat ISIS and marginalize al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra.

 The chart characterizes each group’s relative strength, its areas of operation, its participation in multi-group operations, and its sources of external financing (derived from other experts’ studies). The document carefully identifies those groups that are separable from Jabhat al-Nusra, drawing a sharp distinction between the al-Qaeda affiliate’s subcomponents and those groups that have a more transactional relationship. Whereas the Russian military actions will likely drive these groups together, diminishing the influence of al-Qaeda actually requires breaking the groups apart. Targeting rebel groups writ large through military strikes is therefore counterproductive and will lead to entrenchment of al-Qaeda in Syria. 

 Russia's Impact on the Opposition

 Russian air operations in Syria impose new pressures on Syrian rebel groups on the ground. Although the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that Russian airstrikes focused on ISIS, local reports and the U.S. official statement indicate that the strikes have primarily targeted Syrian opposition groups in areas far from core ISIS-held terrain. Free Syrian Army (FSA)-affiliated rebel groups that receive support from the U.S. are among those that Russian warplanes have hit.

 As Russian airstrikes intensify, Syrian opposition factions will likely seek the protection of a strong partner in the fight against the regime and its allies. The majority of the groups that may seek protection already cooperate militarily with Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra out of necessity, and this trend is likely to increase as rebels come under greater duress. The pressure of a reinvigorated air campaign in support of the Syrian regime may drive these groups closer to Jabhat al-Nusra and potentially hardline Islamist Ahrar al-Sham in the absence of alternative sources of robust military assistance from countries opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In fact, between October 2 and October 4, two rebel groups merged separately under Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham in Hama and Aleppo provinces respectively. This trend damages not only the U.S. anti-ISIS mission, but also the implicit mission to counter al-Qaeda’s influence in Syria. It is therefore vital to observe changes in the behaviors and affiliations of Syrian rebels in response to ground events. 

Read the full report Here.

Syrian 90-Day Strategic Forecast: Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) (September 22, 2015)
By Jennifer Cafarella

Grand strategic objectives:

  • Establish an Islamic Emirate in Syria that is a future component of the envisioned al-Qaeda Caliphate
  • Unify the global jihadist movement

Strategic objectives:

  • Destroy the Assad regime
  • Transform Syrian society from secular nationalism to an Islamic theocracy
  • Establish locally-accepted governance as a precursor to an eventual Islamic Emirate
  • Build an army to protect the Islamic Emirate by partnering with Syrian rebel groups
  • Resolve the fitna, or schism, with ISIS

Counter U.S. influence in Syria

Read the full report here.

Likely Courses of Action in the Syrian Civil War (June 12, 2015)
By Jennifer Cafarella

Gains by Syrian rebel forces in early 2015 were in large measure enabled by JN’s direct and sustained military support. Al-Qaeda is approaching peak strength in Syria as a product of JN-led rebel gains and JN’s overall careful positioning in the war. JN’s contributions to the Syrian revolution have succeeded in enabling JN to pursue its true strategic objective in Syria: to mold the Syrian uprising into an Islamic revolution that culminates in the declaration of an Islamic Emirate as a component of the envisioned global al-Qaeda caliphate. In particular, JN has succeeded in cultivating the support and dependence of Syrian rebel groups and Syrian civilian populations that JN intends to leverage in pursuit of a slow transformation of Syrian society into its own image. It is in JN’s interest for the war to protract long enough to allow this transformational period to take root. JN is likely to pursue courses of action that prolong and potentially escalate violence and sectarianism in order to create conditions favorable to JN’s rise in Syria and to the overall reemergence of al-Qaeda as a “revolutionary” Sunni force. JN will also likely act to undermine the possibilities for a partition as an end to the war. Finally, repeated statements by JN leadership also indicate that JN is committed to fighting the antiISIS coalition in Syria as a representation of U.S. and Western hegemony. JN will therefore likely pursue courses of action that neutralize opportunities for the U.S. in Syria, potentially bringing JN into strategic alignment with ISIS.

Read the full article here.

Rebels Launch New Offensive in Southern Syria (July 2, 2015)
By Jennifer Cafarella

Rebel forces in Southern Syria have mobilized for what they hope will be the final phase of a major campaign to force the regime to withdraw from Southern Syria.  Should they succeed, they may achieve enough momentum to advance to Damascus and may force the Assad regime to contract from outlying areas, including southern, eastern, and northern Syria where the regime is also challenged. A successful operation by rebels in Southern Syria could therefore alter the stalemate of the Syrian war even though rebels across northern and southern Syria are not coordinated. Rebels in Southern Syria represent a strong potential partner for the U.S. not only to end the Syrian war, but also to limit the expansion of ISIS and al-Qaeda in Syria. The moderate rebel Southern Front coalition has played a leading role in Southern Syria since the summer of 2014, a distinction from other fronts on which moderate rebels play a minimal role. Islamists brigades have fought alongside them, however, and Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) has supported their effort, indicating that the influence of moderate rebels in Southern Syria is vulnerable. While their tactical cooperation may improve their chances of driving pro-regime forces from southern Dera’a province, it may also limit future opportunities for the U.S. to capitalize upon their success if moderate rebels are not empowered to remain in the lead through increased international support.

Read full blog here.


The Threat of New Al-Qaeda Leadership: The Case of Syria's Abu Mohammed Al-Joulani (June 30, 2015)
By Jennifer Cafarella

The death of al-Qaeda’s general manager, Nasir al-Wahayshi, will likely disrupt al-Qaeda’s global operations until he is replaced. It is likely that al-Qaeda leader Aymen al-Zawahiri will nominate his replacement according to traditional leadership patterns, choosing, for example, a former companion of Osama bin Laden. It is dangerous but plausible, however, that Zawahiri will seek to maximize the influence of newer al-Qaeda leaders who have proven their qualifications on the battlefield in order to shepherd the reemergence of a reinvigorated and highly resilient global al-Qaeda organization with a leadership structure that is embedded within local affiliates. One possible candidate for future al-Qaeda leadership is Abu Mohammed al-Joulani, the leader of al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra. If al-Qaeda shifts away from its current reliance on a core cadre of eligible members for leadership, the U.S. must fundamentally adjust its current paradigm for limited counterterror operations in the effort to disrupt and eventually defeat al-Qaeda.

Read the full piece here.

The Jabhat al- Nusra and Rebel Campaign for Idlib Province (May 29, 2015)
By Jennifer Cafarella

Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) seized control of Ariha, the final regime stronghold in Idlib Province, alongside allied Islamist rebels on May 28, 2015. This victory secures effective control over Idlib Province to JN and rebel forces, the second Syrian province to fall out of Assad’s control after ISIS-held Raqqa. A number of isolated and besieged regime positions remain in Idlib, including the Abu ad-Duhor military airbase that has been under JN siege since December 2014. Regime forces have reportedly begun to withdraw from villages along the Ariha- Jisr al-Shughour road as they absorb the loss of Ariha, indicating that JN and rebel forces are unlikely to face considerable resistance as they move to consolidate control over remaining pockets of regime-held terrain. Moderate rebel forces in the province played relatively marginal roles in the recent advances, often limited to providing artillery and other support to hardline Islamist and jihadist groups allied to JN. As a result, JN and its allies are likely to acquire a high level of influence in the governance and security structures that emerge in the newly-“liberated” province as a consequence of their significant military contributions to anti-Assad victories. This is a major strategic setback for the U.S. in Syria, as it cements JN gains in northern Syria to date, validates its methodology, and provides considerable momentum to its carefully tailored effort to mold rebel-held Syria into a post-Assad state that is governed by Shari’a law and ultimately a component of al-Qaeda’s envisioned global Caliphate. The regime continues to respond to military defeats with the indiscriminate use of airpower, barrel bombs, and weaponized chlorine gas attacks, and can be expected to maintain its effort to punish civilian populations in Idlib as anti-Assad forces formalize their control.

Read the full piece here.


Second Idlib Stronghold Falls to Jabhat al-Nusra and Rebel Forces
By Jennifer Cafarella

Primarily Islamist and jihadist rebelforces supported by al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) seizedcontrolof the regime-held city of Jisr al-Shughour, southwest of Idlib City, on April 25, 2015. Jisr al-Shughour was a major regime stronghold in Idlib Province that many expected to present a difficult, hardened military target to anti-Assad forces. Reports prior to the fall of Idlib City to JN and rebel forces on March 28, 2015 indicated that the regime withdrew military assets to Jisr al-Shughour, possibly indicating regime intent to prioritize its defense over Idlib City. The fall of Jisr al-Shughour to JN and rebel forces is therefore a key indicator of the regime’s inability to defend terrain against increasingly coordinated anti-Assad forces without the assistance of Iranian proxies such as Hezbollah.


Read the full piece here.

Assad Regime Loses Idlib to Jabhat Al-Nusra and Rebel Offensive (March 31, 2015)
By Jennifer Cafarella

Rebel forces led by al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) wrested control of Idlib City from the Assad regime on March 28, 2015. Removing the regime from a second provincial capital is arguably the biggest rebel victory since the fall of al-Raqqa to JN and rebel forces in March 2013. It represents a turning point in the Syrian civil war that is likely to alter the trajectory of the conflict in coming months, with implications for how rebels wage war in 2015. JN and Islamist rebel forces have achieved shocking success in reinvigorating the rebel campaign with the seizure of Idlib City. This is likely to provide momentum to the JN-Islamist axis in Syria at the expense of moderate rebel forces, and hinder efforts to foster a political solution to the conflict.

Read the full piece here.

Syrian Jihadists Signal Intent for Lebanon (March 6, 2015)
By Jennifer Cafarella

Both the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) plan to conduct attacks in Lebanon in the near term. Widely presumed to be enemies, recent reports of an upcoming joint JN and ISIS offensive in Lebanon, when coupled with ongoing incidents of cooperation between these groups, indicate that the situation between these groups in Lebanon is as fluid and complicated as in Syria. Although they are direct competitors that have engaged in violent confrontation in other areas, JN and ISIS have co-existed in the Syrian-Lebanese border region since 2013, and their underground networks in southern and western Lebanon may overlap in ways that shape their local relationship. JN and ISIS are each likely to pursue future military operations in Lebanon that serve separate but complementary objectives. Since 2013 both groups have occasionally shown a willingness to cooperate in a limited fashion in order to capitalize on their similar objectives in Lebanon. This unusual relationship appears to be unique to Lebanon and the border region, and does not extend to other battlefronts. Despite recent clashes that likely strained this relationship in February 2015, contention between the groups in this area has not escalated beyond localized skirmishes. This suggests that both parties have a mutual interest in preserving their coexistence in this strategically significant area. In January 2015, JN initiated a new campaign of spectacular attacks against Lebanese supporters of the Syrian regime, while ISIS has increased its mobilization in the border region since airstrikes against ISIS in Syria began in September 2014. Conditions favor a continued limited détente between JN and ISIS past March 2015.

Read full piece here.


Jabhat Al-Nusra in Syria: An Islamic Emirate for Al-Qaeda (December 2014)
By Jennifer Cafarella

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. JN, however, is pursuing its aims through a distinct, more patient methodology that is highly threatening despite its low signature. Whereas ISIS has announced its state and tried to legitimize it by conquest, JN is following AQ leader Ayman al-Zawahiri’s method of fomenting a religious and social revolution by embedding itself within an indigenous insurgency. The Syrian war has provided JN a nearly ideal environment within which to implement this strategy on behalf of al-Qaeda, and JN has enjoyed worrying success to date.

JN is more subtle and insidious than ISIS, and is therefore more difficult to contain or defeat. While ISIS pursues direct, overt, and top-down control, JN leverages an elite military force to win allies among the Syrian armed opposition and to sponsor locally tailored governance in ungoverned areas of Syria. JN has benefitted from the lack of effective Western intervention in Syria. It has further benefitted from the radicalization of the Syrian opposition after September 2013, when the decision by the U.S. not to intervene in Syria demoralized large segments of the opposition. JN has a flow of foreign fighters and contributes asymmetric “special forces” capabilities to opposition forces, securing prominent victories for rebel campaigns through its contributions to wider military efforts. The significance of this contribution increased in late 2013 and throughout 2014, as a lack of international engagement in Syria increased the relative importance of JN’s contribution to the fighting. As such, JN’s military campaign has earned it significant leverage with other rebel groups. At the end of 2014, the rise of ISIS changed the Syrian wartime environment and forced meaningful shifts in JN’s disposition in Syria. These shifts, over time, may begin to impact its network of rebel allies. However, JN’s success in establishing influence within rebel ranks has kept JN from losing popular support in the short-term, despite an increasingly aggressive stance. It is therefore unlikely that JN’s embedded position within rebel ranks will unravel without additional outside pressure.

JN originated as a Syrian offshoot of the former al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) organization. It has evolved into a separate and robust al-Qaeda affiliate, recognized by AQ leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in the first half of 2013. The group’s membership includes both Syrian and foreign fighters, and draws upon the resources of the al-Qaeda core. JN never downplayed its Salafi-Jihadist orientation prior to its formal incorporation into the al-Qaeda movement. However, in the early years of the revolution it refrained from disclosing its AQ affiliation and its actual goals in Syria. This allowed JN to avoid alienating the local Syrian population, which was unlikely to tolerate its long-term objectives and hardline religious beliefs in the early months of the war. JN instead propagated an image of a nationalist Syrian opposition force, recruiting heavily to establish a base of Syrian fighters and securing the support of other rebel groups. The success of this strategy became apparent in December 2012, when the U.S. designation of JN as a terrorist organization provoked protests in support of JN from within Syria’s moderate opposition. Twenty-nine Syrian opposition groups signed a petition condemning the U.S. designation of JN as a terrorist group. They went so far as to announce “we are all al-Nusra” and urged rebel supporters to raise the JN flag.

Read the full report here.

Peace-talks Between the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria (November 15, 2014)
By Jennifer Cafarella

Local and short-term cooperation between proximate JN and ISIS elements such as the reported deployment of ISIS, or ISIS-affiliated, forces to Jabal al-Zawiya may corroborate reports of ongoing JN and ISIS mediation efforts on a local level. Furthermore, the involvement of local Salafi Jihadist groups in both mediation and local coordination between JN and ISIS may indicate that such groups are well positioned to enact effective JN and ISIS collaboration on an operational level that is channeled through local affiliated groups without agreeing to an overt partnership between the groups. However, ISIS has interacted with proximate JN elements in the past despite the ongoing fitna, and local cooperation is therefore unlikely to be an indicator of high-level rapprochement between the two groups. For example, on August 24 ISIS reportedly withdrew from a base north of Hama city and turned it over to JN forces. JN and ISIS forces also continue to fight together against Hezbollah and the Lebanese Armed Forces in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, in addition to combating the regime in Qalamoun. It is presumably this sort of current tactical cooperation about which Director Clapper is speaking. This local cooperation preceded the emerging rumors of ISIS-JN negotiations, and therefore indicates that JN and ISIS may continue to cooperate tactically and to de-conflict their activities operationally even if no negotiated settlement between the groups' leaders is reached.


 Read the full piece here.


Jabhat Al-Nusra Deepens its Foothold in Northwestern Syria (November 10, 2014)
By Jennifer Cafarella

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. JN’s campaign in Idlib has largely targeted terrain held by the FSA-affiliated Syrian Revolutionaries Front (SRF), and is therefore an important indicator of JN’s strength in relation to Syria’s moderate opposition and its willingness to escalate against Western-backed groups in pursuit of its own core interests. JN’s ability to sideline moderate elements in Idlib challenges the viability of the U.S. “train and assist” mission for these elements. However, JN was careful to caveat its escalation by stating that it continued to support SRF affiliates that “remain focused on the fight against the regime.” JN’s actions in Idlib therefore do not yet rise to the level of a direct challenge to the moderate opposition in its entirety, and rather remain limited to a narrow JN campaign for consolidation in the wake of the ISIS advance. Nonetheless, JN remains likely to escalate against the full spectrum of rebel groups receiving Western aid once it assesses a certain threat level has been reached in terms of the likelihood that these groups will turn on JN in favor of securing meaningful Western support.

JN and allied rebel forces seized control of a primary stronghold for Syria’s moderate opposition in the Jabal al-Zawiya area of southern Idlib province beginning in late October 2014. In so doing, JN effectively neutralized the FSA-affiliated Syrian Revolutionaries Front (SRF) in Idlib Province in addition to targeting Harakat Hazm, a second FSA-affiliate. A leader of the January 2014 uprising against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in northwestern Syria, the SRF has been considered a potential ally in the U.S. “train and assist” mission to the Syrian opposition and is representative of the reliance of the U.S. strategy in Syria on the existence and reliability of key moderate groups through whom Western influence can be channeled. Prior to the conflict with JN, SRF leader Jamal Ma’arouf had reiterated his commitment to defeating ISIS and appeared to be a natural conduit for increased Western assistance. In addition, both the SRF and Harakat Hazm appear to be recipients of a covert U.S. program supplying certain vetted groups with TOW anti-tank missiles, considered to be a flagship effort for the train and assist mission to the Syrian opposition.


Read the full piece here.

Local Dynamics Shift in Response to U.S.- led Airstrikes in Syria (October 1, 2014)
By Jennifer Cafarella

  • The responses of rebel groups and civilians within Syria to the U.S. and coalition airstrikes are an important indicator of the unviability of a counter-ISIS strategy that does not fully engage with the Syrian population in order to facilitate a counter-ISIS movement within Syria.
  • Jabhat al-Nusra has capitalized on civilian opposition to the airstrikes to deepen its influence and to propagate its narrative that the coalition is working alongside Assad against the revolution.
  • The reactions of a number of Islamist groups to the strikes that targeted JN on September 23 indicate their close operations with JN.
  • If additional strikes against JN occur, JN is likely to leverage front groups to conceal the extent of their activities.If airstrikes against ISIS and JN continue to alienate the Syrian population and rebel leadership, it is possible that the unrest will encourage and enable a consolidation of ISIS and JN efforts.

Read the full piece here.


Resistance Emerges as ISIS Consolidates in Deir ez-Zour (July 15, 2014)
By Jennifer Cafarella

Following the declaration of a caliphate by ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a cascade of surrenders by rebel and tribal brigades in Syria’s Deir ez-Zour province conferred large swaths of territorial control to ISIS. Beginning on July 2, these advances dramatically changed the balance of power within the province and provided ISIS the opportunity to achieve territorial continuity along the Euphrates River into Iraq’s al-Anbar. However, local resistance has since emerged to challenge full ISIS control within Syria’s Deir ez-Zour. While this resistance is currently too localized to meaningfully challenge the ISIS advance, it nonetheless highlights the existence of groups willing to serve as counter-ISIS forces within the ISIS Euphrates system. As ISIS continues to harden its defenses across its newly integrated Iraq and Syria theaters, the continued existence of local opposition will remain a crucial indicator of opportunities to disrupt ISIS control.


Read the full piece here.