Amidst the chaos, suffering, and confusion of the Syrian Civil War, popular rhetoric in the media has understandably swung towards a rudimentary, far-simplified explanation of the conflict. It has been painted as a stalemated bloodbath between the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIL) with Western powers standing by, paralyzed and indecisive about how to intervene. In reality, however, this portrayal – while not entirely inaccurate – leaves out various important actors that will have a much greater effect on the future of Syria than the ailing ISIL or the embattled Assad regime. Foremost among such groups are the jihadists of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (or JFS, known until recently as the Al-Nusra Front).
Al-Nusra was born out of top al-Qaeda leadership in Iraq, who, seeking to shore up their capabilities in light of a crackdown on militants in the Afghanistan-Pakistan (Af-Pak) region, dispatched cells to Syria in an effort to exploit the instability there and develop violent plots towards international targets. The organization expanded rapidly, carrying out some of the earliest catastrophic attacks in the broader Arab Spring under the pretext of oppositionist motives. These attacks disproportionately killed civilians, but Nusra’s name became commonplace in Syrian rebel circles nonetheless. It was quickly labeled as a clear-cut international terrorist group by the United States and condemned by the international community. However, its deep and significant ties to Al Qaeda’s leadership and ideology proved no obstacle to its ability to butt its motives in the name of winning hearts and minds. Under the leadership of its emir, Abu Mohammed al-Julani, Nusra engaged in revolutionary posturing, branding itself as a disciplined group with the intent to “avenge the Syrians’ violated honour and spilled blood.” This stance, combined with their patience and ability to keep a comparatively low profile as government forces ramped up their human rights abuses and the Islamic State established totalitarian rule over large swaths of land, allowed Nusra to subtly slip into the realm of righteous rebel groups. Even while Western governments remained staunchly opposed to granting Julani’s organization any legitimacy, U.S. interests and U.S.-supported moderate groups, such as the Free Syrian Army, often overlapped with Nusra in the war against ISIL. The dynamism of the Syrian conflict made such implicit alliances – even between sworn enemies – quite common. Additionally, Arab states in the Gulf such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, both eager to advance their interests within Syria and counter the unfriendly presence of Iran and its surrogates, were more liberal with their distribution of support. This development increased Nusra’s strength in the by-then fierce fighting of the Syrian Civil War.
The internationally-minded nature of Nusra’s terrorism created inherent competition for manpower and resources with the Islamic State, whose primary goal remained the establishment of a geographically vast caliphate. The group made its distinct identity clear and oftentimes clashed on the battlefield with ISIL. While Nusra’s messaging was key in asserting its dominance over ISIL, its ties with Al Qaeda persisted on all levels, causing concern in Washington about its rise to supremacy among all of Al Qaeda’s affiliates. This virulent and potent jihadism was, and remains, masked in Nusra’s duality as a rebel group with the best interests of the Syrian people in mind. American policymakers must be clear eyed and continue to recognize that this is not so. The primary issue is that, even as Nusra is capable of gross brutality, many desperate Syrians and anti-government bubbles in the North of the country see them as a bulwark to the far more repressive Islamic State. As a governing organization, Nusra operates primarily for the purpose of surviving, planning attacks, and taking the fight to regime forces, while ISIL is solely focused on installing strict Islamic law in their territories. Additionally, in a surprising announcement in July, the former Al-Nusra Front declared itself free of Al Qaeda influence and changed its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham––literally, “the Front for the Conquest of the Levant.”
From an optics perspective, the name change is a play for further legitimacy as an opposition combatant group and an attempt to shed the terrorist label. JFS could be attempting to garner further material support from wary prospective patron-states with a stake in the conflict. Furthermore, this could be a play to reduce the amount of counterterrorism pressure that the jihadists are under in Syria in order to build their forces for future offensives. For example, with the multi-national counter-ISIL offensive underway in Mosul potentially spelling the end of the group’s Iraqi adventurism, Julani could be anticipating a renewed effort to weaken the caliphate on the Syrian side of the border. In the case of ISIL’s elimination, Julani could be looking to take its place in Raqqa as the Islamist hegemon. This is merely a public relations move and an attempt purify the group’s image. JFS is clearly engaging in political jockeying meant to secure the group a spot in negotiations concerning the future of Syria post-Assad (who would presumably be the next to fall or at least come to the bargaining table after the defeat of ISIL’s core). States with any interest in countering violent extremism should realize this and approach any new analysis of the situation with caution.
Regardless of potential motives for this change, the current administration in Washington cannot fall under any illusion as to JFS’ threat to the homeland. As White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest pointed out, “[Nusra leaders] maintain the intent to conduct eventual attacks in and against the West.” While ISIL is absolutely a threat to the United States and its European allies that must be destroyed, JFS poses a more sophisticated, existential threat to American aid workers and special operators in Syria, regional partners, European allies, and the American homeland itself. Nusra’s name change should not be a reason for complacency on the part of American policymakers, who should see through it and continue to harass the group and deny it any Afghanistan-esque safe havens. They should also urge our Gulf partners to do the same and refrain from treating these jihadists as a valued proxy. In the near-term, the US should not distinguish between al-Nusra or JFS and al-Qaeda itself. While the core of al-Qaeda in the Af-Pak region may be weakened, America must not appease terror in its many other stealthier forms, and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham is no exception.