Meet the Terrorist Group Playing the Long Game in Syria

Hint: It’s not ISIS.

Rebels from Jabhat al-Nusra wave their brigade flag in northern Syria in 2013.Edlib News Network ENN/AP


It’s a US-designated terrorist organization that is also one of the most effective fighting forces among the rebels in the Syria conflict. While managing to gain some measure of support from the Syrian population, it has also committed countless atrocities. Now it’s serving a key role in efforts to break the Syrian regime’s siege of Aleppo—considered by many to be one of the intractable conflict’s most significant battles.

Jabhat al-Nusra had long been Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, but in a widely publicized video released late last week, it finally confirmed rumors of a break: “We declare the complete cancelation of all operations under the name Jabhat al-Nusra, and the formation of a new group operating under the name Jabhat Fateh al-Sham,” said the group’s leader, Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, in his first ever video appearance.

“For many people, this will be perceived as a concession to their Syrian nationalist cause,” notes Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute and author of the acclaimed book, The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of a Insurgency. He explains that the break put Nusra in an unprecedented position of power because it can potentially galvanize the large number of armed rebels in Syria to unity initiatives that will by necessity be heavily influenced by Nusra itself.”

We asked Lister to give us a low-down on these complex developments. What is this new organization? What is its relationship now with Al Qaeda and it’s importance in the region? A day before Jolani’s announcement, Lister released an in-depth paper profiling Jabhat al-Nusra. Here, he breaks down the group’s significance, what the Al Qaeda split means, and JFS’s role in the current battle for Aleppo.

Mother Jones: How has Nusra been able to establish itself as one of the most powerful armed actors in Syria? Why has its strategy been more effective than that of other armed groups, including ISIS?

Syria’s broad spectrum opposition feel necessarily in a relationship of dependence with Jabhat al-Nusra.

Charles Lister: Jabhat al-Nusra—Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (or JFS) as they’re now known—has played a methodically implemented long game in Syria, focused on attaining a position of military and social influence and, crucially, establishing a relationship of interdependence with Syria’s opposition. Since late-2012, Jabhat al-Nusra has also practiced what I call “controlled pragmatism,” in which it has by and large consciously avoided especially harsh and extremist behaviors in order to present a friendly face to local communities. As with some of Al Qaeda’s global strategists in 2008 through 2010, Jabhat al-Nusra has at times spoken of local communities as if they were infants that had—through no fault of their own—never been brought up to believe and understand what it meant to be a pure Muslim and live in a credible “Islamic” society.

By practicing this “controlled pragmatism,” Jabhat al-Nusra has sought to teach people and engender in them a steadily more conservative Islamist mindset. In a sense, it has been slowly socializing populations into accepting its presence within their midst with the objective of one day transforming that acceptance into discernible and sustainable support.

MJ: What is Nusra’s relationship with other rebel groups in the actual conflict?

CL: Jabhat al-Nusra has demonstrated an especially effective capability on the battlefield. Man-for-man, the group is almost certainly the most powerful armed group in Syria’s conflict. As a result of this and of the especially intense and seemingly intractable nature of the conflict against the Assad regime, Syria’s broad spectrum opposition feel necessarily in a relationship of dependence with Jabhat al-Nusra for the sake of securing consistent success—defensive and offensive—on the battlefield. It’s worth mentioning here, however, that nowadays, Jabhat al-Nusra and Syria’s more moderate Free Syrian Army units both explicitly refuse to coordinate directly with each other on the battlefield. Instead, the reality is more complex—they are at times willing to contribute forces toward the same broader offensive operation, but their fighters are never fighting side by side. There’s an important level of nuance there, too often missing from reporting on the conflict.

MJ: Right now there is a major effort to break the siege of Aleppo. What is Nusra’s role?

CL: JFS has taken on a preeminent role in this new offensive, which was something that at least 26 separate armed opposition groups had been planning for several weeks, as a contingency plan for when Aleppo city fell under siege. The objective is to break the siege on Aleppo and place a portion of regime-controlled western Aleppo under opposition siege.

JFS has assumed responsibility for coordinating offensive operations on several fronts in which the Islamist Jaish al-Fateh coalition is running things. Other front lines are dominated by the moderate Fatah Halab operations room, which Jabhat al-Nusra refuses to directly cooperate with. In short, it’s a very substantial opposition operation, perhaps one of the largest of the entire conflict, but the dynamics between groups involved remains as complex as ever. Should the siege be successfully broken, even for short time, JFS will undoubtedly stand to benefit yet further.

MJ: You write that Nusra’s transnationally minded jihadi movement will likely have an “invaluable launching pad for attacking Europe and the United States for years to come.” How do you see this potentially unfolding? What do you consider to be their ultimate goals?

CL: Listen, JFS as of today is a jihadi movement that has chosen strategically to focus its resources into a local jihad, limited to within Syria’s borders. With the explicit approval of Al Qaeda’s central leadership, JFS has chosen to highlight this localism now in order to best ensure its efforts since 2012 are not wasted. Syrians remain adamant that a considerable portion of JFS’ Syrian members are not committed ‘transnational’ jihadis, but merely conservative-minded Islamists who chose to join a particularly effective fighting group. I think in 2013-2014, this point almost certainly had some truth in it, though I worry that as the conflict has continued and the suffering on the ground has worsened, the ratio of “rescuable” to “now-committed” may have reversed in the wrong direction.

Nonetheless, at a leadership level, there can be little doubting that JFS still closely resembles any typical Al Qaeda jihadi movement. Having Abu Mohammed al-Jolani sit alongside a decadeslong jihadi veteran like Ahmed Salemeh Mabrouk sent that message as clear as day. Therefore, JFS’ long game in Syria should be seen as a strategy aimed at achieving a sequenced set of accomplishments, the final one of which will be the establishment of jihadi rule in at least part of Syria, which itself will represent the emergence of a launching pad for external attacks. With international attention and pressure set only to rise on JFS and with the conflict in Syria seemingly with no end, I can’t see JFS not having that eventual state of affairs as their ultimate objective.

MJ: Are you suggesting that eventually a greater threat to our long-term stability may not be be ISIS, but instead, JFS?

In all likelihood, ISIS will begin to revert back into its pre-state days, in which it operated as a ruthless and effective terrorist organization, committing a sustained campaign of micro-level attacks.

CL: ISIS has never sought outright popular support—it rules people by force of threats and intimidation. While it undoubtedly developed itself into a formidable military force capable of astutely exploiting immense instability and lack of governance in places like Syria and Iraq, I cannot foresee ISIS as having a genuinely sustainable territorial base. In all likelihood, ISIS will begin to revert back into its pre-state days, in which it operated as a ruthless and effective terrorist organization, committing a sustained campaign of micro-level attacks. Jabhat al-Nusra, on the other hand, has developed for itself a model that gives it a far improved chance of acquiring a sustainable rule over territory, and certainly a long-term and capable presence within Syrian territory.

MJ: You highlight the US proposal to coordinate operations against Nusra with the Russian military as a legitimate but long overdue concern over Nusra. Has the US underestimated the group?

CL: I think I’ve been fairly hawkish on Nusra for a long time now—not so much based on a claim of them having immediate plans to launch attacks across the world, but based on an assessment that their long-game strategy of controlled pragmatism, localism, and gradualism was setting it up for the long-haul in Syria. I don’t think we’ve ever seen a jihadi group anywhere in the world develop such a potentially effective model aimed at securing a long-term and substantial foothold in strategically valuable territory. For Nusra, Syria lends a special value, not least for its theological importance, but more practically for its borders with Europe and Israel. Basically, my assessment of Nusra’s threat is based on the threat I think they could come to represent in the future, rather than the force posture they currently represent, which I do believe is locally focused.

MJ: You write that “external intervention alone will do nothing but empower Jabhat al-Nusra’s increasingly accepted narrative within an already bitter Syrian opposition population.” What would be a better tactic?

CL: The unfortunate genius of Jabhat al-Nusra’s strategy and modus operandi in Syria has been that given its embedded status and its militarily interdependent relationship with the mainstream opposition, any external campaign against Nusra will necessarily be seen by ordinary Syrians supportive of the opposition as counter-revolutionary. I’ve literally just come out of a full-day meeting with the leaderships of all of Syria’s most powerful armed opposition groups and every single one of them said this is how it would view US-Russian strikes on JFS “as an attack against the revolution.” All universally warned that such action would only serve to drive more young Syrians into JFS’ lap, undermining the more moderate nature of the revolution and opposition itself. That strikes me as a consequence we should do everything to avoid.

MJ: Last Friday, Jolani announced that Jabhat al-Nusra would no longer be, that they were forming a new group named Jabhet Fateh al-Sham, and that it would have no affiliation with “any external entity.” In reality, does this mean a severing of ties with Al Qaeda?

Make no mistake, Al Qaeda is playing a critically important role in shaping this development and their thinking and strategizing will remain crucial for this new Jabhat Fateh al-Sham movement.

CL: Ultimately, very little will change in terms of Nusra as a group, how it behaves and what its objectives are. Make no mistake, Al Qaeda is playing a critically important role in shaping this development and their thinking and strategizing will remain crucial for this new Jabhat Fateh al-Sham movement. It will still oppose the most moderate of opposition groups in Syria, it will still be sectarian, and it will still ultimately seek the establishment of Islamic Emirates in Syria and the potential launching of external attacks on the West.

This should also not be seen as a loss for Al Qaeda—in fact, this may turn out to be to the international jihadi movement’s long-term benefit. For some time the value of a more decentralized jihad has been considered by some of Al-Qaeda’s highest ranking thinkers, and this appears to be the first sign that its value is being acknowledged.

MJ: What kind of impact does this have on the ground, both in terms of Jabhet Fateh al-Sham’s own actions as well as how coalition partners view and engage with it?

CL: I don’t think we really know yet. There is a small but very powerful grouping of independent religious clerics who were instrumental in convincing Nusra to dissolve its external ties and rebrand itself JFS. They are now working intensely on pushing the group to more clearly demonstrate a behavioral or ideological change beyond what we’ve heard so far. Just as there was very heavy pressure on Nusra to break ties to Al Qaeda, there is now especially heavy pressure on them to prove their words actually mean something. Intriguingly, although it has not been reported, there are at least eight senior Nusra commanders who have refused to go along with this new JFS identity, as they have aggressively disagreed with the idea of breaking relations with Al Qaeda. There are also well-placed reports of roughly 200 Nusra fighters having defected after the JFS announcement, mostly to even more hardline jihadi group Jund al-Aqsa. A few reportedly also went to ISIS.

I do think it was interesting that JFS’ founding statement included a reference to the value of ijtihad, or independent decision-making on issues of Islamic jurisprudence. That’s not the typical kind of language one would find in Al Qaeda materials. If it can demonstrate to Syria’s more mainstream Islamist opposition groups that it truly is willing to accept varying interpretations of legal issues, then some portion of Syria’s revolutionary society may be encouraged. But we don’t see any sign of that—or anything else different—yet.