Jabhat al Nusra in Syria

April 22, 2013

As I explained last week, al Qaeda in Iraq has announced an official merger with the Syrian based jihadist group Jabhat al Nusra.

This marriage has already begun to affect that state of opposition within Syria and the involvement of outside powers.

Jabhat al Nusra is increasingly following a foreign agenda within Syria. In the areas of Syria where Jabhat al Nusra has gained control, the group has instituted Sharia courts, created a morality police, banned alcohol, imprisoned women in their homes, forced women to wear the full veil, and flown the black flag of al Qaeda. Understandably, tensions between the jihadist group and other rebel groups have flared – especially around access to resources and for control of governance in rebel-held areas. These issues of power are paramount, because they highlight Syrians grappling with both imported ideologies and with understandings of Islam that are new to them.  

Syria-Jabhat-al-Nusra

Some members of Jabhat al Nusra are showing signs that they are worried about a Syrian backlash. Abu Mohammad al Golani, a Jabhat al Nusra leader, denied knowledge of al Qaeda in Iraq announcing the merger. Instead, he stressed that Jabhat al Nusra is a local group that will continue to operate under the banner of Jabhat al Nusra. In a video statement, al Golani pledged allegiance to al Qaeda head Ayman al Zawahiri, publicly recognizing the group’s loyalty to al Qaeda, but rejected the idea that Jabhat al Nusra was merely an arm of al Qaeda in Iraq.

Issues of governance have eroded Jabhat al Nusra’s standing in opposition circles. Following its formation, the group was originally praised for its operational effectiveness and distribution of humanitarian aid. Popular support for Jabhat al Nusra was so high that, following the United States designation of the group as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, protests broke out across Syria on their behalf. People shouted the slogan, “We are all Jabhat al Nusra.”

Rebel commanders recognize the importance of distributing humanitarian aid as a mechanism for influence and power in the areas that they control. Jabhat al Nusra has gotten a widespread reputation for providing better services to citizens and for more properly distributing aid. This has given the group an established degree of authority in its operational areas. Yet other rebel groups have become reluctant to cede authority to Jabhat al Nusra and these groups now use humanitarian aid as a means of countering their influence.

Clashes for power and authority between Jabhat al Nusra and other rebel groups are becoming more widespread, and Jabhat al Nusra recently fought the Farouq Brigade for control of portions of Syria’s Raqqa province.

Jabhat al Nusra, being seen as an al Qaeda affiliate instead of an indigenous Syrian opposition group, will continue to erode  the organization’s authority and influence in that country. Jabhat al Nusra must retain popular support and ensure that other rebel factions are willing to work with them in order to maintain its preeminent position within the opposition.

Despite al Golani’s attempts to reaffirm Jabhat al Nusra’s Syrian identity, the merger announcement will likely continue to enhance existing fractures between the organization and other opposition groups. This does not bode well for Jabhat al Nusra’s continued popularity.

Other non-jihadist opposition groups may be able to assert a counter-authority if they are able to demonstrate the same level of operational effectiveness as Jabhat al Nusra. This is one of the reasons behind the United States’ announcement two days ago that the U.S. will double its aid to Syria. The Obama Administration hopes that, by giving other rebel groups aid, it will further weaken Jabhat al Nusra’s standing in the country as well as disrupt al Qaeda’s attempt at creating a refuge in Syria.

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