The Syrian rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra recently announced it would follow orders from al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri and discontinue attacks against rival group, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). In its May 4 announcement, Jabhat al-Nusra stated, "We announce our acceptance of the orders of Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahri to stop any attacks against ISIS while ensuring they do not attack Muslims."
This statement followed a truce between the two sides, both affiliated with al-Qaeda, after days of fighting in the eastern Syrian province of Deir ez-Zour that borders Iraq, which resulted in the deaths of 60 rebels and the displacement of thousands of civilians according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring organization.
The two groups have been at war for months over ideological and other differences. Though this overture by Zawahri and Jabhat al-Nusra was reportedly rejected by ISIS, these developments underscore the subservience of Jabhat al-Nusra to al-Qaeda's central command and Zawahri, and the weight and authority that al-Qaeda terrorist groups have in the current conflict in Syria. Though reports of battlefield conditions vary and at times conflict, it is generally understood that these terrorist organizations have the financial and logistical support needed to sustain their military efforts both against the government as well as other rival militants for the foreseeable future.
Other reports have examined the financing of these extremist organizations. Radical groups like ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra have long relied on the "charitable giving" of a small community of supporters who see the Syrian crisis as part of a larger ideological conflict.
According to these reports, individuals and organized charities in the region have been providing financial backing to al-Qaeda affiliates, in particular to Jabhat al-Nusra, in excess of hundreds of millions of dollars. In one such country, fundraising for this purpose was not illegal until last year and a senior US counterterrorism official recently called it "the epicenter of fundraising for terrorist groups in Syria."
Though there is no official consensus-based definition for terrorism, the 1999 establishment of the 1267 committee by the UN Security Council formally recognized al-Qaeda as an association of individuals and entities who seek to commit acts of terror. With authority driven from several resolutions under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, this committee is given the power to sanction designated individuals and entities associated with the groups and impose asset freezes, travel bans and arms embargoes.
The Security Council counterterrorism regime has been active against al-Qaeda and its network for 14 years and has enjoyed broad political support. But the current state of affairs in Syria is an exception at odds with the established practices of the committee, which has further complicated the conflict. Tolerating the providing of financial and logistical support to al-Qaeda and its affiliates in violation of the Security Council counterterrorism regime is harmful to the current UN-led efforts to end the current crisis.
The severity of the humanitarian disaster in Syria has been outlined by the UN and many international organizations. More than 4 million Syrians have been displaced, more than 3 million Syrians fled the country and became refugees, and millions more were left in poor living conditions with shortages of food and drinking water. With some robust statecraft and rigorous diplomacy, however, there could be an opportunity in the current crisis to initiate further steps to end the war. With the conflict now entering its fourth year and the civilian death toll continuing to rise, the need to more aggressively confront al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria and attain diplomatic conflict resolution has never been more clear.
Fighting extreme takfiri groups openly under al-Qaeda's central command should be the top priority for all parties because of its moral urgency and because it can bring together all parties in a common cause. It can serve as a platform to unite the international community and create fertile ground for a diplomatic resolution to the conflict. Historically, for nonviolent diplomatic conflict resolution to succeed, a basis of trust is required between the far ends of the table. Cooperation on universally agreed upon issues — like counterterrorism — among the states involved in such efforts can become the foundation for this trust. This can be achieved by staying true to the practices that have for many years now guided the UN and the international community in confronting the forces of al-Qaeda and its affiliates.
It is also critically important to have a coordinated approach in combating terrorism as a clear international priority for all states. For this aim to succeed, it is vital that it be presented unambiguously as an effort that cannot be influenced by mere shortsighted political considerations or interests.