At the end of December, in an unprecedented move, Abu Muhammad al-Julani, the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, addressed "the people of Syria and the mujahedeen."
The speech suggested that the militant front has become the main force in the fight against the Syrian regime, with no mention of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Instead, the Islamist group's leader replaced the term "FSA" with "the brigades and militant groups."
The speech came in response to the United States designation of Jabhat al-Nusra as a foreign terrorist organization. But it seemed obvious that Julani was speaking from a strong position, warning that "those who sowed the seeds of the revolution will be the ones to reap its fruits." He also warned his supporters and the people of Syria against attempts to replace the Syrian regime with a Western one.
The speech indicates that the FSA is being subsumed. After having been the leading military entity in the Syrian revolution, the FSA has been pushed to the sidelines compared to Jabhat al-Nusra. The militant praised those parties that have condemned the US decision to designate it as a terrorist group.
During my visit to Aleppo, I got the impression that Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamist factions were still on the sidelines of the conflict in Aleppo's countryside. However, inside the city the situation was different, as expected. Jihadist organizations, mainly Jabhat al-Nusra, were well informed and aware of what was taking place at the international and regional levels.
To begin to understand how Jabhat al-Nusra managed to establish itself in this environment, another question must be asked: Is this militant faction merely seasonal, and will it cease to exist when the regime falls — or will it persist to implement a plan that goes far beyond Syria?
In Aleppo's countryside, a member of Jabhat al-Nusra showed me a booklet entitled "Regional War Strategy in Syria." The booklet represents a serious vision by an al-Qaeda analyst. It is available on the internet and helps explain the carefully planned beginnings of jihadism in Syria. According to the study, "The title of the next battle of Damascus will be ‘survival of the smartest,'" and explains how the jihadist environment began to emerge in Syria. Jabhat al-Nusra bases its work in Syria on three pillars.
The first pillar is to show resilience: "Syria is a vast and far-reaching battlefield, which necessitates a remarkably resilient force that is able to both move and remain stationary."
Jabhat al-Nusra has shown a reasonable level of intelligence in implementing this strategy, outshining more amateur FSA planners. The group began by sending a few people to the Syrian territories on a reconnaissance mission in the rural areas of Aleppo and west of Idlib.
A limited number of militants were then sent to the battlefield, positioned on the most hostile lines of confrontation in the city of Aleppo. They earned the respect of FSA fighters, who have been more than happy to let them take over this deadly position.
When more Arabs, foreign fighters and a limited number of Syrians with past jihadist leanings began to pour into the Syrian territories, Jabhat al-Nusra began to move its combat team to the countryside. It carefully chose areas prone to embracing the jihadist ideology and willing to fight for it. First, the militant group took over the vicinity of fortified military bases in the west of the countryside, such as the Regiment 46 and Sheikh Suleiman base. With the help of allied battalions, Jabhat al-Nusra also took control of the rural areas in the east of Aleppo's countryside.
Jabhat al-Nusra didn't station its militants in civilian neighborhoods that would be easily besieged. The Islamist group has also not been entirely comfortable with FSA military leaders, "who could strike a deal with the West to wipe them out," according to one member of the jihadist organization.
Because of its strategy, Jabhat al-Nusra has been able to increase its control over the supply lines and logistics between Turkey and Aleppo. By attacking large military barracks, jihadist militants have managed to seize large quantities of ammunition and military equipment without the need for external funding, in contrast to the FSA, which until recently continued to receive Kalashnikov bullets through intermediaries in Turkey.
Jabhat al-Nusra has managed to attract battalions with jihadist inclinations to its ranks. For instance, Sheikh Tawfiq Shahabuddin, leader of the Nur al-Din Zanki Brigades, declared the brigades’ defection from the FSA-affiliated al-Tawhid brigade on Dec. 6. Although the sheikh did not join the ranks of Jabhat al-Nusra after his defection, he deserted the FSA right after he participated in an attack on the Sheik Suleiman base in collaboration with the jihadist organization.
The jihadist group has taken another tactical step: reducing the large size of brigades, such as the al-Tawhid brigade, by encouraging marginalized factions within these larger brigades to become self-sufficient.
Interestingly, al-Tawid launched a sizable attack on the infantry school in northern Aleppo without involving Jabhat al-Nusra, which hasn't sought to expand in the northern countryside which has a weak supply line compared to the western countryside of Aleppo. This is also true of the eastern countryside, whose importance derives from the fact that it overlooks the governorates of al-Raqqa, al-Hasaka and Deir al-Zour.
These points suggest that Jabhat al-Nusra has succeeded in adopting a flexible strategy without making significant mistakes. Therefore, when the US listed it as a terrorist group, no military group on the ground dared to support the US move, because the supply lines have come under the control of the jihadists.
The second pillar, according to the vision of the "al-Qaeda analyst," is to develop a specific "functional role" for jihadists — whose role has been limited to performing military activity — because such a war in Syria "would return us to the laws of the jungle and survival of the fittest."
According to the same analyst, the intended result is for "the faction that holds power on the ground to eventually hold other types of power." Consequently, the group would temporarily distance itself from administrative and service matters to avoid any divisions of power, as happened in Iraq when al-Qaeda declared the Islamic State of Iraq during the war, established ministries and appointed administrators.
Also, the continuation of the war — which al-Qaeda sees as a prize for jihad — will put the rural or civil communities under military force, unlike less heated and shorter wars, where civil forces begin to express themselves and to demand power and the return of soldiers and fighters to their barracks at their conclusion, as happened in Libya.
How successful is Jabhat al-Nusra in achieving this second strategy?
Clearly, this al-Qaeda-affiliated group in Syria is very flexible in reorganizing its priorities. It is also known for its ability to change its tactics smoothly to achieve its strategic goal of total control under a popular cover that would give it the ability to later turn itself into a local Syrian faction.
It seems that this goal is a priority in the short term, to distance the group from any resemblance to foreign forces in Syrian society.
Jabhat al-Nusra realizes that the process of adhering to the limitations of society requires abandoning the tactics used in the "Islamic State of Iraq" and the complex administrative frameworks that inevitably led to its demise. Moreover, the group's leaders are aware that a clash is inevitable with FSA leaders and civilian figures, with a broad spectrum of Syrian Islamists who do not like the foreign Islamic nature of al-Qaeda. They all promptly endorsed the establishment of local popular bodies to run the liberated neighborhoods in the city of Aleppo with the support of local clerics. They think that the infiltration of Jabhat al-Nusra into civil departments or through loyalists is something of the past, and that all doors have been shut before them except for that of military jihad.
This is true, while taking into account that this is what Jabhat al-Nusra actually wants: not to be involved in administrative affairs in Syria. "Self-protection" is more essential and requires hard power, unlike in Yemen, where al-Qaeda is involved administratively because it is an arena for "self-assertion" requiring soft power.
The third pillar of the al-Qaeda strategy in Syria is the principle of "prolonging the conflict." This is based primarily on rejecting any consensus over a political solution, such as that put forward by UN Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi. Accordingly, a series of enemies are being promoted, including the "Alawite regime" and the "Zionist enemy," in addition to whatever form of rule might replace the Assad regime.
Continuation of the conflict
Interestingly, al-Qaeda is very confident that Washington will remain reluctant to intervene. Jabhat al-Nusra leader Julani accused the US and the international community of "prolonging the reign of the Syrian regime," although this is exactly what the group wants. The scene has become multi-faceted. Just as the Americans rely on the Russian rejection of a UN resolution that would authorize military intervention, Jabhat al-Nusra also feeds on US hesitation to supply weapons to the Syrians. Washington is speaking morally on the back of Moscow, and al-Qaeda is expanding popularly on the back of Washington.
During my meeting with one of the leaders of Jabhat al-Nusra in an Aleppo suburb, we discussed the FSA's lack of arms and munitions. This leader thought that this is the best thing currently happening, because it will put Syria back into the hands of God. But this will not happen before the rebels discover that the West has deceived them for over a year.
Today, a large group of Syrians, who were calling on the US to intervene to save them, are accusing opposition forces of being affiliated with the American agenda! This was even clearer during a protest under the slogan, "There is No Terrorism except Assad's Terrorism."
These three pillars have been working smoothly and successfully until now. Due to the moral chaos surrounding some FSA brigades, and the fact that some of these brigades committed theft, the presence of Jabhat al-Nusra has gained support among the industrial middle class. Many factories have been looted, and the hopes of industry owners who escaped this wave of looting were relying on the movement's entrance into industrial regions "because they do not steal," according to one industry owner. The movement's access to Aleppo's society is not only religious, but also economic. It did not declare the establishment of courts to try civilians for violations they committed. Deep-seated corruption in the delicately improvised judiciary formed by militias was exposed. These indications paved the way for a call for help from the people to Jabhat al-Nusra to manage their daily affairs. In Aleppo, the protesters reiterate daily the following slogan: "The Free Syrian Army are thieves…We want the Islamic army."
The success or failure of Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria is mainly linked to both Aleppo and Idlib, and other cities constitute a future, long-term strategy. For example, in Aleppo, Jabhat al-Nusra is adopting a strategy of direct confrontation with the regime's forces, while the Iraqi model prevails in Damascus and Hama suburb (involving car bombs and suicide bombings).
During the first half of 2012, members of Jabhat al-Nusra — who had come from different countries — lived as guests in Aleppo suburbs, and fought without having permanent residence in the city. Today, a small community is expanding to reach the scale of "al-Qaeda," or at least what al-Qaeda's leaders aspire to. They see Syria as merely a single step in a journey taking them from Aleppo and Idlib to the Alawite mountains in Latakia, and eventually extending to regions beyond Syria.
This article was translated by Sahar Ghoussoub, Naria Tanoukhi and Pascale Menassa.