By Alexander Grey
During the Eid al-Adha holiday last week, President Bashar al-Assad delivered a message to Syria, declaring that he was “determined to retake every inch of Syria from the terrorists,” according to Al Jazeera. A new ceasefire negotiated by the United States and Russia, designed to coincide with the four-day religious celebration, addresses hostilities only between the government forces supporting President Assad and the American-backed rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA), whose key ally has increasingly been the jihadist Nusra Front.
Nusra Front members near Syria’s city of Aleppo. Photo courtesy of the Russian Ministry of Defense.
Originally named Jabhat al-Nusra, which means “The Support Front” in Arabic, the group pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda in April 2013 and served as the network’s official Syrian branch until recently, according to BBC. After years of cooperation, the group had an amicable split from Al Qaeda on July 29, renaming themselves Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (Front for the Conquest of the Levant), with the BBC citing this move as “intended to remove the pretext used by powers, including the US and Russia, to bomb Syrians.”
The Nusra Front has declared itself a “Muslim weapon,” intending to bring back honor to a war-torn Syria. Yet, unlike ISIS, which claims to have similar goals, the Nusra Front has taken a completely different approach to implementation. The group, considered by the FSA to be extremely well-trained and trustworthy, has been put in charge of difficult tasks in Aleppo such as flour delivery and keeping civic order, the BBC reports. The group runs Islamic courts by Sharia law in areas that seem most receptive to the transition, attempting to slowly bring the laws into Syria as opposed to the Islamic State’s forceful imposition of Sharia on all its captured territories.
Further, the Nusra Front has taken responsibility for several suicide bombings within Syria (the reason for their terrorist classification) in an attempt to take territory from Assad and ISIS. On this end they have been extremely efficient, and Nusra Front operatives have been present at almost every major FSA victory. Yet the Nusra Front has claimed that they wish to fight only in Syria, with no intention to target Western powers unless those powers directly support Assad.
These circumstances make the focus of the new U.S.-Russian cooperation rather difficult. According to The Financial Times, while the U.S. has stated that the FSA should distance themselves from the Nusra Front, as the jihadist group will soon become the target of airstrikes along with ISIS, to do so would be strategically challenging and would risk undermining the rebel forces. To disentangle the Nusra Front, a group that has operated with military precision, from the American-backed FSA before combating a far more organized ISIS would likely prove difficult in such a delicate situation without running the risk of killing FSA operatives or civilians.
Moreover, as the Nusra Front has vowed an all-out fight against the Assad regime, to bring about their end is likely to severely weaken rebel groups, allowing Assad to make advances in the civil war. Such a loss of personnel may indeed prove irrecoverable for the FSA.
While the fight against ISIS seems clear, every aspect of the Nusra Front makes their situation far more complicated. Arguably, the U.S. has largely ignored the group since they lack a desire to attack the West. To change that policy now is likely to further complicate matters in the civil war, and the chances of eradicating the Nusra Front without adversely effecting rebel forces are close to none.