Ever since the Syrian-Iraqi al-Qaeda splinter known as the Islamic State captured vast territories in northern Iraq in mid-June, its Syrian rivals have been in disarray. No group has been more deeply affected by this jihadi civil war than the Nusra Front, which broke off from the Islamic State in April 2013 and has since emerged as Syria’s only official al-Qaeda franchise.
After the June breakthrough in Iraq, the Islamic State used its newfound strength to roll back up the Euphrates, crushing the Nusra Front’s powerful eastern wing and expelling or absorbing most other rebel groups in the region. Hundreds of Nusra Front loyalists were killed and others began to defect, sensing that the Islamic State was clearly the stronger and more capable jihadi group. The eastern losses also deprived the Nusra Front of key tribal support and of a chief source of income—the oil fields of Deir ez-Zor.
The Nusra Front has failed to respond effectively to this crisis, and as its position in Syria weakens, internal divisions appear to be opening up. In early July, the Nusra Front leader Abu Mohammad al-Golani was heard discussing plans for an “emirate" in Syria in a leaked recording, upsetting other Syrian rebels. The Nusra Front quickly backed off from the idea, but the affair was never properly resolved.
Soon thereafter, the former Deir ez-Zor strongman Abu Maria al-Qahtani was removed from his post as the Nusra Front’s top religious official and was succeeded by the Jordanian cleric Sami al-Oraidi. The reasons remain obscure. Losing his base of support in the east surely weakened Qahtani’s position, but his increasingly public complaints about having been let down by his comrades and by Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s successor, must also have irked the Nusra Front’s leadership. (Some have even speculated that Qahtani’s allies may have been responsible for leaking the “emirate" speech.)
Weakening Central Control?
One of the Nusra Front’s leading members recently admitted to local activists in Idlib—in remarks that were summarized to me—that his group is now in very bad shape. He allegedly admitted that in several provinces, his organization is in an advanced stage of decay due to defections, financial difficulties, and flagging morale. Local commanders now act more independently and may pursue strategies that are not necessarily in sync with those of the Nusra Front’s central leadership, or with each other.
Several months ago, the Nusra Front withdrew entirely from its stronghold in eastern Aleppo, mainly to Idlib. While fighters remain active in many other areas, they are often left to their own devices. According to comments attributed to this Nusra Front leader, only the group’s branches in the Qalamoun region and outside Homs are truly functional at the moment.
Whether that is true or not, media reports and anecdotal evidence also suggest that the Nusra Front remains in fairly good shape in the Daraa/Quneitra region, where it recently kidnapped 45 United Nations peacekeepers from Fiji. The Nusra Front’s religious chief al-Oraidi has since released the Fijian hostages, citing obscure religious considerations. However, the government of Fiji frankly admits that Qatari diplomacy was the real reason for the peacekeepers’ release—and, as is well-known, Qatari diplomacy typically involves large sums of money. This raises an interesting point: a cash-strapped Nusra Front will surely be more eager to conduct opportunistic for-profit criminal operations, such as the UN kidnapping, but will also be more vulnerable to external pressure by states or better-heeled rebel factions.
Laying Down the Law in Idlib
The powerful Idlib branch of the Nusra Front apparently remains a cohesive unit, but the above-cited Nusra Front leader is said to have admitted that it has by and large withdrawn from the front lines, due to the fighters’ disillusion with their fratricidal war against the Islamic State.
The Idlib jihadis have instead focused on local concerns. This translates into a campaign to enforce sharia law and to cleanse the area of what the Nusra Front terms “corrupt elements": roving bands of independent rebels, criminal gangs, and small local factions, many of whom have declared allegiance to the Saudi- and U.S.-backed Syria Revolutionaries’ Front (SRF). It is perhaps no coincidence that these operations also serve to secure the Nusra Front’s flanks against potential rivals and lock down key trade routes. The list of border villages hit so far includes Harem, Zibaqi, Darkush, Daghali, Maryamin, Bailaa, Dahr, Buhouth, and Hammam al-Sheikh Issa.
I’m told by a Syrian contact who travels in this region that the Nusra-led campaign (which is backed by several local Islamist factions) has now succeeded in dismantling most rebel and criminal checkpoints along the Turkish border, to the great relief of civilians and travellers in the area. But the Nusra Front’s increasingly assertive enforcement of sharia law, sometimes brought about at gunpoint by foreign fighters who have little understanding of local sensitivities, is also beginning to provoke local resentment.
In addition, other rebel factions in Idlib are growing suspicious about the Nusra Front’s plans, and tension with the SRF is palpable. Earlier this week, their simmering rivalry exploded in a burst of open fighting, but a ceasefire agreement now appears to have been concluded, via intermediaries, between the Nusra Front’s Abu Mohammad al-Golani and the SRF leader Jamal Maarouf.
To add to the mess, Ahrar al-Sham—another large, Idlib-centered Salafi group—is currently facing the threat of implosion after the killing of its leaders. This will certainly shift the balance of power in the area and may mean that territory and resources hitherto held by Ahrar al-Sham and its Islamic Front allies (including the immensely important Bab al-Hawa border crossing) might soon be up for grabs.
Whither the Nusra Front?
Outwardly, the Nusra Front continues to present a monolithic façade through its al-Manara al-Bayda media wing. Only the unending stream of bitter invective on Twitter from al-Qahtani, who clearly has more time on his hands these days than he used to, strikes a dissonant chord.
But outward unity does not preclude the existence of internal tensions or a weakened central command. The narrative of regional splintering presented to local activists by the above-mentioned Nusra Front leader is impossible to confirm, but it chimes well with media reports about events in Idlib.
For now, questions abound, both about the situation in Idlib and about the Nusra Front’s prospects in general. Will the SRF-Nusra ceasefire hold, or will Idlib slip into its own civil-war-within-the-civil-war? Can al-Qaeda loyalists exploit the misfortunes of Ahrar al-Sham? Should the sharia enforcement campaign in Idlib be interpreted as a local branch turning away from the Nusra Front’s national strategy, or does it in fact represent a consolidation of control that will benefit the group as a whole? And will the Nusra Front ultimately be able to regain footing again, after several months of defeats against the Islamic State?