Much discussion arose last month when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi of the Iraqi al-Qa'ida branch Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) declared that his group and Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN) are in fact one and the same, prompting Sheikh Jowlani of JAN to reply that he was not consulted on this decision, while pledging allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri and making clear the links between ISI and JAN.
It is likely that the decision to have an ISI-JAN merger announced was Zawahiri's idea. From this likely supposition, many commentators claimed a turning point in JAN's fortunes in Syria for the worse. Thus did Brian Fishman attempt to draw an analogy with Iraq, asserting: "It wouldn't be the first time he [Zawahiri] botched the terror group's strategy in the region."
Fishman's analogy is that the al-Qa'ida pledge in Iraq inevitably translated to brutalization of local Sunnis, which, along with "U.S. pressure" on al-Qa'ida, proved the decisive turning point against al-Qa'ida after the rise of the Sahwa (Awakening) movement. Hence he concludes, "For better or worse, the reckoning between al-Qa'ida's Syria affiliate and other rebel groups is beginning."
However, I contend that this view is well overblown. "Syria is/is not Iraq" is of course a statement frequently brought up in common debates over whether the outside world should intervene in militarily or provide lethal aid to rebel forces. The problem is that the general debate over comparisons of Syria to Iraq does not appreciate that the dynamics of how the civil war progressed in Iraq are vastly different from Syria.
Iraq's sectarian civil war was focused on what might be termed a decisive 'Battle for Baghdad' between rival Sunni and Shi'a militias, with the former- demographically in a minority- believing that Sunni Arabs were in fact the majority and could win that civil war. By the end of 2006, large-scale ethnic cleansing of Sunnis from Baghdad had convinced many insurgents who had been working with al-Qa'ida that they could not win, and hence a key driving force behind the turn against al-Qa'ida.
On a side note, I should point out that the belief in a Sunni Arab majority in Iraq is by no means dead, and is back on the ascendancy, being promoted by some mainstream Sunni Arab politicians like Osama al-Nujaifi and by groups organizing demonstrations such as Intifada Ahrar al-Iraq (IAAI).
IAAI is essentially the activist wing of the neo-Ba'athist Naqshibandi militia movement. Concomitant with that belief in a Sunni Arab majority is the notion of marching on Baghdad to retake the city and calling for jihad, sentiments apparent at IAAI protests in areas like Hawija and Tikrit.
In any case, the development of Syria's civil war is not analogous. For one thing, the timescale is much greater than in Iraq, and Sunni insurgents in Syria are not a minority who falsely believe they are in the majority.
False analogies with Iraq aside, an overview of statements made by various other rebel groups as well as developments on the ground show that nothing has changed for the worse for JAN. Beginning with the issue of statements on JAN's pledge of allegiance to Zawahiri, the sentiment can be summarized as follows: 'While we appreciate your efforts against the regime, we do not believe a pledge of allegiance to al-Qa'ida is in anyone's interests.' Thus, not a repudiation of JAN itself, but just al-Qa'ida.
Consider, for example, a statement (courtesy of Charles Lister) put out by a Deir ez-Zor battalion known as the Jaish al-Tawhid, which is aligned with the Salafist rebel coalition called the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF). The statement read: "As for Jabhat al-Nusra's allegiance to al-Qa'ida, this is a matter for their concern, even though we do not support them [in it] as they have come to hold this view, and we recognize that Jowlani's pledge of allegiance to Sheikh al-Zawahiri is a course of action that does not achieve legitimate interests."
In a similar vein, Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya- one of the largest battalions in the SIF- recently put out a statement indicating that they did not approve of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's declaration of a merger between ISI and JAN, saying that his announcement was not done in consultation with any proper religious authorities in Syria.
At the same time, the battalion made clear its appreciation of "the self-sacrifice and courage of Jabhat al-Nusra in battles and its good deeds and the goodness of its treatment of the people," declared to be advancing "the interests of the Ummah."
Notably, the statement recognizes the risks of conflict spreading in the wider region, but makes clear that "this does not constitute an arbitrary judgment for the artificial borders between the sons of the Ummah." In other words, Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya does not see the notion of an ideological project beyond Syria's borders as somehow illegitimate.
Coming to reactions outside this Salafist framework, we have the case of a statement put out immediately after JAN's al-Qa'ida pledge by a self-proclaimed Free Syrian Army military council in the Damascus area, indicating that while JAN is not part of its structure, "its role in the defense of our oppressed people facing the regime of the tyrant [Assad] is valued."
The al-Furqan Brigades likewise weighed in on JAN's pledge of allegiance to al-Qa'ida. Their statement cited Qur'an 5:51, "O you who believe, do not take the Jews and Christians as friends; they are in fact friends of each other. And whosoever among you takes them [as friends] is one of them; and verily God does not guide the people of wrongdoers." The statement goes on to accuse Jews and their Western allies of causing the bloodshed in Syria by enabling the Assad regime.
As for JAN, the al-Furqan Brigades' statement affirms: "We are proud of their precious sacrifices and their bloody fights…we see in Jabhat al-Nusra a fine model of faith and a guiding example of manliness and heroism, but we reject what has come from Jabhat recently- if Youtube is telling the truth- on its pledge of allegiance to Sheikh al-Zawahiri and al-Qa'ida, for we reject expansion of the land of the struggle outside Syria," for the true goals are to achieve "freedom for the Syrian people, its [Syria's] stability, and its territorial integrity." Thus, in contrast to Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya, the al-Furqan Brigades maintain a strictly nationalist outlook, but again, the common thread of appreciating JAN's war efforts while disapproving of the al-Qa'ida link.
On the ground, the announcement of the pledge to al-Qa'ida has changed little in terms of other battalions' relations with JAN. Battalions of all ideological streaks are still willing to declare when they coordinate operations with JAN.
For example, at the end of April, the Farouq Battalions- associated with the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front (SILF- Islamist-leaning but to be distinguished from the Salafist SIF)- announced that they were conducting operations in Hama "with our brothers from Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahfad al-Rasul, Fajr al-Islam and other battalions." Here is a video that corroborates Farouq's announcement.
Similarly, Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya released a statement on 7 May on an operation against a military convoy in the Damascus area, carried out in coordination with three other rebel groups, including Jabhat al-Nusra.
Further, a video was recently released in which it was announced that JAN has taken over the eastern front in Deraa with the cooperation of a number of battalions, including Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya and the Martyrs of Yarmouk Brigade, the latter of which maintains an affiliation with the more moderate Syrian Military Council (SMC) headed by General Salim Idris.
In a similar vein, a recent joint-rebel offensive in Idlib was announced, involving battalions like Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya, Suqur al-Sham (SILF-affiliated), and Jabhat al-Nusra. Over in the east of the country, those who pledge allegiance to the 'Free Army' also work with JAN, particularly in the Deir ez-Zor area.
One need not go on with further examples. The point is that rebel battalions of all ideological streaks will coordinate with JAN when they feel necessary. There have of course been clashes between JAN and rival rebel groups, but one should not be so hasty as to ascribe them to ideological conflicts. They can generally be traced to more mundane roots like control over resources (especially oil), territory and border access points.
While reporters like Martin Chulov frequently produce interview testimony of rebel fighters who say they are prepared to form Sahwa militias to take on al-Qa'ida-aligned mujahideen, I would say that this is more a case of interviewees telling Western reporters what they think Westerners want to hear.
Given how fragmented rebel-held areas of Syria are, JAN clearly cannot exercise control over everything its members do, but there is no evidence to suggest any substantial change in the general approach to consolidating its hold on areas where it has a substantial presence: namely, providing services for the local populations and trying to implement its ideology through a gradualist approach and dissemination of propaganda, while not refraining from dealing ruthlessly with perceived pro-regime soldiers and destroying signs of Shi'i Islam. Thus, here we have a video of JAN arranging for the distribution of bread for the eastern town of Mayadeen.
In the city of Raqqah, which was taken over primarily by JAN and Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya, tolerance is accorded to a secular activist trend (see videos here, here and here), even as Shari'a courts have now arisen in the Raqqah to the discontent of some of its inhabitants. At the same time, the Shi'i shrine of Ammar ibn Yasir in Raqqah has been destroyed, according to the testimony of reporter Javier Espinosa.
In short, it can be seen how the pledge of allegiance to al-Qa'ida has done nothing apart from confirming what U.S. intelligence long suspected. The rebels and local populations on the ground were well aware of the affiliation too. I also predict that in the long term JAN's affiliation will not translate to much either: rebel rivalries and conflicts are inevitable anyway even in a post-Assad environment.
In the midst of such chaos, I see it as unlikely that JAN will either substantially advance its position or lose ground beyond likely strongholds in the north and east. While JAN may routinely be described as the most effective fighting force, it can be too easy to overstate the group's actual size and influence. To sum up, I see an equilibrium of disorder developing.