Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, in August 2011, to April 2013, Islamic State and al-Nusra Front were a single organization that chose the banner of “Jabhat al Nusra.” Although, the current al-Nusra Front is led by Abu Mohammad al Jolani but he was appointed as the Emir of al-Nusra Front by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the leader of Islamic State, in January 2012. The current Al-Nusra Front is only a splinter group of Islamic State which split away from its parent organization in April 2013 over a dispute between the leaders of two organizations.
In March 2011, protests began in Syria against the government of Bashar al-Assad. In the following months violence between demonstrators and security forces led to a gradual militarization of the conflict. In August 2011, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi began sending Syrian and Iraqi jihadists, experienced in guerilla warfare, across the border into Syria to establish an organization inside the country.
Led by a Syrian known as Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, the group began to recruit fighters and establish cells throughout the country. On 23 January 2012, the group announced its formation as Jabhat al-Nusra. Al-Nusra rapidly expanded into a capable fighting force with a level of popular support among opposition supporters in Syria.
In April 2013, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi released an audio statement in which he announced that Al-Nusra Front had been established, financed and supported by the Islamic State of Iraq. Al-Baghdadi declared that the two groups were merging under the name “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.” The leader of al-Nusra Front, Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, issued a statement denying the merger and complaining that neither he nor anyone else in al-Nusra’s leadership had been consulted about it.
Al Qaeda Central’s leader, Ayman al Zawahiri, tried to mediate the dispute between al-Baghdadi and al-Jolani but eventually, in October 2013, he endorsed al-Nusra Front as the official franchise of al Qaeda Central in Syria. Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, however, defied the nominal authority of al Qaeda Central and declared himself as the Caliph of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
Keeping this background in mind, it becomes amply clear that a single organization operated in Syria and Iraq under the leadership of al-Baghdadi until April 2013, which chose the banner of al-Nusra Front. For the sake of clarity, let’s call this pre-April 2013 organization al-Nusra-I; and the subsequent breakaway faction of al-Nusra-I under the leadership of al-Jolani, post-April 2013, as al-Nusra-II. Also bear in mind that Islamic State of Iraq and Syria operated in the Syrian theater since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, in August 2011, but it chose the banner of al-Nusra-I. And it rebranded itself as “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” only in April 2013.
Many biased political commentators of the mainstream media deliberately try to muddle the reality in order to link the emergence of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria to the ill-conceived invasion of Iraq in 2003 by the Bush Administration. Their motive behind this chicanery is to absolve the Obama Administration’s policy of supporting the Syrian opposition against the Syrian regime since the beginning of the Syrian civil war until June 2014 when Islamic State overran Mosul and Obama Administration made an about-face on its previous policy of indiscriminate support to the Syrian opposition and declared a war against a faction of Syrian opposition: that is, the Islamic State.
Moreover, such spin-doctors also try to find the roots of Islamic State in al-Qaeda in Iraq; however, the insurgency in Iraq died down after “the Iraq surge” of 2007. Al-Qaeda in Iraq became an impotent organization after the death of Abu Musab al Zarqawi and the subsequent surge of troops in Iraq. The re-eruption of insurgency in Iraq has been the spillover effect of nurturing militants in Syria against the Assad regime, when Islamic State overran Fallujah and parts of Ramadi in January 2014 and subsequently captured Mosul in June 2014.
The borders between Syria and Iraq are quite porous and it’s impossible to contain the flow of militants and arms between the two countries. The Obama Administration’s policy of providing money, arms and training to the Syrian militants in the training camps located at the border regions of Turkey and Jordan was bound to backfire sooner or later.
As I have mentioned before that Islamic State of Iraq and Syria had operated in Syria since August 2011 under the label of al-Nusra-I and it subsequently changed its name to Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in April 2013; after which it overran al-Raqqa in the summer of 2013, then it captured parts of Deir el-Zor and fought battles against the alliance of Kurds and Syrian regime in Qamishli. And in January 2014 it overran Fallujah and parts of Ramadi in Iraq and reached the zenith of its power when it captured Mosul in June 2014.
Regarding the recent rebranding of al-Jolani’s Nusra Front to “Jabhat Fateh al Sham” and the supposed severing of ties with al-Qaeda Central, it’s only a nominal difference because al-Nusra Front never had any organizational and operational link with al-Qaeda Central and even their ideologies are poles apart.
Al-Qaeda Central is basically a transnational terrorist organization which targets the Western countries; while al-Nusra Front, Islamic State and many other Syrian militant organizations only have regional ambitions and their ideology is anti-Shi’a and sectarian, rather than anti-West or anti-Zionist, as such. In fact, al-Nusra Front has not only received medical aid and material support from Israel, but some of its operations against the Shi’a Assad regime in southern Syria were fully coordinated with Israel’s Air Force.
The purpose behind this rebranding of al-Nusra Front seems to be to legitimize itself and make it easier for its patrons to send money and arms. The US blacklisted al-Nusra Front in December 2012 and pressurized Saudi Arabia and Turkey to ban it too. Though, al-Nusra Front’s name has been in the list of proscribed organizations of Saudi Arabia and Turkey since 2014, but it kept receiving money and arms from Saudi Arabia.
After this rebranding, the reaction from the US has been: “We’re gonna have to wait and see,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said. “We judge a group by what they do, not by what they call themselves.” In any case, Saudi Arabia and Turkey might not be willing to add the name of a militant organization, which only has local ambitions of fighting the Syrian regime and which has severed its nominal ties with al Qaeda Central.
It should be remembered that in a May 2015 interview with al-Jazeera, Abu Mohammad al-Jolani took a public pledge on the behest of his Gulf-based patrons that his organization only has local ambitions limited to Syria and that it does not intends to strike targets in the Western countries. Thus, this rebranding exercise has been going on for almost an year and al-Jolani finally announced the split from al-Qaeda in a video statement yesterday. Instead of al-Qaeda Central, the real affiliation of al-Jolani’s Nusra Front has always been to Saudi Arabia, which controls the flow of money and arms to al-Jolani’s organization.
In order to simplify the Syrian quagmire for the sake of readers, I would divide it into three separate and distinct zones of influence. Firstly, the northern and northwestern zone, in and around Aleppo, which is under the influence of Turkey and Qatar. Both of these countries share the ideology of Muslim Brotherhood and they provide money, training and arms to the militant organizations like al-Tawhid Brigade and Ahrar al-Sham at the training camps located in the border regions of Turkey.
Secondly, the southern zone of influence, in Daraa and Quneitra and as far away as Homs and Damascus. It is controlled by the Saudi-Jordanian camp and they provide money, weapons and training to the militant groups such as al-Nusra Front and the Southern Front of the so-called “moderate” Free Syria Army in Daraa and Quneitra, and Jaysh al-Islam in the suburbs of Damascus. Their military strategy is directed by a Military Operations Center (MOC) and training camps located in the border regions of Jordan. Here let me clarify that this distinction is quite overlapping and heuristic at best, because al-Nusra’s militants have taken part in battles as far away as Idlib and Aleppo.
And finally, the eastern and central zone of influence, in al-Raqqa and Deir al-Zor, which have been controlled by a relatively maverick Iraq-based outfit, Islamic State, and its Baathist military apparatus. According to credible reports, hundreds of ex-Baathists constitute the top and mid-tier command structure of Islamic State who plan all the operations and direct its military strategy.
Moreover, it should be remembered that Saudi Arabia was staunchly against the invasion of Iraq back in 2003, because it regarded Saddam as a bulwark against the Iranian influence in the Arab World. After the invasion, when Iraq formed a Shi’a dominated government, the Gulf Arab states have consistently supported the Sunnis of Iraq against the Shi’a government. Therefore, the possibility that Islamic State has also received Gulf’s money and arms in the past in their battles against the Syrian regime cannot be ruled out.
Nauman Sadiq is an Islamabad-based attorney, columnist and geopolitical analyst focused on the politics of Af-Pak and MENA regions, energy politics and Petroimperialism.