On Tuesday, the Islamic State of Iraq – an al Qaeda affiliate – officially announced that it had merged with Jabhat al-Nusra, a Syrian resistance group with several thousand fighters. The new group is called the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria(ISIGS).
It is a worrying development for a number of reasons. The U.S. government has been hesitant to intervene in Syria, in part, because it did not want to empower jihadist elements through weapons and training. During the height of the “Surge,” U.S. commanders and their allied pundits repeatedly claimed that Al Qaeda in Iraq had been “essentially defeated” and faced “near strategic defeat.”
Clearly, al Qaeda was not defeated in Iraq; its influence has now spread to Syria. This is not a big change for the al-Nusra group, as the writer Aron Lund explained in a recent report. Al-Nusra has shared al Qaeda’s vision of a global jihad since its inception. It is also uniquely focused on a broader jihad, according to Lund; while the other Syrian salafist groups appear to be focused only on Syria.
“This formalizes what we already knew,” Will McCants, a scholar of militant Islam who teaches at John Hopkins University, told me. “Now Nusra is a subsidiary of al Qaeda in Iraq.”
There is a danger that this new name suggests an ambition beyond just Syria. Cole Bunzel, a PhD candidate in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University and former fellow with the Center for Arabic Study Abroad in Damascus, Syria, notes in a detailed analysis of the merger that al-Nusra’s objective is “an Islamic state that includes Syria.” The term “Greater Syria” is an interesting choice. Historically, Syria was called Bilad al-Sham, which is referenced in ISIGS’s announcement.
That doesn’t mean we should panic just yet. “I don’t think this will change much in the short term,” Aaron Zelin, an expert on jihad groups and Salafist politics at the Washington Institute told me. Al Nusra’s leadership was worried about the negative stigma of al Qaeda, but now seems to think they’re well positioned in the insurgency.
When the Free Syrian Army was running liberated areas of Syria they taxed and looted communities. In contrast, al Nusra “provided aid and governance to these areas without abuse,” Zelin said. “For the time being, their harsh social rules are worth the trade for Syrians.” It’s not clear if the Syrian people will continue to make that trade, however.
In other civil wars, such as Afghanistan in the 1990s, desperate people traded unpopular, hard-line social mores for order and stability under the Taliban. Syrians aren’t there yet, but it’s a possibility.
This brings to mind some important questions about the future prospects for intervening in the conflict. Russia’s veto in the UN Security Council, for example, has been a key barrier to international consensus for a Libya-style intervention. There are a lot of reasons for this (far too many to ever expect Russia to agree to intervention) but the merging of jihad groups plays into a specific Russian fear: enabling an expanding Islamist insurgency.
More broadly, what does it mean when an al Qaeda affiliate is the group most visibly providing viable local governance and humanitarian assistance to Syria? This is an area where the U.S. could provide more leadership, Zelin says. The Obama Administration is split on how much military aid to send to Syria and in what form that aid should be given. The presence of al Qaeda individuals within the insurgency has concerned policymakers from the start; last December the U.S. government formally designated al Nusra a Foreign Terrorist Organization.
As for the rest of the insurgency, increasing humanitarian aid and sending more political advisers to the non-al Qaeda opposition groups (something I’ve advocated before in this space) might allow for a more constructive engagement than simply sending weapons.
Paradoxically, the lack of U.S. involvement may have opened the door to al Qaeda in Syria. “The lack of intervention, especially not funneling pay and heavy weapons through the more secular defecting army officers early on, has empowered Nusra,” McCants tells me. “That alone is not an argument for intervention but it’s important to recognize the major downside of our current policy.”
Syria is a conflict with lots of downsides and very few upsides. If anything, America’s experience intervening in other wars offers, at best, a mixed picture of success. American politicians tend to overestimate the benefits and badly underestimate the costs of entering into new wars. The consequences are hard to predict and manage, and often a fickle political environment in Washington demands attention be focused elsewhere.
As for the best path forward, that’s unclear. Apart from calls for “leadership” (a generally undefined term), it’s not clear what the U.S. could do. “I think this announcement bodes poorly for the unity of the armed Islamic opposition,” Bunzel tells me. And indeed, the Free Syrian Army has already distanced itself from the ISIGS, among other concerns, citing stark differences in religious ideology.
The ISIGS has “shown the world its true colors,” Bunzel says, “which are unabashedly al-Qaeda.” It is unlikely the West or any of the other Syrian councils can do much constructively to moderate their influence.