Haid Haid

Al-Qaeda on the rise in Syria

After alienating many host communities, Nusra is once again gaining support due its military exploits and the prospect of a US-Russian air coalition against the group

Nusra Front fighters in southern Aleppo in April 2016. (Twitter/Al-Nusra Front)

There is a general assumption that the Syrian Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra is weakening in the face of the regime of Bashar al-Assad’s recent militarily achievements and international led airstrikes against the group. The increase in the number of anti-Nusra demonstrations this year, especially in Idlib, is usually cited as evidence to support this assumption. Yet, according to sources close to the group, Nusra has accepted more than 3,000 Syrians from Idlib and southern Aleppo into its ranks since February alone. While Nusra is experiencing this extraordinary rate of recruitment, other Western-backed groups in these areas are losing local support and manpower. It is therefore important to look at the reasons behind this significant increase in Nusra’s recruitment rate and what it portends for the future.


Jabhat al-Nusra was established in Syria in late 2011 and quickly gained a high profile amongst Syrians due to its valuable military contributions against the Assad regime. Initially, Nusra employed persuasion and gradual rule enforcement to increase its influence in areas under its control and root itself within Syrian society. However, in 2014, the group moved away from a soft power strategy and began attacking US-backed opposition groups in an attempt to eliminate potential rivals. This shift in the group’s strategy damaged support for Nusra among local populations and created new tensions with other rebel groups. It also led to numerous demonstrations against Nusra’s increasingly puritanical rule. “It was unprecedented to see people criticizing Nusra let alone demonstrating against it. Nusra began losing the support of foreign fighters as well as the support of local communities,” said Mustafa Salah, a media activist in Aleppo.


The resumption of fighting in Syria, following the breakdown of the temporary ceasefire that went into effect in late February, allowed Nusra to begin regaining the support of local communities. In a bid to regain its popularity, the group redoubled its military efforts and spearheaded offensives against the Syrian regime on several different fronts simultaneously. In March, the group launched an offensive in Hama and attacked the regime headquarters in the southeastern suburbs of the city. Nusra also led two other offensives in April, one in the southern Aleppo countryside and the other in rural Latakia. Most of these attacks enjoyed limited successes but nonetheless increased Nusra’s popularity and pushed other rebel groups to increase their military cooperation with the Al-Qaeda affiliate, despite the group’s previous attacks on some opposition groups.


Jabhat al-Nusra’s strategy has also taken advantage of the decreasing level of international support to rebel groups. There has been a noted increase in the level of frustration, especially among locals in Aleppo and Idlib, toward rebel groups and their perceived insufficient actions taken against Assad regime. Much of this inaction can be blamed on the lack of sufficient international support provided to opposition groups, which constrains their ability to advance against the Syrian regime militarily and compete with Nusra’s influence. However, rebels have also been criticized for being too preoccupied with internal differences instead of concentrating on fighting the Assad regime. Under this growing hostility and suspicion toward rebel groups, Nusra has been able to successfully demonstrate that it is the most successful force currently facing off against the regime and portray its military forces as an indispensable ally in the fight to defeat Assad. A rebel fighter from Al-Jabha al-Shamiya group, who asked not to be identified, elaborated, “When you see that opposition armed groups are doing more politicking than fighting, and that their priority is to secure funds and protect their gains, Nusra looks like the only option for those who want to fight on the frontlines. I know many people who are joining Nusra because of that [reason], which is something I am considering as well.” Moreover, Nusra becoming a major target for the proposed US-Russian air coalition does not seem to be an important deterrent to those currently joining the group. “The Russians and the Americans have been bombing Nusra for years now. It will not be any different if they attack together, instead of doing it separately,” said an unnamed rebel fighter with Liwaa Ansar al-Khilafa, who also confided that he is considering joining the group.


Nusra has also made changes to its long and strict recruitment procedures, which have become more flexible in order to entice as many new fighters as possible to join its ranks. The group initially recruited members solely through candidature and recommendations from trusted sources. Nominated members then had to commit to religious lessons and undergo military competency testing to decide whether he should be sent immediately to the frontlines or enrolled in military training. Finally, based on the nominee’s religious and ideological commitment and the recommendations he received from other members, it was decided whether the candidate would be accepted as formal member of the force. However, Nusra has now pivoted to an open membership policy that accepts almost all new recruits. “It has become so easy for anyone to join Nusra without any recommendation. Some people are not even required to undergo Sharia courses, especially if they work as double agents in rival organizations. Moreover, you can either pledge allegiance to the group, which will make you a member, or just pledge to fight with the group, which allows you to fight with Nusra and receive some benefits without having to commit to full membership,” said Abou Fares, an Syrian activist from Aleppo.


The restoration of Al-Qaeda’s power and popularity in Syria represents a serious threat to rebel groups operating there, as well as a potentially more intelligent and patient terrorist threat to the world than ISIS in the long run. Much has been made about a proposed US-Russian air coalition to specifically target Nusra. However, such an alliance could actually be detrimental to the goal of rolling back the influence of Al-Qaeda, as many Syrians would perceive it as yet another direct military intervention to empower the Assad regime.The danger posed by Nusra can only be fully counteracted by finding a political solution to the conflict in Syria. Meanwhile, the international community should instead focus on protecting civilians and providing sufficient support to opposition groups, both civil and armed, to challenge Nusra’s influence in the near term. 


Haid Haid is a Syrian researcher who focuses on foreign and security policy, conflict resolution, and Kurdish and Islamist movements. He tweets @HaidHaid22 

Nusra Front fighters in southern Aleppo in April 2016. (Twitter/Al-Nusra Front)

‘When you see that opposition armed groups are doing more politicking than fighting, and that their priority is to secure funds and protect their gains, Nusra looks like the only option for those who want to fight on the frontlines.'