David Petraeus, former coalition forces commander in Iraq and Afghanistan, told CNN recently that the US should try to “peel off so-called ‘reconcilables’” within Jabhat al-Nusra, the Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, to fight against the jihadist group itself, Bashar Assad, and ISIS.
“Doing so would require both the rise of much stronger, moderate opposition groups -- backed, again, by the U.S. and the coalition seeking to defeat ISIL [ISIS] -- and at the same time, intensified military pressure on all extremist groups," he said.
As US commander in Iraq, Petraeus played a role in turning Sunni Arab tribes against Al-Qaeda in 2007 as part of the Awakening movement. Ironically, many Nusra Font leaders such as Abu Mohammad al-Jolani fought as Iraq veterans against these US-funded Arab tribes, and were held at the US-controlled Camp Bucca in Iraq.
However, experts as well as members of rebel groups say this plan is unworkable. Especially after US-trained FSA Division 30 rebels were killed and their leaders captured by Nusra in Azaz two months ago. Furthermore, Nusra does not operate in tribal areas in Syria.
“Moderate groups don't seem to be on the ascendancy anywhere where it would be relevant to peel off Nusra fighters to take on IS,” said Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, a leading expert on jihadist groups with the Middle East Forum.
Lina Khatib, on the other hand, a research associate at the University of London, says her fieldwork on Nusra has revealed that many have joined the group as ‘the price to pay’ to get rid of Bashar Assad.
“Those individuals have joined the group because of its perceived effectiveness in battle against the Syrian regime and ISIS,” she said, “or because of monetary gains and not because they want to become members of Al-Qaeda. Therefore, if presented with an alternative, they are likely to take it because for them, the Al-Qaeda ideology is a burden not an attraction.”
Tamimi says the best successful example was the Free Syrian Army (FSA) Revolutionaries of Raqqa Brigade, which briefly worked with Nusra against ISIS in Raqqa, but which now fights with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) against ISIS in the Raqqa countryside. “This cooptation [with the YPG] only happened after Liwa Thuwar broke off from Jabhat al-Nusra. The problem is that it was a very local thing, and influenced by Thuwar Raqqa’s expulsion from Raqqa by the Islamic State,” he told me, adding: “I don’t see how this can apply to Idlib, where Ahrar as-Sham and Nusra are the strongest.”
ISIS previously lambasted FSA fighters for their weak loyalties. In its magazine, Dabiq, in October last year it wrote that FSA fighters “constantly switch alliances from the FSA to [Ayman] Dhawāhirī [leader of Al-Qaeda] to the PKK – as was the case with the Jabhat Thuwwār ar-Raqqah.” The Raqqah Brigade itself denies links to Nusra. Its spokesman, Abu Maaz, said, “Liwa Thuwar was not affiliated with Jabhat al-Nusra, it was an alliance with it to strike Da'esh [ISIS] in Raqqa.”
FSA rebels think it might be difficult to convince Nusra fighters to leave the group due to their strong ideology. “As for the possibility of Jabhat al-Nusra [leaving the organization], yes but not all members. Some of them harbor Da'esh’s [ISIS] ideology," Abu Maaz said.
Ahmed Hisso, the spokesperson of Jaysh al-Thuwar, which fights in Aleppo, agrees. "I do not think so because the ideology is but one: the ideology of Al-Qaeda. Thuwar Raqqa were from the Free Syrian Army and they are not followers of the ideology of Al-Qaeda," he said.
Nusra fighters also highly doubt that their members would leave the group to fight the Syrian government or ISIS. A Dutch Muslim fighter close to Nusra who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Said al-Halabi told me “Nusra would be the last group in Syria to accept money from the United States. The US is Al-Qaeda’s enemy number one, and this will remain. In contrast to Syria, he says that in Iraq, “some Sunni groups were not formed on the basis of their ideology, with some exceptions, which made it possible to hire them for money.”
Halabi says that although initially Nusra was one of the strongest insurgent groups in Syria due to experienced Iraq veterans and the recruitment of Syrians who were trained in military skills and Islamic law, Syrian militants now have many alternatives, such as Ahrar as-Sham, which is better funded.
“To give you an idea, a Nusra fighter earns 30 dollars a month,” Halabi said. “In other groups they earn three times as much money. From this perspective, Petraeus’s idea is nonsense.”
Other Nusra Front members are afraid Petraeus’s statement could be used against them as propaganda by ISIS to indicate that they are ‘infidels’ working with the ‘Western crusaders’ to destroy the Islamic State.
“With such statements it looks that he wants people to leave Nusra and other rebel groups to join ISIS, because it only helps their propaganda,” said an anonymous Nusra fighter who runs the Twitter account Dutch Mujahideen in Syria.
ISIS media outlets often attack Nusra for being too soft or allying with non-Islamic groups against it and the Assad regime. An article in the ninth edition of Dabiq said, “When one hears that the crusaders now consider this or that party of jihad claimants as a potential ally serving the crusaders’ interests against the Islamic State, then wash your hands of that group and flee from them […].”
Khatib says the key issue is how Petraeus's idea would be implemented. “There has to be adequate support in terms of funding, training, equipment, and leadership for the moderate groups that are to attract former Nusra members,” she said, adding that anyone joining their ranks must renounce their extremist ideology. “Otherwise the plan would backfire and would cause those groups to lose their credibility.
So far, the US has only trained 60 rebels, 30 of whom have already been taken out of action by the Nusra Front. In light of that, it seems highly unlikely that Petraeus’s idea could work in the near future.
Wladimir van Wilgenburg is a political analyst specializing in Kurdish politics. He tweets @vvanwilgenburg