Al-Qaeda-linked groups including the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and Jabhat al-Nusra have consolidated their power in Syria in recent weeks, particularly in the country’s north. It’s led experts to wonder whether the global terrorist organization has effectively overshadowed moderate elements of the opposition, with al-Qaeda gaining influence on the ground as the conflict drags on. In its new report, the International Crisis Group focuses on the challenges facing the opposition in exile, including the swift rise of extremist groups. We asked Noah Bonsey, the organization’s senior Syria researcher, to weigh in on just how much control al-Qaeda now has over the revolution.
They don’t have control of it. First, al-Qaeda is more of a brand and loose network than a coherent organization. You have in Syria two principal groups that affiliate with al-Qaeda: Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). The differences in strategy that separate the two are very real; al-Nusra has prioritized cooperation and consensus with other factions, while ISIS increasingly chooses to confront other rebel groups in competition for territory and resources.
It’s not that these jihadis have taken over the revolution, but rather that they – first al-Nusra, then in the last four months ISIS – have gained strength at the expense of more mainstream rebel groups. Their power is not necessarily in their numbers, but in their comparative advantages in organization and discipline. They also seem to enjoy more consistent access to funding than do other groups, and they’ve been able to work these comparative advantages into steadily rising power on the ground.
There are areas in northern and eastern Syria now where ISIS appears to be the single most powerful faction, but its power does not rival all the other factions combined – it’s simply the strongest in an array of actors. They’ve been able to gain at the expense of others, but they’ve experienced a lot of pushback from mainstream militants, ranging from groups with no clear ideological leaning to committed salafis; even al-Nusra has had public tension with ISIS in recent months.
In ISIS, you have a group that has learned only partial lessons from its experience in Iraq, where it was its own worst enemy and saw other tribes and insurgents rise up against it. The lesson it appears to have learned is to provide [civilians]with more bread and provide more displays of humanitarian goodwill, but be every bit as brutal with your opponents. This approach is unlikely to yield better results. One of their key mistakes in Iraq was that they were humiliating people, imposing their authoritarian rule on others, including fellow insurgents, who didn’t want to be dictated to in that fashion. And they’re making that mistake in Syria now, every bit as much as they did in Iraq. As the fight for territory and resources in the north continues, ISIS, with its aggressive strategy, could see other groups converge to deter that behavior and confront it if necessary.
ISIS’s power on the ground varies from area to area. It’s helpful now to watch the dynamics among the big groups in the north. In early October, three of the most powerful factions in the north – Liwa al-Towhid, Ahrar al-Sham and Saqour al-Sham – joined with a couple other prominent groups to issue a statement highlighting ISIS’s failure to abide by a cease-fire in Azaz and chiding it for rushing to label its opponents as apostates. Al-Towhid went further a couple days ago, accusing ISIS of shelling its personnel. These are all groups that have cooperated with ISIS in the past, and in some cases still do.
ISIS is in the process of turning some of its allies into competitors, and the tension that is emerging between the groups is increasingly tangible. Currently, the leading factions do not view all-out war against ISIS as serving their interests. But increasingly, we’re seeing that ISIS is cooperating less and less with non-jihadi factions. That’s another sign of it alienating itself.
It’s very difficult to predict how these dynamics will evolve in the next six months, because external factors are important variables. If, for instance, the opposition’s three most important regional backers, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, got on the same page in supporting mainstream groupings that could directly rival ISIS, we could see ISIS faced with a choice: continue its current strategy and risk confrontation with a stronger counterpart, or rein in its efforts to control rebel-held areas.
In the absence of that kind of regional effort to hold things together, the current dynamics within the armed opposition favor the jihadis. If the present state of chaos and ad hoc alliance building and breaking continues, I don’t think we’ll see a force that’s really capable of standing in ISIS’s way in the near future. I do think ISIS’s behavior has been consistent enough since 2007 that we can say in all likelihood it will continue to extend its foothold on the ground in areas where it is capable of doing so, and that’s going to continue to make people angry. There’s an anti-ISIS narrative that has emerged among activists. That will continue; it just depends on when and if forces emerge that are willing and able to confront ISIS.