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Jabhat al-Nusra's Expansion in North-West Syria
by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi • Dec 10, 2014 at 6:59 am
This recent report in The Washington Post on Jabhat al-Nusra's territorial gains in Idlib province in northwest Syria and the implications for current U.S. policy of arming vetted rebels in a bid to take on the Islamic State within Syria is of great interest. The Syrian al-Qa'ida affiliate's expansion in Idlib can be put down to the following factors:
1. In light of the expansion of the Islamic State and the regime's advances, territory for the numerous rebel groups in Syria is becoming increasingly scarce. This provides an incentive for jihadi groups in particular- faced by the Islamic State's trappings of a state project, from consumer protection to telephone subscriptions- to declare their own proto-state initiatives. Thus the leaked 'emirate' announcement from Jabhat al-Nusra in July, the formation of the Jabhat Ansar al-Din coalition, Jaysh Muhammad's announcement of its intentions to implement Shari'a to the totality in areas under its supposed control. Such arrangements are ultimately not amenable to power sharing
2. Jabhat al-Nusra perceived the growing supply of Western arms to groups like the Syrian Revolutionaries Front (SRF) and Harakat Hazm- clearly on condition of not sharing or working with Jabhat al-Nusra- as a threat in the long-run, hence the moves against SRF in particular in the summer. The perceived threat of these groups as U.S. proxies was compounded by U.S. airstrikes on Jabhat al-Nusra, ostensibly to target a separate 'Khorasan Group' that is in reality just a unit of al-Qa'ida veterans from Af-Pak embedded in Jabhat al-Nusra.
3. The rebel groups themselves- in particular the SRF- bear responsibility for tolerating Jabhat al-Nusra as a legitimate partner in the fight against the Assad regime, allowing it to build strength in Idlib such that no one could push back against its recent gains. SRF's leader Jamal Ma'arouf had defended Jabhat al-Nusra in the spring and refused to fight them. Indeed, the dynamics of SRF-Nusra that played out are similar to the situation last year where many rebels refused to fight ISIS (Islamic State's predecessor), allowing the group to build influence in Syria such that it could ultimately withstand a multi-pronged rebel attack by regrouping and building contiguous territory centred on Raqqa. Further, SRF's corruption in Idlib allowed Nusra to exploit local support in making gains against SRF.
At the present time, it seems doubtful a viable vetted Syrian rebel force could be built to push back against the Islamic State without the involvement of Western ground troops.
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