Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Local Dynamics Shift in Response to U.S.-Led Airstrikes in Syria

Jennifer Cafarella

Key Takeaways
  • The responses of rebel groups and civilians within Syria to the U.S. and coalition airstrikes are an important indicator of the unviability of a counter-ISIS strategy that does not fully engage with the Syrian population in order to facilitate a counter-ISIS movement within Syria.
  • Jabhat al-Nusra has capitalized on civilian opposition to the airstrikes to deepen its influence and to propagate its narrative that the coalition is working alongside Assad against the revolution.
  • The reactions of a number of Islamist groups to the strikes that targeted JN on September 23 indicate their close operations with JN. If additional strikes against JN occur, JN is likely to leverage front groups to conceal the extent of their activities.
  • If airstrikes against ISIS and JN continue to alienate the Syrian population and rebel leadership, it is possible that the unrest will encourage and enable a consolidation of ISIS and JN efforts.

The combat operations initiated by U.S. and allied forces on September 23 are interacting with a landscape of actors within Syria that is markedly different from the situation in August 2013 when the Obama Administration contemplated strikes against the government of Bashar al-Assad. During the interim months, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has waged a highly successful and devastatingly brutal campaign for control of Sunni areas across Iraq and Syria. However, the rise of ISIS is only one component of a larger shift in the landscape of powerful actors within the Syrian civil war. The al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) has steadily deepened its influence with the Syrian population and has taken advantage of a continually degraded and fracturing Free Syrian Army (FSA) to play an increasingly vital role in the fight against Assad. JN’s largely unimpeded operations have enabled it to embed itself within the landscape of the Syrian opposition and to accelerate the degradation of the moderate trend within opposition ranks.

The ongoing U.S. and allied operations have focused largely on disrupting ISIS’s freedom of movement, but also included a set of initial strikes against a group of al-Qaeda core members sent to Syria in an advisory role to JN. Action in Syria is therefore nested within the larger strategic objective of countering the threat of jihadist groups possessing the will, capabilities, and access, provided through foreign fighters with western passports, to attack the West. The U .S. justified its action in Syria on the grounds that the Syrian regime had failed to neutralize safe havens used by ISIS to launch attacks in Iraq, as well as an emergent plan to attack the United States by JN. In addition, the UN Security Council passed a resolution (2178) that seeks to create a policy and legal framework for international action in response to the threat of “Foreign Terrorist Fighters.” The resolution expresses concern about ISIS, JN, and “other groups associated with al-Qaeda.” U.S. action in Syria appears to be responsive to this threat. The U.S. State Department identified Jaysh al-Muhajireen wa al-Ansar (JMA) and Harakat Sham al-Islam as Specially Designated Terrorist Groups on September 24. JMA and Harakat Sham al-Islam are Chechen and Moroccan-led foreign fighter brigades in Syria, respectively, that often cooperate closely with JN. While not explicitly linked to counter-JN action in Syria, the designation of these groups supports the assessment that they have been operating as JN front groups. A more detailed examination of JN and associated front groups is forthcoming from ISW in October 2014.

Airstrikes against ISIS and groups such as JN in Syria are a starting point for the elimination of a critical threat to regional security and U.S. interests, and are a component of a wider global effort to halt the proliferation of groups attracting and radicalizing foreign fighters. However, the strikes do not properly interact with a wartime environment in Syria in which treatment of jihadist threats cannot meaningfully be accomplished in the absence of a strategy for Syria as a whole. The responses of rebel groups and civilians within Syria to the U.S. and coalition airstrikes are an important indicator of the unviability of a counter-ISIS strategy that does not fully engage with the Syrian population in order to generate and protect a counter-ISIS movement within Syria. Popular and rebel support for U.S. airstrikes will be difficult to acquire unless counter-ISIS strategy in Syria includes the prioritization of the fall of the Assad regime, an objective unlikely to be surrendered by Syrian rebel forces. JN’s reactions to the airstrikes illustrate its ability to capitalize on the changing environment within Syria to strengthen its hand, foreshadowing a growth in anti-Western sentiments within Syria if the current trajectory is allowed to continue.

Rebel Responses

In the immediate aftermath of the first strikes, prominent figures within the Syrian opposition stated that the U.S. military had informed them of the impending airstrikes in Syria. However, there is no ongoing coordination between rebels on the ground and the airstrike campaign, leaving many to question their utility. The response to the airstrikes was therefore largely muted, and a number of elements within the opposition emerged quickly in protest. Prominently, the FSA affiliate and prominent TOW missile recipient Harakat Hazm issued an immediate statement condemning the U.S. strikes, and in the days that followed additional groups also came out in opposition. These included Jaysh al-Mujahideen (JAM) and a number of other FSA groups in addition to Islamic Front groups such as Liwa al-Tawhid and Suqour al-Sham. The consistent complaint put forth in statements released by these groups alleges that the strikes act against the Syrian revolution by failing to target the Assad regime. In some cases, these groups identified ISIS as a regime puppet and alleged that coalition strikes therefore actually directly strengthen the regime. In most cases, however, the statements released by these groups served to reaffirm their refusal to be distracted from their main objective of defeating the Assad regime. Highlighting this, the FSA General Staff released a statement re-pledging its commitment to fighting the Syrian regime and identified “the need to avoid targeting moderate national and Islamic forces and unarmed civilians.” Likely after receiving significant pressure from the West, Harakat Hazm reversed its position and released a subsequent statement alongside the FSA’s 5th Legion welcoming the strikes but stating they must also extend to “the source of terrorism: the Assad regime,” and that greater coordination with rebels on the ground is needed to avert civilian casualties.

This initial reaction by prominent rebel groups indicates the risk that a counter-ISIS strategy that isn’t tailored to the requirements for securing rebel support can serve to indirectly limit future possibilities for partnership with on-the-ground forces. Angered by a strike that appears to have hit a base of Islamic Front affiliate Liwa al-Haqq, the FSA General Staff called on the international coalition to clarify the concept of the “moderate opposition” with which the U.S. seeks to partner. Significantly, JAM is a group reportedly undergoing vetting as a possible future aid recipient, and its rejection of the airstrikes is therefore a crucial indicator of the danger of alienating those potential partners on whom a meaningful counter-ISIS strategy in Syria will depend.

A few localized efforts to align the promised support to the Syrian opposition with ongoing counter-ISIS airstrikes have emerged, however they remain too localized to produce a meaningful battlefield effect throughout ISIS’s depth. On September 25, CNN reported that over 20 rebel commanders from the FSA and the Syriac Christian Military Council signed an agreement, mediated by two U.S. representatives, to unite in the fight against both Assad and ISIS. The Syriac Christian Military Council operates in Hasaka Province, where it often cooperates with Kurdish YPG forces, and the coalition is therefore a localized effort. Highlighting the current threat posed by ISIS in this region, the council put out a statement on September 28 calling for a continuation of airstrikes near Ayn al-Arab as well as the initiation of airstrikes against ISIS positions on the borders of Hasaka Province. In addition, the YPG military command in Hasaka and an FSA brigade released a joint statement on September 28 announcing the formation of a joint operations room to fight ISIS in northern Syria and calling for military assistance from the international community. It remains unclear whether the U.S. has promised these new coalitions additional weapons and training, but reports of increased weapons shipments to Syrian rebels have emerged in the wake of U.S. and coalition airstrikes. If U.S. airstrikes continue to target ISIS positions near Ayn al-Arab and initiate strikes against ISIS in areas in northeastern Hasaka province, it is possible these new coalitions will achieve local battlefield success in pushing back ISIS. However, these groups are unlikely to be willing or able to penetrate deep into the ISIS interior, as they do not possess the manpower or the logistical command and control capabilities required for a sustained ground campaign into Syria’s southeast regions.

JN Response

As an initial target, JN has capitalized on rebel antagonism toward the airstrikes to strengthen its own position within Syria. In its reaction to the attacks, JN has effectively put forth the narrative that the coalition airstrikes are against the Syrian revolution. In doing so, it has drawn direct parallels between Assad's bombardment of Syrian civilians and the counter-ISIS strikes, actively leveraging the civilian death tolls of the airstrikes to further its popularity with the Syrian population and deepen its influence within the ranks of the Syrian opposition.

JN emerged in immediate defiance of the strikes, yet carefully wove its condemnation within its narrative placing itself as champion of the Syrian uprising. On September 27, a JN spokesman with ties to the al-Qaeda core (AQC), Abu Firas al-Suri, released a defiant video statement, indicating that JN had expected this aggression, and that it would not be sufficient to “prevent the jihad or to stop its march.” Stating that the “heinous” and “criminal action was not against JN but the Syrian people themselves,” he continued “we trust in the people of Sham that they will stand with the al-Nusra Front… They will stand with us on our long path, until we achieve the Islamic State and its banner is raised high and fluttering across Sham, and across all of the Islamic countries.” After issuing condolences to the families of those killed in the strikes, he reaffirmed JN’s commitment to the Syrian people, stating “This war will not end within months, a year, or years. We are engaged in war, and perhaps it could last decades.” The following day, JN leader Abu Muhammad al-Jolani released an audio statement titled “Advice to Muslims and Warning to Infidels” in which he called on the Syrian people to recognize that “the airstrikes are means to suppress your effort and uprising and to return you to Assad’s lap.” He also warned of attacks against the West, stating that the West would only be safe from the Mujahidin if it halts the “aggression” against Muslims.

The statements released by JN’s military and religious leadership convey important aspects of JN’s short and long-term strategies within Syria. Together, the statements comprise the most direct communication of JN’s vision and disposition toward the West, and as such serve as a crucial indicator of the true nature of JN’s long-term goals. Yet the couching of JN’s vision within a narrative of the defense of the Syrian people is a concerning indicator of the sense of safety perceived by JN’s leadership within Syria. The openness with which Abu Firas al-Suri discussed JN’s long-term goal of the establishment of an Islamic State indicates a new level of transparency in the communication of JN’s objectives within Syria. As such, the statements illustrate that the recent transition by JN to more overt forms of presence within Syria, spurred by the rise of ISIS, has continued to draw upon support from the Syrian people.

Civilian opposition to the airstrikes is a primary avenue through which JN has leveraged its more overt presence to capitalize on the situation within Syria. JN’s narrative of championing the Syrian people limits the extent to which Western actors can leverage the provision of armaments to the FSA to accomplish change on the ground that is counter to JN’s interests. JN encouraged civilian unrest against the strikes, posting video and picture evidence of the damage incurred through the strikes. Civilian protests against the strikes erupted almost immediately, with civilians perceiving the attack against JN headquarters housing “Khorasan” group leaders as an attack against the opposition itself. Immediate protests in Kafr al-Takhreem, Kafr Nabel, and Ma’aret al-Nu’man in Idlib Province and in Houla, Homs Province, firmly denounced the airstrikes. This civilian unrest escalated following Friday morning prayers on September 26, with widespread protests occurring throughout Dera’a, Homs, Idlib, ar-Raqqa, and Aleppo provinces. The protests had a distinctly anti-Western character, extending to the burning of an American flag in Telbisa and of a President Obama t-shirt in Qaalet al-Madeeq, Hama Province and to the chanting of “no to the secular state” in Homs Province. Testament to the success of JN’s soft power strategy within Syria, demonstrations in solidarity with JN also occurred in Ma’arat Misrin and Binnish and were advertised by JN on its social media platforms on September 27. In addition, JN's Hama twitter account released a video on September 30 of a civilian protest against the U.S.-led coalition airstrikes in which protesters carried JN flags and chanted pro-JN slogans. Some of the flags carried were the full JN al-Qaeda flag, and at least one protester carried a sign that read “we are all Jabhat al-Nusra,” a parallel to the pro-JN rallies that occurred in December 2012 when the US listed JN as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. The fact that this protest took place in Hama is not surprising, as the regime considerably increased its bombardment of northwest Hama where JN operates in days prior to the protest. Finally, in footage of protests held in the town where the “Khorasan” leaders were struck, protesters held banners that read “stop shelling civilians” and “Nusra Front represents me.”

Screenshot of Video of pro-JN Civilian Protest Uploaded by JN on September 30, 2014.

Pro-JN protest in Ma’arat Misrin, uploaded by JN on September 27, 2014.

Impact on JN Allies within Syria

The reactions of certain rebel groups to the targeting of the JN Khorasan members on September 23 sheds important light on the nature of JN’s interaction with elements of the Syrian opposition. In its coverage of the strikes, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) indicated that some “Islamist groups” had been targeted by coalition airstrikes in addition to ISIS and JN. While no official confirmation has emerged regarding the targeting of Islamist groups close to JN’s center of gravity, it nonetheless appears that a number of groups fear this possibility. The clearest example has been Ahrar al-Sham (HASI), a hardline Salafist member from the Islamic Front with leadership ties to the al-Qaeda core that operates very closely with JN throughout Syria. A self-identified HASI spokesperson denied that coalition forces had not targeted HASI positions, and reaffirmed that HASI’s first priority is the fall of the Syrian regime in a phone conversation with al-Jazeera on September 25. However, according to SOHR, civilians living near HASI headquarters in addition to ISIS and JN bases throughout Deir ez-Zour, Aleppo, Hasaka, and ar-Raqqa provinces began to evacuate their homes for fear of future strikes. Citing the desire to avoid civilian casualties, HASI and JN announced the evacuation of its headquarters near civilian areas in Idlib and Aleppo provinces on September 24. Finally, local sources reported on September 25 that JN fighters in Northern Aleppo had shaved their beards and began to dress in civilian clothing in order to blend in within the civilian population.

In addition, the execution of alleged informants by Jund al-Aqsa is an indicator of the group’s responsiveness to JN’s objectives within Syria. The group executed a man in Saraqeb, Idlib, on September 24 on charge of “dealing with the regime forces and putting electronic chips for the warplanes in the populated areas,” allegedly after the man confessed. Jund al-Aqsa cooperates closely with JN in Idlib and Hama Provinces, and may be a JN front group. In addition, JN reportedly executed 3 men in Khan Shaykhoun on charges of dealing with regime forces. On September 27, an unidentified Islamic battalion reportedly executed an additional 5 men in Aleppo province on charge of “spying on al Mujahedeen and correcting coordinates of bombing that have taken place on the rebels’ posts and densely populated places.” The execution of collaborators is not a new phenomenon within Syria, however their occurrence in areas where JN positions had been hit and the justifications offered for the executions themselves indicate the likelihood that these groups acted in the interest of JN’s continued operations within Idlib and Aleppo.

Rumors that JN and ISIS may be considering a merger emerged quickly in the wake of the strikes, with many expecting these jihadi elements to quickly resolve their differences in order to unite against the new threat. Reports that some JN members defected to ISIS on September 26 spurred this expectation. In addition, Reuters reported on September 26 that JN’s leadership is facing growing pressure from within its ranks to reconcile with ISIS in order to confront their now-common enemy. While this prospect has also been forwarded by AQ ideologue and JN supporter Abu Mussab al-Maqdisi, no credible evidence has yet emerged that such a rapprochement is underway. In fact, some of the more seemingly credibly rumors instead point to the possibility of an ISIS alliance with Islamist factions within Syria. If inclusive of Islamist elements heavily influenced by JN, this sort of alliance could serve as an indirect form of ISIS-JN partnership. In the interim, JN and ISIS are likely to maintain their tacit relationship in Syria, in which participation on opposite sides of local battlefronts hasn’t precluded negotiations elsewhere within Syria. However, if airstrikes against ISIS continue to alienate the Syrian population and rebel leadership, it is possible that civilian unrest toward the campaign will encourage and enable a direct consolidation of ISIS and JN efforts.


As the air campaign against ISIS continues in northern and eastern Syria, JN is likely to continue to be successful in capitalizing on anti-airstrike sentiment from within the Syrian population to deepen its influence in Syria’s western regions. Critically, this rise in influence follows a recent JN reconsolidation in Idlib province, and is therefore likely to bolster JN’s already-growing momentum in Syria’s northwest. Rebel antagonism to the strikes largely stems from the unlikelihood of success against ISIS by ground forces continually under bombardment from Assad’s air campaign. While initial efforts appear to have been made to consolidate the strength of groups in northern Syria against ISIS, this is a limited effort and is unlikely to be successful in penetrating into the ISIS interior. As such, the counter-ISIS strategy currently being implemented in Syria is insufficiently tailored to the local dynamics with which the strikes interact. This dissonance will likely hinder the effectiveness of the air campaign, and may actually result in a future JN-ISIS alignment, further increasing the threat against the U.S. homeland emanating from Syria.

**Coming in October**: ISW Syria analyst and Evans Hanson Fellow, Jennifer Cafarella, will release a comprehensive report on Jabhat al Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria. This report will examine JN’s ideology, long-term strategy, military efficiency, and its governance in Syria in order to properly situate the al-Qaeda threat in its Syrian context.