In a way, this analysis provides the flip side of the coalition cobbled together by the US to attack ISIS in Syria. Some of these nations, such as Saudi Arabia and especially Qatar, are not just sympathetic to Islamist points of view, they put significant amounts of wealth into promoting them. The threat from ISIS will eventually aim at their own potentates, though, so it makes sense to partner with the US to extinguish it now before it unravels the power balances on which they rely, plus it gives them an opportunity to further destabilize the Shi’ite Ba’athist regime in Syria.
If there are strange bedfellows on one side …
Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, the Nusra Front, is facing mounting pressure from its own members to reconcile with its rival Islamic State and confront a common enemy after U.S.-led air strikes hit both groups this week.
But that move would require pledging loyalty to Islamic State, which has declared a caliphate in territory it controls in Iraq and Syria, which would effectively put an end to the Nusra Front, fighters in the group say.
Nusra, long one of the most effective forces fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, was weakened this year by battles with Islamic State, an al Qaeda splinter group that routinely employs ruthless methods such as beheadings and mass executions.
The two share the same ideology and rigid Islamic beliefs, but fell out during a power struggle that pitted Islamic State head Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi against al Qaeda chief Ayman Zawahri and Nusra Front leader Abu Mohammad al-Golani.
But U.S.-led air and missile strikes, which have hit Nusra as well as Islamic State bases in Syria, have angered many Nusra members who say the West and its allies have joined forces in a “crusader” campaign against Islam.
Of course, this set of bedfellows is nowhere near as strange as media reports would lead some to believe. The group now known as ISIS, ISIL, or IS began as al-Tawhid in Jordan in the 1990s, later becoming known also Jund al-Sham (al-Sham refers to “greater Syria” in pan-Arabist propaganda), founded by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. After serving a prison term in Jordan, Zarqawi went to Afghanistan under the auspices of al-Qaeda, received funding from them, and went back into Iraq in 2001 to expand his organization. After the US invasion of Iraq, Tawhid became a major part of the insurgency in the western region as Sunni resentment over the removal of Saddam Hussein crested. Zarqawi renamed his organization al-Qaeda in Iraq, although later he and Ayman al-Zawahiri would have clashes over the brutality of Zarqawi’s methods.
After Zarqawi’s death in an American strike, the US surge successfully disengaged Sunni tribal leaders from AQI and drove the organization underground again. They re-emerged during the American withdrawal but at first mainly in Syria, along with a number of other Islamist terror groups fighting for pole position against Bashar al-Assad. The partnership with AQ fell apart as a consequence of those rivalries, as well as continuing issues over the group’s bloodthirsty tactics. Jabhat al-Nusra appeared to be the rising star among those groups and apparently worked within the so-called “core AQ” leadership more effectively.
So no one should be surprised that AQ may have a very practical choice now in re-partnering with ISIS. Nor will it change the lay of the land for the US and its coalition partners, since as Reuters notes the coalition has already been targeting Nusra as well as ISIS strongholds. What it will do is add strength to ISIS and its claim to a caliphate in the region, and that will make it tougher than before to “degrade and destroy” ISIS in both Syria and Iraq. Just as facing a common enemy brought the US and Sunni Arab nations together despite significant ideological and strategic differences, this war will eventually build similar alliances between our enemies in the region, too.
One positive outcome from this may be that we can more easily distinguish the so-called “moderates” in Syria as this consolidation takes place. The bad news may be that there will be a lot fewer of them than we imagined.