Jennifer Cafarella writes: Director of National Intelligence James Clapper is said to have told CBS’s 60 Minutes that he has observed tactical cooperation between the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and Jabhat al-Nusra (JN). The two global, Salafi jihadist groups are engaged in an ideological struggle, or fitnah. They are competing for the leadership of the fight in Syria and recognition by the al-Qaeda movement, which has been conducting mediation attempts between the two since 2013 and in 2014 recognized JN as its official affiliate in Syria. Director Clapper’s statements challenge recent public reports of their negotiations, which suggest that more fundamental mediation may be underway, indicating the possibility of heightened cooperation in coming months. The interview has not aired, and his statements may be more nuanced than the advanced press publicizing the show. But the issue at hand should not be whether more than tactical cooperation has already been observed, but rather, whether conditions are being set that will favor operational cooperation between ISIS and JN in the medium term. The mediation effort may not quickly result in Baghdadi and his inner circle reconciling with JN leader Abu Mohammed al-Joulani, but the groups are eventually likely to cooperate at the operational and strategic level, as they share mutual goals. In the short term, this may include joint action against the Assad regime, which could relieve pressure on ISIS from the regime in Deir ez-Zour and embolden JN to initiate offensive operations against the regime on battlefronts that have stalled. Furthermore, ISIS is under stress in Iraq, and may pursue the acquisition of manpower and other support from JN in Syria in order to reinforce and retake the offensive.
The publicly released information tells the story of hitherto unsuccessful attempts at cooperation at operational and strategic levels. According to a high-level Syrian opposition official and rebel commander cited by the AP, seven high-ranking members of JN and ISIS conducted a meeting in the town of Atareb, West of Aleppo city, on November 2 from midnight until 4:00 a.m. A “commander of brigades affiliated with the Western-backed Free Syrian Army” corroborated the report, adding that it was organized by a third party. According to the opposition official, the meeting included an IS representative, two emissaries from JN, and attendees from the Khorasan Group, who likely served as both the mediating force and organizing party. The AP also reported that Ahrar al-Sham and Jund al-Aqsa were present, however mistakenly characterized Jund al-Aqsa as a group that has pledged allegiance to ISIS.
Involvement of the Khorasan Group in ongoing attempts to mediate the fitna has also been reported by the Daily Beast, and, if true, likely indicates the veracity of reports of ongoing JN and ISIS negotiations. A number of Khorasan members initially entered Syria in the summer of 2013 as part of AQ’s “Victory Committee,” led by Khorasan member Sanafi al Nasr, that had been deployed by Zawahiri to mediate the growing schism between JN and ISIS. The involvement of these figures in current negotiations is therefore not a departure from past activities in Syria, and is likely a secondary line of effort complimenting the ongoing attempt to develop an attack against the West.
The Syrian opposition official cited by the AP also stated that JN and ISIS agreed to eliminate the moderate, Syrian Revolutionaries Front (SRF) at this meeting. This may have been a sensationalist claim attempting to inflate the threat to the moderate opposition in order to advocate for increased support from the west to the moderate Free Syrian Army (FSA)-linked rebels in Syria, under which the SRF falls. Since the initiation of U.S. – led airstrikes against both JN-linked “Khorasan Group” targets and ISIS in Syria, moderate rebels have accused the Obama administration of encouraging a future JN and ISIS partnership by giving them a common enemy. This is not an unfounded claim, as civilian discontent with the air campaign has fostered increased support for JN, whose rhetoric has shifted to condemn the air campaign in its entirety in a sign of rhetorical support to ISIS against the coalition. However, there is no indication that JN has yet shifted its disposition to the SRF in southern Syria, where JN and the SRF continue to cooperate in military action against the regime. [Continue reading…]