The Nusra Front’s game-changing rise in Syria

The Washington Post reports: Syrian rebels captured the key northern city of Idlib from government forces on Saturday in what amounts to the most significant defeat for forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad in two years.

The rebel force, led by the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, surged into the city center overnight Saturday and by day’s end had ousted government forces almost entirely.

The loss for the government came amid a number of recent indications that the Assad regime is struggling to maintain the momentum it won on the battlefield last year, including the failure of two recent offensives that fizzled in the north and the south of the country. [Continue reading…]

Lina Khatib writes: The Nusra Front’s ability to deliver results is largely driven by its pragmatism. The group has been collaborating with a wide variety of local forces that are not pushed to fight under its umbrella. Instead, they fight with Nusra as allies — a radical departure from the Islamic State’s model, which does not tolerate collaboration unless absolutely necessary.

This approach has enabled the Nusra Front to widen its network of support quickly, including the addition of some Free Syrian Army brigades in Aleppo, Hama, and Daraa. Crucially, Nusra engages in friendly competition with Ahrar al-Sham, which has recently become the largest group under the Islamic Front umbrella following its merger with another Islamic Front faction, the Suqour al-Sham Brigades. This development has made Ahrar al-Sham almost as large as the Nusra Front, and the alliance between the two could become an important factor in the Syrian conflict.

Nusra also learned from the mistakes of both the regime and the Free Syrian Army. In northern Syria, people saw the corruption of the regime replaced with that of brigades fighting under the banner of the FSA, such as the Syrian Revolutionaries’ Front, which imposed inconsistent taxes on the population, established checkpoints at which its members regularly seized people’s property, and controlled food supplies.

Nusra used the anticorruption framework to win hearts and minds. People quickly began to see FSA checkpoints replaced with Nusra checkpoints that “did not demand anything in return for protecting us,” as one Nusra supporter said in an interview. The Nusra Front also used the fight against corruption to justify its attacks on uncooperative FSA brigades. Nusra’s assault on the Syrian Revolutionaries’ Front in late 2014 won wide popular support, despite the fact that the main aim of the attack was actually to eliminate one of Nusra’s key military rivals.

The Nusra Front also noticed that FSA leaders in the north who had become warlords abandoned the front lines, and Nusra ensured that its leaders remained in the field. This presence underscored the idea that the Nusra Front was providing protection — military as well as social — and vastly increased its acceptance among ordinary Syrians.

While not everyone likes Nusra’s ideology, there is a growing sense in the north of Syria that it is the best alternative on the ground — and that ideology is a small price to pay for higher returns. “The one who defends me has the right to impose whatever law they see fit,” one sympathizer told me.

The international coalition’s airstrikes that began in September 2014 took Nusra by surprise, but they further increased the group’s popularity. Many Syrians felt disappointed that the West did not act against the Assad regime, but instead attacked an entity that was fighting the regime. Many rallied around Nusra, providing local support and contributing to its intelligence-gathering capabilities. This allowed Nusra to increase the areas under its control not through territorial gains or the provision of services — methods the Islamic State uses to extend its reach — but through expanded local networks and influence. [Continue reading…]

Rebels in Idlib destroying a statue of former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad

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