Charles Lister writes: Al-Qa`ida’s role in Syria has evolved considerably since its humble beginnings as a wing of the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) in mid-to-late 2011. Formally established by seven prominent Islamists in October 2011 after four months of secret meetings, Jabhat al-Nusra did not publicly emerge until January 23, 2012. In its first six months of publicly acknowledged operations, Jabhat al-Nusra was deeply unpopular within Syria’s rapidly expanding insurgency. Although it had not admitted its links to the ISI or al-Qa`ida, its rhetoric, imagery, and tactics made its international jihadist links clear. A revolutionary opposition, still clinging to nationalist ideals, feared what appeared to be ISI-like terrorist cells emerging within its midst.
By fall 2012, however, Jabhat al-Nusra had evolved from a terrorist organization into an expanding insurgent movement. Its forces had begun integrating into the broader armed opposition, especially in Syria’s largest city, Aleppo. By December 11, 2012, when the U.S. government designated it an alias of al-Qa`ida in Iraq, and a terrorist organization, Jabhat al-Nusra was operating as a fully fledged, de facto opposition actor, albeit on an extreme end of the ideological spectrum.
Two-and-a-half years later, aided in particular by the protracted Syrian conflict and the brutal rise of the Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra is one of the most powerful armed groups in Syria. Its consistent balancing of ideologically driven jihadist objectives with local sensitivities and revolutionary ideals has placed Jabhat al-Nusra in an advantageous position. Rarely will any Syrian opposition group commit genuinely to both denouncing the role of Jabhat al-Nusra in the conflict and permanently ceasing battlefield cooperation with it.
Jabhat al-Nusra remains an al-Qa`ida affiliate, however, and it has occasionally displayed the fundamentalist behavior one would ordinarily expect. From sectarian killings to harsh legal restrictions and executions, the true and extremist nature of Jabhat al-Nusra has periodically been revealed.
Throughout its existence, Jabhat al-Nusra and its leader, Abu Mohammed al-Julani, have generally maintained the group’s jihadist credibility while making its stance within the complex conflict as accommodating as possible. In so doing, al-Qa`ida has played a strategic long game in Syria, which has allowed it to establish a new stronghold on Israel’s border and in sight of Europe. [Continue reading…]