Charles Lister writes: Al Qaeda has big ambitions in Syria. For the past three years, an unprecedented number of veteran figures belonging to the group have arrived in the country, in what can only be described as the covert revitalization of al Qaeda’s central leadership on Europe’s doorstep. Now the jihadi group’s Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front — having spent nearly five years slowly building deep roots in the country — is laying the groundwork for al Qaeda’s first sovereign state.
The Islamic State and al Qaeda use different tactics in Syria, but their ultimate objective there is the same: the creation of an Islamic emirate. Whereas the Islamic State has imposed unilateral control over populations and rapidly proclaimed independence, al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate has moved much more deliberately, seeking to build influence in the areas they hope to rule. This is a long-game strategy that the terrorist group began adopting in the late 2000s, first in Yemen, in 2011, and then in Mali, in 2012.
But the Nusra Front in Syria has proved the first potentially successful test case. After years of painstaking work to increase its sway in northern Syria, Nusra Front recently launched consultations within its own ranks and among some sympathetic opposition groups about proclaiming an emirate. Given the stakes involved, al Qaeda has recently transferred a number of highly influential jihadi figures from its central leadership circles into Syria. Their mission is to assuage the concerns expressed by other Syrian Islamist movements and those members of Nusra Front who, for now, oppose the idea of an independent emirate.
The presence of a militarily powerful and socially accepted al Qaeda emirate in northwestern Syria, led by several dozen veteran al Qaeda figures and heavily manned by local Syrian fighters, could have significant consequences for the Syrian crisis and for international security.
The formalization of Nusra Front’s power in northern Syria would harden the group’s stance toward Syria’s moderate opposition. Proclaiming an emirate would require the group to assert overwhelming control — including the imposition of a strict interpretation of sharia — in the territories over which it would be asserting sovereignty. In all likelihood, incidents of capital punishment would dramatically increase, civilian freedoms would be restricted, and Nusra Front’s tolerance of nonreligious, nationalist, and civil opposition bodies would decline.
The international implications of an emirate proclamation would be even more significant. The combination of an al Qaeda emirate and a revitalized al Qaeda central leadership in northern Syria would represent a confidence boost for the jihadi organization’s global brand. Al Qaeda would present itself as the smart, methodical, and persistent jihadi movement that, in contrast to the Islamic State, had adopted a strategy more aligned with everyday Sunni Muslims. Eventually, the decision would be made to initiate the plotting of foreign attacks, using Syria’s proximity to Europe and al Qaeda’s regional network to pose a far more urgent threat than the group ever posed in Yemen and Afghanistan. Should the Islamic State continue to suffer losses to its territorial claims in Iraq and Syria, we might also see some defections to the emboldened al Qaeda affiliate next door.
How close is al Qaeda to proclaiming a Syrian emirate? Nusra Front seems to have slowed its emirate plans, at least temporarily, during Syria’s recent cessation of hostilities. That had allowed Syrian Islamist opposition groups to express their hostility to the group’s emirate plans. Some even raised the idea that Nusra Front should break its ties to al Qaeda in order to further integrate into the mainstream “revolutionary opposition.”
“For a short time, some consultation began outside of al-Nusra, but the response was very negative,” one well-connected Syrian Islamist said. “Syrians do not want an emirate.” [Continue reading…]