Yasir Abbas writes: Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, entered Syria in late 2011. By mid-2014, it had grown from a moderately-sized force bedeviled by conflict with more powerful armed groups to one of the few remaining key players in Northern Syria. During its early years, the group’s main and only focus was on its military operations against the Syrian regime. It rarely interfered in civil affairs and local governance. Since July 2014, however, al-Nusra has deliberately leveraged its powerful status to assert itself as a key revolutionary force, gradually insinuating itself into governance roles with the goal of implementing al-Qaeda’s political vision in Syria.
Unlike the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which relies on intimidation and shocking levels of violence to rule local populations in areas it holds and to market itself among global jihadis, al-Nusra uses persuasion and gradual change to increase its influence and control. This strategy is clearly informed by al-Qaeda’s past failures to establish grassroots support in Iraq. The Islamic State in Iraq’s defeat in 2007 was largely due to its failure to tend to its base or maintain a working relationship with nationalist Iraqi insurgents and local power brokers. By contrast, a gradual approach has allowed al-Nusra to root itself in Syrian society and present its project as one the few remaining viable alternatives for the Syrian people, making a Syria ruled by al-Qaeda a scenario more plausible than ever before.
Al-Nusra starts with embedding itself in the opposition and then incrementally moving to subsume, purge, or dominate revolutionary forces, both civilian and military. It has used this approach throughout Syria. Unlike ISIL, al-Nusra’s logic of control is defined by achieving a loose military and political dominance, rather than complete control, although the latter is its long-term objective. The group carefully chooses when and where to assert its authority to maintain a careful balance between its long-term aims — full control and establishing an Islamic Emirate in Syrian — and the need to appease revolutionary forces and the local population. Upon entering new territory, for example, al-Nusra often refrains from imposing its control on the population or governance institutions. Instead, it initially shares control with the groups already in power on the ground, even if they are secularists and oppose al-Nusra’s visions for Syria. Al-Nusra uses this approach to prevent an abrupt rejection by the local population that may result in a full-fledged confrontation with opposition armed groups, as well as to diffuse its presence in opposition-held areas. But sharing control does not necessarily foster agreement. It is a tactic to delay confrontation until al-Nusra has the military and political means to dispense with its temporary allies and purge, or subsume, their members. [Continue reading…]