Jabhat al-Nusra: the Sunni Hizballah?

Jerusalem Post, 7/11

Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamist group which constitutes al-Qaeda’s ‘official franchise’ in Syria, last week carried out a successful offensive against western-backed rebel militias in northern Syria. Key areas were captured.

The Islamic State  and its activities further east continue to dominate western media reporting on the war in Syria.  But in north west Syria, in Lebanon and in the area immediately east of the Golan, it is Jabhat al-Nusra which is becoming the main Sunni jihadi force on the ground.

There are significant differences in the praxis of these two movements, despite their near-identical ideological stances.  IS prefers to rule by straightforward terror – see its slaughter of 322 members of the Al-Bu Nimr tribe north of Ramadi this week.  Nusra is no less brutal when it deems it necessary, but this organization is following a different, more sophisticated trajectory.

This requires Jabhat al-Nusra at times to cooperate with other Sunni groups (including IS), at other times to fight them.

The assault against rival rebel groups began on Saturday and was mainly focused against the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, led by former construction worker Jamal Ma’arouf.  Ma’arouf, who hails from the Jebel Zawiya region of Idleb Province, emerged as a successful warlord in one of the heartlands of the Syrian Sunni rebellion.   According to sources in northern Syria, however, Ma’arouf is seen by many as a corrupt figure who has personally enriched himself in the course of the Syrian war.

The tensions between Nusra and the SRF in the north are of long standing and have claimed lives on both sides.  They are concerned with power, and the control of populations, land and resources.

Nusra’s forces made rapid progress into Jebel Zawiya, capturing Ma’arouf’s home village of Deir Sunbul.  In addition,  the smaller Harakat Hazm militia also abandoned a number of villages in the wake of Nusra’s advance.   Nusra is now just a few miles from the Bab al-Hawa border crossing between Syria and Turkey.

Jamal Ma’arouf was known to have been in contact with western officials, though the extent of western aid to his movement is not clear.  Hazm, however, which numbers only around 5000 fighters, was the recipient of direct western help, including a number of BGM-71 TOW anti tank systems delivered to it in the spring of 2014.

These systems may well now be in the hands of the Al-Qaeda associated Nusra, following Hazm’s abandonment of areas of northern Idleb province in the wake of Nusra’s advance against the SRF.

The future of Hazm and the SRF in the rebel heartland of north west Syria now looks uncertain.  Nusra appears uninterested in proclaiming an ‘Islamic state’ of its own any time soon.  But it is clearly deeply interested in capturing and holding ground in this area, and it is doing so.

Oddly, in other areas, Nusra cooperates with the very forces that it fights in the north.  In western Syria and the Lebanese Beka’a, for example, Nusra and IS work together in the Qalamun mountains area, and in the frequent forays into Lebanon. They seek there to secure a link between pro-rebel Sunni towns in the Bekaa and the jihadi fighters in the mountains, so as to ensure a supply route throughout the winter.

Nusra recently killed around 10 Hizballah fighters in a hit and run raid on a position near Britel.  It also took part together with IS in a large scale raid on the town of Arsal in August, capturing a number of Lebanese soldiers.

Nusra leader Mohammed al-Jowlani issued a statement on Tuesday, promising further incursions into Lebanon.  Addressing Hizballah directly, Jowlani said “The real war in Lebanon is yet to begin and what is coming is so bitter that Hassan Nasrallah will bite his fingers in remorse for what he has done to Sunnis.”

Further south, Nusra is a key element in the rebel forces that have been enjoying considerable success against the regime in recent weeks.  The organization played the major role in the capture of the Quneitra Crossing at the end of August.

Some reports have since suggested that the organization has ceded control of areas bordering Israel to other rebel forces.  But if this is so, it has taken place not by coercion, but because Nusra appears to be aware of the general rebel desire for western support, and to be willing to adjust its own positions accordingly.

The movement also continues to enjoy contacts, and probably also support from the Emirate of Qatar, a key backer following Nusra’s emergence in 2012.  Certainly, the Qatari role in paying ransoms to Nusra for the release of 45 Fijian soldiers captured by Nusra in the taking of Quneitra would seem to attest to at the very least ongoing contacts between Doha and the jihadis.

So in three key fronts – Idleb province, Qalamun and Quneitra/Deraa – Jabhat al-Nusra is playing a pivotal role, challenging both Assad’s army and other rebels where it deems it profitable.

By avoiding targeting westerners, the group has largely managed to avoid the hostile attention of the west.  By adjusting its activities to local realities and power structures rather than challenging them immediately head on, it has also avoided the fear and hostility which IS engenders among many Sunni Arabs in both Syria and Lebanon.

So what happens next?  Jowlani clearly has his eye on Lebanon, where 1.5 million Sunni Syrian refugees may provide willing recruits to the movement, particularly if that group begins to feel itself needing some kind of sectarian defense against local Lebanese Shia hostility.  Nusra is becoming the controller of rebel north west Syria.  It is likely, however, to continue its more cautious path in the south, where its rivals are stronger.

It is also by no means impossible that Nusra could at a certain point turn its attention to Israel.  Certainly, the current attempt by Palestinian organizations to re-focus attention on their struggle through the prism of Pan-Islamic concerns for the al-Aqsa mosque makes such an outcome more likely.

Jabhat al-Nusra seems determined to emerge as a kind of mirror image of the Shia Hizballah – combining an uncompromising jihadi ideology with tactical flexibility and an ability to work with its own public (Sunni Arabs) rather than simply to terrorize them into submission.  Israeli and western governments should be watching the organization very carefully.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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