According to the latest IHS Jane’s Intelligence report, moderate and radical jihadist groups are gaining the upper hand among the Syrian rebel groups. The report is alarming not only because it begs the question of the likelihood that any of these jihadist groups, together or separately, might permanently gain control over the opposition, but also because it suggests that Al-Qaeda is gaining leverage over the Syrian conflict at a steady pace. This article will argue that even though there has been an increase in the overall number of jihadi fighters, not all jihadi groups share the same ideology and not all of them pursue terrorist tactics. In fact, the main jihadist groups cover a very broad understanding of jihad, and don’t always agree between themselves on its interpretation. This differentiation leaves place for both alliances and for fratricidal infighting.
There are three jihadi Salafist groups present in Syria. Two of them, Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), are radical and affiliated to Al-Qaeda through an oath (bayaat) and officially leading a transnational jihad. However, after a history of unification and separation, they still do not agree on their plans of establishing a transnational Caliphate: if ISIS is more ambitions in its scope, Nusra only restricts its ambitions to the toppling of Bashar Al-Assad. The third group, the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF), often described as more moderate, is not affiliated to Al-Qaeda and leads a smaller scale national jihad. SIF sympathizes with Jabhat Al-Nusra, its radical “brothers and partners in the trenches and battles”, and is being led by the Ahrar Al-Sham Brigades.
Nusra and ISIS bring together some 10.000 fighters, with some 6,000 rebels belonging only to the Nusra Front, although reports diverge on this distribution. The two groups are less numerous than the 30-35,000 fighters that the moderate SIF counts, and this while considering the massive defections from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) towards the Nusra Front and ISIS. Over 1,000 foreign fighters have also joined the insurgency, but they are spread among Nusra, ISIS and SIF, with ISIS apparently being the most attractive destination group. Moreover, there seems to be a certain polarization going on in the transnational jihadist camp, as Nusra fears that ISIS might be gaining too much strength and that it defeats the purpose of the insurgency by fighting both the regime and the other rebel groups simultaneously. As a result, several jihadist groups, amongst them Nusra and the Ahrar al-Sham Brigades, are trying to isolate ISIS by forming an alliance limiting its own goal only to the establishment of the rule of Shari’a over Syria above any other sectarian or international consideration (such as extending the fight over Shi’as, Christians and Iraq).
In terms of strategy and tactics, all three groups draw the bases of their strategic thinking from insurgency classical theorists such as Mao, Marighella and Che Guevara. They all use irregular tactics against the regime on one side, and try to win the hearts and minds of the local population on the other one. By providing humanitarian aid and social assistance, the jihadist groups are gaining the upper hand over the FSA who does not seem to have the capacity to take over the administration of the areas it has conquered. The three groups have (separately) put into place bus systems, regular and Islamic schools, insured the collection of garbage etc., which all contributed to gaining the acceptance and the support of even those locals who do not believe in Salafi Islam.
While both moderate and radical jihadist groups rely on seemingly common strategic principles, their tactics differ. On the one hand, as enumerated in a previous article I wrote on this blog, SIF’s tactics relate more to guerrilla warfare and fit better in the framework of a civil war in which there is no clear imbalance of power between the opposing sides. SIF gradually developed its methods from simple, sporadic improvised explosive devices (IEDs, the type that were/are used in Iraq or Afghanistan) to small-arms ambushes and other classic guerrilla tactics such as hit-and-run raids. Gradually, their growing forces and tactical proficiency eventually made them capable of conducting large-scale sustained assaults on multiple fronts (for instance at Hama, Idlib, Raqqa, Al-Hasakah, Deir al-Zour and Deraa), all the while keeping on resorting to remotely detonated bombs.
On the other hand, the tactics employed by the Nusra Front and ISIS, both radical jihadist groups, recall a lot of the transnational revolutionary jihadism employed by Al-Qaeda. Suicide attacks, assassinations of prominent governmental figures, car bombs against the Syrian Army and Hezbollah fighters, kidnappings of Westerners and wealthy Syrians for financial extortion, mass executions of Syrian Army soldiers, attacks over Christian settings, preventive strikes over weak tribes and even attacks on liquor stores were reported by the medias and overwhelmingly attributed to the Nusra Front. Over three quarters of the suicide attacks that took place in Syria over 2012 and 2013 are attributed to or claimed by the Nusra Front. In addition, a Nusra cell was discovered being in possession of 2 kilos of sarin gas last May. ISIS, which also operates in Iraq, and cooperates, at times, with Nusra, goes even further. Medias report attempts at kidnapping foreigners, fights against the fellow rebels of FSA, “liberations” of areas already liberated by the rebels, executions of Alawites, and attacks on Kurdish villages in Syria and of Shi’te places of worship in Iraq. ISIS also claimed responsibility for the successful operation of liberating prisoners from the Iraqi Abu Ghraib prison last July. Bearing in mind the recent surge in violence in Iraq and the porosity of the Syrian-Iraqi border, it is unsurprising that reports are coming from Baghdad blaming the Syrian conflict for the spread of conventional weapons and of fighters of Syrian origin present around the Iraqi capital.
In conclusion, giving up to the alarmist reports that the “terrorists are taking over the Syrian conflict” seems a bit farfetched. Ideologically, the power balance between the secular and the Islamists has indeed budged, but the Al-Qaeda associated radicals employing specific terrorist tactics still represent a small and disunited fraction of the opposition forces. Under such a scenario, it is Jabhat al-Nusra that emerges as the strongest group with an effective pivotal role – it is the only jihadist faction that has good relations with both ISIS and SIF, thus steadily becoming the “deal maker” and the “deal breaker” of the insurgency.