Syria and The Success of Smarter Militants
Interesting WaPo article by David Ignatius about Jabhat al-Nusra, the Qaeda affiliate in Syria. They’ve bascially bided their time during the rise of ISIS, gaining reputations as good fighters and building alliance with relatively more-moderate groups, and they seem poised to emerge successful out of the wreckage when the more apocalyptic jihadist group enters its post-Caliphate stage (which could be loosely described as “A caliphate of the mind”).
Jabhat al-Nusra has played a clever waiting game over the past four years, embedding itself with more moderate opposition factions and championing Sunni resistance to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The group has mostly avoided foreign terrorist operations and has largely escaped targeting by U.S. forces. Meanwhile, it has developed close links with rebel organizations such as Ahrar al-Sham that are backed by Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
But the global jihadist ambitions of Osama bin Laden remain part of Jabhat al-Nusra’s DNA. U.S. officials report increasing evidence that the group is plotting external operations against Europe and the United States. Its operatives are said to have tried recently to infiltrate Syrian refugee communities in Europe.
A stark warning of the danger ahead comes from the Institute for the Study of War, which closely follows events in Syria. In a forthcoming forecast, the institute argues that by January 2017, “Jabhat al-Nusra will have created an Islamic emirate in northwestern Syria in all but name” and will merge with the supposedly more moderate Ahrar al-Sham.
And that’s the smart way to do it. It’s one of the reasons why AQAP in Yemen has been so successful for so long, even so far resisting an ISIS takeover (more on that coming soon). There are certain organizations which are “lessons learned” oriented, who can take the success and mistakes of the past and integrate them into the local situation from which they are emerging. They don’t try to jam a rigid system into a fluid situation. You can have short-term success doing that, but it is far more difficult to maintain, as ISIS is finding out.
(That said, of course, ISIS isn’t halfway out the door. I am as guilty as this as anyone: because the outline of the end, or at least the end of this phase, can be roughly seen, it shouldn’t be assumed that it will play out the way we imagine, and shouldn’t be so quick to act like we are already in the next phase. Analysts and bloggers are, I think, more guilty of that than actual military people, so I’m not too worried.)
This is part of the mutation of the jihadist threat, and why it needs to be treated as a generational problem, one that requires supple and strategic thinking, on all levels, and not be treated as a eopochal failure when it isn’t met with “unconditional victory” during, say, a Presidential term.
It’s almost inevitable that, if not al-Nusra, another AQ or ISIS-like group emerges in whatever comes out of Syria, whatever post-state shape it is in. That isn’t a clarion call to give up, but more that we have to be realistic about what can be accomplished, and to me, that means not trying to force Syria back together again.
I think the Kerry plan, which Ignatious describes as a “three-cushion shot”, is a good outline. “Kerry’s plan would include joint U.S.-Russian operations against the group, as well as the Islamic State. Kerry also hopes to reduce Assad’s attacks on moderate rebel forces so that they (rather than Jabhat al-Nusra) can gain ground in a post-Islamic State Syria.” That’s probably the best outcome that can be hoped for: increased moderation, though not perfection, in post-Syria areas. The more we try to maintain a 20th-century fiction, the more other fictions, like that of the glorious caliphate or the purity of fanaticism, will tell the story.