Consortium Against Terrorist Finance Jul. 19, 2016, 8:39am

The Syrian war is gradually entering a new phase characterized by changing realities on-the-ground and realigned Western priorities. France, once dubbed the most active Western country in “tackling Syria”, has been at the center of this shift in policy priorities. As the world prepares for the disappearance of the ISIS quasi-state, France has reminded the West of the dangers associated with al-Qaeda’s potential expansion in Syria. Unlike ISIS, Al Qaeda’s leadership has gradually established a base in Syria, has adopted a long-term strategy built on community cooperation, and appears primed to benefit from a vacuum left by ISIS. In responding to these changes, France and the U.S. seem determined to prioritize the fight against the al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, in a surprising move that places President Assad among its primary beneficiaries.

France, the first country to join the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, has stood steadfast in its approach towards Assad and ISIS. President Hollande, who has repeatedly demanded Assad be removed from power, has provided extensive support for Syrian rebels fighting the Assad regime. Meanwhile, French planes have carried out hundreds of attacks on ISIS positions in Iraq and Syria in an effort to destroy the terror group’s infrastructure and weaken its “caliphate”, an undertaking ISIS cited as the motivation behind the 2015 Paris attacks.

Compared to ISIS and Assad, al-Qaeda affiliate has received minimal attention from Paris. Although France listed the al-Nusra Front as a terrorist organization in mid-2013, they have focused primarily on combating ISIS and the Assad regime while avoiding confrontations with the al-Nusra Front. While expanded al-Qaeda influence at Europe’s doorstep in Syria carries clear threats to France, the al-Nusra Front, dubbed “the most successful arm of the rebel forces”, has fought fiercely against France’s immediate enemies in ISIS and Assad and thus avoided French attacks. In fact, even as the al-Qaeda aligned al-Nusra Front committed one atrocity after another to innocents and prisoners of war alike, France completed billion dollar weapons deals with the terror group’s primary financier and mediator, Qatar.

In the U.S., combatting the al-Nusra Front was also put on hold while President Obama prioritized defeating ISIS, preparing Syrian rebels and finding a political solution to the Syrian war. While Russia demonstrated its focus on crippling both Salafi-oriented groups, such as the al-Nusra Front, and more moderate opposition groups operating in Syria, President Obama concentrated U.S. attacks on ISIS based in Northeast Syria and avoided confrontations with the al-Qaeda affiliate. Retired Army general and former CIA Director David Petraeus even proposed the idea of incorporating the al-Nusra Front in the war against ISIS.

But French and U.S. policy in Syria has reached a turning point in recent weeks. Having been primarily focused on supporting anti-Assad groups operating in Syria and defeating ISIS, Washington and Paris are beginning to direct more attention and firepower towards al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, the al-Nusra Front. Over the last week, Hollande has called for military action against the al-Nusra Front and the Obama administration looks set to cooperate with Russia in a new bombing campaign against the al-Nusra Front.

Why now, after more than 5 years of ongoing conflict in Syria, have the French and U.S. decided to confront the al-Nusra Front?

New Reality in Syria

Backed by Russia as well as by Iran and its proxies, the Assad regime has gradually grown stronger and reclaimed strategically important territories in Damascus, Aleppo, and throughout Syria. The Syrian regime and the opposition forces have entered into a relative stalemate as the Syrian Army has been bolstered by the support of its allies. Barring a major intervention, it appears unlikely that the Syrian regime will be overthrown by force. ISIS, on the other hand, is gradually losing hold of its self-proclaimed “caliphate” in Northeast Syria and Northwestern Iraq with reports emerging that the terrorist group is even secretly preparing to morph into an entirely underground operation.

In this new chapter of the Syrian conflict, characterized by the gradual diminishing of ISIS territorial holdings and an unrelenting Assad regime, the strategic value of the al-Nusra Front is no longer clear to the West. Once largely overlooked by France and the U.S. for its effectiveness in fighting both Assad and ISIS, a reinvigorated Assad regime and the weakening of ISIS means that the al-Nusra Front is beginning to lose its appeal for Western disregard. Instead, the al-Nusra Front, as one of the strongest and most organized forces on the ground in Syria, constitutes the most likely contender to fill the vacuum left by ISIS. The fear that the al-Nusra Front may quickly expand in territory and influence as ISIS is diminished has caused Western leaders to scramble for a new strategy in Syria. It is, primarily, the new reality in Syria that has prompted Hollande’s sudden call for military action against the al-Nusra Front and Obama’s unexpected cooperation with Moscow in targeting the terrorist group.

Growing and Entrenched al-Nusra Presence in Syria

Al-Qaeda, unlike the U.S. or France, has shown no signs of hesitation in Syria. Crippled by constant drone strikes on its leadership in Pakistan and Afghanistan and presented with an opportunity to establish a headquarters in the heart of the Middle East, al-Qaeda has turned to Syria with the group’s future in mind. The terrorist organization is suspected of quietly dispatching dozens of members from the group’s top leadership, including a previous head of al-Qaeda's foreign relations council and al-Zarqawi’s former deputy, to Syria. Col. Steve Warren, a U.S. military spokesman for the counter-ISIS military coalition referred to the transfer of al-Qaeda operatives from Pakistan to Syria as a continuing “steady trickle” that began in mid-2013. Due to the lure of the Syrian jihad and its strategic incentives, the steady movement of al-Qaeda fighters to Syria seems unlikely to slow down any time soon. Unlike the isolated settings of Pakistan and Afghanistan, a capable base at Europe’s doorstep in Syria offers al-Qaeda the ability to recruit fighters from neighboring Iraq, Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon while posing a more immediate threat to European powers.

In light of recent terror attacks in Europe, several of which were or may have been conducted by al-Qaeda allies, an increase in the number of al-Nusra Force fighters operating closer to home would likely be enough to trouble European leaders and citizens. Yet, perhaps the most serious threat posed by the emergence of al-Qaeda in Syria is the group’s calculated long-term strategy. While ISIS rushed to declare a “caliphate” in 2013 and violently imposed its rule on civilians afterwards, the al-Nusra Front has refrained from declaring a state and has instead focused on building foundations for support and influence in the communities under the terror group’s control. Al-Nusra’s deliberate and long-term strategy, similar to its affiliates’ approaches to governance in Yemen and Mali, was at first centered on their opposition to corruption and hostility towards the Syrian regime rather than the group’s jihadist ideology.

Despite early attempts to co-opt locals and build influence by steering clear of their own extremist tendencies, the true face of the al-Nusra Front has become increasingly clear in the years since their emergence in Syria. Calls for jihad through appealing to historical Syrian religious conflicts, budding alliances with Islamist and moderately Islamist groups, and emerging photographs of pro-Sharia child protests in Nusra-controlled territories demonstrates the terrorist group’s simultaneous expansion and its adherence to a radical brand of Islam. As reports surface of a forthcoming announcement from al-Nusra Front on the establishment of an emirate in Northern Syria, the U.S. and France are no longer able to turn their backs on the al-Qaeda threat in Syria.

Obama and Hollande’s calls for military action against the al-Nusra Front constitute a new direction for American and French policies in Syria. While neither country appears prepared to abandon its fight against the Assad regime, the new realities on-the-ground and the al-Nusra Front’s growing and entrenched presence in Syria has forced both administrations to address the threat of a potentially long-term al-Qaeda presence in Syria. Concerns that the al-Nusra Front may expand its growing base in Syria as ISIS loses ground and eventually declare an emirate has forced the U.S. and France into a move that undoubtedly benefits the Assad regime.

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