Tevhid Nazmi Basturk
Recent developments in Syria have seen the al-Nusra Front take the offensive in Idlib once again following a year of inactivity. Not only has the al-Nusra Front gained ground against the forces of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, but also factions they fought alongside under the Umbrella of the Free Syrian Army.
Combatting Assad in Idlib
The al-Nusra Front renewed its offensive against Assad’s Syrian Arab Army (SAA in the Idlib Governorate. The Syrian al-Qaeda made a rapid advance which overtook the SAA forces’ positions, even capturing the municipal building in the city’s center.
The SAA forces were quick to rally against al-Nusra resulting in the rebel group’s expulsion from the city’s center, however the rebels proved too powerful for a complete ejection and considerable gains had already been made.
With the Syrian Arab Air Defense Force (SAADF) Tayfur Airbase in Homs currently indisposed and under siege by fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the SAA’s forces are without the assistance of the Russian warplanes and helicopters the SAADF uses to conduct airstrike and barrel-bombing operations.
The indisposed Tayfur airbase leaves the SAA without the large scale bombing operations they heavily rely on to combat opposition forces. ISIL’s raid leaves the SAA engaged in direct urban Guerilla combat with the al-Nusra Front, a situation far from their ideal.
Landing on the US’ strike radar transformed al-Nusra’s game plan
After falling onto victim to the US’ regiment of Syrian airstrikes under the pretenses of the “Khorasan” narrative the al-Nusra Front had to change its strategy and outlook towards other Syrian opposition faction which fall under the umbrella label of the FSA.
When the US airstrikes began in late September the US central command shocked many members of the Syrian opposition when they bombed bases belonging to the al-Nusra Front.
Though the al-Nusra Front is the Syrian faction of the al-Qaeda terror network, maintaining stern mission of focusing its struggles solely on the Assad Regime, posed no threat to the United States or any other country within the anti-ISIL coalition.
To justify the attack on the al-Nusra Front, the Khorasan narrative was fabricated by US media outlets, stating that the strongest member of the FSA was also harboring “highly trained members of al-Qaeda with prior training in Afghanistan” which posed “an immediate threat to US national security”.
The pretense was initially used in the first day of the Syrian airstrikes to target al-Nusra Front bases in Aleppo, leading to the death of 50 front fighters, almost 20 civilians and the injury of 300 others.
The US Central Command station in Erbil had claimed that the strikes were successful and that Khorasan’s leaders had died.
The strikes proved controversial within the FSA community as the leaders of some factions indicated the discrepancy of targeting the most powerful faction of the freedom fighters in the midst of a civil war, while it lead other factions to shun their relationship with the al-Nusra Front to remain within the US’ description of “moderate rebel groups”.
The al-Nusra Front then attempted to recreate its image in the eyes of the west through peaceful hostage releases (UN peace keepers in Golan) and negotiation processes (Lebanese soldier crisis) to differentiate itself from the practices of ISIL in a failed attempt to single itself out as a reasonable actor.
The Khorasan narrative then faded away to be heard of again a month later after al-Nusra’s impressive display in the Idlib offensive as two US officials told CNN on the condition of anonymity that they had failed to kill two leaders of “Khorasan”, including a French convert allegedly specialized in creating explosive devices.
In the absence of a Khorasan group, the message was clear and the al-Nusra Front would once again fall under the radar for more US airstrikes.
By trying its hand at threatening the al-Nusra Front with more airstrikes the US played its hand in an attempt to coax members of al-Nusra to shift over to other factions.
To avoid complete isolation from other FSA factions and remain a relevant actor in the Syrian civil war, al-Nusra began to target the Syrian Revolutionary Front (SRF), one of the US’ key moderate rebel allies.
Nusra’s new message: FSA is Nusra
Clashes between the al-Nusra Front and the SRF emerged within Idlib shortly after those with the SAA.
The SRF, one of the rebel factions falling under the US’ definition of moderate had received US arms to combat ISIL in exchange for what appeared to be a condemnation of the al-Nusra Front and a cease fire with the SAA.
The resulting clashes between the two FSA factions resulted in a decisive al-Nusra Front victory as the SRF not only lost all its regions, including its operational base, and its US given German anti-tank rockets to the al-Nusra Front, but also their vocal leader Jamal Maarouf has dropped off the radar and according to some reports escaped into Turkey.
The resulting display of power against the SAA and the SRF only lead to more members of other regional factions within the FSA to join the ranks of the al-Nusra Front.
The group is now gathering in large numbers outside the Bab al-Salam border crossing which connects the Turkish province of Hatay to the contested city of Aleppo.
The border crossing is a key location in the conflict for the control of northern Syria and currently rests in the hands of another FSA faction, the Islamic Front.
Realizing that they can no longer rely on other FSA factions and that the US will not leave it be the al-Nusra Front seem geared to provoke the Islamic Front to either join its ranks or suffer the same fate as the SRF.
No pause for joint ISIL struggle
The al-Nusra Front’s new message is clear, the conflict in Syria cannot be paused to make way for joint FSA, SAA attacks against encroaching ISIL fighters.
Taking a page out of the US’ very “either with us or the terrorists” doctrine the al-Nusra Front’s latest actions reiterate their position as the most powerful/capable faction within the FSA and that cooperation with the SAA against ISIL or the US against them will not be tolerated.
To avoid sharing the same fate as ISIL and for the continuity of the still un-level but manageable playing field against the Assad Regime which it views equal to ISIL the al-Nusra Front now demands it takes the lead in an FSA built upon its foundation.
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