Islamic State of Iraq leader Abu Bakr al-Husseini al-Qurashi al-Baghdadi claimed that Jabhat al-Nusra was part of the his group's extended network. Now known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the new jihadist coalition was announced just one day after al Qaeda central leader Ayman al-Zawahiri called for Islamist rebels fighting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad to establish an Islamic state, which could help eventually re-establish an Islamic caliphate.
The importance of Jabhat al-Nusra is that its members are among the most effective fighters in the Syrian rebellion. The rebels and their sponsors cannot afford to isolate the group if they want to make real gains on the battlefield.
We consider al-Zawahiri's statement largely propagandistic: The al Qaeda leader, who is somewhere in northwestern Pakistan, far from the battlefield, is merely trying to appropriate the jihadist insurgency in Syria. But we believe al-Baghdadi's statement is much more revelatory. For the first time, the group has admitted that Syrian jihadists represent an extension of its operations — even though we have long known the Iraq's jihadists aid and abet Syria's jihadists. Syria served as a support base for jihadists in Iraq in the past, and now Iraqi jihadists are helping to consolidate Syrian jihadists.
Al-Baghdadi's statement will further worry the international community. The danger posed by Syrian jihadists has long been apparent, and the West has been skeptical of an all-out rebel victory accordingly. In fact, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called for both sides to seek a negotiated settlement as recently as March. However, the formation of this new group attests to growing suspicions that Syrian jihadists, who could very well outlast the al Assad regime, are not nationalistic. Rather, they are part of al Qaeda's efforts to exploit the Arab Spring uprisings.
Notably, the announcement represents a setback for mainstream Syrian rebels, who have willingly collaborated with Jabhat al-Nusra, and those who are not aligned with transnational jihadists but nonetheless have to live with them. Determining how many fit into each category — nationalist jihadist, transnationalist jihadist, reluctant collaborators — is difficult, and further complicates the problem of international perception.
Saudi Arabia competes with al Qaeda to embolden Sunni resistance against Iran in the northern Levant and in Iraq. Though Riyadh maintains relationships with many jihadist rebel factions — and benefits from having jihadists focus on regional theaters outside Saudi Arabia — al Qaeda's now-publicized campaign to use Syria as a springboard for anti-Shia resistance in Iraq could make it difficult for Saudi Arabia to pursue this policy, especially in coordination with the United States. In its efforts to curb al Qaeda's influence, the United States will be even more reluctant to support Syrian rebels.
Many questions remain as to whether the merger is real. But perceptions will drive behavior, especially when it comes to jihadism in the post-9/11 and post-Arab Spring era. The United States, which has long sought to balance Iranian-led radicalism and Sunni radicalism, will likely be further forced to revise its strategy to curb Iran's regional influence.