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Aug 4, 2015 | 13:50 GMT

4 mins read

In Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra Complicates U.S. Strategy

Fighters from Al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra
(AFP PHOTO/AMC/FADI AL-HALABI)
Summary
The U.S. struggle to set up a viable Syrian rebel force on the ground were put in stark relief by recent clashes between the Western-backed New Syrian Force and the al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra. Over the past weekend, the New Syrian Force was forced to withdraw from its headquarters in rebel-held northern Aleppo province to Afrin canton, controlled by the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG.
 
The plethora of armed actors in Syria, each with their own intricate web of alliances and interests, makes a unified effort against the Islamic State very difficult. This divergence is equally as strong, if not as hostile, at the Syrian combatant and the state levels, as reflected by the differences of opinion between the United States and Turkey regarding which factions to back. Though the Islamic State's presence in northern Aleppo is increasingly vulnerable, and though it almost certainly will be driven from the area, infighting among its various opponents will delay this eventuality.
The New Syrian Force has failed to attract the number of volunteers originally hoped for by the United States, in part because of a U.S. stipulation that the force must fight only the Islamic State. Moreover, the training of recruits has been delayed by a very thorough vetting process intended to ensure that the fighters do not harbor jihadist sympathies. The few volunteers who originally graduated largely hailed from the 30th Free Syrian Army Division. 
 
In a new tack, instead of waiting to train enough fighters to field a sizable force before deploying it, the United States pushed to send the New Syrian Force into Syria in early July. With events moving quickly in northern Syria, Washington feels that it can no longer afford to stick with a painfully slow and elaborate vetting process that would likely take years to complete.
 
To make up for the small number of fighters in the first batch, Washington sought to use the New Syrian Force as a coordinating force intended to draw other moderate Syrian rebels into an effective coalition against the Islamic State in northern Syria, rather than as an independent standing militia. With fewer than 60 men, the New Syrian Force entered Syria last month aboard black Toyota Hilux pickup trucks armed with U.S.-supplied small arms and mortars and, most likely, considerable financing. More important, the force arrived with the implicit guarantee of air support from the U.S.-led coalition, which would be necessary to defend the New Syrian Force and to convince other moderate rebel factions to coalesce around it.

Jabhat al-Nusra’s Effect

However, the plan could succeed only if extremist rebel forces such as Jabhat al-Nusra and Jund al-Aqsa would refrain from targeting the New Syrian Force as it entered rebel territory. The plan to ensure this relied on Turkey and, to a lesser extent, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which maintain considerable ties with a number of influential rebel factions in Aleppo, including Ahrar al-Sham, the Levant Front, Fatah Halab, and Jaish al-Tawhid — albeit not with Jabhat al-Nusra.
 
As became apparent July 30, these ties did not keep Jabhat al-Nusra from attacking the New Syrian Force. The jihadist group, which has suffered repeated U.S. airstrikes in recent months, apparently calculated that the cost of upsetting some of its key rebel allies was lower than the benefit of neutralizing the New Syrian Force. Jabhat al-Nusra understands full well that should the Islamic State be driven from Aleppo province, an invigorated New Syrian Force backed by considerable U.S. airpower could then turn its attention to its al Qaeda-linked rival. 
 
 
After its assault on the New Syrian Force, Jabhat al-Nusra's media branch released several messages and videos carefully explaining the reasons behind the attack in a clear bid to limit the anger of its allies. It used the same tactic after it attacked and defeated the U.S.-backed Harakat Hazm and the Syrian Revolutionaries Front in Idlib and Aleppo in February 2015 and late 2014, despite these groups' ties to other rebel organizations allied with Jabhat al-Nusra.
 
 
The withdrawal of the New Syrian Force to Afrin canton could provide only temporary respite, as tension has also escalated between the YPG in Afrin and Jabhat al-Nusra, with a number of clashes occurring between the two sides. For its part, the YPG may be attempting to curry favor with the United States by protecting the New Syrian Force, though this would be risky since doing so would attract Jabhat al-Nusra's hostility. Turkey, meanwhile, will likely oppose any U.S.-YPG coordination, limiting the options available for the effective use of the New Syrian Force.

Inherent Limitations to U.S. Strategy

A standing moderate rebel force designed solely to attack the Islamic State — as the New Syrian Force was originally configured — simply is not going to attract many recruits. Siding with the YPG can be effective in Kurdish-dominated areas, but this strategy is limited by the relatively small number of Kurds in Syria, as well as the strong opposition from Turkey, which continues to eye the YPG with considerable suspicion and hostility.
 
Even where the CIA covert program to supply and equip Free Syrian Army units has netted some success, such as units with the Southern Front and the 1st Coastal Division, these factions are either highly localized or are far more independent than the New Syrian Force — at times even actively participating in military operations where Jabhat al-Nusra is the dominant partner. This has proven particularly true with Free Syrian Army units operating alongside Jaish al-Fateh in the northern Idlib, Hama, and Latakia provinces, where the human terrain and conflict dynamics are far different than in the south. 

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