Al-Nusra Front has been a powerful player in the Syrian civil war for a long time now, and now al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria has become the dominant group in Idlib.
Earlier this month, it seized territory and weapons from rebel forces in the northwestern province.
That raised concerns that the al-Nusra Front’s new strategy is not just to become the unrivalled leader among opposition forces, but to eliminate potential enemies on the ground and create its own “emirate,” just like its rival the Islamic state of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
“I think in the north what we are seeing from Jubhat al Nusra is an effort to withdraw some of their resources from their main fronts with the regime and invest those same resources towards seizing ground within rebel-held areas in the north in Idlib province in particular,” Noah Bonsey, a Syria analyst with the International Crisis Group, said.
But the group’s leadership denied that its takeover was a power grab. Instead, we were told that this was a war against corrupt rebel leaders who use weapons to oppress people.
“Just look what is happening elsewhere in Syria … in Deraa, Ghouta, Aleppo, Hama and Idlib … We fight alongside other rebel forces against the Shia regime,” Abu Abdullah, al-Nusra’s commander in Idlib, said.
“Our aim is not to impose ourselves on everyone. We will only fight groups who act like Jamal Maarouf [leader of the rival Syrian Revolutionary Front].”
Nevertheless, al-Nusra’s offensive was seen by some as a new and more aggressive strategy in Syria’s war.
Al-Nusra may not have been singled out as a target of the US-led coalition’s military campaign against terrorism and there are no indications that there are plans to widen the intervention in Syria.
Washington has made clear – or at least it has tried to make clear – that air strikes targeted the Khorasan group, and not the Al-Nusra Front.
US officials have described Khorasan as a network of seasoned al-Qaeda fighters, with battlefield experience mostly in Pakistan and Afghanistan. They are being accused of planning attacks against the west.
Both groups do share the same territory and al-Nusra’s media wing has produced videos of a special force. the “Wolf Unit,” suggesting that Khorasan is indeed a faction of al-Qaeda’s Syrian franchise.
That is why on the ground the feeling could not be more different. US airstrikes are being interpreted as an attack against al-Nusra.
The commander in Idlib refused to talk about those strikes, or even answer questions about the coalition’s war in Syria, even though the group’s media operation has described that campaign as a Crusader-Arab campaign against Islam
But the commander went to great lengths to defend their attack against Maarouf’s Syria Revolutionary Front.
Maarouf is a controversial figure who has been accused of corruption in the past. But his group was not the only one forced out of its stronghold. Al-Nusra has also targeted the Hazzem movement.
Both Maarouf and the Hazzem are backed by the US government, and were both considered potential local partners in the international coalition’s war against the ISIL.
Bonsey explained that al-Nusra seems to be worried about US-backed rebels and the coalition’s future plans.
“But will it continue to confront rebel groups with whom they’ve been working it’s difficult to say, and I think it’s a question that is being asked by rebels themselves who are concerned with the more aggressive strategy appears to be applying,” Bonsey said.
Idlib province is strategic for any faction. The Bab al-Hawa border crossing along Turkey’s border is a lifeline.
“This accomplishes a number of things for al-Nusra,” Bonsey said. “It helps them generate revenue which has become a problem for the group controlling border territory can be lucrative, smuggling oil and other things.”
And many now say al-Nusra’s plan is to eventually declare “its Islamic state” in the northwestern province.
The group’s official line has always been that it won’t declare the state until after the Syrian government is toppled.
“What we are planning is for Islamic law to be implemented. We don’t want to be the only rulers … and we will share power with other factions who are fighting to implement the laws of God,” Abu Abdullah said.
A few weeks ago, al-Nusra’s leader Abu Mohammad al-Golani did promise his followers the “birth of an Islamic emirate” under his command.
The takeover of Idlib “helps al-Nusra compete with the ISIL for the international Jihadi public opinion,” said Bonsey.
“ISIS has been effective at marketing its effort to impose their version of Islamic law on the ground.
“Al-Nusra is seeking to do the same. In order to do it, Nusra needs to control ground unilaterally because other rebel groups are not prepared to work with them in imposing their version of Islamic law.”
Al-Nusra may say they want to share power but not all groups fighting the Assad government want an Islamic state. There are those fighting for a democratic civil society. Those groups have been weakened in Idlib.
There are other factions in opposition-controlled Idlib – so called Islamic factions such as Ahrar al-Sham. They do share al-Nusra’s project of an Islamic state but will they agree to fall under al-Qaeda’s rule?
Syrians may make up the bulk of al-Nusra’s force but at the end of the day its allegiance is to the global network al-Qaeda.
And we cannot forget the group has been designated a terrorist organisation by the US since late 2012.
While al-Nusra does have popular support on the ground, it has to tread carefully if it is to find its place in the new Syria.