On July 2, 2016 al-Qaeda-aligned al-Nusra Front fighters invaded the headquarters of Jaish al-Tahrir, a US-backed opposition faction in northern Syria. During their raid, al-Nusra fighters captured Mohammed al-Ghabi, a leading US-backed Syrian opposition figure, and dozens of other combatants.
Al-Nusra’s latest assault occurred just two days after U.S. government officials announced their willingness to conduct joint airstrikes with Russia in al-Nusra-occupied territories. This proposal has been hotly debated across the Western world. Critics argue that bombing al-Nusra would weaken moderate Syrian rebel factions and strengthen Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.
While aggressively combatting al-Nusra is a risky endeavor, U.S. officials must target the organization as it poses a grave threat to international security. Washington must also pressure non-compliant countries that continue to finance al-Nusra, to cease their assistance.
Why al-Nusra is Such a Dangerous Terrorist Organization
While the international community since September 2014 has focused on combatting ISIS, al-Nusra has stealthily expanded its presence in large portions of northwestern Syria. Al-Nusra’s growing influence poses an existential threat to Syria’s long-term stability and to the survival of the Alawi Shiite minority.
In recent months, some Syrian opposition factions have become disillusioned with the international community’s shift in focus from overthrowing Assad to combatting ISIS. This dissatisfaction increased support amongst Syrian Sunnis for al-Nusra’s hardline anti-Assad approach.
In October 2015, al-Nusra offered a three million euro bounty to anyone who could assassinate Assad. Al-Nusra’s leader Abu Mohammad al-Julani has called for indiscriminate attacks against Syria’s Alawite villages. Al-Nusra has sponsored numerous terror attacks in Latakia, Aleppo and Damascus. It has also overseen massacres like the September 2013 Maksar al-Hesan killings, which resulted in the deaths of at least 16 women, elderly men and children.
Even though al-Nusra’s ambitions of creating a caliphate in Syria resemble ISIS’s, it has distinguished itself from ISIS by presenting a more human face to Sunni extremism. Julani has claimed that an al-Nusra caliphate would be a pluralist state formed with the consultation of all factions in Syria.
Al-Nusra has also provided welfare for displaced Syrians. Reopening bakeries in Aleppo at the height of the food crisis in 2012 and providing electricity for the local population won al-Nusra considerable popular support. This support triggered protests in 2012, when Washington designated Al-Nusra as a terror organization.
Al-Nusra’s “Jihaism with a Human Face” approach has helped it gain more support amongst moderate Islamists in Syria than other al-Qaeda factions. Al-Nusra can also leverage its hardline anti-Assad posturing and financial resources to reach out to minorities persecuted by ISIS. For example, al-Nusra collaborated extensively with Syrian Turkmen forces in November 2015 to counter pro-Assad forces in Aleppo, Latakia, and eastern Syria.
This broad support base indicates that al-Nusra could eventually displace ISIS as the leading Islamic extremist threat from Syria. Al-Nusra can also manipulate public opinion to entrench the sectarian tensions that prevent Syria from re-establishing itself as a viable state.
Al-Nusra’s growing support base combined with its virulently anti-Western ideology make it a long-term threat to the security of the United States and Europe. By assisting Syrian rebels when the distinction between moderates and extremists is blurry, the U.S. risks providing military support for its future jihadist enemies.
This error bears a striking resemblance to the Reagan’s administration arming of the mujahideen in Afghanistan during the 1979-1988 War with the Soviet Union. Much like the Taliban in Afghanistan, al-Nusra harbors ambitions of political hegemony over at least part of Syria. Therefore, intensified pre-emptive US airstrikes are vital to ensure that Julani does not gain a permanent territorial foothold to launch ISIS-style attacks on US soil.
Why the United States Must Clamp Down on Middle East Countries Financing al-Nusra’s Terrorist Activities
In addition to launching airstrikes against al-Nusra, Washington must aggressively crack down on al-Nusra’s principal financiers, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Turkey’s covert support for al-Nusra has been a long-standing feature of Erdogan’s anti-Assad efforts in Syria. According to former US Ambassador to Turkey Francis Riccardione, Ankara began to arm al-Nusra shortly after the Syrian conflict erupted in 2011. Turkish authorities justified their actions on the premise that military support could give Ankara the leverage required to moderate al-Nusra’s most extreme views.
Despite US pressure, Turkey refused to screen Syrian opposition figures entering its borders. Aid, weapons and volunteers flowed from Turkey into Syria with little regulation. This assistance organizationally strengthened al-Nusra during the formative phases of the conflict. Even after ISIS emerged as a major security threat in Syria, Turkey continued to indirectly assist al-Nusra by funding the Army of Conquest umbrella organization.
Turkey’s recent normalization of relations with Russia and wave of terrorist attacks could cause Erdogan to cooperate with the US against al-Nusra. Russia’s desire to defeat al-Nusra means that any joint military activities between Ankara and Moscow will inevitably prioritize defeating the terror organization.
Turkey has recently softened its opposition to Assad due to its fear of Kurdish empowerment in Syria exacerbating unrest amongst Turkish Kurds. This subtle shift in policy could lessen Turkey’s willingness to support extreme anti-Assad forces, like al-Nusra.
Since 2012, Qatar has been the most consistent supporter of al-Nusra. Doha has assisted al-Nusra because it views the terror organization to be less destabilizing than ISIS or Assad. Qatar’s alliance with al-Nusra has given it considerable leverage over the organization. Qatari diplomats successfully pressured al-Nusra to distance itself from al-Qaeda. Qatar has even negotiated on al-Nusra’s behalf during international crises, like last year’s prisoner swap with Lebanon.
Qatar-owned media outlet Al Jazeera has been accused of whitewashing al-Nusra’s most egregious crimes. Al Jazeera presenter Ahmed Mansour was criticized for agreeing with Julani’s statement that al-Nusra protected the welfare of Christians and Druze, despite strong evidence to the contrary.
Qatar’s deep linkages with al-Nusra make it the hardest sponsor for Washington to co-opt. But Qatar might suspend funding to al-Nusra if US and Russian airstrikes materially weaken al-Nusra and a stronger anti-ISIS, anti-Assad organization emerges.
Saudi Arabia’s support for al-Nusra is closely intertwined with its desire to reduce Iran’s influence over Syria. Saudi intransigence on swiftly removing Assad makes cracking down on al-Nusra a contradictory policy for Riyadh. But there are still two reasons why Saudi Arabia could cut funding to al-Nusra.
First, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have frequently collaborated in providing assistance to al-Nusra. If Turkey’s thaw with Russia causes it to turn against al-Nusra, Saudi Arabia might follow suit, as unilateral support for al-Nusra could isolate it diplomatically.
Second, the July 4 terror attacks in Saudi Arabia demonstrate that the kingdom is vulnerable to Sunni extremism. Further incidences of ISIS terrorism could cause Saudi Arabia’s repressed Shiite minority could become restive. To defuse potential sectarian tensions, Riyadh could cut funding to al-Nusra, as its supporters often defect to ISIS.
To achieve lasting peace and security in Syria, the United States needs to escalate its counter-terrorism efforts against al-Nusra in tandem with its bombings of ISIS targets. Combatting al-Nusra requires a fusion of multilateral airstrikes and diplomatic overtures to cut al-Nusra’s access to foreign funding. Should these efforts succeed, Islamic terrorism will be dealt a tremendous blow and peace prospects in Syria will greatly increase.
Samuel Ramani is a recent MPhil graduate in Russian and East European Studies at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He is also a journalist who writes regularly for the Washington Post and Diplomat amongst other publications. He can be followed on Facebook at Samuel Ramani and on Twitter at samramani2.