The Terror Group That Could Ruin Syria's Ceasefire Isn't ISIS

Al Qaeda's affiliate in the country is a major problem for the temporary truce.

02/27/2016 08:27 pm ET | Updated Feb 29, 2016
ASSOCIATED PRESS/Nusra Front on Twitter
Syria's temporary truce took effect at midnight Friday, but it doesn't include internationally designated terror groups like the Islamic State and Nusra Front. In this photo, a Nusra Front fighter stands in Idlib last March.

Every week, The WorldPost asks an expert to shed light on a topic driving headlines around the world. This week, we speak with Syria expert Joshua Landis about the dilemmas that the Nusra Front poses to the truce deal in Syria.

An uneasy calm settled over Syria Saturday when fighting stopped in large parts of the country as part of a temporary truce brokered by the U.S. and Russia.

After five years of war in Syria, it was the first truce that held for more than a few hours. While scattered clashes and airstrikes continued in parts of the country and the Islamic State militant group launched an offensive on a Kurdish-held border town, Russia said it was suspending all airstrikes for the day. Some Syrians took advantage of the quiet to clear the debris from their war-battered towns and cities.

However, the deal for a two-week cessation of hostilities does not include groups deemed to be terrorist organizations by the international community, including the Islamic State and Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, Nusra Front. Russia says it will resume bombing those groups after Saturday.

The exclusion of Nusra Front from the agreement poses some particular difficulties. The group, which split bitterly from the Islamic State in 2014, fights alongside other Syrian rebel groups and jointly controls parts of the Syrian province of Idlib. Unlike the Islamic State, the group is widely dispersed over rebel-held territory. The U.S. and Russia said they would jointly pinpoint Nusra Front positions to target, but a Russian map released Saturday raised concerns that the northern provinces of Idlib and Aleppo would be excluded from the truce.

The Nusra Front leader has condemned the cessation of hostilities agreement and urged rebel groups to instead escalate their fight against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The WorldPost spoke to Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and editor of the blog Syria Comment, about the dilemmas that Nusra Front poses for the truce deal -- and for peace in Syria.

SAMEER AL-DOUMY/AFP/ Getty Images
The truce brought a partial calm on Saturday, the first time in five years of war that a ceasefire has lasted for more than a few hours. Above, children walk through the rebel-held town of Douma on Saturday.

Why was Nusra Front excluded from the cessation of hostilities in Syria?

Because both Russia and the U.S. agree that Nusra Front is a terrorist organization and should be destroyed.

Can the deal still work if Nusra Front is not part of it?

It’s a big problem, if you want to stop killing people. There’s still going to be a lot of bombing in Syria.

Nusra Front fighters are present in many parts of rebel-held territory, especially in rebel central, which is Idlib province. Nusra Front is also a dominant rebel group in the major rebel umbrella organization called Jaish al-Fatah. So it’s difficult to distinguish between Nusra Front and other groups in many parts of Syria.

But there are some parts of Syria where there isn’t a very heavy Nusra Front presence. If you look at this as a limited ceasefire and only in certain areas, it could be useful.

For example, there isn’t much Nusra Front presence in the areas north of Aleppo that have been very badly bombed by Russia and which Turkey does not want to be captured by the Kurds or the Syrian army. So the truce could apply to that area, and frustrate the Kurds capturing it. Even if the truce was just to cover that one single area of Syria, that would be of immense benefit to the U.S., Turkey and the rebels.

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Could this limited ceasefire be a first step towards a future peace deal?

I doubt it. Russia and Syria are committed to reconquering all of Syria. So far Putin doesn’t seem to show any signs of losing interest in Syria or getting stuck in a quagmire.

I think this momentary pause is first and foremost to demonstrate that America is doing something. There’s tremendous pressure on the United States. This is both for humanitarian reasons -- as Russia bombs hospitals and a tide of humanity pushes up against the Turkish border -- and because [President Barack] Obama needs to do something to smooth the feathers of our traditional allies, like Turkey and Saudi Arabia, who are apoplectic and accuse the U.S. of abandoning them.

I think Obama told the Russians: Give us a ceasefire, even if it’s a limited one for short duration, because I’ve got to take something home. And this is what the Russians have come up with. But obviously Assad is very interested in pressing his advantage right now -- he has the rebels on the run. The Syrian regime’s objective is to shut off the rebels' supply chain to the Turkish border, and the more truces they sign, the longer they have to linger and wait.

If you look at this as a limited ceasefire and only in certain areas, it could be useful.

Some Syrian opposition groups wanted Nusra Front to be included, saying they’re concerned Russia will use its exclusion as a pretext to keep bombing other rebels.

The rebels are going to say that. And I’m sure that’s a genuine worry. But the real worry is that Nusra is their best ally. Nusra is the strongest fighting force the rebels have. If they let Nusra be defeated by Russia, they’re all going to collapse.

And if they accept a truce that Nusra is excluded from, Nusra Front will accuse them of selling them down the river. I also imagine that some fighters would defect to Nusra. It’s going to rip apart their loyalties. This is precisely why Syria and Russia want the truce. They know the big rebel militias that are aligned with Nusra can’t actually uphold it.

The moment that the U.S. declared Nusra a terrorist organization three years ago and started bombing them, everybody knew this day was going to come. The Nusra Front are all over the battlefield and are part of one aspect of the Syrian rebellion, a Sunni Islamic rebellion. Now Assad is trying to kill these international terrorists, and Assad becomes the good guy.

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Even if it doesn't stop all hostilities, the truce could freeze conflict north of Aleppo, where Russia and Syria are battling to cut off a rebel supply route, Joshua Landis says. Here, Saudi jet fly over a base in southern Turkey.

How did Nusra Front become such a prominent force in the Syrian conflict?

There’s two factors. They share an ideology of Islamic struggle with other groups. They are the extreme end, but there is an overlap. In the same way that Marco Rubio may think Ted Cruz is too extreme, but they all share an ideology that the Democrats are evil, the Islamists all share an ideology that secular dictatorship and nationalism is bad and you need an Islamic world.

But most of all, Nusra Front knows how to fight. Al Qaeda central sent a lot of fighters to them. They’ve got expertise, they’ve got money, they’ve got backing and they’re good at what they do. That’s why they began to win battles. Most of the other militias were new at this. Al Qaeda was bringing 20 years of real in-the-trenches knowhow. Other rebels recognized this immediately and wanted to be on the same team.  

Most of the other militias were new at this. Al Qaeda was bringing 20 years of real in-the-trenches knowhow.

Has the strategy of cooperating or even integrating with other opposition groups helped Nusra Front stay so prominent?

It has, totally. ISIS and Nusra share a similar ideology but have very different strategies. ISIS declared a caliphate and said everyone has to bow down and kiss our toes and genuflect, and Syrians don’t like to do that. The CIA estimated last year there were 1,500 militias in Syria. They don’t want to be under one leader. That was the whole point of getting rid of Assad -- they want to be free.

By contrast, Nusra Front said you don’t have to have a caliphate today, that it could be delayed to beat Assad. They’re willing to work within this framework of a thousand militias. So even though they’re aggressive and they sometimes rub the other militias the wrong way, they didn’t destroy or demand obedience from other militias. Other rebels know that if they want to walk away, they can walk away. Whereas with ISIS, if you walk away they chop your head off.

But while Nusra’s strategy is a strength in certain circumstances, it’s a weakness in circumstances like this, because other groups may sign a ceasefire agreement and throw you under the bus.   

AMER ALMOHIBANY/AFP/Getty Images
Nusra Front has made alliances with several rebel groups, making its locations harder to pinpoint. Here, a Syrian opposition fighter is pictured in Syrian town on Arbin on Friday. 

How connected is Nusra Front to Al Qaeda leadership?

I don’t know for sure, but I’m certain that Al Qaeda central needs to save Nusra Front. In this big battle between ISIS and Nusra Front, if Nusra Front gets destroyed because all the Syrian rebels sign a truce and let the Syrian army kill off Nusra Front, it will be devastating for the Al Qaeda franchise.  

What is life like under Nusra Front rule?

It varies quite a bit depending on their strength in the area. Where they are stronger, they are much more high-handed. A lot of Syrians don’t like it at all. You don’t want someone telling your wife what to wear or stopping you from smoking cigarettes. There’s no human rights there.

It’s a wretched, miserable situation, and you don’t know which way is up. Do you put Nusra on the terrorist list or not on the terrorist list; include them in a deal or not include them?  America wants Nusra Front militants killed -- they’re propagating real hatred of the West and extolling the virtues of bin Laden and it’s dangerous. On the other hand, you can’t abandon this whole world of oppressed people in Syria to be slaughtered by Assad’s government. That’s not going to bring justice, and it will only create more jihadism.

This interview was conducted on Feb. 24 and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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