Russia and the Fate of Al-Nusra: Opportunities and Challenges

The Al-Nusra Front is considered the most powerful terrorist organization in Syria after ISIS.Actually both are two sides of one coin. The emergence of al-Nusra in January 2012 came with strong support from the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq at that time, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who sent Abu Muhammad al-Julani to Syria to establish al-Nusra. When al-Baghdadi declared ISIS a year later, Al-Nusra refused to follow him and continued affiliating with al-Qaeda.

Despite the fact that in July 2016 al-Nusra announced its disconnection from al-Qaeda and changed its name to "Fatah al-Sham" front, this announcement is merely a tactical step for several reasons, including the pressure by regional powers aimed to integrate it into the political process in Syria. Also, to enhance its alliance with other terrorist groups, that refused to ally themselves with al-Qaeda, and the formation of a broad front with other Islamic factions. The step would ensure continued support and funding from regional powers who want to rid themselves of the charge of supporting a terrorist group belonging to al-Qaeda. Ayman al-Zawahiri, leader of al-Qaeda, supported the secession of al-Nusra from al-Qaeda, which reinforces the idea that what al-Nusra did was not a radical shift in its approach and faith.

Since summer 2015, al-Nusra has controlled most of Idlib province in Syria, including its  center, where it has established Islamic courts and seized government departments and vital infrastructures including airports, oil and gas pipelines, dams, power plants and crop stores. Nusra's militants are also deployed in the de-escalation-zones in eastern Ghouta, and some areas in Aleppo.

Unlike some other armed groups, al-Nusra militants refused cease-fire. They are waging a guerrilla war and terrorist attacks against the Syrian army, government and people. The warplanes that attacked Hmeymim and Tartus bases early January were launched from Idlib, where al-Nusra has full control. It represents a direct threat for Russian national security and interests, and therefore al-Nusra must be eliminated for peace and stability in Syria.

On December 27, Russian Foreign Minister, Mr. Sergei Lavrov, said that the key task in Syria now is to “destroy Jabhat al-Nusra”. Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia, Mr. Valery Gerasimov, on December 29 pledged to eliminate the al-Nusra front and its agents in Syria in 2018.

Some success has already been achieved, including Russia's air strike in October that led to serious injury and coma of the al-Nusra leader, Abu Muhammad al-Julani. The liberation of Abu Dahour airport from al-Nusra was another great achievement. Abu Dahour is the second largest military base in northern Syria. It has a great strategic importance, being located between the provinces of Aleppo, Hama and Idlib. It was a stronghold of huge military equipment supplies used by al-Nusra in its terrorist attacks.

There are a number of factors that provide an opportunity for the total elimination of al-Nusra. The most important is Turkey's preoccupation with the "Olive Branch" operation against Kurds in Afrin, which gives free hands to Syrian forces in Idlib to crash al-Nusra. Moreover, Nusra's money, weapons and personnel are highly exhausted in fighting with other factions such as the army of Khaled ibn al-Walid (former Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade), affiliated to ISIS. Most important are the disagreements within al-Nusra itself. In November, Abu Muhammad al-Julani, Nusra's leader, arrested number of its leaders from different nationalities, including Sami al-Aridi, a representative of al-Qaeda in Syria and Abu Jalibib, a Jordanian responsible for Sharia, due to differences between him and leaders loyal to the al-Qaeda.

In spite of those weaknesses al-Nusra is still powerful group taking into consideration its military and financial capabilities, its leadership structure based on hard authoritarianism, deep ideological commitments of its members and followers. The coordination between Ankara and al-Nusra over its operations in Afrin and Tal Rifaat strengthen al-Nusra and allowed it freedom of movement across Afrin to Turkish territory for support and training. Another factor that enhances al-Nusra's power is Trump's decision concerning Jerusalem that gives al-Qaida, al-Nusra, and other terrorist organizations a pretext for jihad. Al-Nusra may seek to coordinate with other terrorist organizations in neighboring countries and al-Qaida-affiliated jihadist groups to enhance "jihad" against Israel. For example, such groups are "Ansar Bait al-Maqdis" (Supporters of Jerusalem) in Sinai, Egypt; Mujahideen Shura Council in the environs of Jerusalem, Abdullah Azzam Brigades (AAB) in Lebanon and others.

The total elimination of al-Nusra is not an easy task. Major Russian efforts are needed to tighten the screws and block al-Nusra financial and human resources, which requires international and regional coordination. Russia is leading the world in fighting against terrorism. It needs support, especially from United States, Turkey and the Arab Gulf countries.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.