Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts As ISIS Takes A Pounding While Nusra Takes Ground In Syria’s Security Vacuum

As ISIS Takes A Pounding While Nusra Takes Ground In Syria’s Security Vacuum

The U.S. led coalition appears to be slowly rolling back ISIS in Iraq and Syria.  Fighting in Kobane to the north and the slow push of the Iraqi Army west has been mirrored by al Qaeda’s arm in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, taking ground in Syria, namely Idlib, reiterating the futility of a strategy to defeat ISIS consisting of an air campaign with no real plan to end the Syrian civil war and deal with the Asad regime.

The curtain has been pulled back on Jabhat al Nusra’s operations courtesy of the testimonial of the American journalist Theo Padnos who was held by the group for more than 20 months.  His saga illuminates why a strategy focused on countering al Qaeda’s ideology would prove pointless, how loyalty shifts amongst jihadists and anything less than resolution of the Syrian civil war through a defined strategy to deal with the Asad regime will result in a sustained jihadi threat.  The current U.S. strategic direction will result in a jihadist threat, ISIS, Nusra or a new emerging group, will endure far into the future. Here are some of the key points from Padnos story.

Al Qaeda’s Khorasan Inside al Nusra – Many were surprised, and some wrongly doubted (Glenn Greenwald), the existence of old Guard al Qaeda hands in Nusra’s ranks.  Padnos illustrates how Nusra acts as a covering force for al Qaeda activity.  Padnos says:

“I watched as some 200 foot soldiers and 25 or so religious authorities and hangers-on from the Afghan jihad prepared for their journey.”

The Free Syrian Army (FSA) Works With Nusra and by extension al Qaeda – In the early days of the Syrian Civil War, the U.S. chose the FSA as its force of choice in Syria.   Padnos escapes briefly from Nusra fleeing to the FSA, but he explains;

“The F.S.A., it turned out, had given me to the Nusra Front.”

Padnos later runs into FSA troops again.

“One told me that his unit had recently traveled to Jordan to receive training from American forces in fighting groups like the Nusra Front.  “Really?” I said. “The Americans? I hope it was good training.” “Certainly, very,” he replied. The fighters stared at me. I stared at them. After a few moments, I asked, “About this business of fighting Jebhat al Nusra?”

“Oh, that,” one said. “We lied to the Americans about that.”

Any group the U.S. engages within Syria at this point must have some connection to Nusra and al Qaeda. 

Fickled Fighters: Al Qaeda today, Maybe Sweden tomorrow

Counterterrorism pundits for years have pushed the need for the U.S. to counter the ideology of al Qaeda and wrestle young recruits from jihadist arms.  Padnos experience suggests that young men are what we’ve always known, fickled, repeating jihadi narratives in one breath and dreaming of Western girls in the next. 

“My guards spent the first 10 minutes trying to get me to accept Islam. Then they gave up. Then they asked if I could introduce them to single women from a Western country.”

Later Padnos eats watermelon with some of the guards and remarks:

“I listened to the fighters musing about their futures. “Hey, Abu Petra,” they asked me, “what is Sweden like?” If they were to present themselves as Syrian dissidents to the authorities, what would happen next? Was I familiar with the procedures in Sweden for seeking political asylum? And what about Berlin, supposing they found their way to Germany? How long would it take for them to learn German?”

This story undermines two common myths regarding jihadis. First, they are not all necessarily that committed to the ideology.  Second, they may be participating in violence now, but that doesn’t mean they will participate in violence forever; some will retire at the end of fighting. 

ISIS and Nusra’s differences are not about ideology and Allah, but power, greed and politics 

Padnos memoir captures intriguing insight into the split between al Qaeda and ISIS. 

“I didn’t know it at the time, but the Nusra Front was losing its war with the Islamic State, the group often referred to as ISIS. From conversations with guards and other prisoners, I gleaned that the two organizations were about equal in strength and that under no circumstances would the Islamic State be allowed to touch the oil fields, the real prize in Syria’s east. But in mid-June, when I was allowed to watch TV for the first time since my capture, I saw a map covered in Islamic State logos.”

Later Padnos explains the real issue between ISIS and Nusra was politics, power and money.

“The real issue between the Nusra Front and the Islamic State was that their commanders, former friends from Iraq, were unable to agree on how to share the revenue from the oil fields in eastern Syria that the Nusra Front had conquered.”

As I’ve discussed in other forums and posts, never doubt the value of money as an initial motivation for being recruited to extremists.  Victories bring money; money brings recruits; recruits bring victories; victories bring recruits – its a cycle of capitalist undertones.  Padnos notes, until the U.S. led campaign, ISIS was winning and capitalizing on the spoils of their victories. 

“For the moment, however, the Islamic State seemed to have the edge in the recruitment battle. Many of the Nusra Front soldiers told me that over the previous months, their siblings and cousins had been fighting for the Islamic State. The pay was better. And the Islamic State, a stronger army, had won victories across eastern Syria and Iraq”.

I encourage everyone to read Padnos account of life as a prisoner to jihadists in Syria.  Nothing I’ve read to date demonstrates the complexities of Syria, jihadist groups and the current predicaments of an indecisive U.S. foreign policy.