London, March 29, 2015—A coalition of Islamic militias has taken over the city of Idlib in Syria, the second provincial to fall out of the hands of government forces. The lead militia of the group is the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s franchise in the Syrian civil war.
This may come as a surprise to readers given the focus on ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, notorious for its video beheadings and other atrocities, including the immolation of Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh. President Obama asked Congress for approval to step up military action against the group.
But NATO intelligence officials have been saying for weeks that the focus of Washington and the media focus on ISIS (Sham is an old Arabic word for greater Syria), is misplaced. It is the Nusra Front, armed and supported by Saudi Arabia and Gulf States, that is gaining ground. They are advancing at the expense of so-called moderates backed by the United States and Western allies.
“ISIS gets the attention because it includes foreigners from Europe, but it is Nusra Front gaining on the ground,” said one intelligence official.
During 2014, Nusra Front gradually into part of Aleppo, the country’s second largest city and now they have taken Idlib, which strategically sits near the Aleppo-Damascus highway in northwest Syria. With the moderates in retreat, some of their members have defected to the Nusra Front, further intensifying the Islamic trend in the battle against Bashar al-Assad’s government.
ISIS and Nusra Front were once nominal allies but have mostly been fierce rivals. They split over ISIS’ declaration of a caliphate that combined Syria and Iraq, whereas Nusra Front is focused on the creating an Islamic state inside Syria and pledges allegiance to al-Qaeda. ISIS’ inclusion of many foreigners in its ranks (its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is Iraqi) makes it less appealing to Syrians.
Nusra Front has committed its share of atrocities: assaulting Christian and Kurdish civilians and summary executions and beheadings of al-Assad soldiers and sympathizers. According to Human Rights Watch, Nusra Front was among several groups (ISIS included) that massacred at least 190 civilians in August 2013 during an offensive near the western Syrian city of Latakia.
The group also takes civilians hostage. It recently released a pair of Italian aid workers, Vanessa Marzullo and Greta Ramelli, who had been captive for almost six month. Italy paid a ransom to free the women, intelligence officials said, though they wouldn’t say how much.
Nusra Front, formally, Al-Jabhat al-Nusra lil-Ahl al-Sham min Mujahedin al-Sham fi Sahat al-Jihad (“The Front for Supporting the People of Greater Syria by the Mujahedin of Syria on the Battlefields of Jihad”), has set up provisional governments under strict Islamic law. It is more active in trying to win Muslim hearts and minds in Syria and tries to organize food and security in the areas it controls.
One Nusra Front faction does greatly interest the United States: the “Khorasan Group,” fighters sent to Syria directly by al-Qaeda from Pakistan. US bombers hit a Khorasan base last September. In retaliation, Nusra Front attacked both the Syrian Revolutionary Front and the Hazm Movement, both so-called moderates backed by the United States.
Nusra Front’s relentless expansion coincides with the difficulties ISIS has in evading US bombing. However, according to NATO sources, this bombing is less effective in weakening ISIS than advertised by the Obama Administration. “Killing a leader here and there is hardly going to wipe out ISIS,” said one.
The focus on ISIS is yet another symptom of the confused state of US policy toward Syria and Iraq. In Iraq, hitting ISIS does a favor to the government of Iraq, which the Americans nominally support. By hitting ISIS in Syria, the US is doing a favor for al-Assad, whom Washington opposes. And it may also be doing Nusra Front, a service by weakening its chief radical rival.