By Moon Of Alabama
Last night Elijah J. Magnier tweeted a small essay about the mistakes the Islamic State leader and his predecessor made in Iraq and Syria. Then followed a shorter essay about Jabhat al-Nusra and the development in Syria. As he is one of the most knowledgeable experts on the war in Syria and Iraq his thoughts deserve a wider discussion.
This is my summary of his tweets on the Islamic State:
Abu Mus'ad al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), ignored directives from Aymen al-Zawaheri, the operational leader of al-Qaeda central, to not attack the Shia in Iraq. Al-Zarqawi attacked Shia and Sunnis who disagreed with him and ignited a sectarian war. Had he only attacked the U.S. occupiers the Shia of Iraq, and the anti-U.S. states around Iraq (Iran, Syria) would have been with him. He could have gained much influence over all Iraq but for his (bloody) mistake.
The leader of the Islamic State (the former AQI) Abu Bakr al Baghdadi made more than one mistake. He rejected al-Qaeda central's advice to restrict his organization to Iraq and to leave Syria to an autonomous al-Qaeda entity Jabhat al-Nusra. The Baghdadi's troops crept into Syria and attacked Jabhat al-Nusra. Until then Jabhat was very low profile, fought successfully and gaining many followers in Syria. It could have gained more men and areas if it had been left alone. But the infighting between Baghdadi's group and Jabhat severely weakened both.
The second mistake Baghdadi made was shortly after the conquering of Mosul. He declared war on all other groups in Iraq and also on Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the Kurds and other states. He also incited the "west" against him through his grueling marketing videos. Without that he could have gained much outside support from the various Sunni states. Iraq would look much different today had Baghdadi not declared war on everyone (but on Turkey). Baghdad and parts of south Iraq would probably be in his hands.
The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is now fought by everyone. It will be defeated and revert back into an underground terrorist organization.
The current talks over Syria in Geneva are unlikely to have any concrete result. But they are a move in the right direction. The Saudi/Qatari/Turkish/U.S. proxy fighters continue to lose ground in Syria. The only hope for those countries and their proxies to receive some benefit from their "investment" in Syria is to gain concessions during negotiations.
The main Jihadi groups, the Islamic State, Jabhat al Nusra (al-Qaeda in Syria) and Ahrar al Sham are not taking part. According toUN resolution 2254 any ceasefire in Syria would exclude these entities and all groups aligned with them. The UN Security Council calls:
... to prevent and suppress terrorist acts committed specifically by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as Da’esh), Al-Nusra Front (ANF), and all other individuals, groups, undertakings, and entities associated with Al Qaeda or ISIL, and other terrorist groups, as designated by the Security Council ... and notes that the aforementioned ceasefire will not apply to offensive or defensive actions against these individuals, groups, undertakings and entities ...
Those groups the Saudis now send to Geneva were previous allied and fighting together with Jabhat al-Nusra. In north Syria Jaish al-Fath, an alliance of Nusra, Ahrar al Shams and various U.S. supported FSA groups, conquered Idleb. But the FSA and other proxy groups will now have to distance themselves from Nusra or will have to go down with it.
Starting from a recent Reuters report that Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al Sham negotiated but failed to unite, Elijah J. Magnier looksat the consequences (edited for readability):
Al-Qaeda asked Ahrar al-Sham to unite over a year ago but Ahrar refused. The news of Ahrar's rejection is thereby not new.
Jabhat al-Nusra tried to keep a low profile, promoting other Syrian rebels, due to its link to al-Qaeda central that crippled it. Jabhat al-Nusra has succeeded to integrate - on the surface - with other rebels group. A smart move to create "Jaish al-Fath" but that won't last.
It was fine as long as Russia was out of direct involvement in the Syria war. Russia now imposed itself not only on the U.S. but also on the regional players. Now that the U.S. is not willing to stand against Russia in Syria, the game is run differently: Salafist Jihadists are no longer tolerated.
The only chance for Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey to minimize their losses in Syria is to push all rebels to distance themselves from Jabhat al-Nusra. Russia is aware of that. What Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar have lost on the ground won't be gained in diplomacy at the Geneva talks. Jordan already inspired its proxies to distance themselves from Jabhat al Nusra. Qatar, Turkey and the Saudis will very soon follow.
Jabhat al-Nusra is not unaware of the move. Despite the blood and deep, very deep animosity between Jabhat al Nusra and ISIS they have no choice but to cease hostilities between them. Cessation of hostility does not mean that they will merge. ISIS is in deeper trouble than Nusra.
Jabhat al-Nusra still has another option when ISIS and Nusra will remain the only "two enemies" of everyone in Syria. The majority of Jabhat al-Nustra fighters are Syrians. They can easily disperse within their communities and wait for "better time". This happened before in Iraq during the peak of the "Awakening".
So far Elijah Magnier.
I mostly agree with the above but for the future of Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria. It will surely try to go underground and it will for a while continue to exist as a terrorist entity. But unlike in Iraq where the U.S. invasion completely destroyed the state and its institutions, Syria still is a real state and has a functioning bureaucracy. Unlike Iraq it has centrally controlled secret services that are able to hunt down underground terrorists. According to Mao the guerrilla fish needs the sea of an accommodating population to swim in. I doubt that enough of the population of Syria will support Jabhat as an underground organization. There will be snitches at every corner and every person somewhat associated with Jabhat al-Nusra will be dead, in jail or under strict surveillance.
So while the Islamic State in Iraq, after it is again cut down to an underground entity, may survive there, Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria will probably be rooted completely.