How did Jabhat al-Nusra emerge in the Syrian Conflict?

Among the factions participating in the six-year long Syrian conflict, few are as controversial, polarising and opaque as the rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra. The role the group played in radicalising the Syrian rebellion and enabling the emergence of the ISIS has been subject to intense debate.

The group first emerged in the Syrian battlefields in late-2011 where it quickly made a name for itself due to its skills in fighting against the forces of the Syrian Arab Army (SAA). Not much was known about the group except that it followed a Salafist-Jihadist ideology and that it was led by a man named Mohammed al-Jolani whose appearance remained unknown to anyone outside his inner circle, a remarkable feat in the age of mass-media that granted him a near-mythical status.

For much of the first years of the war, Jabhat al-Nusra toed a fine-line between pushing its own Salafist-Jihadist ideology and following the more mainstream Islamist-Nationalist ideology of the other rebels. Rumours of the group being affiliated with al-Qaeda emerged during this period, leading the US Government to declare Jabhat al-Nusra a terrorist organisation and offered $10 Million to anyone who aided his capture.

The group formally acknowledged its affiliation with al-Qaeda in April 2013, pledging allegiance to al-Qaeda’s leader, Aymenn al-Zawahiri. It was also during this period that Jabhat al-Nusra’s status as a partner-group to the “Islamic State of Iraq”, formerly known as “al-Qaeda in Iraq” became clear. Jabhat al-Nusra’s mission was to set eastern Syria up as a base of operations for the ISI and assist its operations against the Iraqi Government.

Yet, it became clear that the two groups viewed their partnership in different terms. Jolani, it seemed, viewed Jabhat al-Nusra and the ISI as equal partners under the leadership of Zawahiri. ISI leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, however, seemed to view Jolani as a subordinate. Thus when the ISI rolled into Syria in late-2013 and demanded Jabhat al-Nusra hand over all assets to the ISI and pledge allegiance to Baghdadi, the stage was set for what came to be known as the “Greatest Divorce in the Jihadi World.” The ISI, now known as “the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” (ISIS), quickly kicked Jabhat al-Nusra from eastern and central Syria.

In the years that followed, Jabhat al-Nusra struggled to survive. Its affiliation with al-Qaeda and its role in ISIS’ rise was a source of suspicion for all but the most hardcore Salafist-Jihadist factions. In a bid to make his group more palatable, Jolani formally revealed himself to public in mid-2016, renouncing his ties to al-Qaeda and transnational Jihadism, renaming his group Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS). Zawahiri, it seemed, had accepted his “resignation” from al-Qaeda. However, suspicions of secret ties to al-Qaeda persisted, particularly after the JFS came to the defence of another al-Qaeda-linked group, Jund al-Aqsa (which would later reveal itself to be an ISIS loyalist faction) in late 2016.

The abject failure of the JFS to stop the fall of Aleppo to the SAA and continued suspicions of al-Qaeda links meant that the JFS was not the success Jolani intended. So the group went through another re-branding in early 2017, joining into an alliance with other groups to become Hayy’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). Abu Jaber Sheikh, a defector from rival Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham became its leader, although many continued to see Jolani as the real power behind the seat.

Abu Jaber has since resigned from his position in early October 2017, leaving Jolani as the leader of the HTS. By this point, the HTS had taken control of much of Idlib from its rival, Ahrar al-Sham. But its victory in Idlib came at a cost. The group is becoming politically fragmented, with two of its closest partners, Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zinki and Jaish al-Ahrar having left the HTS.

What comes next, remains to be seen, especially amidst rumours of Jolani having been severely injured due to an airstrike. Even if the group comes to an end tomorrow, however, the impact it already had on the Syrian conflict is undeniable.