Recent developments in Syria seem to confirm rumours that have been circulating for weeks: the al-Qaeda affiliated Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) have been engaged in talks aimed at ironing out their differences.
According to sources cited by The Associated Press, on November 2, representatives of the two extremist Islamist factions secretly met in a city west of Aleppo. The meeting was allegedly organised by a third Islamist group, the Khorasan – a small but influential group of al-Qaeda veterans from Pakistan and Afghanistan. The secret meeting reportedly led to two major decisions: to halt the fighting between Al-Nusra and Isil, and to begin to cooperate against their common opponents.
This does not necessarily mean that a formal alliance or union is expected anytime soon. In fact, Al-Nusra and Isil fighters have spent much of the past year killing each other and a previous attempt to merge the two groups badly failed in spring 2013. However, the possibility of some kind of cooperation at the tactical level and some local understandings cannot be completely dismissed.
Conversely, there are signs that such a cooperation is already occurring. News outlets have reported that Al-Nusra and Isil forces have recently supported each other in their campaigns against “moderate” western-backed rebel groups like the Syrian Revolutionaries Front and the Hazm Movement. Additionally, the two extremist factions are said to have teamed up against President Assad’s and Hizbollah’s forces in areas along the Syria-Lebanon border.
Extremists’ rapprochement could be, at least in part, an unintended consequence of the US-led campaign of air strikes in Syria. In fact, by simultaneously targeting Al-Nusra Front and Isil, while refusing to engage Assad forces, the US strategy may have increased the urgency, among Islamist extremists, of forming an “anti-crusaders” coalition.
Whatever the case, cooperation between Al-Nusra and Isil would reshape an already complex battlefield in Syria and have major implications for the ongoing civil war.
How will this affect Syria’s civil war?
First, it will substantially shift the balance of power among Syria’s opposition groups. An Islamist extremist coalition would likely be in the position to overwhelm the relatively weak and disorganised moderate Syrian opposition. Especially given the fact that a stated goal of both Al-Nusra and Isil is to eliminate the moderate opposition as an effective fighting force. Moreover, cooperation between arguably the two most combat-effective rebel factions in Syria would only increase the continued haemorrhage of defectors from moderate opposition groups to extremist ones.
This, in turn, will affect the overall strategy of the United States in the Syrian conflict. Up until now, in fact, the official policy of the US administration has been to use air power to degrade and disrupt Al-Nusra and Isil capabilities and operations while relying on vetted moderate rebels to carry out the fighting on the ground. However, if the newly-established Islamist extremist coalition were to succeed in its struggle against other opposition groups, there will be no more moderates left for the United States to train and assist. Such an undesirable outcome would inevitably require a significant review of the US strategy in Syria.
Finally, cooperation between Al-Nusra and Isil will also pose a greater threat to the survival of the Assad regime. Syrian government forces will face a much stronger and organised adversary. Assad will consequently become even more dependent on the critical help coming from his external supporters: Iran and Hizbollah. Shia leaders in Tehran may perceive the formation of this Sunni axis in Syria as an existential threat to their country and therefore decide to increase their involvement in the civil war.
This begs the following question: is it possible that the current need for Iranian cooperation to fight Sunni extremism in Syria, added to the political appeal of reaching a nuclear deal with Tehran by the end of this month, informed the US administration’s controversial decision not to extend the scope of US air strikes to target Assad forces?
This piece was originally published on The Telegraph
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