The Century Foundation: “Syria’s Rebels Lose a Symbolic Stronghold”

New from me for The Century Foundation:

Rebel Darayya has fallen. The Damascus suburb meant vastly different things to each side of the war, but both sides seem to recognize the town’s fall as a harbinger of regime victory on what is arguably Syria’s most important front—the interior of the western corridor running down Syria’s Mediterranean coast to Damascus, sometimes called “useful Syria.”

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The Century Foundation: “In Syrian Proxy War, America Can Keep Its Hands Clean or It Can Get Things Done”

New from me for The Century Foundation:

Amateur footage of a Syrian rebel beheading a captive in the back of a pickup truck ought to be a wake-up call – sometimes, this is what proxy war looks like. So is the United States in or out?


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On AlHurra: Jabhat al-Nusrah and Its Break with al-Qaeda

My appearance on AlHurra TV with Mona Wehbi to discuss Jabhat al-Nusrah and its split with al-Qaeda. (Arabic)

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The Century Foundation: “Al Qaeda Quits Syria in Name Only”

New from me for The Century Foundation on the ostensible end of Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusrah and why there may be less to Nusrah’s break with al-Qaeda than meets the eye:

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The Century Foundation: “Are Syria’s Rebels at Al Qaeda’s Mercy?”

New from me for The Century Foundation:

Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusrah attacked another northern “Free Syrian Army” brigade earlier this month – but now the episode looks more like an interlude in a power struggle within that brigade than simply an act of Nusra villainy. What that means for disentangling Nusrah and Syria’s rebels:

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The Century Foundation: “Four Perspectives on the War in Syria”

New from The Century Foundation, a roundtable discussion of Syria featuring me, Thanassis Cambanis, Michael Hanna and Aron Lund. The piece features our general read on the war and our (mostly pessimistic) take on the policy options now available:

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Jabhat al-Nusrah Media Official: “A comment on David Ignatius’s article in the Washington Post”

Below I’ve translated the response from Abu Ammar al-Shami, head of Jabhat al-Nusrah’s media office, to David Ignatius’s July 19 Washington Post article. Abu Ammar’s rebuttal of Ignatius is a demonstration of the political trap the Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate has set for the United States and its allies.

Ignatius’s article contends, based on U.S. official sources, that Jabhat al-Nusrah seems to be plotting external operations against Europe and the United States and that is operatives have tried to infiltrate Syrian refugee communities in Europe. Ignatius’s report comes as the United States seems to have struck a tentative agreement with Russia on expanded military and intelligence coordination with Russia against both Nusrah and the self-proclaimed Islamic State. (Ignatius’s article also says, based on an upcoming Institute for the Study of War forecast, that Nusrah will merge with Ahrar al-Sham later this year, which I think is unlikely.)

Jabhat al-Nusrah has repeatedly denied that it intends to conduct attacks abroad, a denial that Abu Ammar repeats in the tweets I’ve translated below. Nusrah leader Abu Muhammad al-Jolani stressed in an interview last year that – as per instructions from al-Qaeda leader Aymen al-Zawahiri himself – Nusrah’s mission is to topple the Assad regime and institute Islamic rule in Syria, not to endanger the Syrian jihad by using Syria as a launching pad for attacks on the West.

Abu Ammar dismisses the U.S. government suspicions relayed by Ignatius as just another false pretext for war, a prelude to a military campaign against Jabhat al-Nusrah that will strengthen the Syria regime of Bashar al-Assad and pave the way for a U.S.-sponsored political resolution in the regime’s favor.

But when it comes to Jabhat al-Nusrah’s ambitions beyond Syria – and here’s the thing – who knows. Aside from Nusrah insiders and maybe some regional and international policymakers being fed information of variable reliability by secret squirrels, I don’t know if anyone has confident or reliable insight into what Nusrah is planning.

In the same interview in which he denied plotting to strike the West, Jolani said that if American bombing continued against Jabhat al-Nusrah, then Nusrah’s “options are open.” “If this situation [i.e., U.S. bombing] continues as is,” Jolani said, “I think there will be ramifications that won’t be in favor of the West and America.”

So Jabhat al-Nusrah can, hypothetically, flip that switch. And if it has been sending members abroad, it may be doing the advance work to ensure it has operatives in place and that its options are, indeed, open.

But what Jabhat al-Nusrah has also done is to make itself so central to Syria’s insurgency, particularly in the Syrian north, that any stepped-up campaign of U.S. bombing on Nusrah will inevitably weaken and endanger the broader armed opposition to the Assad regime. And absent a high-profile attack on the West and a claim of responsibility on Nusrah letterhead – not suspicions of attack planning or nebulous warnings – expanded targeting of Nusrah will be read by many in the Syrian opposition as an intervention on behalf of the Assad regime.

So Jabhat al-Nusrah gets to have it both ways. It can – maybe, allegedly – prepare for external operation contingencies. And at the same time, it can claim innocence and wrap itself in a broader Syrian opposition constituency that the United States and its allies are reluctant to alienate.

As for Syria’s other rebels, Nusrah asks them for their aid and brotherly solidarity. But, left unspoken, there is a reverse edge to Nusrah’s appeals for aid: As Nusrah has made clear, it reserves the right to dismantle any faction it judges to be a Crusader stooge or an enemy of the Islamic project in Syria.

As the United States potentially gears up for an expanded campaign on Jabhat al-Nusrah, it seems Nusrah has lashed itself to Syria’s rebels – and their fate is now shared, like it or not.

Translation follows: Continue reading

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