Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat—Al-Qaeda’s franchise in Syria, the Al-Nusra Front, will likely suffer a further drop in influence and popularity following the announcement of the establishment of an Islamic State by rival Islamist group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, director of the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) Rami Abdul Rahman said that “Al-Nusra Front’s presence in Syria is now limited to the rural areas of Aleppo, Idlib and Hama.” The Islamist group had previously enjoyed a strong presence in eastern and northern parts of Syria.
Al-Nusra Front has not just lost the war on the ground with ISIS, it is also losing the battle to secure followers. Abdulrahman cited reports of Al-Nusra Front fighters abandoning the group and joining ISIS.
Local and international media initially reported that ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front had merged, although it appears simply that the Al-Qaeda franchise is losing members to the splinter group. ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadhi has proclaimed himself as Caliph Ibrahim and it is unlikely that Al-Nusra Front, or its parent Al-Qaeda organization, will agree to fall under his banner. However Abdul Rahman said that fighters affiliated to the two groups could abandon their ranks to join ISIS. “They could pay allegiance to Baghdadhi regardless of what Al-Nusra Front’s muftis and Sharia judges say.”
“The two groups share the same ideology with regards to establishing [an Islamic] state and some of Nusra’s foreign fighters think that the Islamic state has been now achieved,” he said.
The change in Al-Nusra’s fortunes has prompted the Al-Qaeda-inspired group to concentrate its presence in the southern province of Deraa, Abdul Rahman said. Deraa is relatively remote from ISIS’s sphere of influence, located in the border zones between Iraq and Syria.
“[In the meantime] ISIS has become the most powerful and coherent armed group in Syria,” Abdulrahman added.
However Lebanese military expert Retired Brig. Gen. Elias Hanna said that ISIS’s declaration of an Islamic State will cause even more Islamist infighting in Syria, with jihadists torn between supporting Baghdadhi and remaining loyal to Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri.
“The declaration [of an Islamic caliphate by ISIS] has sowed the seeds of dissent among Jihadist groups and divided them along ideological lines,” Hanna told Asharq Al-Awsat.
He said that talk about the Al-Nusra Front’s defeat, or retreat, is “premature,” adding that it is too early to say how ISIS will handle fighting a war against both the Syrian and Iraqi regimes.
“If ISIS fighters become bogged down in a large-scale war in Iraq, it could hamper their operations in Syria,” he said.