Al-Qaida’s Complex Balancing Act in Syria

Charles Lister


Over the years, al-Qaida has become an increasingly decentralized movement in which its geographically dispersed affiliates have assumed increasing levels of autonomy over their tactical and strategic decision-making. At the outset of the Arab Spring, al-Qaida was also undergoing a process of strategic rethinking, in which more locally sensitive and nationally grounded methods of operating were being encouraged as more effective paths towards durable jihadi projects. The Arab Spring itself also presented al-Qaida and its affiliates with opportunities to tie themselves more deeply into a collective sense of change across the Middle East. It was in Syria that this evolved level of thinking found itself most efficiently realized, as Jabhat al-Nusra sought to implement a modus operandi that was based on integrating and embedding itself into the Syrian revolutionary milieu through a combination of cooperation and [short-term] pragmatism. Jabhat al-Nusra’s embrace of this new model of jihad brought it substantial benefits, but as time passed, it also posed new challenges. By embracing localism so wholeheartedly over al-Qaida’s traditional internationalist agenda, Jabhat al-Nusra struggled to sustain the trust of its members who expected a truly fundamentalist face to eventually emerge. Moreover, despite its strong localist focus, too many Syrians still distrusted the group because of its continued links to a globalist jihadist movement. Jabhat al-Nusra therefore sought to differentiate itself from ISIS and was also forced to distance itself from al-Qaida, which set in motion a series of events that challenged the group’s successors’ - Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS) and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) - internal unity and external credibility. It therefore appears that although HTS in 2017 maintains a potentially protectable base in northwestern Syria, the challenges that its unique strategy presented forced it to act in ways that undermined much of the sustainability progress it had made in previous years. Whether the group’s long game strategy of controlled pragmatism could be said to have been a success is therefore an open question.

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Perspectives on Terrorism is  a journal of the Terrorism Research Initiative and the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies

ISSN  2334-3745 (Online)

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