'Welcome to the Islamic state of Syria'
That's the headline from this Foreign Policy article by Brian Fishman reporting on the now official merging of AQ in Iraq (known as the Islamic State of Iraq) with the top jihadist outfit in the Syrian opposition.
As soon as peaceful protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad turned violent in summer 2011, it was clear that al Qaeda's affiliate in Iraq -- known as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) -- would play a terrible role shaping Syria's future. That reality was reemphasized on April 9, when ISI leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi publicly acknowledged that his organization had founded the preeminent Syrian jihadi group, Jabhat al-Nusra. Baghdadi then renamed their collective enterprise the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIGS).
Kudos to Baghdadi for confirming what has long been known. The United States had already listed Jabhat al-Nusra as an alias for al Qaeda in Iraq in December 2012, and the basic relationship between the Iraqi and Syrian branches of al Qaeda was easy to surmise when Jabhat al-Nusra officially declared its existence in January 2012. It's no surprise ISI was quickly able to establish a foothold in Syria: The group had built extensive networks in the country since early in the Iraq war, and was reasserting itself in eastern Iraq, which shares a 376 mile-long border with Syria, in the years before the uprising against Assad began.
The relevant issue, then, is not whether Baghdadi's statement is true. Rather, the important questions to ask are who made the branding decision, why the ISI acknowledged this relationship now, and whether the announcement will lead to changes in behavior by the jihadist group. In Syria, the looming question is how Jabhat al-Nusra's open affiliation with al Qaeda will affect its relationships with other rebel groups fighting against Assad.
Fishman thinks that the ISIGS will attempt to carve out a slice of Syria, much like AQ in the Arabian Peninsula has been trying to do in Yemen:
The public unification of the ISI and Jabhat al-Nusra may not be universally popular -- especially among Syrian recruits who were attracted primarily by the group's military and organizational effectiveness, rather than its ideology. That may explain Jabhat al-Nusra leader Abu Muhammad al-Jolani's disjointed statement released on April 10, in which he affirmed his allegiance to Zawahiri but rejected the idea of renaming Jabhat al-Nusra and reassured supporters that the group's operations would not change.
Just as the ISI never threatened to control all of Iraq, the ISIGS is unlikely to attempt to control all of Syria. Rather, it will aim for the Sunni-dominated expanse between the Shia heartland in southern Iraq and the Assad-controlled highlands in western Syria.
Obviously this spells big trouble for any post-Assad government. All we can do is hope that the Saudis and other Gulf states currently supplying weapons to the resistance will deny the ISIGS supplies that might be useful after the war.
The United States, however, still finds itself largely powerless to stop the terror organization. Washington simply does not have any good policy options in Syria, even though Jabhat al-Nusra's new branding may lower the legal hurdles to targeting it with drones. Its strategy now must prioritize containing Syria's unconventional weapons. Make no mistake, it would be a disaster if Assad transfers them to the Lebanese paramilitary organization Hezbollah, but it would be even worse if they fall into the arms of al Qaeda.
There are no euphemisms to conceal the human tragedy and geopolitical disaster that is unfolding in Syria. Bashar al-Assad must go for there to be peace. But so long as Jabhat al-Nusra remains the most powerful rebel group on the ground, Syria cannot even begin the hard work of rebuilding.
You can bet that Israel is also watching those WMD's closely as well. Any hint that AQ or Hezb'allah is about to get their hands on chemical or bio weapons will force the Israelis to move quickly and decisively to head that possibility off.
With the political opposition to Assad in disarray - and dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood - it is hard to see how any endgame that plays itself out in Syria will redound to our favor.