Insurgents captured the strategically important town of Jisr al Shughour from regime forces on April 25. This followed a rebel takeover of the provincial capital of Idlib, a mere few weeks earlier. Significantly, while only one of many members of the coalition that took Idlib and Jisr al Shughour, the Nusra Front played a critical role in fighting and leading these battles. This victory demonstrates not only its military capability, but also its success in embedding itself within the wider insurgency in a coalition that included not only Islamist but also nationalist Free Syrian Army brigades. Even as the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS or ISIL) retains control over its heartland in eastern Syria, the Nusra Front has increased its profile and legitimacy in northern Syria—in part due to flaws in the US-led coalition’s strategy in Syria. The United States needs a new strategy against the jihadists.
The US-led air campaign against ISIS has scored some points in Syria. The coalition efforts, supported by Saudi Arabia among other regional and western powers, have weakened ISIS’s oil infrastructure and revenue and kept the group out of Kobani. Despite these tactical gains, however, the campaign has had serious local side effects that have undermined the broader, long-term objective of degrading and destroying ISIS in Syria and preventing the Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate, from replacing or thriving alongside ISIS.
Meanwhile, a US-led train-and-equip mission to begin next month is unlikely to reverse the nationalists’ losses or jihadists’ gains in northern Syria. Given that participants will reportedly be tasked with fighting the United States’ jihadist enemies but not the regime, Syrian civilians and fighters will see them as US mercenaries and the jihadists as more acceptable. The coalition’s priorities remain misaligned with those of Syrian nationalist groups—the only parties with the potential to attract broad Sunni support and defeat Sunni jihadism in Syria.
Ironically, the coalition campaign has contributed to the near collapse of nationalist forces in northern Syria which, despite their imperfections, were once ISIS’s most effective rivals and competed with the Nusra Front for leadership of the insurgency. While nationalists have fared better in the south, they are beginning to face a jihadist threat there as well. Coalition interests would be better served by a two-pronged approach in northern and southern Syria, helping nationalist rebels contain ISIS and compete with the Nusra Front for control of the insurgency.
Rather than work with the nationalists as partners against ISIS in the north (where jihadists are strongest), the coalition has excluded them from the military effort. At the same time, US-led air strikes on jihadists have spared the regime’s forces and inadvertently killed Syrian civilians. The United States also insists nationalist forces fight the jihadists—not the regime—making them look like US agents in the eyes of the Syrian people.
As a result, morale among nationalist fighters in northern Syria has plummeted. Many have defected to the jihadists, who are taking advantage of growing Syrian disillusionment with the coalition and coalition-aligned rebels to build influence among the insurgency and the people. Since the coalition campaign began, the Nusra Front has driven nationalist forces out of much of their core territory in northern Syria and ISIS continues to threaten those that remain.
ISIS continues to be essentially unchallenged in its heartland in northern Syria, despite repeated coalition air strikes. We may take comfort in believing that ISIS’s repugnant ideology and behavior contain the seeds of its own demise, but that will not likely reassure its local opponents. It also misses the point: ISIS offers conquered populations the choice between submission, which brings a sense of order and some protection from regime violence, or futile resistance and death. Few rational Syrians in the “caliphate” would confront ISIS, as long as the only alternatives are chaos or the Syrian regime.
In the south, nationalists have fared better at keeping ISIS out and the Nusra Front in check, partly due to a coherent, rational US-led support program operating covertly out of Jordan. By tightly controlling weapon flows and funding streams and working with Jordan’s intelligence services to understand the insurgent landscape, the program has helped nationalists in the south mostly avoid the fragmentation, infighting, and lawlessness that weakened them and benefited the jihadists in northern Syria. Substantially increasing material support for nationalists in the south would allow them to dissociate from and compete effectively with the Nusra Front for leadership of the insurgency. It would keep ISIS from expanding southward and prepare for an eventual offensive against the jihadists. Helping southern groups apply military pressure on nearby Damascus could also facilitate a negotiated settlement with amenable regime elements, removing regime violence as a key driver of jihadism in Syria.
The situation in northern Syria is deteriorating fast, but it is not hopeless. Even if the United States wants to avoid confronting regime forces, the coalition can and should concentrate air strikes closer to ISIS front lines against the nationalist insurgency, helping the latter block ISIS advances in cooperation with local Kurdish forces when possible. The southern model, in which funds and arms are tightly controlled by the coalition and flow directly to trusted rebel commanders, should be applied in the north to the extent possible.
A strategy to beat the jihadists—and make sure they stay beaten—must be locally driven, led by nationalist forces supported by the Sunni population that forms the insurgency’s social base. Relying on air strikes alone and treating nationalist groups as agents rather than partners violates this principle. It also effectively delegates the fight against the Sunni jihadists of ISIS and the Nusra Front to a heavily Alawite regime and Shia jihadist groups, including Hezbollah. Sadly, this battlefield dynamic only reinforces ISIS and the Nusra Front’s dangerous but increasingly resonant sectarian narrative: that Sunni Muslims are under siege by oppressive regional minorities, Iran, and even the United States itself. A coalition strategy that strengthens this narrative would be a tragic failure.
Faysal Itani is a resident fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.