The conventional wisdom regarding terrorist organizations is the lack of ability or strategic wisdom. No matter which brand they follow, be that Marxism/Maoism, right wing fascism, so-called freedom movements or the contemporary menace of religious extremism, all these groups are inclined to adhere idealistically to the ideology they follow and propagate. That ideology is always at the core of every tactical or strategic decision they make and deviating from it even for a brief duration and for the long-term sustainability is discouraged and often considered as traitorous.
Take the Islamic State (IS/ISIS) for instance, its apocalyptic ideology is driving its policy of waging war on everyone around it and abstaining it from forging even a tactical alliance with other actors due to the need of the hour. The result of this ill-conceived strategy is that ISIS is continuously losing its territory and that will ultimately bring the demise of the Islamic State as a physical entity. The states waging war against ISIS realize that and consequently there is a relative calmness prevailing regarding ISIS in the policy circles of those states. That’s why ISIS has lost the preferential treatment it once received from its enemies.
But what if another terrorist organization emerges from the ashes of ISIS and takes its place, which is as conniving as any other state can be in geo-politics and which can abandon its ideology temporarily for tactical purposes? In other words, an organization that is ideologically fanatic but strategically pragmatic in nature, with the aim of conducting a global terror campaign.
The most potent of the rebel groups in Syria from the start of the conflict was Jabhat Al-Nusra (now known as Jabhat Al-Fatah Al-Sham). On the face of it, it is another Salafist jihadist rebel group in Syria waging war against Asad and his Alawite community. But in reality, it’s the official Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria and Levant. The rebel cover it has used wisely for different pragmatic reasons, after all they wouldn’t want to make the same mistakes again. First, by changing its structure from a global jihadist organization to a local rebel group it successfully recruited a myriad of Sunni population.
Second, it received (and is still receiving) a major portion of arms from anti-Asad foreign countries, especially the United States, under the umbrella of “mainstream rebel groups”. Third it diverted the international attention from its nefarious activities and long term systemic aims by acting as a strong partner against Damascus. Almost all of the rebel groups prefer working under Al-Nusra’s leadership due to its superior warfare capabilities and the absence of any alternative potentially strong ground force provided by the West.
When its Al-Qaeda affiliation was exposed in the international community, out of the fear of becoming the target of the coalition forces, it instantly declared the annulment of its allegiance to Al-Qaeda and even changed its name to Jabhat Al-Fatah Al-Sham. This unprecedented move, which of course was a sham, is a proof of employment of pragmatic strategies to survive, unlike Al Qaeda and ISIS.
In the recent siege of Aleppo, despite western warnings, rebel groups like Ahrar Al-Sham (which Turkey has been supporting), Noor ud din Zinki Brigade and even most of the FSA factions were fighting under an alliance group called Jaish Al-Fatah, led by the Nusra Front. The more the pro-Asad forces bring their wrath with the help of Russian jets upon the rebels, the more popular Al-Nusra becomes among rebels, and the more it integrates itself in the main-stream rebels.
For the West and the whole global community, the major existential threat, even bigger than ISIS, comes from Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Al-Nusra. The illogical demand of “Assad must go” has to be discontinued. The other regional actors have to contemplate that achieving their myopic realpolitik aims through groups like Al-Nusra will be counterproductive.
It defies the basic logic of “Principal-Agent relationship” when the ultimate goals of agent and principal do not converge. In this case, it is the agent (Al-Nusra) which is using the principal’s (KSA, Qatar, the West and Turkey) resources to achieve its goals of a global jihad movement which the regional states definitely don’t want. The soon the international community realizes that and starts focusing its attention towards the internal dynamics of Syrian rebel politics, the more it will have the chance to contain the next global crisis.