Recently, the US State Department designated Jabhat al-Nusrah, an Islamist rebel group currently operating in Syria, as a terrorist organization, claiming that the group’s name serves as an alias for Al Qaeda in Iraq. The State Department underscored al-Nusrah’s responsibility for almost 600 attacks since November 2011 (40 of which were suicide attacks) and warned against providing the group with any form of assistance.
As anticipated, the designation sparked a backlash in Syria almost immediately, igniting protests and prompting a flood of statements by well-known organizations like the Syrian National Council and the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood – both of which condemned the designation outright, emphasizing that Assad and his regime were far more deserving of the terrorist label.
While heated debate regarding the designation will undoubtedly continue, both sides can agree on one thing: that al-Nusrah is growing and its influence expanding. David Ignatius of The Washington Post notes that “rough” estimates put al-Nusrah’s size “somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000 fighters, according to officials of a non-governmental organization that represents the more moderate wing of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).” Of the FSA’s fighters, Al Qaeda “accounts for 7.5 percent to 9 percent” of the total, Ignatius writes. The Economist provides a similar size estimate, stating that al-Nusrah totals approximately 7,000 fighters, and, in Aleppo, is “one of the four biggest brigades fighting on the front line.”
Al-Nusrah’s seemingly strategic behavior and calculated maneuvers have only won the organization more support. Given its steady stream of funding from donors in the Gulf and weapons acquisitions, al-Nusrah is emerging as a prime fighting force amongst the opposition groups; in turn, attracting the attention of new recruits. Off the battlefield, al-Nusrah is making further gains, as well. In his Foreign Policy piece, Aaron Zelin writes, “[T]here are tentative signs that Jabhat al-Nusra has also been providing local services,” and “becoming embedded within the social fabric of the population.”
Al-Nusrah makes no effort to hide its ultimate end goal of establishing an Islamic Caliphate, and this objective has left many religious minorities fearful that its end state resembles “Taliban-style rule,” Reuters reports. As the organization grows and expands its reach, the West faces increased pressure to counter al-Nusrah’s influence, so that it doesn’t fill the governance vacuum left over by Assad’s regime. Unfortunately, the terrorist designation has already backfired on the US, and could ultimately lead to the unintentional empowerment of al-Nusrah. This dangerous possibility warrants immediate address and new strategic thinking because an al-Nusrah with any amount of influence will likely instigate sectarianism and disrupt Syria’s path towards peace.
Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.