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Nusra Front

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Paris Attacks: The Terrorist Strategy

As always after a major terrorist attack on the West, the right question to ask after the slaughter in Paris is: what were the strategic aims behind the attack? This requires getting your head around the concept that terrorists have rational strategies, but once you have done that the motives behind the attacks are easy to figure out. It also becomes clear that the motives have changed.

The 9/11 attacks on the United States in 2001 followed the classical terrorist strategy of trying to trick the target government into over-reacting in ways that ultimately serve the terrorists’ interests. Al-Qaeda’s goal was to sucker the United States into invading Muslim countries.

Al Qaeda was a revolutionary organisation whose purpose was to overthrow existing Arab governments and take power in the Arab countries, which it would then reshape in accord with its extreme Islamist ideology. The trouble was that Islamist movements were not doing very well in building mass support in the Arab world, and you need mass support if you want to make a revolution.

Osama bin Laden’s innovation was to switch the terrorist attacks from Arab governments to Western ones, in the hope of luring them into invasions that would radicalise large number of Arabs and drive them into the arms of the Islamists. His hopes were fulfilled by the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Once the Western troops went in, there was a steep decline in terrorist attacks on Western countries. Al-Qaeda wanted Western troops to stay in the Middle East and radicalise the local populations, so it made no sense to wage a terrorist campaign that might make Western countries pull their troops out again.

The resistance in Iraq grew quickly and and attracted Islamist fighters from many other Arab countries. The organisation originally known as “Al-Qaeda in Iraq” underwent several name changes, to “Islamic State in Iraq” in 2006; then to “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” – ISIS for short – in 2013, and finally to simply “Islamic State” in 2014. But the key personnel
and the long-term goals remained the same throughout.

The man who now calls himself the “Caliph” of Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Bahdadi, first joined “Al-Qaeda in Iraq” and started fighting the US occupation forces in Iraq in 2004. But along the way the strategy changed, for ISIS eventually grew so strong that it conquered the extensive territories in Syria and Iraq that now make up Islamic State. Popular revolutions were no longer needed. The core strategy now is simply conquest.

In that case, why are Islamic State and Al-Qaeda still attacking Western targets? One reason is because the jihadi world is now split between two rival jihadi franchises that are competing for supporters.

The split happened in 2013, when ISIS, having launched a very successful branch operation in Syria known as the Nusra Front, tried to bring it back under the control of the parent organisation.

The Syrian branch resisted, and appealed to Al-Qaeda, the franchise manager of both jihadi groups, for support. Al-Qaeda backed the Syrians, whereupon ISIS broke its links with Al-Qaeda and set up as a direct competitor.

ISIS and the Nusra Front then fought a three-month war in early 2014 that killed several thousand militants and left the former in control of most of eastern Syria. Soon afterwards ISIS overran most of western Iraq and renamed itself Islamic State.

Islamic State and Al-Qaeda’s local franchise, the Nusra Front, are currently observing a ceasefire in Syria, but the two brands are still in a bitter struggle for the loyalty of jihadi groups elsewhere in the Muslim world.

Spectacular terrorist operations against Western targets appeal to both franchises because they are a powerful recruiting tool in jihadi circles. But Islamic State has a further motive: it actually wants Western attacks on it to cease.

It’s a real state now, with borders and an army and a more or less functional economy. It doesn’t want Western forces interfering with its efforts to consolidate and expand that state, and it hopes that terrorist attacks on the West may force them to pull out.

France is a prime target because French aircraft are part of the Western-led coalition bombing Islamic State, and because it’s relatively easy to recruit terrorists from France’s large, impoverished and alienated Muslim minority. Russia has also become a priority target since its aircraft started bombing jihadi troops in Syria, and the recent crash of a Russian airliner in Sinai may be due to a bomb planted by Islamic State.

So the outlook is for more terrorist attacks wherever Islamic State (and, to a lesser extent, Al-Qaeda) can find willing volunteers. Western countries with smaller and better integrated Muslim communities are less vulnerable than France, but they are targets too.

Putting foreign ground troops into Syria would only make matters worse, so the least bad option for all the countries concerned is to ride the terrorist campaign out. Horrendous though the attacks are, they pose a very small risk to the average citizen of these countries. Statistically speaking, it’s still more dangerous to cross the street, let alone climb a ladder.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9, 10, 11 and 12. (“The split…world”)

P.S. Who takes their passport along on a sucide mission? There is a strong possibility that the Syrian refugee’s passport found at the scene of the Paris attacks was taken there to cause a huge backlash against Syrian refugees entering Europe, and thus further alienate European Muslims from their own governments.

Russia’s Syria Strategy

It’s easy to define the American strategy in Syria, although it is more of a wish-list than an actual strategy. It is “containment” of the nightmarish Islamic State (IS) that now controls eastern Syria and western Iraq, together with the overthrow of the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad and its replacement by “moderate” rebel forces. But what is the Russian strategy?

It is now a month since Russian planes began bombing both Islamic State forces and the “moderate” rebels. For every Russian bomb that has fallen on IS troops ten have fallen on the “moderates,” because it’s the latter groups that have made most of the big advances against the Assad regime since last spring. The regime’s troops have now taken some territory back, but they lack the strength to reconquer all of Syria. So what next?

Russia never fights without a strategy, but in this case it was made up in a hurry. Moscow was not planning a military intervention in Syria until last July, when the officer in charge of Iran’s military aid to Assad, General Qassem Soleimani, flew to Moscow to warn President Vladimir Putin that the Syrian army was on the brink of collapse.

Soleimani knew this because he was hearing it directly from the Iranian military advisers who are serving with Syrian army units.

After four years of war the Syrian army was down to half its pre-war strength, desertions and draft-dodging were going up, and morale was sinking fast.

Neither Iran nor Russia wanted to see extremist jihadi forces take over all of Syria, and both countries understood that the so-called “moderate” rebels barely exist. The dominant group in the “Army of Conquest” that has taken over northwestern Syria is the Nusra Front, a clone of Islamic State that broke away from it in 2013 as part of a turf battle. The Nusra Front is not “moderates”; it is the Syrian franchise of al-Qaeda.

If Assad’s regime were to collapse, Islamic State and the Nusra Front would end up ruling all of Syria, so something had to be done fast. That something was Russian air support for the Syrian army. But air strikes are not a strategy, just a stop-gap measure.

Russian air power has stopped the rebel advance for now, but a strategy needs a clear final goal. That cannot be an Assad victory and the reunification of Syria under his regime; the Russians know that his army is too weak and fragile after four years of war to aspire to that. So it has to be some kind of diplomatic deal, and the signs are emerging of what Russia has in mind.

Putin insists that he will not accept the partition of Syria between the Assad regime (which still controls most of so-called “useful Syria”), Islamic State in the northeast, and another Islamist mini-state run by the Nusra Front in the northwest. But that partition has already happened on the ground, and a ceasefire would freeze it without anybody having to admit that it is permanent.

The United States cannot take the lead in brokering a ceasefire because it is still formally committed to the overthrow of the Assad regime. (That is why it goes on pushing the fiction that there is a meaningful “moderate” opposition among the Syrian rebels.) The U.S. is further constrained by the fact that its main Muslim allies in the region, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, are determined to see Assad fall, come what may.

Now that the Russians have stopped the rebel advance, a ceasefire becomes theoretically possible. That’s why U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry agreed to meet with Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, in Vienna last Friday. Even Turkey and Saudi Arabia showed up at the meeting before it ended, and a new session is planned for this Friday where even more countries may show up.

It is possible that a ceasefire may eventually emerge from this process, and Lavrov claims that he can deliver Assad’s agreement to it. So let’s leap ahead and consider what Syria would look like in this best possible scenario. It still wouldn’t be very pretty.

Assad would keep control of all Syria’s big cities except Aleppo (which is in ruins), and would rule almost two-thirds of the population. Islamic State would go on controlling eastern Syria (and western Iraq), and would continue cutting heads off and crucifying people in the usual way. The Nusra Front would rule over the northwest with its allies, and impose a somewhat less extreme form of Islamist rule there.

There probably would not be a complete ceasefire, because Islamic State is unlikely to agree to it, but at least the killing would stop in the rest of Syria – and everybody else could concentrate on attacking Islamic State, if they felt so inclined. That’s as good as it might get.

If there is no ceasefire deal, the Russians will go on supporting Assad for a while, but they have no intention of taking large casualties themselves. No other outside player — the U.S., Turkey, Saudi Arabia, you name it — is willing to commit ground troops to the battle against Islamic State either. So in the end, the jihadis may conquer Syria anyway.

Syria: The Last Chance Saloon

The fall of Ramadi to Islamic State troops last Wednesday was not a big deal. The city was deep inside IS-held territory, IS fighters had controlled 80 percent of it since March, and we already knew that the Iraqi army can’t fight. Even so, Islamic State is not going to take much more of Iraq. What it doesn’t already hold is either Shia or just not Arab at all (Kurdistan), and that is not fertile ground for Sunni Arab fanatics.

The fall of Palmyra on Friday was a very big deal, because it was clear evidence that the Syrian army’s morale is starting to crumble. It was doing quite well until last summer and even regaining ground from the insurgents, but the tide has now turned. After every defeat and retreat, it gives up more easily at the next stop. It may be too late already, but at best the Syrian regime is now in the Last Chance Saloon.

The Syrian army is very tired and short of manpower after four years of war, but what is really making the difference is that the insurgents are now united in two powerful groups rather than being split into dozens of bickering fragments. Unfortunately, both of those groups are Islamist fanatics.

The Al Nusra Front had to fight very hard for Idlib, the northwestern provincial capital, in March, but Islamic State met little resistance when it took over the Damascus suburb of Yarmouk in April. And Palmyra and the adjacent gas fields, which the regime fought for months to defend last year, fell to Islamic State this month after just four days.

It’s never possible to say when a hard-pressed army will actually collapse, but the Syrian army is now in zone. If the Assad regime does go under, Islamic State and the Nusra Front will take over all of Syria. What happens next would be very ugly.

Islamic State and the Nusra Front are both “takfiri” groups who believe that Muslims who do not follow their own extreme version of Sunni Islam are “apostates”, not real Muslims, and that they deserve to be killed. Around one-fifth of Syria’s population are “apostates” by this definition – Alawites and other Shias – and so are the Druze and Chrisian minorities. They are all at great risk.

True, the Nusra Front has been less outspoken about its intentions than Islamic State, but that’s just a question of timing and tactics. The basic ideology is the same, and the Nusra Front in power would be committed by its own religious beliefs to exactly the same murderous “cleansing” of the population. When religious fanatics tell you they intend to do something, it is wise to take them seriously.

An Islamist victory in Syria could entail the death of millions. It would also cause panic in the neighbouring Arab countries, Lebanon, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Yet no nearby Arab country will put troops into Syria to stop the looming disaster, because they cannot imagine fighting fellow Sunnis in Syria, however extreme their doctrine, in order to save the Shia regime of Bashar al Assad.

You don’t get the choices you would like to have. You only get the choices that are on the table, even if you are the president of the world’s only superpower. At this point Barack Obama has only two options: save the Syrian regime, or let it go under and live with the consequences.

It’s not even clear that he can save it. He cannot and should not put American troops on the ground in Syria, but he could provide military and economic aid to the Syrian regime – and, more importantly, put US airpower at the service of the Syrian army.

Even that might not save Assad’s regime, but it would certainly help the morale of the army and the two-thirds of the population that still lives under his rule. With more and better weapons and US air support, the Syrian army might be able to catch its breath and regain its balance. It would be a gamble, and if Obama did that he would be alienating two major allies, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. But if he doesn’t do it, very bad things may follow.

US planes are already bombing Islamic State (and the Nusra Front too, in practice) all over northern Syria, but they did not bomb the IS troops attacking Palmyra. That was a deliberate decision, not an oversight, even though Palmyra would probably not have fallen if Obama had given the order.

The US President didn’t do that because he is still stuck in the fantasy-land of an American-trained “third force” that will defeat both Islamic State and the Assad regime in a couple of years’ time. Saving the Syrian regime is a deeply unattractive choice, because it is a brutally repressive dictatorship. Its only redeeming virtues are that it is not genocidal, and does not threaten all of the neighbours.

Obama may have as little as a couple of months to come to terms with reality and make a decision. Waiting until the Syrian regime is already falling to intervene is not a good option; decision time is now. His reluctance to decide is entirely understandable, but rescuing Assad is the least bad option.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 5 and 7. (“The al Nusra…ugly”; and “True…seriously”)

Franchise Wars

You can’t tell the players without a programme, and it’s no wonder that people feel confused by the plethora of names the terrorist groups use. To make matters worse they keep splitting, and sometimes they change their names just for the hell of it. So here’s a guide you can stick on your wall.

In the beginning there was Al Qaeda, starting in about 1989. There were lots of other terrorist start-ups in the Arab world around the same time, but eventually almost all of them either died out or joined one of the big franchises. Al Qaeda is the one to watch, since the success of its 2001 attacks on the United States on 9/11 put it head and shoulders above all its rivals.

When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 and foreign jihadis flocked into the Sunni Arab parts of the country to help the resistance, their leader, a Jordanian called Abu Musaib al Zarqawi, sought to affiliate his organisation with Al Qaeda to boost its appeal. In 2004 Osama bin Laden agreed to allow them to use the name Al Qaeda in Iraq, although there was little coordination between the two organisations.

It was Al Qaeda in Iraq that got the Sunni-Shia civil war going by persistently bombing Shia mosques and neighbourhoods, even though it knew that the more numerous Shia would win that war. It was profoundly cynical but strategically sound, since terrified Sunnis would then turn to Zarqawi’s organisation for protection.

Al Qaeda in Iraq formally changed its name to Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) in 2006, but it didn’t really begin to flourish until a new leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, took over in 2010. Soon afterwards the Syrian civil war broke out, and Baghdadi sent a Syrian member of ISI, Abu Muhammad al Golani, into Syria to organise a branch there. It was called the Nusra Front.

The Nusra Front grew very fast – so fast that by 2013 Baghdadi decided to reunite the two branches of the organisation under the the new name Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). But this meant that Golani was being demoted to manager of the Syrian branch, so he declared his independence and asked to join al Qaeda, whch leaves its affiliates largely free to make their own decisions.

Al Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al Zawahiri (by now bin Laden was dead), backed the Nusra Front because he felt that creating an Islamic state, as Baghdadi intended, was premature. Baghdadi thereupon broke relations with Al Qaeda, and in early 2014 the Nusra Front and ISIS went to war.

Thousands of Islamist fighters were killed, and after four months it was clear that ISIS could hold eastern Syria but could not conquer the Nusra Front in the west of the country. The two rival organisations agreed a ceasefire – and two months later, in June 2014, ISIS used its battle-hardened forces to invade Iraq.

The Iraqi army collapsed, and by July ISIS controlled the western third of Iraq. Counting its Syrian territories as well, ISIS now ruled over 10-12 million people, so Baghdadi dropped the “Iraq and Syria” part of the name and declared that henceforward it would just be known as Islamic State. The point of not naming it after a specific territory is that it can be expanded indefinitely with no further name changes.

Soon afterwards Baghdadi declared himself caliph, and therefore commander of all the world’s Muslims. Ths was an extremely bold step, since those Muslims who hear the call of “Caliph Ibrahim” and do not submit to his authority – even fighters in other jihadi organisations like the Nusra Front and Al Qaeda – are technically “apostates” and liable to death in the eyes of those who do accept his claim.

That includes all of IS’s fighters, who now have the legal right, at least in their own eyes, to kill most Sunni Muslims in addition to the Shias, Christians, Jews, and assorted other unbelievers they already had the right to kill. There is a potential genocide in the making if Islamic State expands further in Syria, where easily 75 percent of the population fits into one or another of those categories.

Some jihadis in other countries, most notably Boko Haram in Nigeria, declared their allegiance to “Caliph Ibrahim” and Islamic State at once. Other stayed loyal to Al Qaeda – the Nusra Front, Al Shabaab in Somalia, and the al Qaeda branches in Yemen, Egypt, and the Maghreb – and rejected his claim. But Al Qaeda may declare a rival caliphate once Nusra has finished conquering Idlib province and established a firmer territorial base in Syria.

So there you have it: two rival franchises competing for the loyalty of all the other jihadi organisations. There’s not really much difference between them ideologically or practically, but the franchise wars will continue. I hope that helps.
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To shorten to 725 words, omits paragraphs 4 and 11. (“It was…protection”; and “That includes…categories”)