By Jennifer Cafarella
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper is said to have told CBS's 60 Minutes that he has observed tactical cooperation between the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and Jabhat al-Nusra (JN). The two global, Salafi jihadist groups are engaged in an ideological struggle, or fitnah. They are competing for the leadership of the fight in Syria and recognition by the al-Qaeda movement, which has been conducting mediation attempts between the two since 2013 and in 2014 recognized JN as its official affiliate in Syria. Director Clapper's statements challenge recent public reports of their negotiations, which suggest that more fundamental mediation may be underway, indicating the possibility of heightened cooperation in coming months. The interview has not aired, and his statements may be more nuanced than the advanced press publicizing the show. But the issue at hand should not be whether more than tactical cooperation has already been observed, but rather, whether conditions are being set that will favor operational cooperation between ISIS and JN in the medium term. The mediation effort may not quickly result in Baghdadi and his inner circle reconciling with JN leader Abu Mohammed al-Joulani, but the groups are eventually likely to cooperate at the operational and strategic level, as they share mutual goals. In the short term, this may include joint action against the Assad regime, which could relieve pressure on ISIS from the regime in Deir ez-Zour and embolden JN to initiate offensive operations against the regime on battlefronts that have stalled. Furthermore, ISIS is under stress in Iraq, and may pursue the acquisition of manpower and other support from JN in Syria in order to reinforce and retake the offensive.
The publicly released information tells the story of hitherto unsuccessful attempts at cooperation at operational and strategic levels. According to a high-level Syrian opposition official and rebel commander cited by the AP, seven high-ranking members of JN and ISIS conducted a meeting in the town of Atareb, West of Aleppo city, on November 2 from midnight until 4:00 a.m. A “commander of brigades affiliated with the Western-backed Free Syrian Army” corroborated the report, adding that it was organized by a third party. According to the opposition official, the meeting included an IS representative, two emissaries from JN, and attendees from the Khorasan Group, who likely served as both the mediating force and organizing party. The AP also reported that Ahrar al-Sham and Jund al-Aqsa were present, however mistakenly characterized Jund al-Aqsa as a group that has pledged allegiance to ISIS.
Involvement of the Khorasan Group in ongoing attempts to mediate the fitna has also been reported by the Daily Beast, and, if true, likely indicates the veracity of reports of ongoing JN and ISIS negotiations. A number of Khorasan members initially entered Syria in the summer of 2013 as part of AQ’s “Victory Committee,” led by Khorasan member Sanafi al Nasr, that had been deployed by Zawahiri to mediate the growing schism between JN and ISIS. The involvement of these figures in current negotiations is therefore not a departure from past activities in Syria, and is likely a secondary line of effort complimenting the ongoing attempt to develop an attack against the West.
The Syrian opposition official cited by the AP also stated that JN and ISIS agreed to eliminate the moderate, Syrian Revolutionaries Front (SRF) at this meeting. This may have been a sensationalist claim attempting to inflate the threat to the moderate opposition in order to advocate for increased support from the west to the moderate Free Syrian Army (FSA)-linked rebels in Syria, under which the SRF falls. Since the initiation of U.S. – led airstrikes against both JN-linked “Khorasan Group” targets and ISIS in Syria, moderate rebels have accused the Obama administration of encouraging a future JN and ISIS partnership by giving them a common enemy. This is not an unfounded claim, as civilian discontent with the air campaign has fostered increased support for JN, whose rhetoric has shifted to condemn the air campaign in its entirety in a sign of rhetorical support to ISIS against the coalition. However, there is no indication that JN has yet shifted its disposition to the SRF in southern Syria, where JN and the SRF continue to cooperate in military action against the regime. While it is possible that a joint JN and ISIS force could escalate against Syria’s moderates in order to deter the development of an effective counter ISIS and counter JN ground force that is responsive to the West, this is not a likely short term course of action as it would risk provoking a considerable ramp-up in western military activity in Syria. Rather, joint action against the regime is the most likely avenue for cooperation between local JN and ISIS forces, possibly complimented by a continued campaign to subvert the influence of moderate rebels.
A second set of JN-ISIS negotiations appears to have been conducted, and reportedly involved a proposal to join forces against the regime rather than eliminating moderate rebels. On November 14, SOHR cited sources from Aleppo and ar-Raqqa that stated that JN, Jaysh al-Muhajireen wa al-Ansar (JMA) and “Islamic Battalions,” which typically refers to battalions from the Salafi Jihadist Islamic Front (IF), agreed to send the leader of JMA to Raqqa city to meet with the ISIS deputy of the “war minister” in an attempt to reach a cease fire that would allow for a joint focus against the regime while remaining in separate areas of operation. ISIS reportedly rejected this offer, demanding the ba’ya (fealty) of the JMA leader. According to Zaman al-Wasl, a statement by ISIS military commander Abu Omar al-Shishani corroborated this report, who stated that he had offered the terms of the truce to JN and the IF, who turned it down.
The use of the JMA leader as an emissary is an important indicator of the role Salafi Jihadist groups play in the ongoing fitna between JN and ISIS. Salafi Jihadist groups are a possible source of to JN and ISIS because their ideology and methodology makes them natural partners for both groups, and for that reason they often refuse to chose sides. These groups would likely serve as judges in a mediation if it occurred. They are therefore likely to advocate for, and possibly drive, a JN-ISIS partnering. Furthermore, in addition to the considerable participation of Jund al-Aqsa alongside JN in Jabal al-Zawiya, a local Salafist element from the Hama countryside with rumored ties to ISIS appears to have reinforced both groups in clashes against the SRF. On November 1, reports indicated that the Hama-based Salafist Uqab al-Islam Brigade seized a small town east of Ma’arat al-Nu’man from SRF forces. The brigade is reportedly a known ISIS affiliate in the area, and reports of its activity in Idlib during the ousting of the SRF indicates that it, or a similar brigade, may consist of ISIS reinforcements that reports claimed JN received in the area.
The official cited by the AP claimed that an ISIS deployment had been sent to Jabal al-Zawiya to support JN, and stated that during the alleged November 2 meeting, ISIS offered to send additional fighters to support JN in southern Idlib. According to the official, IS sent about 100 fighters in 22 pickup trucks to the Harakat Hazm stronghold of Khan al-Sunbul, but the reinforcements were not needed after Harakat Hazm withdrew after sixty five fighters defected to JN. The Daily Beast also reported this same number on November 11, but failed to quote any local sources and therefore may have simply recycled this report. However, local reporting also indicated that an ISIS convoy had been deployed to Jabal al-Zawiya, lending additional credibility. STEP News Agency that claimed an ISIS military convoy arrived in Idlib to support JN on October 28, and a November 1 report by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) citing “trusted sources” that stated that ISIS fighters had reached the villages of al-Bara and Kensafara in order to support JN and Jund al-Aqsa against the SRF. ISIS is known to have presence in the eastern countryside of Homs and Hama provinces, and is likely engaged in an effort to acquire the allegiance of local ideologically aligned brigades in the area. JN is also known to have military presence in the Hama countryside, where it may be in regular local contact with ISIS or ISIS – affiliated forces.
Local and short-term cooperation between proximate JN and ISIS elements such as the reported deployment of ISIS, or ISIS-affiliated, forces to Jabal al-Zawiya may corroborate reports of ongoing JN and ISIS mediation efforts on a local level. Furthermore, the involvement of local Salafi Jihadist groups in both mediation and local coordination between JN and ISIS may indicate that such groups are well positioned to enact effective JN and ISIS collaboration on an operational level that is channeled through local affiliated groups without agreeing to an overt partnership between the groups. However, ISIS has interacted with proximate JN elements in the past despite the ongoing fitna, and local cooperation is therefore unlikely to be an indicator of high-level rapprochement between the two groups. For example, on August 24 ISIS reportedly withdrew from a base north of Hama city and turned it over to JN forces. JN and ISIS forces also continue to fight together against Hezbollah and the Lebanese Armed Forces in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, in addition to combating the regime in Qalamoun. It is presumably this sort of current tactical cooperation about which Director Clapper is speaking. This local cooperation preceded the emerging rumors of ISIS-JN negotiations, and therefore indicates that JN and ISIS may continue to cooperate tactically and to de-conflict their activities operationally even if no negotiated settlement between the groups' leaders is reached.