If reports to the effect of Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) separating from al-Qaeda in Syria and forming their own brand are true, things could become much more complex for the United States. According to Reuters, some leaders from JN are considering splintering from their parent organization, al-Qaeda. JN will completely changing their name in an effort to gain a boost in funding and bolster their efforts in toppling the Assad regime where they can carve-out their own territory to be ruled under Islamic Sharia Law. JN was crippled by the loss of certain members when the Islamic State group (which it has also been fighting) officially split from al-Qaeda over a year ago.
Further complicating matters in Syria, one of the top rebel groups, the Hazzm Movement, has been disbanded and absorbed into more Islamist fighting groups. The Hazzm Movement, thought to be one of the few forces in Syria that was capable of fighting the Assad regime and most reliable for western aid, could not continue to sustain their battle losses.
Both developments pose complex quandaries for U.S. policy in Syria, a region where the conditions on the ground are constantly changing. The potential splintering of JN poses two distinct problems for U.S. policy. First, if, as some reporting indicates, Qatar is willing to supply JN with sufficient funds, it will complicate the already fragile relationships between the nations participating in the U.S. led anti-Islamic State group coalition. Qatar has been accused in the past of funding and sponsoring radical Islamic organizations and political parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Their covert and overt support has angered other nations as they believe it exacerbates the problem. Defeating the Islamic State group is a shared goal by almost the entire world – but at what cost?
Turkey and wealthy Gulf nations have caught flak for their funding of radical groups within Syria to defeat President Assad. These nations are thought to be somewhat responsible for the rise and current strength of these groups. If, as some believe, JN is now the best hope for defeating both the Islamic State group and the Assad regime, what will happen next? Surely, the U.S. will not stand for this group – which despite their potential split from al-Qaeda still shares and embraces the ideology of Osama bin Laden, the organization’s founder – to fill the vacuum in Syria if they remain on top once the dust settles.
Secondly, concerning JN, is the issue of U.S. use of force against the group under domestic and international legal frameworks. Domestically, JN would have to meet two criteria under the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AMUF) – that authorized the war in Afghanistan against al-Qaeda and the Taliban – in order to be considered an “associate force” to be targeted by the U.S. within then General Counsel to the Defense Department and current Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson’s definition: "(1) an organized, armed group that has entered the fight alongside al Qaeda, and (2) is a co-belligerent with al Qaeda in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners."
Information concerning the current U.S. air operations in Syria is sparse regarding the direct targeting of JN. The U.S. has acknowledged they have targeted the Khorasan Group, members of core-al-Qaeda who relocated to Syria to focus on external operations and have been considered to be embedded with JN. JN, while it wishes harm against the U.S., has only attempted to attack the United States insofar as members of the Khorasan Group were in the “final stages of plans to execute major attacks against Western targets and potentially the U.S. homeland,” which invited U.S. Tomahawk missile strikes (coincidentally, reports point to a U.S. coalition air strike which killed a JN military commander today*). Until that point, JN only met the first metric of Johnson’s definition.
What happens now if JN splinters from al-Qaeda? Would that render the 2001 AUMF inapplicable to the group? This debate has been at the center of the current discussion concerning sunsetting that document and outlining parameters for a new Islamic State group specific AUMF, which is to say, what happens if a group simply changes their name, do they evade U.S. authority? This is a gray area, which is why the administration included “any closely-related successor entity” in its draft Islamic State group AUMF.
The international legal implications concern the matter of state sovereignty. Syria’s President Assad and his allies, publically, have not been pleased with the involvement of other nations acting militarily in Syria under the guise of “collective self-defense” of Iraq, a suspicious but seemingly acceptable international legal cover. Assad has not done much other than condemn U.S. action as air strikes, which have not targeted his troops, benefit him tactically. JN has incurred into Lebanon and the Golan Heights near Israel. If, emboldened by additional funds and troop garrisons, a new JN decides to intensify these incursions, the U.S. will have some difficult choices to make. Intensifying and evolving the U.S. military effort could shift the scope of the war and force Assad and his allies to react to U.S. action.
The second major U.S. concern inside Syria presently involves reliable ground forces that might be used to dislodge radical Islamist groups and oust the Assad regime. The U.S. had been supplying aid to the Hazzm Movement and members of JN have now been pictured with U.S. equipment. The number of “moderate” groups are becoming smaller and smaller in Syria. The hand of the U.S. might be forced to accept Assad for the time being to focus on the broader issue of instability in the region caused by the vacuum of the Syrian civil war, which was initially started to protest Assad’s brutal rule – a tragically ironic situation.
Though the reports of JN splintering are not yet confirmed (and potentially not true), they still exemplify the complexity and the chaos which Syria has become. The U.S. has struggled to stay on top of the situation as to not get bogged down in another costly foreign intervention – though leading an international military coalition appears to defeat this purpose. Syria is increasing looking like Libya (especially considering the U.S. is taking virtually the same military action - air strikes).
Three things to pay attention to in the future for U.S. policy in Syria are: 1) rebel groups and the number of fighters they will train; 2) other militant groups other than the Islamic State group they will focus on militarily; and 3) managing the volatile relationships of the nations involved in the coalition.
* UPDATE 3/6/2015: Reports indicate the Syrian military was responsible for the commander's death and the U.S. coalition stated they did not authorize any strikes within the disputed area for at least 24 hours before the incident.