“The strategy has not changed…The focus remains to drive ISIL out of Iraq,” Col. Wayne Marotto, task force public affairs officer, stated in a release regarding the anti-Islamic State (IS) group coalition. The IS group (also known as ISIS or ISIL) has captured the world’s attention as a brutal force willing to stop at nothing to inflict their interpretation of Islam on citizens of areas that are currently under their control. However, Islamist groups in Syria, including Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), an al-Qaeda affiliate, are also gaining strength. Given the unrest in the region, why has the U.S. and the coalition paid so much attention to the IS group and not JN, who also wishes harm on the U.S.?
The current strategy concerning Iraq and Syria has been dominated by rolling back the gains the IS group has made. Initially, the U.S. only intervened with a humanitarian effort to protect besieged members of the Yazidi minority religious sect on Mount Sinjar in Iraq, who were facing imminent genocide from the IS group. Then the mission evolved into assisting Iraq to regain control of the Mosul dam from the IS group because if the dam failed, millions of gallons of water would flood the region and potentially put U.S. personnel in Baghdad at risk. These efforts raised some question as to why the president decided to act for humanitarian reasons in this instance and not in other situations around the world - such as when Syrian President Assad reportedly gassed his own people.
The U.S. mission (along with an international coalition) again evolved into one of targeted air strikes vis-à-vis counterterrorism operations in Yemen and Somalia against the group in Iraq and Syria. The U.S., though, refused to supply air strikes or military assistance in Iraq until its previous leader, Nouri al-Maliki stepped down. Maliki's authoritarian rule alienated large groups of Sunni Arabs whom the IS group opportunistically exploited.
The efforts to counter the IS group have been deemed by Washington as an “Iraq-first” strategy for several reasons, chief among them politics. The political situation in Iraq, while not ideal to the U.S.’s liking, is a more workable model than that of Syria. Syria’s political situation is far less clear with several groups controlling various swaths of territory. And the internationally recognized Syrian government has lost its legitimacy in the eyes of several nations, the U.S. included.
Some scholars, have called for a reassessment of Washington’s strategy calling for a Syria-first approach rather than an Iraq-first approach. Key points being, the IS group is less entrenched in Syria, which makes it easier to drum up forces that would be willing to depose it, President Obama’s insistence that Assad must go would have more teeth, and it would “get the United States out of the business of collaborating with Iran,” to name a few. The U.S., so far, has paid far less attention to Syria in terms of military action. “Even the plan to train Syrian rebels to fight ISIS, according to one source in Washington, is meant to help guard the borders between Syria and Iraq rather than to aid in a strategy to dislodge ISIS in Syria,” wrote Hassan Hassan, co-author of the book, “ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror.”
Recently, a new Islamist coalition that includes JN and other prominent groups with similar ideological alignments overtook the Assad regime's forces to control the Syrian city of Idlib, thought to be a great victory for opposition troops. While JN has, for the most part, been parochially focused on Syria, it still maintains a combative stance toward the U.S. The only time the U.S. has disclosed action militarily against the group was when it struck units within JN known as the “Khorasan group,” members of core al-Qaeda that embedded with JN to plan external operations against the West. As JN continues to consolidate territory, this threat grows.
The al-Qaeda model differs from the IS group model in that al-Qaeda is intent on winning hearts and minds before the establishment of governance. For this reason, JN is well liked among many populations in Syria and to some degree might be more entrenched there than the IS group. However, the IS group likely garners more attention from the U.S. because they launched a major incursion into a neighboring country (Iraq) while JN has only marginally incurred into neighboring Lebanon to combat Hezbollah, an Iranian and Assad regime ally.
It is also fair to question the IS group's applicability under the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force against al-Qaeda. The administration believes that the IS group is the true inheritor of Osama bin Laden's legacy and thus falls under the law's scope, meaning that IS can be targeted legally under existing frameworks. JN's inclusion under the law is less clear as the two key prongs that identify one's applicability under the law are; "(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." The applicability of both groups under these two prongs are arguably ambiguous.
Furthermore, overt action against JN in Syria could be logistically more difficult than those against the IS group. JN is currently operating in areas with proximity to the Assad regime as opposed to the IS group. The Assad regime reportedly shot down a U.S. drone last month operating near the port city of Latakia, seemingly by mistake. While militant groups do not possess sophisticated anti-aircraft capabilities (some do possess equipment that can shoot down some aircraft operating in low airspace) the Syrian government does.
The Syrian regime has allowed U.S. and coalition aircraft into its airspace to fight the IS group for either tactical reasons or because militants have disabled radar equipment at Syrian air bases in those regions it does not control. Further compounding the issue, without reliable human intelligence on the ground to pinpoint where JN is located, long winded surveillance orbits are needed to watch for targets. These drones do not fly very fast, which makes them an easy target for high and low tech anti-aircraft weapons. In regions such as Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan (to a degree), the U.S. has enjoyed the blessing of the central government to operate drones for counterterrorism purposes. The U.S. has not received the same blessing from Assad.
Many resources have gone to fighting the IS group, especially in Iraq. Despite the international pressure against them, other Islamist factions that adhere to similar “bin Ladenism” are growing stronger. Despite the fact that JN has largely been focused on its own local agenda, suspected plots by its Khorasan group against the West led to beefed up airport security for fear of an “imminent” plot.
It is easier to combat the IS group and appear to be "tough on terror" as well as make it seem like the U.S. is doing something to ameliorate the situation in Syria. However, the situation in Syria is getting worse and the U.S. has not demonstrated any haste in intervening - provided it wants or should intervene at all, which is a separate debate entirely. This debate is questions why IS group over JN - both groups pose a rhetorical threat to the U.S. and its interests. JN is not expanding into other territories or beheading Americans. This is a war of optics and convenience - at least the U.S. can say it is doing something.