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In early February, al Qaeda’s central leadership announced that it had severed ties with the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), an affiliate in Iraq and Syria. This step came at some cost of reputation for al Qaeda, but it will serve al Qaeda’s interests far better than maintaining a relationship with an affiliate that subverted al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and damaged the terrorist group’s image. Now that ISIS is disowned, its own reputation is in peril, with potentially devastating consequences. In the weeks and months to come, the United States would be wise to use the rift between al Qaeda and ISIS to promote its own interests in Syria and Iraq.
The move wasn’t particularly surprising: over the years, there have been many signs that the relationship between al Qaeda Central (AQC) and the group’s strongest, most unruly franchise was strained. The 2004 merger between al Qaeda and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al Tawhid wal Jihad (it became al Qaeda in Iraq after the merger and then the Islamic State of Iraq after Zaraqawi’s death) had always been more a matter of mutual interests than of shared ideology. But despite growing unease with the Iraqi group’s brutal tactics and its disrespect and even outright subversion of al Qaeda’s authority, AQC had remained reluctant to disown it.
Tensions reached new highs in April 2013 when the leader of the Iraqi faction, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, made public his group’s involvement in the Syrian civil war, claimed to command al Qaeda’s designated Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), and declared that the Iraqi and Syrian factions would now operate together under the name ISIS. Abu Muhammad al-Joulani, JN’s leader, denied Baghdadi’s claims and Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s leader, was forced to intervene. He reaffirmed JN’s direct subordination to AQC, not to ISIS, and called for each branch to focus on its own arena. At the same time, he praised Baghdadi for ISIS’ contribution to the jihad and announced that a veteran fighter, Abu Khaled al-Suri, would serve as his personal emissary to oversee the relationship between the two franchises.
But Baghdadi refused to accept Zawahiri’s verdict and openly defied the leader to whom he had once pledged allegiance. This was the first time a leader of an al Qaeda franchise had publically disobeyed an AQC leader, and the episode stoked doubts within the jihadi community about Zawahiri, who succeeded bin Laden only two years ago.
In the months that followed, ISIS expanded its control over territories in Syria’s north, gaining considerable resources and attracting foreign fighters as well as defectors from JN. Meanwhile, its brutality generated resentment among the Syrian opposition camp. Eventually, in early January 2014, ISIS’ overreach led to backlash, from a variety of secular and Islamist groups. In some locations, JN members fought ISIS members, and, in a January 7 statement, Joulani publically criticized ISIS. Suri, Zawahiri’s confidant, echoed Joulani’s critique later that month.
As the conflict escalated, there was hope among some jihadi circles that Zawahiri would rein in ISIS and stop the embarrassing fratricidal violence. But even as anxiety mounted, Zawahiri was slow to publically address the conflict. When he finally did, on January 23 -- three weeks after the infighting began -- his message was weak. Some elements of the statement could be construed as a rebuke of Baghdadi, but, overall, Zawahiri was timid. It is possible that he tried to intervene behind the scenes, hoping to allow everyone to save face. But if he did, AQC’s subsequent announcement that al Qaeda had broken ties with ISIS was clear evidence that his efforts had failed.
Before the split, ISIS was al Qaeda’s most successful franchise, controlling large swaths of territory in western Iraq and in northeastern Syria. By abandoning the group, al Qaeda has made a choice not simply to stand behind its other franchise in Syria but also to be left without an affiliate in Iraq. And that at a time when Sunni resistance to the government of Nouri al-Maliki is at an all-time high and territories in the country’s Sunni regions, including the prized cities of Fallujah and Ramadi, are falling under ISIS control. While Zawahiri may yet announce a merger with one of the other jihadi groups operating in Iraq, his decision to forgo ISIS’ spoils shows that he believed that the damage it was causing to his organization, and to his own personal authority, was so great that al Qaeda would be better off without it.
The fact that it took Zawahiri so long to make that call reflects his deep reluctance to be associated with internal fighting within the jihadi movement. After years of emphasizing unity and warning against sedition and strife, he could not have taken lightly the step of bowing to conflict. He needed to demonstrate that he took all possible measures to avoid fragmentation and build support for the split among jihadi scholars and opinion-makers. The importance to Zawahiri of some of the most important jihadi scholars out there, abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and abu Qatada al-Filistini, criticizing Baghdadi for assuming a title reserved for the Caliph and calling his group a state, cannot be underestimated. Such criticism -- and the ISIS’s rejection of one popular Saudi cleric’s initiative for reconciliation among the Islamists groups -- made it easier for Zawahiri to disown ISIS and will no doubt put him in a better position to deflect accusations of promoting disunity.
In the long run, breaking with ISIS could even prove a shrewd decision for Zawahiri, particularly in terms of broader Muslim public opinion. The mistakes of the previous decade, primarily the killing of thousands of Muslims in indiscriminate violence, undermined public support for the organization. The surprising developments of the Arab Spring offered it a second lease on life; the group could try to win Muslims’ hearts and minds by demonstrating an ability to govern, provide security, and offer economic services. JN in Syria and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen were able to make that pivot to relative success. Al Qaeda’s North African franchise sought a similar path in Mali, although it had less to show for it. Fragmentation had complicated al Qaeda’s efforts to change its image, and the association with ISIS had been particularly detrimental to the goal.
With ISIS gone, al Qaeda is in a much better position to wage its charm offensive. It can emphasize that it is attentive to the needs and wishes of the constituency it claims to serve, and that it seeks to cooperate with other groups who fight the Sunnis’ enemies, rather than to dominate them. Moreover, the fact that the jihadi group is no longer the most extreme group in the field could make it appear more moderate and push potential supporters to give it a second look.
THE ALGERIA CONNECTION
ISIS’ break from al Qaeda could serve ISIS well, too. As Will McCants, a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, suggests, the separation could boost its image as a force to be reckoned with and even as the most powerful jihadi outfit. But over the long run, ISIS will probably not fare so well.
Without his group’s al Qaeda affiliation, Baghdadi is in a precarious position. His group benefitted from legitimacy that came with its relationship with al Qaeda without ever really obeying AQC’s orders. Moreover, al Qaeda’s tutelage provided ISIS a shield, keeping denunciations of its brutality and its religious innovations in check. Now ISIS finds itself portrayed as too extremist, even for al Qaeda. Unless it radically changes its ways -- very unlikely -- the chorus of criticism will only grow louder. Already, the group is left with very few credentialed supporters who could offer it a defense and cloak its actions with religious authority.
In many ways, ISIS seems to be heading down the same path of self-destruction that led the Algerian GIA (Armed Islamic Group) to its doom two decades ago. Between 1992 and 1998, that group had waged a violent campaign to replace the Algerian government with an Islamic state. It went to such extremes that it denounced even pious Muslims as heretics, killed numerous innocents and even fellow jihadis, and ended up squandering an opportunity to beat a hated and oppressive regime. For the jihadi community, the GIA’s collapse is a cautionary tale. And the similarities between GIA and ISIS will not be lost on ISIS’ critics, which will put Baghdadi on the defensive: like the GIA was, ISIS is led by figures with limited religious credentials at best, and like GIA did, ISIS has gradually lost its main supporters.
ISIS may have considerable territory under its control, but without the stamp of approval of jihadi heavy-hitters, it will find keeping that territory extremely difficult. Its ability to provide material benefits to its members could keep ISIS in business for some time, but religious backing is irreplaceable. Without it, the group cannot attract pious Muslims and will have to rely ever more on uneducated youth with a proclivity for violence and criminality. It will also find it hard to get money from prominent donors, especially when there is an abundance of alternatives. If history is a guide, such financial pressures will likely push ISIS further toward criminality, which, in turn, will fuel public resentment toward the group.
ISIS could also crumble from within. The group’s rank and file is already hearing repeated calls from popular jihadi scholars to defect to other Islamist groups in Syria. Many may heed that advice. But they are likely to find out how dangerous attempts to shift their allegiances could be. Already paranoid, ISIS is likely to see recent events as a confirmation of conspiracies against it. In response, it will grow more brutal and will place an emphasis on policing its own members. In an effort to deter defections, ISIS will likely prosecute defectors as traitors. Some members will opt to go against their commanders and fellow fighters, mostly by providing information to other rebel groups. And JN and the Islamic Front stand ready to accept it.
For its part, the United States should try to create the conditions that would facilitate defections of ISIS members. It could use information operations to heighten internal tensions and promote greater repression, which will drive more ISIS members to seek a way out. At the same time, it could help those ISIS members looking to leave the group by encouraging its Arab allies to build an infrastructure to receive and rehabilitate deserters. Publicizing internal purges, meanwhile, will weaken Syria’s appeal to foreign jihadis. In turn, ISIS will be forced to spend more time on internal security than on expansion, which will help the United States achieve its objectives in Iraq and Syria, namely rolling back the influence of extremist groups. ISIS’ demise might even help Syrians regain enough influence over the war to bring it to an end.
The United States should also relax its conditions for cooperation with the Islamic Front and even consider closer contact with JN as they both work to bring down Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. That will put even more pressure on ISIS, while allowing the United States and the Islamist groups to get familiar with each other, understand each other’s perspectives and fears, and possibly even mitigate human suffering in Syria. Those ties would surely be valuable when it comes time to reconstruct the country.
The al Qaeda split with ISIS is welcome news. It will not bring peace to Syria or stop the spillover of violence into neighboring countries, but it will weaken the most brutal and irreconcilable rebel group in Syria, force self-reflection and a stern debate within the jihadi community about the need to limit violence, and take the Middle East one small step back from the abyss.