Syria's Troubling Turn

REUTERS/Hamid Khatib

Back in February, Lt. Col. Joel Rayburn warned us about an imminent war.

“The revolt that began in Syria in early 2011—itself inspired by events elsewhere in the Arab world—is on the verge of becoming a sectarian war spanning the entirety of Turkish Arabia,” the Military Fellow at New America and Professor at the National Defense University augured in the Hoover Institution’s Journal, Defining Ideas, referencing the area of Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon. “The most powerful of the Syrian revolutionary forces, the Nusrah Front, has been formed around a core of what we have previously known as Al Qaeda in Iraq, the insurgent and terrorist organization once led by the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.”

On Tuesday, the relationship between Al Qaeda and the Nusrah Front underwent a troubling – yet perhaps predictable, at least for Rayburn, – turn: Jabhat al Nusra acknowledged closer ties to Al Qaeda.

This could have grave consequences for the state of Syria’s two-year civil war – and for the power supply of a currently weakened al Qaeda.

Peter Bergen and Jennifer Rowland report on both angles in CNN today.

“While al-Nusra is enjoying real battlefield success in Syria, it is formally allying itself to al Qaeda at a time of great weakness for the global terrorist organization,” write Bergen, the director of the National Security Studies Program, and Rowland, a program associate. “The announcement of the merger with al-Nusra provides al Qaeda's leaders, now headed by the Egyptian Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the chance to prove they are still relevant.”

And, on the impact inside Syria:

“….Syria is in its third year of a bitter civil war that has claimed the lives of more than 70,000 people, andwide swaths of the population support the opposition. In these circumstances, if al-Nusra continues to fight effectively against al-Assad, Syrians are not, at least for the moment, likely to care too much about what the group's broader ideological leanings are.”

But if al-Nusra does end Assad’s regime, its victory may come with a cost  for the Syrian people: The establishment of an ultra-fundamentalist state, according to Middle East Task Force Director Leila Hilal.

Over in Foreign Policy, National Security Studies Fellow Brian Fishman picks out the "the looming question" this news leaves us with: How will Jabhat al-Nusra's open affiliation with al Qaeda affect its relationships with other rebel groups fighting against Assad?

And, like Rayburn, he offers a prediction of what's to come:

"...this declaration carries risks for al Qaeda's operation in Syria. In Iraq, the ISI earned a reputation -- even among the Sunni population -- as brutal and domineering. Jabhat al-Nusra has avoided some of those mistakes in the past year by collaborating with a range of Syrian militant groups, and has also effectively delivered specific services. But the declaration of an Islamic state will carry with it certain expectations from al Qaeda's jihadi supporters, just as it did seven years ago in Iraq. One of those expectations is that the group will exercise control over territory -- and that will mean confronting tribal groups and other Syrian rebels that may not be on board with Jabhat al-Nusra's extremist vision. For better or worse, the reckoning between al Qaeda's Syria affiliate and other rebels groups is beginning."

Here’s what else you need to know about this troubling potential partnership – and what it means for the future of the Middle East.