Syria’s Nusra Front Breaks from Al-Qaeda

AFP

AFP

Breitbart, by John Hayward, July 29, 2016:

The Nusra Front, formally known as Jabhat al-Nusra, has been al-Qaeda’s franchise in Syria since late 2011. The Syrian group’s leader has announced it will now cut its ties with al-Qaeda and become independent, with al-Qaeda’s blessing.

The announcement came from Nusra Front leader Abu Mohammed al-Julani in his first video statement. As the BBC reports, Julani announced that his group would be renamed Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, which translates to “Front for the Conquest of Syria/the Levant,” and will have “no affiliation to any external entity.”

The reason for the split, and the reason al-Qaeda endorsed it, was to “remove the pretext used by powers, including the U.S. and Russia, to bomb Syrians.” In other words, Julani thinks his group has been unfairly targeted because it was linked to al-Qaeda, and now that it has been formally rebranded as an independent entity, foreign powers will no longer have an excuse to bomb them.

Al-Qaeda second-in-command Ahmed Hassan Abu al-Khayr said Nusra’s leadership had been instructed to “go ahead with what protects the interests of Islam and Muslims and what protects jihad.”

“The brotherhood of Islam is stronger than any organisational links that change and go away,” declared al-Qaeda’s number one, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

The Russians do not need much of a pretext to bomb enemies of the Assad regime, and the U.S. clearly is not buying this “rebranding” strategy.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest, not even troubling himself to use the Nusra Front’s new name, said:

The United States continues to assess that Nusra Front leaders maintain the intent to conduct eventual attacks in and against the West and there continues to be increasing concern about Nusra Front’s growing capacity for external operations that could threaten both the United States and Europe.

In fact, a report earlier this year from the Institute for the Study of War, and American Enterprise Institute, portrayed the Nusra Front as “much more dangerous to the U.S. than the ISIS model in the long run.”

“We judge any organization, including this one, much more by its actions, its ideology, its goals,” added State Department spokesman John Kirby. “Thus far, there’s no change to our views about this particular group. We certainly see no reasons to believe that their actions or their objectives are any different. And they are still considered a foreign terrorist organization.”

Perhaps it would have been more crafty for the al-Qaeda bosses to avoid admitting they ordered the “breakaway” as a propaganda ploy to “protect jihad.” Also, they are making the charade much less convincing by actively seeking closer ties with other Islamist groups in Syria.

CNN notes that just two weeks ago, the United States announced closer cooperation with Russia against the Nusra Front to “restore the cessation of hostilities, significantly reduce the violence and help create the space for a genuine and credible political transition” in Syria. Nusra is one of the groups excluded from the cessation of hostilities agreement, along with ISIS.

Of course, it is unlikely that anyone in the Nusra Front or al-Qaeda expected the Western world to accept this “rebranding” effort and let them go on their merry way. The goal is to create propaganda opportunities with other Islamist groups, who can be nudged into the al-Qaeda umbrella by Nusra leaders who are supposedly no longer al-Qaeda operatives, but share their “core ideology.” There will be much caterwauling about how the Americans and Russians are still unfairly bombing “Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.”

CNN quoted analysts who also made an interesting case that the Nusra “rebranding” and the involvement of al-Qaeda second-in-command Masri are an indication Masri – supposedly “under arrest” in Iran, with the details rather murky, until recently – is actually in Syria, and may be preparing to take charge of al-Qaeda from Zawahiri.

This would enable Masri to continue Zawahiri’s strategy of spreading jihadi ideology without explicit connections to al-Qaeda at present, with an eye toward reasserting al-Qaeda as the Wal-Mart of jihad once ISIS has been defeated.

The report by the Institute for the Study of War/AEI, mentioned above, made the case that Nusra was “quietly entwining itself with the Syrian population and Syrian opposition,” and was “waiting in the wings to pick up the mantle of global jihad once ISIS falls,” as ISW president Kim Kagan put it.

This would make Nusra much more difficult to target than ISIS, which is not exactly easy to target, once it sinks roots into urban conquests, lines up human shields, and positions them to keep Syria in a state of war for years to come, no matter what political deals might be struck with other insurgent factions. From that constant turmoil, they could supply al-Qaeda with weapons and trained fighters to strike targets across the world.

Speaking in January, Kagan observed that the Nusra Front chose not to overtly attack the West “because the al-Qaeda leadership’s priority is preserving success in Syria and avoiding being targeted by the U.S.” This “rebranding” maneuver fits neatly into the strategy she described.

Also see:

The CIA’s Syria Program and the Perils of Proxies

Fadi Al-Halabi/AFP/Getty Images

Fadi Al-Halabi/AFP/Getty Images

Daily Beast, by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Nathaniel Barr, Jan. 19, 2016:

After fighting al Qaeda and its affiliates for a decade and a half, the CIA is now helping them gain ground in Syria.
Almost every aspect of the Obama administration’s policy toward Syria has been scrutinized, lambasted or praised in recent months, but one of the most significant facets, the CIA’s covert aid program to Syrian rebels, has largely slipped below the radar.

It is time that we start paying attention, since this initiative is benefiting the very jihadist groups the U.S. has been fighting for the past 15 years.

America’s abrupt about-face is a mistake, but even those who would defend this new course as the least bad option should favor a more robust public debate.

The CIA’s program, launched in 2013, initially was conceived as a way of strengthening moderate rebels fighting Bashar al-Assad’s regime without significantly increasing the U.S. footprint in the conflict.

The program got off to a slow start, with rebel commanders grumbling that the CIA was stingy due to its concern that weapons would fall into extremists’ hands. As a result, moderate rebels were forced at times to ration ammunition. At least one rebel group severed its ties with the CIA and joined an Islamist-led coalition, while other CIA-backed rebels stopped fighting.

After these early hiccups, the program evolved.

Anonymous U.S. officials now tell the media that CIA-backed rebels have begun to experience unprecedented successes, particularly in northwestern Syria. Yet these gains reveal a darker side to the CIA-backed groups’ victories, and even American officials’ framing of these advances provides reason for concern. As the Associated Press reported in October, officials have explained that the CIA-backed groups were capturing new territory by “fighting alongside more extremist factions.”

Who are these extremist co-belligerents? Analysis of the geography of “moderate” rebels’ gains during this period and reports from the battlefield demonstrate that CIA-backed groups collaborated with Jaysh al-Fateh, an Islamist coalition in which Jabhat al-Nusra—al Qaeda’s official Syrian affiliate—is a leading player.

Hassan Hassan, co-author (with The Daily Beast’s Michael Weiss) of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, suggested that rebel gains in Idlib in April 2015 showcased the symmetries between CIA-backed forces and Nusra when he attributed the rebels’ successes to suicide bombers (frequently deployed by Nusra and other jihadists) and “American anti-tank TOW missiles.” In southern Syria, the CIA-backed Southern Front fought alongside Nusra in the campaign to take the city of Deraa in June 2015.

CIA-backed groups in northwestern Syria publicly acknowledge their relationship with the al Qaeda affiliate. A commander of Fursan ul-Haq, a rebel group that received TOW missiles through CIA channels, explained that “there is something misunderstood by world powers: We have to work with Nusra Front and other groups to fight” both Assad’s regime and the Islamic State.

Similarly, a spokesman for CIA-backed Suqour al-Ghab justified his group’s collaboration with Nusra by noting that “we work with all factions when there are attacks on the regime, either through direct cooperation or just coordinating the movements of troops so we don’t fire at each other.”

The fact that CIA-backed groups collaborate with Nusra does not necessarily prove that they harbor jihadist sympathies, nor that they hoodwinked the American officials who vetted them. In many or perhaps most cases, these groups’ decision to cooperate with Nusra is born out of pragmatism.

When fighting a regime as brutal as Assad’s, it is natural to look for allies wherever they may be found. Further, as one of the dominant players in northern Syria, Nusra can dictate terms to smaller rebel factions. The experiences of Harakat Hazm and the Syrian Revolutionary Front, two CIA-backed groups that Nusra literally obliterated in late 2014, are a stark warning.

Jamaal Maarouf, the commander of the Syrian Revolutionary Front, explainedafter his group was ousted from Syria that no militia in the rebel umbrella organization known as the Free Syrian Army can operate in northern Syria “without Nusra’s approval.”

Because of Nusra’s strength, CIA-backed factions have entered what has beencalled a “marriage of necessity” with the jihadist group, which is exploiting its position to gain access to American weapons.

After rebels seized a Syrian military base in Idlib province in December 2014, CIA-backed groups admitted that they had been forced to use U.S.-provided TOW missiles to support the Nusra-led offensive. One rebel explained that Nusra had allowed CIA-backed groups to retain physical control of the missiles so as to maintain the veneer of autonomy, thus allowing them to sustain their relationship with the CIA. In short, Nusra has at times gamed the system.

But such subterfuge notwithstanding, at this point it is impossible to argue that U.S. officials involved in the CIA’s program cannot discern that Nusra and other extremists have benefited. And despite this, the CIA decided to drastically increase lethal support to vetted rebel factions following the Russian intervention into Syria in late September.

Rebels who previously complained about the CIA’s tight-fistedness suddenly found the floodgates open, particularly with respect to TOW missiles. One rebel explained: “We can get as much as we need and whenever we need them. Just fill in the numbers.” Reports suggest that the Obama administration and Sunni states backing the opposition have also discussed, though not committed to, providing shoulder-fired anti-aircraft weapons to vetted groups.

With the CIA doubling down on its support for Syrian rebels, it is now more important than ever to have a candid and vigorous public debate about the agency’s program. Put simply, such an about-face in U.S. policy—backing groups that help al Qaeda to make advances, after spending a decade and a half fighting the jihadist group—should not occur without a public debate that helps Americans understand why such drastic changes in U.S. policy have occurred.

Several prominent figures have defended this program. For instance, Robert Ford, the former U.S. ambassador to Syria, argued that by maintaining the supply of lethal support to moderate rebels, the CIA may ultimately be able to build up these factions as a viable alternative to Nusra, the Islamic State and Assad.

But the program’s costs outweigh its possible benefits. Though aiding al Qaeda’s advances is not the program’s intention, it is the effect. Thus, after fighting al Qaeda and its affiliates for a decade and a half, the CIA is now helping them gain ground in Syria.

At the moment, al Qaeda is trying to rebrand itself by contrasting its approach to that of the far more brutal Islamic State—and, unfortunately, it has experienced some success due to its jihadist competitor’s excesses and the escalating conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Al Qaeda has portrayed itself to Sunni states and the Muslim public as a bulwark against both the Islamic State’s growth and Iranian encroachment. If U.S.-backed rebels are cooperating with al Qaeda, the United States will be hard-pressed to stop al Qaeda from gaining more room to operate in the region.

It is unlikely that the United States, with no meaningful presence in Syria, understands the situation on the ground better than al Qaeda, and can strategically outmaneuver the jihadist group. The danger is too great that continuation of this policy will empower Nusra further, eventually forcing policymakers to confront a greatly emboldened al Qaeda force in Syria.

This is why, at the very least, we should have a robust public discussion about whether to continue this course in Syria—a debate that the U.S. Congress is well positioned to kickstart through public hearings on the CIA’s program. Allowing this program to continue without carefully thinking through the benefits, costs, and possible unintended consequences is incredibly risky, and could erode public trust and support.

***

Also see:

U.S. Acting as Air Support to Al-Qaeda in Syria Against ISIS

Al Nusrah leader Abu Muhammad al Julani interview with Al Jazeera June 3, 2015 Source: http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2015/06/inheritedjihad.php

Al Nusrah leader Abu Muhammad al Julani interview with Al Jazeera June 3, 2015 Source: http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2015/06/inheritedjihad.php

PJ Media by Patrick Poole, June 7, 2015:

U.S. coalition aircraft struck ISIS positions in support of Syrian rebels, including Jabhat al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda’s official Syria affiliate, along with another prominent jihadist group, Ahrar al-Sham. This is a dramatic shift from just a year and a half ago, when Obama administration officials said they would support Islamist groups as long as they weren’t allied with Al-Qaeda.

Agence France Presse reports:

US-led aircraft bombed Islamic State group fighters as they battled rival Syrian rebels, including Al-Qaeda loyalists, for the first time, a monitoring group said on Sunday.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights described the overnight raids in northern Aleppo as an intervention on the side of the rival rebels, which include forces who have been targeted previously by US-led strikes.

“The coalition carried out at least four strikes overnight targeting IS positions in the town of Suran,” the Britain-based Observatory said.

“It’s the first time that the international coalition has supported non-Kurdish opposition forces fighting the Islamic State,” Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.

He said at least eight IS fighters were killed in the strikes and another 20 were injured.

This is also the first time that the U.S. has openly acted as air support for Al-Qaeda.

It needs to be stressed that U.S. airstrikes have targeted Jabhat al-Nusra in just the past month. Now we are effectively their air force. Nusra was designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. in December 2012.

Some may remember the breathless media reports last September that a previously unmentioned terror group operating inside Syria was plotting attacks on the U.S. and other Western targets, described by U.S. officials as the “Khorasan group.” As Al-Aan TV later revealed, the “Khorasan group” was nothing more than an elite group of foreign fighters working as part of Jabhat al-Nusra.

Thus began a series of U.S. strikes targeting al-Nusra:

Sept. 23: An airstrike killed Nusra leader Abu Yousef al-Turki.

Nov. 13: A Nusra base near Idlib was hit killing two.

Nov. 19: A storage facility controlled by Nusra was struck near the Turkish border at Harem.

March 9: A local Nusra headquarters in Bab al-Hawa was targeted close to the Turkish border.

May 20: Two Nusra buildings in Tawama were destroyed, killing 15 fighters.

This dramatic shift in U.S. policy towards al-Nusra has not gone unnoticed:

tweets2

tweet1

So what changed?

Undoubtedly Nusra’s role in the opposition to ISIS was the topic of conversation at last month’s U.S.-Gulf Cooperation Council’s meetings at Camp David. Nusra’s role in the Syrian opposition, particularly in the northwest part of the country, has grown considerably. If anyone could direct the Al-Qaeda franchise to cease plans directed at Western targets to allay fears of the Obama administration, it would be their Gulf sponsors.

Perhaps the result of those discussions was a two-part Al Jazeera interview with Nusra commander Abu Muhammad al-Julani. Speculation by some in the D.C. foreign policy community was that Julani was going to renounce the group’s allegiance to Al-Qaeda head Ayman al-Zawahiri.

But, as Tom Joscelyn at the Long War Journal noted, Julani made clear that Jabhat al-Nusra was Al-Qaeda’s operation and would remain so in submission to Zawahiri. Yet some in the D.C. foreign policy circles still insist that Nusra is becoming more “pragmatic.”

As I reported here at PJ Media in March, there is a major effort on the part of academics and journalists to rehabilitate Al-Qaeda’s image in the face of a growing ISIS threat.

And now, with Julani doubling-down on his allegiance to Al-Qaeda and Zawahiri, the U.S. is in the awkward position of providing air support to the very terror group, along with other “moderate” jihadists, in their struggle over territory with ISIS.

So our official policy is now to support the terrorists in Column A to fight (for now) the terrorists in Column B.

Some are happy with this development:

tweet3

I have reported here at PJ Media extensively over the past year about the shifting allegiances and alliances with terror groups by U.S.-backed Syrian rebel groups. In fact, much of the recent gains made by Jabhat al-Nusra against the Assad regime have come as a result of U.S. TOW anti-tank missiles that had been provided to other groups that later fell into Nusra hands.

There are no assurances that Julani and Nusra will remain in the anti-ISIS camp. In fact, Julani previously served as one of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s deputies and nothing prevents some kind of reconciliation down the road.

Barack Obama’s schizophrenic — and at times, contradictory — policy towards Syria has led us to this point where U.S. forces are serving in support of anti-ISIS elements, including Al-Qaeda. Not fourteen years after 9/11, is this what American signed up for?

San Diego Man Arrested for Working for Al-Qaeda Sharia Court in Syria, Fighting with Terror Group

PJ Media, by Patridk Poole, April 23, 2015:

Yesterday the FBI in San Diego arrested Mohamad Saeed Kodaimati, a naturalized U.S. citizen since September 2008, for making false statements to U.S. Embassy officials, Customs and Border Protection and the FBI related to his time in Syria and Turkey over the past two years. Kodaimati left the U.S. in late December 2012 and returned on March 23.

According to the FBI affidavit in support of the criminal complaint filed today in the case against Kodaimati, the 24-year-old man was caught in a series of lies related to his work on behalf of a sharia court operated by Jabhat al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria and a U.S. designated terrorist organization, and also his role mediating between Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS.

Ultimately, Kodaimati was tripped up by his posts to Facebook.

According to the FBI, he stated in a September 2013 private message on Facebook that he worked for the sharia court in Hanano near Aleppo. He would post media statements from the Nusra-operated sharia court to social media.

The FBI complaint also alleges that Kodaimati was a close associate with a senior ISIS operative in the area, with whom he mediated on behalf of others in the area to resolve conflicts between ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. He also posted pictures to his Facebook account (now removed) of him with another known ISIS operative.

In his Facebook communications, he also recounted how he, his father and his brother fought with Jabhat al-Nusra against the Assad regime for four months.

He was initially questioned at the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, Turkey, on March 10 and 11. He was later questioned about his activities in Syria by Customs and Border Patrol upon his reentry to the U.S. at the airport in Charlotte, NC, on March 23, and later by the FBI in Charlotte on March 25. After being questioned at his home in San Diego yesterday, he was taken into custody.

Here’s the FBI complaint:

Kodaimati Criminal Complaint by Stewart Bell

Ohio Arrest Shows Threat to U.S. from Al-Qaeda in Syria

ohiolg_0

What now for the U.S.’ relationship with Al-Nusra after an American goes to Syria for jihadist training and returns to commit terrorism?

Clarion Project, by Ryan Mauro, April 19, 2015:

Al-Nusrah American citizen Abdirahman Sheik Mohamud was indicted after a cleric associated with Jabhat al-Nusra (Al-Qaeda in Syria) ordered him to carry out an attack here, the Justice Department announced. His plot to attack a military base in Texas was thwarted. The involvement of Al-Nusra will make it difficult for the U.S. to keep looking the other way as it gains territory in Syria.

Originally from Somalia, Mohamud grew up in the U.S. He lives in Columbus, Ohio and Islamist radicalism seems to be a family affair in this case. His brother died fighting for Al-Qaeda in Syria and was apparently a major influence in Mohamud’s radicalization.

Their younger brother, Abdiqani Aden, was arrested earlier this month during a visit to Mohamud because he made a gun symbol with his hands and pointed towards the sheriff’s deputies. He was speaking in a foreign language at the time. This is especially threatening because Mohamud’s second-choice target was a prison.

The government’s monitoring of communication between the two older brothers shows their motivations were not frustration with U.S. foreign policy or personal trials. They were inspired by a glorification of those who die in violent jihad and a belief that such “martyrs” are guaranteed entry into heaven.

His brother left the U.S. in May 2013 and went to Syria to link up with Jabhat al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda’s Syrian wing. Mohamud’s travel arrangements involved Al-Nusra members and that is presumably the group he joined, but his online postings showed his loyalty was with ISIS. Al-Nusra facilitators appear to have been surprisingly unconcerned by this.

This may indicate the rift between the leadership of ISIS and Al-Qaeda isn’t necessarily trickling down to most of the membership. The attacks in Paris are another example where Al-Qaeda and ISIS supporters worked together despite the quarrels of their leaders.

His brother was killed in June 2014 and he returned home afterwards. Mohamud told a close associate that he completed his training with an unidentified terrorist group in Syria and a cleric told him to return to the U.S. to carry out an attack. The indictment charges Mohamud with providing material support to Al-Nusra, so it appears that he never joined ISIS.

Mohamud began plotting but two unidentified individuals close to him reported their dialogues to the FBI and likely recorded them. One was a friend of his for three years and all indications point to one or both of these informants being Muslim. This is another example of why the demonization of informants by groups like the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) is so dangerous.

Mohamud decided his preference was to attack a military site with a prison as a backup option. He chose a base in Texas and hoped to execute three or four U.S. soldiers before achieving “martyrdom.” The FBI arrested him before he could start putting the details together.

The cleric’s involvement is an important detail because it threatens to unravel the Obama Administration’s façade that Al-Nusra isn’t a direct threat to America. It also indicates the group is putting an increased emphasis on hitting us at home.

The U.S. realized in September the air campaign against ISIS needed to include a unit within Al-Nusra named the Khorasan Group that was orchestrating terror plots against the West. The problem is that Al-Nusra is much more popular than ISIS and works closely with other Syrian rebels, including ones the U.S. supported and anticipated relying upon to fight ISIS on the ground.

The desire to avoid alienating Al-Qaeda-allied Syrian rebels and their supporters led the Obama Administration to begin promoting a myththat the Khorasan Group is an independent entity that is somehow illogically linked to Al-Qaeda but not Al-Nusra. The New York Timesrepeated it in its coverage of this case.

The myth is harmful to U.S. interests and anti-Islamist Syrians because it distances Al-Nusra from Al-Qaeda, thereby giving it a higher ceiling of public support. A Zogby poll in November found the population of Turkey favors Al-Nusra above all other participants in the Syrian civil war. A whopping 40% of Turks support Al-Nusra the most.

The indications are that Mohamud’s Syrian cleric is from Al-Nusra but it’s still significant he’s in ISIS because that would mean it is now dispatching operatives from the region to America. That would be a shift from relying on so-called “lone wolves” inside the U.S. who plan terrorism because they’ve determined that traveling to the Caliphateis unlikely to succeed.

It is true that Mohamud’s case is important because it’s the first publicly-acknowledged case of an American going to Syria for jihadist training and returning home to commit terrorism, but there’s a bigger point to be made. The U.S. is at war with Jabhat al-Nusra because it is at war with Al-Qaeda. If a Syrian rebel partner doesn’t approve of the U.S. recognizing that unavoidable fact, then that’s not a partner worth having.

Sunni Jihadists Gain Ground in Syria

Syrians in the city of Idlib on Wednesday lined up to receive bread. The city was seized last weekend by the Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, which said it would not try to monopolize power there. Credit Mohamad Bayoush/Reuters

Syrians in the city of Idlib on Wednesday lined up to receive bread. The city was seized last weekend by the Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, which said it would not try to monopolize power there. Credit Mohamad Bayoush/Reuters

CSP, by Aaron Kliegman, April 1, 2015:

The al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front seized the provincial capital of Idlib in northwestern Syria this past weekend. Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s forces withdrew after five days of intense fighting with a primarily al-Nusra-dominated coalition of rebels, all of whom are part of the multi-faceted Syrian opposition.

According to the “Army of Conquest”, the name of the coalition, 70 rebels were killed in the decisive battle. Beyond al-Nusra, other Islamist militias helped in the effort including Ahrar al-Sham, Jund al-Aqsa, Liwa al-Haqq, and Failaq al-Sham, and some smaller groups played a lesser role.

Al-Nusra said today that it will rule Idlib with sharia law, with the group’s leader Abu Mohamad al-Golani stating, “We salute the people of Idlib and their stand with their sons … God willing they will enjoy the justice of sharia, which will preserve their religion and their blood.” While the jihadists were battling the regime and now are trying to setup Islamic governance, hundreds of thousands of residents have reportedly fled the city.

Idlib has strategic significance for multiple reasons, including that it is 20 miles from the Turkish border, and one Syrian military source accused Turkey of helping the rebels take Idlib. Furthermore, Idlib is only the second provincial capital that Assad has lost, the first one being Raqqa. The Sunni jihadists are gaining ground and can consolidate their power in Idlib to move onto other strategic targets. Idlib is important for exerting control northeast toward Aleppo city, and the rebels are better suited to move towards Hama city and its military airfield or into the regime’s heartland.

As al-Nusra is imposing sharia law on Idlib, its main rival jihadist group, Islamic State (ISIS), seized most of the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp on the outskirts of Damascus, Syria’s capital. Al-Nusra members who defected to ISIS helped in the fight against Assad regime forces. According to the U.N., before the onset of the Syrian civil war in 2011, Yarmouk was home to about 200,000 people; now, that number is down to 18,000.

ISIS has been attempting to push into western Syria, far way from its main strongholds, for months. The group is trying to establish sleeper cells in the areas around Damascus and maintain a firm presence there. While the regime has strong checkpoints to repel attackers from Damascus, ISIS’s presence so near to the capital indicates that they are getting closer.

While these two developments are occurring, Syrian rebels, including Jabhat al-Nusra, were fighting Wednesday with regime forces along the Jordanian border. The rebels attacked the main border crossing between the two countries on the Syrian side, known as the Nasib post, causing Jordan to close the area. According to Conflict News, al-Nusra militants captured the border crossing on the same day. If true, Jordan will rightfully be concerned about the fighting’s proximity to its border, especially while it has been dealing with an influx of Syrian refugees throughout the civil war.

All of these stories show the increasingly chaotic situation in Syria. While ISIS is adding territory to its self-declared caliphate, the al-Nusra front is also quietly gaining territory. Both groups’ success will only increase their propaganda and bring in more recruits. With Sunni jihadists groups on the move and the Assad regime trying to hold onto as much of the country as possible, there seems to be no good foreseeable outcome. The conflict will only get more complicated as the fighting gets closer to Turkish and Jordanian territory and Islamist rebels get closer to Damascus.

Also see:

What Is the Islamic State Trying to Accomplish?

(Image: ISIS video)

(Image: ISIS video)

National Review, By Andrew C. McCarthy, Feb. 7, 2015:

The Islamic State’s barbaric murder of Lieutenant Mouath al-Kasaebeh, the Jordanian air-force pilot the jihadists captured late last year, has naturally given rise to questions about the group’s objectives. Charles Krauthammer argues (here and here) that the Islamic State is trying to draw Jordan into a land war in Syria. It is no doubt correct that the terrorist group would like to destabilize Jordan — indeed, it is destabilizing Jordan. Its immediate aim, however, is more modest and attainable. The Islamic State wants to break up President Obama’s much trumpeted Islamic-American coalition.

As the administration proudly announced back in September, Jordan joined the U.S. coalition, along with the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Qatar. The only potential value of the coalition is symbolic: It has enabled the president to claim that Muslim countries were lining up with us against the Islamic State. Militarily, the coalition is of little use. These countries cannot defeat the Islamic State.

Moreover, even the symbolism is insignificant. Symbolism, after all, cuts both ways. As I pointed out when the administration breathlessly announced the coalition, our five Islamic partners have only been willing to conduct (extremely limited) aerial operations against the Islamic State. They would not attack al-Qaeda targets — i.e., the strongholds of al-Nusra (the local al-Qaeda franchise) and “Khorasan” (an al-Qaeda advisory council that operates within al-Nusra in Syria).

Obviously, if the relevance of the five Islamic countries’ willingness to fight the Islamic State is the implication that the Islamic State is not really Islamic, then their unwillingness to fight al-Qaeda equally implies their assessment that al-Qaeda is representative of Islam. The latter implication no doubt explains why the Saudis, Qatar, and the UAE have given so much funding over the years to al-Qaeda . . . the terror network from which the Islamic State originates and with which the Islamic State shares its sharia-supremacist ideology.

I’ll give the Saudis this: They don’t burn their prisoners alive in a cage. As previously recounted here, though, they routinely behead their prisoners. In fact, here’s another report from the British press just three weeks ago:

Authorities in Saudi Arabia have publicly beheaded a woman in Islam’s holy city of Mecca. . . . Laila Bint Abdul Muttalib Basim, a Burmese woman who resided in Saudi Arabia, was executed by sword on Monday after being dragged through the street and held down by four police officers.

She was convicted of the sexual abuse and murder of her seven-year-old step-daughter.

A video showed how it took three blows to complete the execution, while the woman screamed “I did not kill. I did not kill.” It has now been removed by YouTube as part of its policy on “shocking and disgusting content”.

There are two ways to behead people according to Mohammed al-Saeedi, a human rights activist: “One way is to inject the prisoner with painkillers to numb the pain and the other is without the painkiller. . . . This woman was beheaded without painkillers — they wanted to make the pain more powerful for her.”

The Saudi Ministry of the Interior said in a statement that it believed the sentence was warranted due to the severity of the crime.

The beheading is part of an alarming trend, which has seen the kingdom execute seven people in the first two weeks of this year. In 2014 the number of executions rose to 87, from 78 in 2013.

Would that the president of the United States were more worried about the security of the United States than about how people in such repulsive countries perceive the United States.

In any event, the Islamic State is simply trying to blow up the coalition, which would be a useful propaganda victory. And the strategy is working. It appears at this point that only Jordan is participating in the airstrikes. While all eyes were on Jordan this week for a reaction to Lieutenant al-Kasaebeh’s immolation, the administration has quietly conceded that the UAE suspended its participation in bombing missions when the pilot was captured in December.

The explanation for this is obvious: The Islamic countries in the coalition know they can’t stop the Islamic State unless the United States joins the fight in earnest, and they know this president is not serious. The White House says the coalition has carried out a total of about 1,000 airstrikes in the last five months. In Desert Storm, we did 1,100 a day.

Seven strikes a day is not going to accomplish anything, especially with no troops on the ground, and thus no search-and-rescue capability in the event planes go down, as Lieutenant al-Kasaebeh’s did. With no prospect of winning, and with a high potential of losing pilots and agitating the rambunctious Islamists in their own populations, why would these countries continue to participate?

The Islamic State knows there is intense opposition to King Abdullah’s decision to join in the coalition. While the Islamic State’s sadistic method of killing the pilot has the king and his supporters talking tough about retaliation, millions of Jordanians are Islamist in orientation and thousands have crossed into Syria and Iraq to fight for the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. There will continue to be pressure on Jordan to withdraw. Without a real American commitment to the fight, this pressure will get harder for Abdullah to resist.

Jordan has no intention of getting into a land war the king knows he cannot win without U.S. forces leading the way. But the Islamic State does not need to lure Jordan into a land war in order to destabilize the country — it is already doing plenty of that by intensifying the Syrian refugee crisis, sending Jordanians back home from Syria as trained jihadists, and trying to assassinate Abdullah.

I will close by repeating the larger point I’ve argued several times before. We know from experience that when jihadists have safe havens, they attack the United States. They now have more safe havens than they’ve ever had before — not just because of what the Islamic State has accomplished in what used to be Syria and Iraq (the map of the Middle East needs updating) but because of what al-Qaeda has done there and in North Africa, what the Taliban and al-Qaeda are doing in Afghanistan, and so on.

If we understand, as we by now should, what these safe havens portend, then we must grasp that the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and the global jihad constitute a threat to American national security. That they also (and more immediately) threaten Arab Islamic countries is true, but it is not close to being our top concern. Ensuring our security is a concern that could not be responsibly delegated to other countries even if they had formidable armed forces — which the “coalition” countries do not.

The Islamic State and al-Qaeda are our problem.

— Andrew C. McCarthy is a policy fellow at the National Review Institute. His latest book is Faithless Execution: Building the Political Case for Obama’s Impeachment.