While the fight against the self-proclaimed Islamic State transfixes much of the world, a different radical group in Syria is working behind the scenes to forge relationships with the Syrian opposition and establish an Islamic caliphate of its own. Through social welfare programs and military alliances, Jabhat Fateh ash-Sham has legitimized its rule and won widespread acceptance from the Syrian people. The United States and its coalition partners should look carefully at future policy options through the lens of Jabhat Fateh ash-Sham’s strategic aims in Syria, and act accordingly.
Jabhat Fateh ash-Sham, whose name translates to “Front for the Conquest of the Levant”, is one of the most powerful groups fighting in Syria’s civil war today. Under their old name – Jabhat al-Nusra – it served as Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. In July 2016, it announced a rebranding effort and a nominal disaffiliation from Al-Qaeda central. Oddly, this realignment garnered praise and endorsement from the leader of Al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
The group’s identity change becomes less paradoxical when one views the long-term strategic calculus of Jabhat Fateh ash-Sham. Its close connection to Al-Qaeda, a foreign influence, made it difficult for the Syrian opposition to accept it. Jabhat Fateh ash-Sham’s rebranding opens a new avenue to collaborate and integrate more closely with Syrian opposition groups, providing the radical group quasi-political capital within the opposition power structure.
Jabhat Fateh ash-Sham’s professed long-term goal of “a state where the Quran is the only source of law” appears completely unchanged. In fact, Jabhat Fateh ash-Sham is working diligently to establish a miniature Islamic nation within Syria. Open-source investigations reveal a complex administrative structure within its occupied territory, where the group taxes citizens for utilities, draws up house rental agreements, manufactures civilian vehicle permits, and even provides free clinics for polio vaccinations. The Institute for the Study of War published a landmark study that noted that the group’s successful social welfare initiatives were coupled with tightly controlled Shari’a judicial courts, police services, education, and even IT support.
These radicals have had marked success in winning the favor of the locals because they provide the stability and essential services that the Syrian government – and even the more moderate Free Syrian Army coalition – cannot. They also understand Syrian aversion to hardline Shari’a law. Where the Islamic State has been unyielding and often brutal in its administration of Islamic law, Jabhat Fateh ash-Sham is accommodating and incremental. The leader of the group, Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, warned his followers: “Beware of being hard on them. Begin with the priorities and fundamentals of Islam, and be flexible on the minor parts of religion."
Herein lies the danger of Jabhat Fateh ash-Sham’s designs on Syria. While the Islamic State can capture global attention with grisly massacres, it makes little effort to gain approval from its subjugated populations. Accordingly, it relies on force to retain control over restive towns, and is largely a pariah in the Islamic world. In contrast, Jabhat Fateh ash-Sham provides a quality of life to captured towns that no other group can, inspiring loyalty and, most worryingly, establishing legitimacy as a pseudo-government.
The immediate effects of the group’s soft touch can be seen in its uncanny ability to win the allegiance of formerly moderate rebel groups. Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki (“Al-Zenki”) was a “vetted” Syrian opposition group that received U.S. weapons earlier in the conflict based on its moderate stance. In July 2016, the group teamed up with Jabhat Fateh ash-Sham to mount an offensive in northern Aleppo. Al-Zenki simultaneously joined Jaish al-Fatah – the Army of Conquest – a joint rebel coalition controlled by radical groups with ties to Al-Qaeda. This development should not be devalued by Washington policymakers – if Jabhat Fateh ash-Sham can draw former “vetted” groups into its fold, it can certainly do the same to the rest of the opposition forces.
The trend of integration and acceptance shows alarming signs of increasing as more rebel groups begin to see Jabhat Fateh ash-Sham as a force for good in their country. As the group establishes legitimacy and cements more military alliances, Western ambitions for a moderate opposition to Bashar al-Assad’s government will falter. To the average Syrian rebel, sporadic arms shipments and air strikes by the U.S. are likely no match for battle-hardened Al-Qaeda commanders who can assure tactical success. To the average Syrian citizen, ethereal aid packages from the Western coalition do not hold a candle to tangible social welfare programs down the street from their house – even if self-professed jihadists administer these programs.
If the West ignores Jabhat Fateh ash-Sham’s proficiency in establishing legitimacy and uniting with moderate opposition groups, its efforts to defeat oppressive extremism will soon come under threat. While Western leaders equivocate about the future of the region, Jabhat Fateh ash-Sham is gaining traction and legitimacy in Syria by winning the hearts and minds of the people and securing a prominent place in the opposition. A local baker in Aleppo told an NPR correspondent that Jabhat Fateh ash-Sham “is not only providing a religious alternative, it is trying to provide an alternative for the government, an alternative for the transitional revolutionary council, and also an alternative for the international community.”
A brutal and repressive Islamic State is bad enough. An Islamic caliphate that is welcomed and supported by the citizens of its host nation is a danger that the world cannot afford to ignore.
Tom Peters is a first-year graduate student in the Security Policy Studies program. He specializes in Transnational Security and Insurgency in the Middle East. Tom received his Bachelor’s degree from Boston University in 2016.