In a possible sign of reluctant cooperation with the United States-led campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Al-Qaeda’s franchise in Syria says it will withdraw from its frontlines against the group in the area surrounding Aleppo and evacuate its forces from what is soon to become a jointly imposed Turkey-U.S. "ISIL-free" zone.
In a statement posted online Monday, the Nusra Front announced it would withdraw from its “frontlines with the ‘khawarij’ (ISIL) in the northern Aleppo countryside.” It explained the decision as a direct response to last month’s announcement that Turkey and the U.S. planned to carve out a roughly 60-mile-long “ISIL-free” zone along the Turkish border. That strategy involves ongoing airstrikes against ISIL in the area as well as added support for some of the rebel factions that are fighting both ISIL and the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad.
“The Nusra Front does not see entering this alliance, helping it or coordinating with it as legitimate,” the group said in its statement. The ISIL-free zone is “not a strategic decision stemming from the will of the fighting factions; rather, its main goal is Turkish national security” as well as containing the Syrian Kurds, the statement said.
Though it criticized the principle behind the U.S.-Turkey alliance, the Nusra Front’s announcement appeared to clear the way for Washington to work with anti-Assad rebels in the north.
Turkey had long demanded a buffer zone along its border with Syria as a precondition for involvement in the ongoing U.S.-led campaign against ISIL. Ankara, which already hosts potentially threatening ISIL sleeper cells, hopes such a zone will safeguard its border and help contain Kurdish YPG militias – the Syrian branch of the Turkey-based Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) insurgency – who have consolidated control of a vast area along the Turkish border. Given its expansive borders with Syria and Iraq, strategically located airbases, and considerable influence over various Syrian rebel factions, Ankara’s backing is considered essential to the anti-ISIL campaign’s success.
But Nusra’s expansion in northern Syria has complicated matters. While the U.S. and the Nusra Front have common enemies — ISIL and the Assad regime — neither is comfortable with open cooperation. In September, the U.S. launched strikes against an Al-Qaeda faction in Syria, which the Pentagon calls the “Khorasan Group" and blames for plotting attacks on U.S. soil. Nusra’s Jaysh al-Fatah coalition, meanwhile, has sparred directly with Washington's favored Syrian rebel factions, including the Free Syrian Army.
Then, late last month, Nusra telegraphed its displeasure at escalating U.S. intervention in northern Syria by attacking a base belonging to the U.S.-backed “Division 30” faction and abducting several of its fighters. The incident was particularly embarrassing for the U.S.: several of the men were among the 54 “moderate” rebels to complete the Pentagon's multi-million-dollar training program, which has been widely criticized for being too small to accomplish anything.
Had Nusra remained in the north, “you would have a situation where the U.S. would feel compelled to bomb Al-Qaeda leaders in the same areas that Turkey is seeking to protect, on the very same frontlines that they are trying to move forward,” said Aron Lund, editor of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Syria in Crisis blog. “Imagine the politics of that. What a mess.”
Some analysts suspect the group may have been pressured to withdraw by allied factions like Ahrar al-Sham, which Ankara is said to have influence over. Even if the Al-Qaeda brand will not be part of the critical battleground north of Aleppo, Nusra might consider its interests to be represented militarily through other members of the Jaysh al-Fatah coalition, including Ahrar al-Sham.
Nusra's statement on Monday appeared to be a "face-saving way of explaining why they are withdrawing in total accordance with U.S.-backed Turkish plans," Lund added. "They are handing over their positions to pro-Turkish groups and getting out of an area where they are not wanted, which allows for the Turkish-American project to proceed much easier.” A lot of Nusra's funders and supporters, Lund said, "would find it rather disheartening to see them operating as part of a security arrangement explicitly supported by the United States."