But the newcomer ISIS, with its high proportion of foreign fighters, has eclipsed Jabhat al-Nusra as it enforces bans on smoking, forces women to wear the veil, carries out public executions and clashes with other rebel groups to expand in opposition-held areas.
Amid concerns about ISIS’s plans, other rebel groups are looking to Jabhat al-Nusra as a counterbalance and have been teaming up with it on the battlefield.
Jabhat al-Nusra fighters say the group is changing, as its more-extreme members drift to ISIS. That helps the group present itself as a more mainstream — and more Syrian — force.
That change comes amid an overall radicalization of the Syrian rebel movement and a weakening of moderate groups that have left the West wary of supplying support.
Abdul Kareem Dahneen, a 31-year-old from the northern city of Idlib who joined Jabhat al-Nusra a year ago, said the group’s relations with local communities have improved in recent months. He attributed that largely to the departure of foreign fighters who traveled to Syria to battle for the establishment of a caliphate, a traditional Islamic political system. The foreigners had different ambitions than the Syrian fighters who rose up to battle Assad, he said.
“Of course this had an effect,” Dahneen said. “Now with Jabhat, we are more moderate with the people.”
Shift in perception
When ISIS emerged as a force in March, all the foreign fighters in Dahneen’s unit — 30 out of 40 men, hailing from places such as Chechnya, Tunisia and Algeria — left to join the group, he said. They packed up and opened a base less than 100 yards down the road.
He said the shift in perception about Jabhat al-Nusra has prompted Syrians who might have previously shunned the group to join, helping make up for the drain in foreign fighters.
Mohammed, a 25-year-old Jabhat al-Nusra fighter who declined to give his last name, said he would have had reservations about joining the group before the foreigners left.
“The very extreme foreigners went to Islamic State, and the Syrians stayed with Nusra,” he said. “We are Syrians. We refuse these extremists’ ways.”
Some rebel groups say they see Jabhat al-Nusra as key to curbing ISIS’s expansion in rebel-held areas and are keen to reach out to the group.
Jabhat al-Nusra, once focused on solo operations or on cooperating with hard-line Islamist battalions, has been fighting alongside a much wider array of rebel groups in recent months.
“They have changed their strategy recently and become closer to the mainstream FSA,” said Yasser al-Haji, a spokesman for the military council of the Free Syrian Army in Aleppo. “They are trying to improve their image a little bit. With the West not supporting us, we have no choice but to cooperate.”
“They can play a vital role,” said Rami Jarrah, a Syrian activist and co-director of the citizen-journalist ANA New Media Association. ISIS attacked ANA’s office in the north-central city of Raqqah last month, and one of its employees was kidnapped. “We aren’t going to be able to take on ISIS without Nusra. Them being part of the solution is not crazy to us.”
Jarrah said Jabhat al-Nusra’s designation by the United States as a terrorist organization is a major hurdle to co-opting it in the moderate opposition’s struggle against ISIS.
Jabhat al-Nusra has asserted responsibility for bombings in Deir al-Zour and Damascus in recent weeks. Activists said the group was also responsible for a suicide truck bombing that killed dozens
in the central city of Hama on Oct. 20.
But on an increasingly muddied battlefield, even secular activists see the group as a potential partner.
Analysts point to a disconnect between Jabhat al-Nusra’s leadership and its fighters on the ground. At the head of the organization is Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, who has fought with al-Qaeda in Iraq and affirmed Jabhat al-Nusra’s allegiance to al-Qaeda’s overall leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
“There’s been a shift, and Nusra’s been willing to coordinate with some more-nationalist groups and tone down its extremist ideology,” said Charles Lister, an analyst at IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center.
“But it’s not the case that the leadership has changed in any way. On a localized level, there’s a realization that it’s important to be pragmatic, both on the battlefield and to acquire popular support.”
Given that backdrop, it is unlikely that there will be any real conflict between Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS, Lister said, though the groups have engaged in isolated clashes. Still, for Jabhat al-Nusra’s foot soldiers, the distinction between the two groups is clear.
“In the beginning, we went out to the streets because we refused the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad,” said Mohammed, the Jabhat al-Nusra fighter. “And we aren’t going to let any other dictatorship like Islamic State rule us. That’s what they are: a dictatorship.”