Al Qaeda is revealing its long game in Syria

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Scepticism in Aleppo About Whether Syria Truce Will Hold

Al Qaeda is employing a strategy that might help the terrorist group outlast ISIS in Syria, and it's revealing its true jihadist endgame in the process.

As a different terrorist group, ISIS -- aka the Islamic State, ISIL, or Daesh -- claims responsibility for a terrorist attack in Belgium, Syrian Al Qaeda affiliate the Nusra Front (also known as Jabhat al-Nusra) is flying under the radar, hoping to continue gaining influence in Syria.

And experts think that it could be a bigger threat to the US than ISIS in the long term.

While ISIS has taken over territory in the Middle East with force and uses violence to repress the populations it controls, the Nusra Front has been working toward winning popular support in the country, hoping that its strategy will help it outlast other jihadist groups.

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The Nusra Front has fashioned itself as an important partner in the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad. Unlike ISIS, which imposes harsh Islamic laws soon after it forcefully seizes territory, the Nusra Front has generally been slower to crack down on civilian populations.

The jihadists are waiting for Syrians to slowly come around to the idea of Islamic rule, which lowers the chance of a successful uprising if the Nusra Front is able to establish Syria as an Islamic emirate.

"This is all the long game," Thomas Joscelyn, an Al Qaeda expert and senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told Business Insider. "The concept of jihad and the notion of jihad as [Al Qaeda] understands it was missing in Syria for decades. Their whole idea is to use the war to inculcate the ideology of jihad among the population, which is a slow process."

Civil war has been dragging on in Syria for the past five years as Assad fights to hold on to power. Moderate rebels, whose main focus is on defeating Assad, are struggling to make gains as they face onslaughts from the regime and jihadist groups like the Nusra Front.

See the most moving photos from the Syrian civil war:

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Syrian war overview (2015)
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Al Qaeda is revealing its long game in Syria
A Syrian refugee carries a baby over the broken border fence into Turkey after breaking the border fence and crossing from Syria in Akcakale, Sanliurfa province, southeastern Turkey, Sunday, June 14, 2015. The mass displacement of Syrians across the border into Turkey comes as Kurdish fighters and Islamic extremists clashed in nearby city of Tal Abyad. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
IDLIB, SYRIA - SEPTEMBER 06: Syrian search and rescue team search for the victims after Syrian regime attack in Ariha neighborhood in Idlib, Syria on September 6, 2015. A separate attack carried out by Syrian army helicopters in the town of Ariha south of Idlib killed at least six others, another local civil defense source said. (Photo by Mohammad Amen Qurabi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
DAMASCUS, SYRIA - AUGUST 20 : Syrian firefighters try to extinguish a fire at a building after Asad regime forces' airstrikes on a residential area in the opposition controlled Damascus suburb of Douma, Syria on August 20, 2015. (Photo by Motaseem Rashed/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
DARAA, SYRIA - AUGUST 19 : A view of the destruction after the Assad regime forces shelling on the opposition-controlled areas in Daraa, Syria on August 19, 2015. Many buildings including houses, workplaces and infrastructure were damaged in the attacks. (Photo by Ammar el Ali/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ALEPPO, SYRIA - JUNE 09: An injured Syrian man is carried on a stretcher by emergency staff after a barrel bomb attack dropped by Syrian regime forces on a bakery in Ansari neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria on June 09, 2015. (Photo by Stringer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Syrian refugees wait between Syria and Turkish border as Turkish soldiers block them to pass Turkish side, on June 9, 2015, at Akcakale, in Sanliurfa province. Some 4,000 Syrians have sought refuge in Turkey this week, fleeing fresh clashes pitting Kurdish fighters against the Islamic State (IS) group, a Turkish official said Friday. Kurdish forces are trying to drive the militants out of Tel Abyad, in Syria's Hassakah province, close to the Turkish border town of Akcakale. AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILIC (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)
Syrian rescue workers and citizens evacuate people from a building following a reported barrel bomb attack by Syrian government forces on the central al-Fardous rebel held neighbourhood of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, on June 9, 2015. AFP PHOTO / KARAM AL-MASRI (Photo credit should read KARAM AL-MASRI/AFP/Getty Images)
A Syrian man carries a body after it was removed from the rubble of buildings following a reported barrel bomb attack by government forces on the Qadi Askar district of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on May 20, 2015. AFP PHOTO / AMC / ZEIN AL-RIFAI (Photo credit should read ZEIN AL-RIFAI/AFP/Getty Images)
Smoke billows following the detonation of explosives placed by Syrian government forces inside a tunnel that was reportedly used by rebels in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on May 19, 2015. AFP PHOTO / GEORGE OURFALIAN (Photo credit should read GEORGE OURFALIAN/AFP/Getty Images)
A fighter from a local popular committee, which supports the Syrian government forces, guards a look out point in the Hamidiyeh neighbourhood of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo as they try to defend the traditionally Christian district on the third day of intense battles with Islamic State group jihadists on April 9, 2015. AFP PHOTO / GEORGE OUFALIAN (Photo credit should read GEORGE OURFALIAN/AFP/Getty Images)
In this photo released on May 4, 2015, by a militant website, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, Islamic State militants pass by a convoy in Tel Abyad town, northeast Syria. In contrast to the failures of the Iraqi army, in Syria Kurdish fighters are on the march against the Islamic State group, capturing towns and villages in an oil-rich swath of the country's northeast in recent days, under the cover of U.S.-led airstrikes. (Militant website via AP)
A man walks past the rubble of a building following reported shelling by Syrian government forces in the Bab al-Hadid neighbourhood of the northern city of Aleppo on April 18, 2015. Aleppo has been devastated by fighting since rebel fighters seized its eastern half in 2012, setting up a front line that carves through its historic heart. AFP PHOTO / ZEIN AL-RIFAI (Photo credit should read ZEIN AL-RIFAI/AFP/Getty Images)
FILE - In this Tuesday June 2, 2015 file photo, a migrant from Syria waits at the port of Kos island, Greece, after she and others were rescued by the Greek Coast Guard while they were trying to cross from Turkey to Greece on a dinghy. Greece and Italy are the main points of entry into the European Union for refugees and economic migrants from the Middle East and Africa hoping to reach other European Union countries. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris, File)
A Kurdish fighter poses with a rabbit on the outskirts of the Syrian town of Kobane, also known as Ain al-Arab, on March 30, 2015. Islamic State (IS) fighters were driven out of Kobane on January 26, by Kurdish and allied forces. AFP PHOTO/YASIN AKGUL (Photo credit should read YASIN AKGUL/AFP/Getty Images)
Young boys play on a destroyed building near a sign reading 'Kobane' in the Syrian town of Kobane, also known as Ain al-Arab, on March 28, 2015. Islamic State (IS) fighters were driven out of Kobane on January 26 by Kurdish and allied forces. AFP PHOTO / YASIN AKGUL (Photo credit should read YASIN AKGUL/AFP/Getty Images)
Kurdish men sit near bonfire near a destroyed building, in the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane, also known as Ain al-Arab, on March 22, 2015. AFP PHOTO/YASIN AKGUL (Photo credit should read YASIN AKGUL/AFP/Getty Images)
A female Syrian soldier from the Republican Guard commando battalion fires a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) during clashes with rebels in the restive Jobar area, in eastern Damascus, on March 25, 2015. The female battalion, which was created nearly a year ago, consists of 800 female soldiers who are positioned in the suburbs of the Syrian capital where they monitor and secure the frontlines with snipers, rockets and machine guns. AFP PHOTO / JOSEPH EID (Photo credit should read JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images)
A Syrian Kurdish boy sits on a destroyed tank in the Syrian town of Kobane, also known as Ain al-Arab, on March 27, 2015. Islamic State (IS) fighters were driven out of Kobane on January 26 by Kurdish and allied forces. AFP PHOTO/YASIN AKGUL (Photo credit should read YASIN AKGUL/AFP/Getty Images)
A man walks through the rubble following reported air strikes by government forces on the eastern Shaar neighbourhood of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on March 27, 2015. AFP PHOTO / AMC / ZEIN AL-RIFAI (Photo credit should read ZEIN AL-RIFAI/AFP/Getty Images)
A female Syrian soldier from the Republican Guard commando battalion drives a tank during clashes with rebels in the restive Jobar area, in eastern Damascus, on March 25, 2015. The female battalion, which was created nearly a year ago, consists of 800 female soldiers who are positioned in the suburbs of the Syrian capital where they monitor and secure the frontlines with snipers, rockets and machine guns. AFP PHOTO / JOSEPH EID (Photo credit should read JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images)
A Kurdish Syrian woman weeps away the debris from what is left of a destroyed building in town of Kobane, also known as Ain al-Arab, on March 24, 2015. Islamic State (IS) fighters were driven out of Kobane on January 26, by Kurdish and allied forces. AFP PHOTO/YASIN AKGUL (Photo credit should read YASIN AKGUL/AFP/Getty Images)
A Syrian schoolgirl stands next a damaged wall outside her school in the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane, also known as Ain al-Arab, on March 25, 2015. Islamic State (IS) fighters were driven out of Kobane on January 26 by Kurdish and allied forces. AFP PHOTO/YASIN AKGUL (Photo credit should read YASIN AKGUL/AFP/Getty Images)
GRAPHIC CONTENTWounded Syrian children react as they wait for treatment at a clinic in the rebel-held area of Douma, east of the capital Damascus, following reported air strikes by regime forces on March 13, 2015. More than 210,000 people have been killed in Syria since the uprising began in March 2011. AFP PHOTO / ABD DOUMANY (Photo credit should read ABD DOUMANY/AFP/Getty Images)
A photo taken on January 30, 2015 shows the eastern part of the destroyed city of Halimce, east of the Syrian town of Kobane, also known as Ain al-Arab. Kurdish forces recaptured the town on the Turkish frontier on January 26, in a symbolic blow to the jihadists who have seized large swathes of territory in their onslaught across Syria and Iraq. AFP PHOTO/BULENT KILIC (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)
Syrian children reenact scenes, they said to have seen in Islamic State jihadist group videos, in the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Douma, on March 5, 2015. Syria's conflict began as a popular uprising but evolved into a multi-front civil war that has divided the country into a patchwork of fiefdoms controlled by different factions, including the extremist Islamic State group. AFP PHOTO / ABD DOUMANY (Photo credit should read ABD DOUMANY/AFP/Getty Images)
In this Monday, March 16, 2015 photo, pregnant Syrian refugee Wadhah Hamada, 22, poses for a portrait inside her tent at an informal settlement near the Syrian border, on the outskirts of Mafraq, Jordan. Hamada, who fled al-Hasaka, Syria, says she has no clue how her four-month pregnancy is progressing. “I can’t afford to pay 50 Jordanian dinars ($70) for my ultrasound and other medical checks,” she says. “Our future is dark, my life is in a tent and my first child’s life won't be different.” (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)
A picture taken on March 2, 2015 shows pupils attending the first day of school in the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane, also known as Ain al-Arab, as they returned to class after Kurdish and rebel forces expelled Islamic State (IS) group jihadists from the town following more than four months of fighting. AFP PHOTO / MICHALIS KARAGIANNIS (Photo credit should read Michalis Karagiannis/AFP/Getty Images)
A Kurd stands in a building as pigeons fly over in the center of the Syrian border town of Kobane, known as Ain al-Arab, on January 28, 2015. Kurdish forces recaptured the strategic town on the Turkish frontier on January 26 in a symbolic blow for the jihadists who have seized swathes of territory in a brutal onslaught across Syria and Iraq. AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILIC (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)
A rebel fighter holds a position in al-Mayasat, a rebel-controlled area near the industrial zone of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on February 4, 2015. Nearly four million people have been forced by war to flee Syria altogether, and millions more are living in misery in areas that have fallen out of government control. AFP PHOTO / AMC / ZEIN AL-RIFAI (Photo credit should read ZEIN AL-RIFAI/AFP/Getty Images)
Syrian Kurdish refugee boy Arif, 10, poses on February 1, 2015 at the Rojava refugee camp in Sanliurfa. AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILIC (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)
A Kurdish fighter walks with his child in the center of the Syrian border town of Kobane, known as Ain al-Arab, on January 28, 2015. Kurdish forces recaptured the strategic town on the Turkish frontier on January 26 in a symbolic blow for the jihadists who have seized swathes of territory in a brutal onslaught across Syria and Iraq. AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILIC (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)
Smoke rises from the Syrian city of Kobani, following an airstrike by the US led coalition, seen from a hilltop outside Suruc, on the Turkey-Syria border Monday, Nov. 17, 2014. Kobani, also known as Ayn Arab, and its surrounding areas, has been under assault by extremists of the Islamic State group since mid-September and is being defended by Kurdish fighters. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
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And ultimately, the jihadist groups who want to see Syria governed by Islamic law hope to be the last ones standing. Western experts charge that the Nusra Front has maintained a tacit coordination with moderate rebels in some areas of Syria, but that might now be crumbling as the jihadists turn on the rebels.

Last week, the Nusra Front attacked Division 13, a US-backed group that's affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, killing about a dozen rebels and arresting several more.

Syria control mapREUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

In a note last week, strategic security firm The Soufan Group explained why this is significant:

On March 11, people in Maarrat al-Numan gathered to peacefully protest the Assad regime, able to do so only because of a ceasefire [between the regime and the opposition]. Many waved the flag of the revolution. Jabhat al-Nusra fighters, opposed to any flag other than their own, stormed into the crowd and assaulted civilians. In doing so, the group shed its mask of revolutionary solidarity and revealed its true extremist nature.

"Nusra's stated goal throughout all of Syria from when they first started until today is to turn Syria into an Islamic emirate," Ahmad al-Soud, the commander and founder of Division 13, told Business Insider through a translator on Friday.

"They don't want any other armed group in Syria except for them, and they want to turn it into kind of what Afghanistan was under the Taliban."

Defeating moderate rebels and the regime is the first step, and then the Nusra Front will face other jihadist groups like ISIS.

"Once they ... get rid of all the other groups, [the Nusra Front] can finally duke it out between them and ISIS for who's the worst," al-Soud said.

RELATED: See what life looks like under ISIS rule

27 PHOTOS
What life looks like under ISIS rule, Islamic State
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Al Qaeda is revealing its long game in Syria
FILE - This undated file image posted on a militant website on Jan. 14, 2014, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, shows fighters from the al-Qaida linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) marching in Raqqa, Syria. slamic State militants are barricading down for a possible assault on their de facto capital Raqqa, hiding among civilian homes and preventing anyone from fleeing, as international airstrikes intensify on the Syrian city in the wake of the Paris attacks. For many, the threat of missiles and bombs from the enemies of Islamic State is more of an immediate threat than the vicious oppression of the jihadisâ themselves. (AP Photo/Militant Website, File)
In this photo released on May 4, 2015, by a militant website, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, Islamic State militants pass by a convoy in Tel Abyad town, northeast Syria. In contrast to the failures of the Iraqi army, in Syria Kurdish fighters are on the march against the Islamic State group, capturing towns and villages in an oil-rich swath of the country's northeast in recent days, under the cover of U.S.-led airstrikes. (Militant website via AP)
This undated file image posted on a militant website on Jan. 4, 2014, which is consistent with other AP reporting, shows Shakir Waheib, a senior member of the al-Qaida breakaway group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), left, next to a burning police vehicle in Iraq's Anbar Province. For the al-Qaida breakaway group that overran parts of Iraq this week, the border between that country and Syria, where it is also fighting, may as well not even be there. The group, wants to establish a Shariah-ruled mini-state bridging both countries, in effect uniting a Sunni heartland across the center of the Mideast.
This file image posted on a militant website on Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2014, which is consistent with AP reporting, shows a convoy of vehicles and fighters from the al-Qaida-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) fighters in Iraq's Anbar Province. The Islamic State was originally al-Qaida's branch in Iraq, but it used Syria's civil war to vault into something more powerful. It defied orders from al-Qaida's central command and expanded its operations into Syria, ostensibly to fight to topple Assad. But it has turned mainly to conquering territory for itself, often battling other rebels who stand in the way. (AP Photo/militant website, File)
This undated file image posted on a militant website on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, shows fighters from the al-Qaida linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) marching in Raqqa, Syria. Moderate Syrian rebels are buckling under the onslaught of the radical al-Qaida breakaway group that has swept over large parts of Iraq and Syria. Some rebels are giving up the fight, crippled by lack of weapons and frustrated with the power of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Other, more hard-line Syrian fighters are bending to the winds and joining the radicals. (AP Photo/Militant Website, File)
FILE - This image posted on a militant website on Saturday, June 14, 2014, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, appears to show militants from the Islamic State group with truckloads of captured Iraqi soldiers after taking over a base in Tikrit. Iraq won the battle to retake the city of Tikrit from the Islamic State group, backed by a coalition of the unlikely in Iranian advisers, Shiite militias and U.S.-led airstrikes, but the country now faces what could be its most important battle: Winning the support of the Sunni. (AP Photo via militant website, File)
This undated file image posted on a militant website on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014 shows fighters from the al-Qaida linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) marching in Raqqa, Syria. Once a vibrant, mixed city considered a bastion of support for President Bashar Assad, the eastern city of Raqqa is now a shell of its former life, transformed by al-Qaida militants into the nucleus of the terror group's version of an Islamic caliphate they hope one day to establish in Syria and Iraq. In rare interviews with The Associated Press, residents and activists in Raqqa describe a city where fear prevails, music has been banned, Christians have to pay religious tax in return for protection and face-veiled women and pistol-wielding men in jihadi uniforms patrol the streets. (AP Photo/militant website, File)
In this May 26, 2015 photo, Bilal Abdullah poses for a portrait in the village of Eski Mosul in northern Iraq, nearly a year after Islamic State militants took over the village. In the Islamic State's realm, a document testifying that one has "repented" from a heretical past must be carried at all times and it can mean the difference between life and death. Abdullah learned that not long after the extremists took over his home village. (AP Photo/Bram Janssen)
In this Wednesday, May 27, 2015 photo, a girl holds a broom in the town of Eski Mosul, Iraq, which had been under the control of the Islamic State group for months. Most residents stayed in the town after it was liberated by Kurdish Peshmerga forces in January 2015. (AP Photo/Bram Janssen)
In this photo released on March 7, 2015 by a militant website, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, a member of the Islamic State group holds the IS flag as he dismantles a cross on the top of a church in Mosul, Iraq. (Militant website via AP)
In this photo released on Feb. 8, 2015 by a militant website, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, a member of Islamic State group's traffic police, right, writes a ticket to a driver, left, in Raqqa, Syria. Taxi drivers or motorists usually play the IS station on their radios - music, which is forbidden, can get the driver 10 lashes. (Militant website via AP)
In this photo released on May 4, 2015 by a militant website, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, people stand at the window of a media distribution point to receive CDs from Islamic State militants, right, in Mosul, Iraq. (Militant website via AP)
In this Sunday, May 17, 2015 photo, Sheikh Abdullah Ibrahim poses with his son while holding an Islamic State group-issued death certificate - all that he has left of his wife, Buthaina Ibrahim, an outspoken human rights activist and official, in the village of Eski Mosul, northern Iraq. There is no grave, no idea what was done with her body after the extremists took her from their home one night and killed her in a purge after overrunning the village north of Mosul, Iraq in June 2014. Given her government ties, IS fighters quickly demanded she apply for a repentance card. "She said she'd never stoop so low," her husband said. (AP Photo/Bram Janssen)
In this photo released on April 30, 2015 by a militant website, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, new recruits of the Islamic State train in Mosul, northern Iraq. (Militant website via AP)
In this photo released on Dec. 24, 2014 by a militant website, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, a member of the Islamic State group writes in Arabic, "we are a people whom God has honored with Islam," on a newly painted wall in Raqqa, Syria. (Militant website via AP)
In this Wednesday, May 27, 2015 photo, a resident sits on a hill overlooking the town of Eski Mosul, Iraq. The hole next to him is a former grave that was opened up by the Islamic State group militants and used as a sniper hideout. (AP Photo/Bram Janssen)
In this photo released on July 2, 2014 by a militant website, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, Iraqi men gather around Islamic State group officials to sign cards testifying that they have "repented" from their heretical past, in Mosul, northern Iraq. In a series of interviews by Associated Press journalists, former prisoners and residents who lived under IS rule describe how one of the richest, most sophisticated terrorist organizations in the world accumulates money, terrifies residents, indoctrinates children and buys loyalties. (Militant website via AP)
In this Wednesday, May 27, 2015 photo, Salim Ahmed, a former Iraqi Army member, holds the "repentance card" he received from the Islamic State group in June 2014 shortly after the militants took over his home village of Eski Mosul in northern Iraq. The document is part of the apparatus of control the Islamic State group has constructed across its self-declared "caliphate," the territory it conquered in Syria and Iraq. (AP Photo/Bram Janssen)
In this photo released on May 14, 2015 by a militant website, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, a member of the Islamic State group's vice police known as "Hisba," right, reads a verdict handed down by an Islamic court sentencing many they accused of adultery to lashing, in Raqqa City, Syria. (Militant website via AP)
In this photo released on Jan. 14, 2015 by a militant website, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, Islamic State militants kill a man they accused of being a homosexual by throwing him off a building in Syria's northeastern province of Hassakeh. In a series of interviews by Associated Press journalists, former prisoners and residents who lived under IS rule describe how one of the richest, most sophisticated terrorist organizations in the world accumulates money, terrifies residents, indoctrinates children and buys loyalties. (Militant website via AP)
In this photo released on March 7, 2015 by a militant website, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, a member of the Islamic State group destroys an icon of the Virgin Mary and Jesus on the wall of a church in Mosul, Iraq. In a series of interviews by Associated Press journalists, former prisoners and residents who lived under IS rule describe how one of the richest, most sophisticated terrorist organizations in the world accumulates money, terrifies residents, indoctrinates children and buys loyalties. (Militant website via AP)
In this photo released on Jan. 31, 2014 by a militant website, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, women in niqabs - enveloping black robes and veils that leaves only the eyes visible - sew niqabs, which are required for women in Islamic State-held territory, in a factory in Mosul, Iraq. (Militant website via AP)
In this photo released on Feb. 10, 2015 by a militant website, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, two Syrian citizens, right, sit in the office of an inheritance judge of Islamic State group, in the town of al-Tabqa in Raqqa City, Syria. (Militant website via AP)
In this photo released on April 17, 2015 by a militant website, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, a member of the Islamic State group's vice police known as "Hisba," patrols a market in Raqqa City, Syria. The Arabic words on the vest read, "The Islamic State - Hisba (vice police)." (Militant website via AP)
In this photo released on Feb. 10, 2015 by a militant website, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, two women sit in the office of an Islamic State group judge, center, at an Islamic court in al-Tabqa town in Raqqa City, Syria. (Militant website via AP)
In this photo released on January 31, 2014 by a militant website, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, members of the Islamic State group, left, distribute niqabs, enveloping black robes and veils that leave only the eyes visible, to Iraqi women in Mosul, northern Iraq. In areas controlled by the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, women must not only be covered, but usually are required to wear all black, with flat-soled shoes; for men, Western clothes or hair styles _even hair gel _ can draw suspicion. (Militant website via AP)
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Jennifer Cafarella, a Syria analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, laid the Nusra Front's strategy in an op-ed for CNN:

Jabhat al-Nusra is leveraging its battlefield contributions to create relationships with civil society, civilian populations and other Syrian opposition groups. It then manipulates those relationships in order to achieve dominance. And it directly targets US-backed groups, and defeats them when it can, in order to ensure that moderate forces do not find footing in a new Syria.

Al-Soud denied any coordination with the Nusra Front. But he did acknowledge that some Syrians had initially accepted the Nusra Front as a partner in fighting the Assad regime.

"The most important thing is that the world understands that the Syrian people reject Al Qaeda's ideology," al-Soud said.

"We reluctantly allowed Nusra into Syria because our main enemy is the regime. After the regime is gone, we will continue to fight anybody who tries to implement their will against the people."

As long as Assad remains a player on the Syrian battlefield, moderate rebels will face a stalemate of sorts -- because they're fighting both jihadists and the regime, their already scant resources will be spread too thin for them to win out over anyone.

"As long as the Assad regime is still around, you're still going to have different extremist groups in Syria and they're not going to leave, we're not going to be able to get them out," al-Soud said. "We can't fight on all these different fronts against the regime and against ISIS and against Nusra."

What this means for the US

The Nusra Front's end goals aren't confined to Syria.

A January report from the Institute for the Study of War and the American Enterprise Institute concluded that the US is dangerously underestimating the Nusra Front, which it says could become even more of a threat to the long-term security of the US than ISIS.

The report stated that the Nusra Front posed "one of the most significant long-term threats" of any jihadist group.

"This Al Qaeda affiliate has established an expansive network of partnerships with local opposition groups that have grown either dependent on or fiercely loyal to the organization," the report said. "Its defeat and destruction must be one of the highest priorities of any strategy to defend the United States and Europe from Al Qaeda attacks."

Cafarella, one of the co-authors of the report, wrote in her CNN op-ed that America's focus on defeating ISIS "has played directly into the group's hands, allowing the group to exploit its time out of the spotlight and set up a return to the global stage once ISIS is defeated."

Syrian civilians are fighting back against the Nusra Front in some areas, but it's unclear how long they can hold out if the Assad regime keeps bombing rebel-held areas and ISIS continues its brutal rule.

Moderate rebels are in many cases outmatched when they go up against jihadists and the Assad regime, which have more funding and resources coming in from outside donors or, in the case of the regime, allies like Russia and Iran.

"A group like Division 13 doesn't have a national program," said Joscelyn, the Al Qaeda expert. "The FSA doesn't have a national program, so they weren't going to govern all of Idlib."

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