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
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)
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)
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)
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)
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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.

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Al Qaeda is revealing its long game in Syria
A civilian woman carries her child during a battle with Islamic State militants, east of Mosul, Iraq, January 10, 2017. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari
Civilians walk past Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF) during a battle with Islamic State militants, east of Mosul, Iraq, January 10, 2017. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari
A displaced man, who fled the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul, carries a woman in the Mithaq district of eastern Mosul, Iraq, January 3, 2017. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Smoke rises from clashes during a battle with Islamic State militants in the Mithaq district of eastern Mosul, Iraq, January 3, 2017. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
An Iraqi soldier is seen during a battle with Islamic State militants, north of Mosul, Iraq, December 30, 2016. REUTERS/Khalid al Mousily
Iraqi people flee the Islamic State stronghold in the town of Bartella, east of Mosul, December 28, 2016. REUTERS/Ammar Awad TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Iraqi people flee the Islamic State stronghold in the town of Bartella, east of Mosul, December 28, 2016. REUTERS/Ammar Awad
Iraqi rapid response forces cook food in their headquarters during the war against the Islamic state militants east of Mosul, Iraq, December 21, 2016. REUTERS/Khalid al Mousily
Mohammad Hassan, whose hand was chopped off by Islamic State militants, sits outside a house at Nimrud village, south of Mosul, Iraq, December 13, 2016. Picture taken December 13, 2016. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem
Displaced Iraqi boys, who fled the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul, warm themselves by a fire in Khazer camp, Iraq,December 15, 2016.REUTERS/Ammar Awad
Displaced Iraqi woman, who fled the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul, bids her relatives farewell as she leave Khazer camp to go home, Iraq December 10, 2016.REUTERS/Ammar Awad
Iraqi Christians come to visit the heavily damaged Church of the Immaculate Conception after Iraqi forces recaptured it from Islamic State in Qaraqosh, near Mosul, Iraq, December 9, 2016. REUTERS/Ammar Awad
An Iraqi father (L) mourns the death of his son, who was killed during clashes in the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul, in al-Samah neighborhood, Iraq December 1, 2016. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem
An Iraqi girl, who was wounded during clashes in the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul, lies on a bed at a field hospital in al-Samah neighborhood, Iraq December 1, 2016. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem
Displaced people who fled the clashes transfer to camps during a battle with Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq, November 30, 2016 REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani
A member of the Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF) gestures in military vehicle during a battle with Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq, November 30, 2016 REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A man gestures as other men sit on the ground as an Iraqi Special forces intelligence team check their ID cards as they search for Islamic State fighters in Mosul, Iraq November 27, 2016. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic
Two men hold hands as an Iraqi Special forces intelligence team searches for Islamic State fighters in Mosul, Iraq November 27, 2016. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic
Oilfields burned by Islamic State fighters are seen in Qayyara, south of Mosul, Iraq November 23, 2016. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Boys stand in front of oilfields burned by Islamic State fighters in Qayyara, south of Mosul, Iraq November 23, 2016. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic
Civilians flee fighting between Iraqi forces and Islamic State fighters in Mosul, Iraq, November 20, 2016. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Smoke rises from clashes during a battle with Islamic State militants at the airport of Tal Afar west of Mosul, Iraq November 18, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
A member of Shi'ite fighters carries a weapon during a battle with Islamic State militants at the airport of Tal Afar west of Mosul, Iraq November 18, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
A displaced woman from the outskirts of Mosul covers herself in a blanket in the town of Bashiqa, after it was recaptured from the Islamic State, east of Mosul, Iraq, November 18, 2016. REUTERS/Khalid al Mousily
A girl attends classes after the city was recaptured from the Islamic State militants in Qayyara, Iraq, November 17, 2016. REUTERS/Ari Jalal
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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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