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08 September 2015


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William R. Cumming

Estimates as to numbers in those groups opposing ASSAD?

FB Ali

This paper is undoubtedly a very good review of the situation in Syria (up to that time - late 2014). The situation has not changed in essential since then, in spite of some IS advances.

The paper also correctly points out the threat that Jabhat al Nusra (JN) poses to the US and the West, now and in the future, equating it with that of IS.

However, when it comes to proposing how the US should deal with this threat, it goes off into La La land. It suggests that the "moderate opposition" be built up and armed so that it detaches itself from dependence on JN, and ultimately defeats it so as to establish itself in a post-Assad Syria. It is almost comical how serious US analysts are so bound by the mainstream positions that prevail in the US.

I don't know if it ever occurred to Ms Cafarella that the simple (and the only realistic) solution to achieving the goal she proposes is for the US to support the Assad regime against JN and IS. Even if it did, she dare not utter anything like that for fear of being excommunicated and permanently banished from the ranks of punditry. As has happened to many of her betters, such as Andrew Bacevich.

Until and unless US policy is based on real-world assessments rather than whatever version of reality the 'mob' is currently promoting, it will stumble from one quagmire into another.


"contributes asymmetric “special forces” capabilities"

Is that a euphemism for suicide bombers? Because i think it is and find it really bad form.

Patrick Bahzad

I had read this report thoroughly when it was first published by the ISW and found it very well documented and informed. No doubt Ms Cafarella is a gifted analyst, who has done a good job with regard to the descriptive and some of the analytical aspects of her report about JaN up to the fall of 2014. I suppose it also helps to have someone like as experienced as Jessica Lewis McFate on the sideline, ready to help or give advice. That being said, presenting the "ISW" as a "non-partisan research organization (page 2 of the report) is a bit hard to swallow. But everybody knows what the ISW is about, so any recommendation expressed in an ISW report should be taken with the necessary caution.

Broken down by areas covered, I would only have minor disagreements about the following aspects (probably a question of perspective or data available for analysis):
- descriptive components of the report: TTPs, strategy and governance is very well explained. There might have been a few more details maybe about the recruitment aspect, possibly with a few case studies or standard examples of how JaN proceeds, but other than that, I see nothing wrong with this.
- descriptive elements of the report: excellent in my view, whether in connection with JaN TTPs, strategy and governance.
- Three tier typology: very well presented, based on mostly solid information and consistent with ISW's outlook. However, I would have a few differences regarding the composition of the 3-tier structure. For example, "Junud al Sham" in my experience is made up not so much of Chechens, but of Lebanese nationals previously affiliated with "Fath al Islam" in their home country. They also have close ties with ISIS (that is worth mentioning I think). Chechens are prominent in the "Jaish al Muharijeen wal Ansar" but they stick mostly to their own, and there are nationals from many countries fighting with this group. Similarly - I know I'm splitting hairs now - "Harakat Sham al Islam" (a Moroccan outfit, as indicated in the report) operates mostly out of Aleppo since August 2013 (Lattakia has become a side-show for them). I'm also a bit surprised to see "Liwa al-Haq in Homs" as a Tier 1 group of JaN, as it is less extremist than other groups and should belong to tier 2, according to ISW's typology.
- analytical aspects: again, consistent with ISW policies, but well researched and informed. Shame there isn't more about the genesis of JaN, as this would help explaining some of the difficulties we are facing today with how to deal with this organisation.
- regarding JaN military campaign: very clear, just surprised that the crack-down by the hardcore Jihadi groups on less reliable groups, which was already long underway by the time the report was published, is not mentioned at all. Maybe because it would question the rationale behind some of the recommendations made in the report ? I don't know, but was surprised, given the high level of information displayed in general in the report.

There are however two issues I have trouble with and I basically see a fundamental problem with ISW's reports in general. They have a tendency to mix traditional style "intelligence reports" with a political agenda that is very transparent at some points even in this excellent study:
- the analysis of the Syrian rebel groups as a whole is more a reflection of the solutions ISW wants to see implemented rather than an objective reflection of the situation on the ground. This is maybe where being an (excellent) analyst, and having access to first hand intel, is not enough to make the assessments given in the report. Having been in contact either with individuals that are part of the insurgency, or having been involved in situations comparable to the kind of strategy that is being advocated for, might be an advantage.
- the recommended course of action makes sense, in theory, but it is a case of "easier said than done". Again, having been in such a situation before, gives you a different perspective to what the possible outcome might be, and what difficulties might turn up down the road. In any case, the executive summary is a call for a new COIN strategy tailor made to the Syrian case, but nonetheless similar in nature what the US have tried and failed at, both in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are also similarities with the way the whole Libya case was handled by NATO, and we know how that has played out.

Regarding the civilian/ideological struggle that is called for in separating JaN from the Syrian society and rebellion, no real suggestion is made as to how to proceed. Is it for lack of time, lack of ideas, or just because this is just talk and the real issue is using coercion and "kinetic action" to break up JaN's hardcore from groups that are considered viable as potential allies ? This is where our paths definitely part, as I see the ISW's strategy as non-existent in this paper. It is limited to a series of tactical and theoretical suggestions but does not provide for a consistent and convincing strategy, taking into account likely contingencies we would face further down that road.

What I read between the lines, when it comes to these recommendations is something that sounds like a mix of the "Sons of Iraq" revisited, combined with a Libya style "no fly zone" and support for the "reconciliables" among the Salafists who claim to have only a national agenda, all of this in the triangular struggle between SAA, JaN groups and other rebels (I dare not call them "FSA") and ISIS. That is a very tough equation to solve, and one much harder to understand and implement than McChrystal's famous "10 – 2 = 20" equation in Afghanistan !

Patrick Bahzad


When I asked that question to some analysts I know, the answer I got was more or less like this:
"due to the fluidity of battlefield, cultural and sectarian contingencies as well as fluctuating nature of international environment, it is difficult to make assessments based on hard evidence" ... Meaning, nobody knows exactly, so take a guess !

Patrick Bahzad

don't want to defend ISW or the author of this report in particular, but I don't think this refers specifically to suicide-bombers.

They may be part of the asymetric capabilities JaN brings to the battle-field, but what is more important is the level of training, experience and motivation of its relatively small fighting force.

Just like a "special forces" engagement may tip the balance in your favour, JaN is a force multiplier in rebel offensives. Besides, some of the JaN groups never used suicide attacks.

William R. Cumming

Thanks Patrick! So my estimate is over 2M Syrians have left [emigrated?] since 2007 but have no idea if more or less.

Patrick Bahzad

Think numbers regarding refugees are much higher than that !
UNHCR has reliable figures on that. Think we're already closer to 4M Syrians at least being refugees in neighboring Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, just to give you an idea (+ internally displaced persons of course)


I think the definition of asymmetric in military use is methods or capabilities the stronger party in a conflict can't/won't use. The only capability i can think of that Nusra uses and the Syrian government doesn't is suicide bombs.

There is also the impression i get is that the only way the rebels can win a battle is by using suicide bombs. It is how they capture airbases and towns.


JaN and the Army of Conquest overruns the air base Abu alThuhur during the sandstorm.


Was the base still of importance for projecting air power?


PL, FB Ali and All

I fundamentally disagree that this "report" on Jabhat Al-Nusra is a valuable source of information. It misses the most basic points.

One of these points is the genesis of Nusra Front and how it was praised and lauded by the Neocon flagship "Washington Post" in 2012:


That the Neocon flagship WaPo lauded Nusra fitted perfectly in the later revelations from Israeli officials that Israel would prefer a rule of Al Qaeda over the rule of Assad in Syria, because the Al Qaeda guys can be controlled by Israel-friendly moderate GCC countries.

The WaPo said at that time in the article Nusra recruting was done via an internet forum where Zawahiri also posts his messages. I checked at that time via dnsstuff various locations where that forum was hosted over time (it moved from time to time, after some weeks or months), and I found out it was always hosted in the US or the UK. Since the official Al Qaeda forum was always hosted in US and UK and not disturbed by US intel there for weeks or months I think it's clear that it was a honeytrap run by western intel agencies. If the western intel services really didn't like Al Qaeda's US/UK hosted websites they would have been taken down much quicker. And if Nusra recruited many of it's fighters there, I have not many questions left who was behind the initial rise of Nusra. Then there is the money. The WaPo said money for Nusra was coming in via courier from NATO country Turkey and the local Nusra commander didn't know himself from whom he got the money. I think that's very consistent with an intel op run by the west - and gulfie allies.

And then, in 2014, Steve Clemons wrote at the Atlantic Council the following about the Nusra Front:

Qatar’s military and economic largesse has made its way to Jabhat al-Nusra, to the point that a senior Qatari official told me he can identify al-Nusra commanders by the blocks they control in various Syrian cities. But ISIS is another matter. As one senior Qatari official stated, “ISIS has been a Saudi project.”

Source: http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/06/isis-saudi-arabia-iraq-syria-bandar/373181/

But after Nusra was praised by the Israel-friendly neocon outfit WaPo, now comes the Israel-friendly neocon outfit ISW and tells a totally different story than what it was and could be observed by everyone in real time. That's why I don't think the ISW "study" is something credible. I think it's just another neocon call for the same old war on the Iranian-led axis of resistance but this time under a pretext changed by 180 degrees.

ex-PFC Chuck

re, "That being said, presenting the "ISW" as a "non-partisan research organization (page 2 of the report) is a bit hard to swallow."

That being said I had the same reaction when I saw "Kimberly Kagan" at the top of the list when I clicked on the "Who We Are" link.


"punditry mob?" or is there another larger e.g. academic mob driving perspectives and assessments?

That babbled:
I agree Andrew Bacevich is an interesting voice. Although I don't know too much about his excommunication and banishment.



Let the "perfect" not drive out the "good." I have tried endlessly here to make people look at analysis and evidence without ideological blinders. In addition to that thought, sources and data must be considered separately. pl


I found the report enormously helpful and worth the read cover to cover. I only wish it were updated.


I didn't see in the report a current estimate of how many JaN there are.

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