September 25, 2014 | Quote

Why Bombing ISIS Helps al-Qaeda

First, and most importantly, Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda branch, has friends among the allegedly moderate Syrian rebels. “In general, ISIS' M.O. is 'there's someone with weapons, we're fighting them,” explains Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. “Nusra is a very different organization. It's much more embedded with other rebel groups. It works well with moderates, as well as extremists.”

According to Gartenstein-Ross, this difference in strategy is a direct result of both groups' experience with AQI's failed caliphate in Iraq during the US-led war there. Al-Qaeda “thought that one of the reasons the Iraq War was such a disaster for them was because of how much they alienated the population, and made a lot of enemies they shouldn't have,” he explains. ISIS, by contrast, “is kind of like al-Qaeda in Iraq, but even more willing to crush others under its boot.”

You can see why this might be a problem for the US strategy. If moderate rebels push back ISIS, they're not going to turn against Nusra, their partner in the fight against Assad. “When you start to game it out, the problems with that part of our strategy become really apparent,” Gartenstein-Ross says.

American bombing “virtually guarantees that there will be defections from ISIS to Nusra, because defection is a way of avoiding targeting,” Gartenstein-Ross explains. And globally, ISIS' claim to legitimacy depends on its ability to hold onto territory: its big recruiting advantage is that, unlike al-Qaeda, it has managed to actually create a caliphate. The more it gets pushed back, the more its recruiting well among foreign jihadis dries up — or goes to al-Qaeda.

“It's not completely zero-sum,” Gartenstein-Ross says. “But it's somewhat close.”

As horrific as ISIS may be, al-Qaeda may be an enemy that, if strengthened, could pose more of a threat to the US. “ISIS has a lot of weaknesses,” Gartenstein-Ross says. “They're too dependent on momentum, so they're not well positioned in any way to win the race for global jihadi supremacy.”

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