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In June 2014, a Muslim terrorist group announced the creation of the Islamic state and a caliphate in the conquered territories of Syria and Iraq. The emergence of the Islamic State has changed the course of events in Syria and Iraq. There is a confrontation between ISIS and its opponents at the ideological level, as well as religious and political disputes around the self-proclaimed caliphate. All this time, ISIS is fighting on several fronts. In addition to Kurds, government troops, and a broad international coalition, various Islamist groups, including radical ones, fight with the Islamic state. They try to protect their holy places and call on ISIS not to open new fronts of jihad and accuse militants of betraying the interests of Muslims. Jabhat al-Nusra is one of such group. Thus, ISIS and al-Nusra are in a state of war with each other and it is important to study the causes and consequences of this confrontation.

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History of the Country

Syria has a very long history. The country was under the rule of Britain and later France. Syria received full independence from France on April 17, 1946. The emergence of the State of Israel in 1948 and the ensuing Arab-Israeli war led to an acute political crisis in the country. In 1949, three dictators changed because of three military coups in Syria (McHugo, 2015). The state tried to unite with Egypt and form the United Arab Republic. However, this unification was not successful. After that attempt, the leader of the Baath Party ruled Syria (McHugo, 2015). In the Baath, the nationalist faction with a focus on total socialism gained the upper hand quickly enough. The Constitution of 1969 defined Syria as a democratic, socialist republic with a planned economy, limited scope of the law, and private property (McHugo, 2015).

In 1973, Hafez al-Assad became the head of the republic whose government resembled a dictatorship. After his death, his son, Bashar al-Assad, became the president of Syria (McHugo, 2015). Thus, it is evident that a brutal and robber regime always prevailed in Syria. These events in history were extremely important, as the constant presence of dictators in power and the absence of democracy have led to the cruel civil war in the country.

History of the Conflict

Three major military and political forces fought against President Bashar al-Assad. There were groups representing the Free Syrian Army and recognizing the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces as their political representative, the Islamic Front including seven major Islamist unions, and Jabhat al-Nusra that is a direct ally of al-Qaeda (Lister, 2016). The latter is considered as the most influential. Its ranks include foreign fighters from Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Great Britain, and France. Many people in Jabhat al-Nusra came from the opposition Free Syrian army, which at that time just started fighting against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. In January 2012, the organization made the first terrorist attack in the center of Damascus (Lister, 2016). Jabhat al-Nusra under the leadership of its leader achieved a number of military successes and gained the fame of one of the most combat-effective units in the region.

The situation changed when in April 2013 Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of the Islamic State of Iraq, proclaimed the creation of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. It arose after al-Baghdadi announced that the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra had merged into a single group (Mendelsohn, 2016). Nonetheless, the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra Muhammad al-Julani rejected this initiative. In his opinion, in the conditions of war with the Assad regime, it was not the right time to create an Islamic state. Besides, Jabhat al-Nusra swore allegiance to the leader of al-Qaida (Mendelsohn, 2016). However, al-Baghdadi disagreed with the decision of al-Julani and troops of ISIS attacked the opposition forces and Jabhat al-Nusra camps. It was the beginning of the conflict between these groups (Mendelsohn, 2016).

Since the beginning of the conflict, there were many clashes between them. By March 2014, their constant battles led to deaths of about three thousand people (Lister, 2016). In the summer of 2014, militants from ISIS drove fighters of Jabhat al-Nusra from their main territories in Deir ez-Zor where oil fields are located (Lister, 2016). It is important that smuggling of oil from this area was an important source of income of Jabhat al-Nusra.

Despite the confrontation, the militants united for a while and acted jointly against Syrian government troops. In June 2015, the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra on the air of al-Jazeera claimed that he did not see the possibility of rapprochement with the Islamic state (Teller, 2016). It was connected with the fact that their decision to proclaim the caliphate was illegal and was is not based on Sharia law. In addition, Jabhat al-Nusra could not accept the practice of mosques’ explosions. In September 2014, ISIS detonated the al-Arbein mosque in Tikrit, which is a very important point in the understanding of the reasons for the groups’ rivalry (Teller, 2016). Therefore, despite certain common roots and similar ideologies, ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra are extremely different and clashes between them will only continue in the future.

Type of Insurgency

Jabhat al-Nusra actively leads a multi-level political struggle. Speeches of the leaders of the movement about the dialogue and meeting are not simple slogans since this organization actively works with the population. It has launched a wide charitable and preaching activity in the north of Syria. Recruitment plays a paramount role in the group. It leads active information and ideological war both with the media of Assad and ISIS. The later, in turn, positions itself as an invincible and global organization. Besides, ISIS exploits an apocalyptic cult of suicide. The ideologies of both groups show their goals and views. Although both ISIS and al-Nusra have similar religious beliefs, their views towards the creation of Islamic State differ significantly as mentioned afore. Thus, it is the main reason for rivalry and confrontation.

Key Actor Strategy

The strategy of Jabhat al-Nusra aims at fighting for the hegemony over the jihadist movement with the Islamic State, as well as against all nationalist and secular military groups, parties, and projects in Syria. The main goal is to overthrow the Syrian regime (Gunaratna & Kam, 2016). The organization fights with the government troops of Assad and the groups that help them such as Hezbollah (Lister, 2016). As noted above, it also fights with ISIS.

ISIS has the common goal of creating a Shariah state based on Salafi Islam. Although ISIS is a group established on radical Islamism ideology, its inordinate cruelty and thoughtless actions show that it also has political and geopolitical goals (Gerges, 2017). The main goal of the organization is the formation of an order based on the opponents of the West and Sunni power and the purification of the region from other religious groups (Gerges, 2017). Today, ISIS claims power in 8 Iraqi provinces with predominantly Sunni populations (Rasheed, 2016). However, the group will not stop on this.

Jabhat al-Nusra tries to balance between the various groups of the Islamic Front and strengthen its cooperation with them (Gunaratna & Kam, 2016). These groups are ideologically close to jihadists. Strengthening its influence, al-Nusra becomes more attractive to fighters from these groups and they often join its ranks. One of the solid reasons for this is organization’s conduction of a soft policy towards the local population. For example, at the threat of famine in Aleppo, it contributed to opening of bakeries and controlled the supply of flour (Gunaratna & Kam, 2016). Therefore, it enjoys the support of the population. At the same time, tactics of the group towards opponents are cruel and violent, In the early stages of involvement in the conflict, it used mainly suicide bombers and machines packed with explosives. There is also information about the appearance of air defense systems. Jabhat al-Nusra is also engaged in kidnapping people for ransom or political pressure.

Militants from ISIS own ammunition from the US Army stolen in Iraq’s weapons depots (Gerges, 2017). Fulfilling the tasks of its sponsors and organizers, ISIS participated in a number of major terrorist operations including those related to the use of suicide bombers. In addition, it uses chemical weapon, mortars, guns, and grenade launchers. These weapons, as well as extremist ideology, make ISIS one of the most dangerous terrorist groups in the world.

Both organizations are waging the fourth generation war. This kind of war is characterized by moral, social, and political revolution when all the lines between different casts of people and warfare means are erased. It is not a traditional interstate contradiction. The development of robotics, remotely controlled aircraft, communication equipment with a low probability of interception, and AI means may have the potential for a radical change in tactics. It means that these organizations are not concentrated on a single territory but scattered in different countries. Small highly mobile units consisting of high-intelligence soldiers armed with high-tech weapons navigate large areas in search of mission-critical targets. Such an approach to warfare makes these organizations even more dangerous.

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Actor’s Structures, Supporters, Operations

Qatar and Saudi Arabia are the main sponsors of Jabhat al-Nusra (Lister, 2016). Having more than enough of financial support, leaders of the organization actively develop options to attract adolescents to their ranks. In general, the age of militants fluctuates from 20 to 30 years old (Gunaratna & Kam, 2016). Combatants commit massacre of the population, shelling, and hostage-taking.

ISIS today consists of fighters arriving from four parts of the world. Mainly, recruits come from Afghanistan, Chechnya, Pakistan, Africa, Libya, and even some European countries. It also counts on children and the younger generation and, thus, the average age of militants is 20-25 years old (Rasheed, 2016). An approximate number of fighters is about ten thousand people depots (Gerges, 2017). According to numerous reports, the group’s main financers are Arab monarchist regimes such as Saudi Arabia (Rasheed, 2016). There are many types of violence used by the organization, among which the sale of women to slavery and violence against them are the most common.

Status of the Conflict

The conflict between the organizations continues. Despite several attempts of unification, leaders of two groups have not come to a single opinion. There are frequent battles between them. According to the number of militants and types of weapons used, al-Nusra suffers some defeat. Militants from ISIS are better prepared and crueler than their opponents. Nevertheless, combatants from al-Nusra do not surrender and continue numerous raids on the territory under the control of ISIS. With such tactics, it is extremely hard to predict the probable date of the conflict’s end.


The conflict between al-Nusra and the Islamic State marked a profound ideological and methodological break in the jihadist movement after two organizations diverged after the reluctance to unite. These days, there are numerous cases when representatives of both forces entered into fighting clashes. Organizations use the most advanced weapons that come from different countries, which makes them the main organizations capable of conducting terrorist attacks involving suicide bombers. In general, the tactics of warfare by two organizations allow admitting the fact that they lead the fourth generation warfare. The conflict between the two groups, which are not inferior to each other in cruelty, is of a competitive nature and both organizations are fighting for the right to become the main jihadist group in the country.

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