Syria's New Jihadis

Meet the terrorist group that's ruining the revolution.

Syria suffered its worst terror attack in decades this month when two car bombs exploded near a military intelligence branch in Damascus, killing 55 people and wounding hundreds more. Syria's state-run news agency was quick to publish gruesome pictures of the victims of the attack, which President Bashar al-Assad's regime pinned on "foreign-backed terrorist groups."

At first, the Syrian regime seemed to have evidence to back up its case. On May 12, a video was distributed on YouTube, purportedly from a Palestinian branch of the jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusrah ("The Victory Front" or JN), claiming credit for the attack. But the release turned out to be a fake: On May 14, JN released a statement denying that it was behind the video. At the same time, it did not deny conducting the attack. Rather, JN's media outlet said it had yet to hear from JN's military commanders if they perpetrated the bombings.

Whether or not JN was involved in the Damascus attack, the organization has become a real force in recent weeks -- and one that threatens to undermine the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the loose network of defectors and local militia fighting the government. Its main goals are to awaken Muslims to the atrocities of the Assad regime, and eventually take control of the state and implement its narrow and puritanical interpretation of Islamic law. To that end, in the past month alone, JN has perpetrated a series of suicide bombings and IED strikes -- and the pace of attacks seems to be growing.

JN originally announced its existence on Jan. 23 in a video released to global jihadi forums, featuring the group's spokesperson, al-Fatih ("The Conqueror") Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani. In addition to repeating the usual jihadi platitudes, Jawlani accused the United States, the Arab League, Turkey, Iran, and the West in general for collaborating with the Assad regime against (Sunni) Muslims. The video shows tens of individuals training with AK-47s in unknown desert and wooded locations and posing with large flags similar to the banners used by Sunni fundamentalists across the Middle East, featuring the shahadah (the Muslim testament of faith).

While JN's attacks might pack punch, they represent a minuscule portion of the Syrian rebellion and have no known association to the FSA. But members of al Qaeda's premier online forums have been elated over the creation of a new jihadist organization in Syria. In addition to its online grassroots supporters, JN has gained the stamp of approval from key jihadi ideologues, including Shaykh Abu Sa'd al-‘Amili (a prominent online essayist), Shaykh Abu al-Mundhir al-Shinqiti (one of the most influential ideologues worldwide), Shaykh Abu Muhammad al-Tahawi (a prominent Jordanian Salafi), and Shaykh Abu al-Zahra' al-Zubaydi (a popular Lebanese jihadi). All have called on Muslims to support JN's cause by aiding them financially or joining them on the battlefield.

This level of excitement, which has not been seen in jihadi circles since the height of the Iraq war, can partly be attributed to the sectarian nature of the struggle: Jihadis do not see the Assads as true Muslims because they are Alawites -- members of a heterodox version of Shiism. As such, jihadis view their role in repressing a Sunni Muslim majority as particularly reprehensible. "Oh Allah made it possible for our brothers in Jabhat al-Nusrah, and bless them and make the hearts of the people join them," one online jihadi enthused.

Unable to quell Syria's domestic uprising, Assad still maintains that Syria is fighting foreign terrorists. And, although Syria's homegrown protest movement clearly makes up the overwhelming majority of the opposition, there are a multitude of reports -- see here, here, here, here, and here -- of non-Syrian Muslims going off to fight Assad. Fighters from al Qaeda in Iraq have also reportedly crossed the border to assist their Sunni compatriots -- presumably by way of the same networks they have long used to smuggle people and goods from Syria into Iraq.

Although there is no hard evidence that these fighters are joining up with JN, there is circumstantial evidence to suggest new recruits -- either foreign or local -- are bolstering its capabilities. While JN only conducted three operations from January through mid-April, the pace of its attacks in the past month has raised the specter of fresh support. On April 20, it conducted a suicide attack on a Syrian military unit allegedly responsible for a massacre in al-Latamina, a village outside Hama. A few days later, on April 24, JN bombed the Iranian Cultural Center in Damascus. Then on April 27, JN claimed responsibility for a suicide attack during Friday prayers in the Midan neighborhood of Damascus. And those aren't the only attacks that JN has attempted: From April 20 to May 5, it planted sticky improvised explosive devices to cars in a series of attempted assassinations against Syrian officials, and also detonated two IEDs under trucks at the Syrian military headquarters on Damascus's Revolution Street.

JN has also released three other videos since the message announcing its existence. The first video, which was posted on jihadist forums on Feb. 26, claimed responsibility for a twin suicide car bombing at a Syrian security forces building in Aleppo earlier that month, as well as an attack in early January in central Damascus. Appealing to the broader Syrian society, JN explained that it executed the attacks to safeguard the women of Syria, who have been brutalized and raped by Assad's security forces. The next video, which was uploaded in mid-April, contained a sermon exhorting individuals to join the jihad against Assad and his Alawite followers.

JN's most recent video was published in late April and provided yet another emotional appeal for individuals to take up arms to join its cause. It showed anti-Assad demonstrations in the cities of Deraa and Homs, the Assad regime's brutal destruction of Homs, and widows and mothers wailing over the deaths of their sons and husbands. JN spokesman Jawlani claimed responsibility for a "revenge" attack against the Syrian forces in Homs, and the video showed "martyrdom" messages from two of its suicide bombers. Jawlani linked JN's cause to that of 'Omar ibn al-Khattab, the second caliph, who completed the conquest of Syria that the Prophet Mohammad started in the 7th century. Jawlani's mention of 'Omar is notable because Shiite tradition considers him a traitor to Muhammad and a usurper of the right of Ali, Muhammad's cousin, to become caliph. Jawlani undoubtedly understands this, and his words are sure to stoke more sectarian tensions.

Syria's nascent jihadist organization has also bitterly opposed Kofi Annan's attempts to orchestrate a ceasefire between rebel and government forces, calling his efforts "deception" and a "magician's trick." JN called out Annan for his failure to prevent massacres in Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and it said the proposed truce with the Assad regime was merely a way for Western countries to undermine the Syrian people's ability to defend themselves while allowing the Assad regime to continue to shell its citizens. As a result, its argument goes, one cannot trust the West to provide assistance in the fight against the regime. Rather, it is imperative that Muslims join JN's battle, since it is the only true defender of Syrians and the Sunni community.

It is noteworthy that JN has focused solely on military targets in its insurgency against the regime. Perhaps it has learned from the experience of AQI, which found that killing civilians alienates potential supporters. Nevertheless, even if JN may be recruiting individuals at a higher rate, its vision for Syria's future remains far outside the mainstream. As such, it will continue to be a nuisance not only for the Syrian regime, but also to the FSA, which is attempting to bolster its international legitimacy in order to gain supplies and weapons from supporters of its cause. Amid the chaos in Syria, it represents a spoiler in a conflict with no foreseeable end.

Si Mitchell/AFP/Getty Images


Mr. Normal's Odd Government

François Hollande's trip to America was a quiet success. But did he just appoint an unruly team of rivals as his ministers back home?

PARIS – With Europe awash in existential economic questions that underscore its political leadership weaknesses, freshly minted French President François Hollande stepped onto the international stage in earnest, breakfasting with President Barack Obama at the White House on May 18 and meeting international leaders. His four-day visit to the United States highlighted a question that has been on the minds of many since his inauguration just three days earlier: What does it mean to be a Socialist president -- elected in the midst of a flurry of national, regional, and international crises -- at the helm of Europe's crucial nation of the moment?

In reality, that question has been posed in more apocalyptic terms from outside France: Isn't putting a Socialist at the helm of the world's fifth-largest economy in these debt-laden times an exercise in utter madness? All ideology aside, French socialists haven't held a parliamentary majority in a decade, nor have they had a president to call their own for 17 years. With the euphoria of victory wearing off and the pomp of inauguration left behind, some far-away analysts have suggested that this will turn into the ultimate Amateur Hour -- with young, lefty radicals spending borrowed funds en route to a worker's paradise that will bankrupt France's debt-reliant social model. Could Hollande in this scenario became the leader of Europe's laggards -- Greece, Italy, Spain, and the rest of the growing list -- whose policies will suck Germany into a continent-wide tornado of debt, overspending, and inflation? Could he finish off the euro and suck the global economy back into a ditch?

These are the sorts of questions I've been asked by international political commentators, television interviewers, and even a Wall Street trader since Hollande's May 6 election.

Before responding to these nightmare scenarios, it is worth noting that Hollande is unlikely to benefit from the substantial honeymoon traditionally accorded to French presidents. While France seems somehow soothed, at least initially, by the departure of Nicolas Sarkozy, there is simply too much uncertainty. For one, there is the ongoing austerity face-off with Angela Merkel. Hours after Hollande's inauguration, he flew through a lightning storm (literally) to Germany where they agreed, in diplomatic, respectful, and sensible terms that spurring economic growth was crucial (Hollande's point) and that budgetary responsibility remains crucial (Merkel's stance). The initial encounter was far less significant than their still-to-be-seen policy evolutions. Clarity is likely to come as the Greek tragedy culminates with new elections in June, as Europe concludes whether or not Spanish banks will need a huge bailout, and as France attempts to figure out where to save tens of billions of additional euros to keep its spending reduction promise to Brussels.

Hollande's arrival in power amid this multitude of challenges looks a lot like Obama's arrival at the White House in January 2009, buoyed by a strong desire for change from the messy Sarkozy years, but with more of a "we'll see if we can" pragmatism.

Profound concerns endure about France's credit rating, 10 percent-plus-and-rising unemployment, a stagnant economy, and public sector demands for a bolstered minimum wage, which just start to give a hint of the challenges facing Hollande. As to his chops as an international leader, at the NATO and G-8 summits his more seasoned counterparts sussed him out about issues ranging from containing a nuclear Iran to the end of the mission in Afghanistan to spurring economic growth in Europe without further bloating budgets. Obama expressed sympathy for that latter challenge, but the devil is, of course, in the details.

And while Hollande insisted that the return of French troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2012 was a matter of French sovereignty (not to mention one of his core campaign promises), he tempered that pledge. All French combat troops will be withdrawn, he re-affirmed, but logistical support is slated to remain until late in 2013 to avoid destabilizing the NATO mission in Afghanistan.

Back at home, where Hollande won election (by a slim 3 percent margin), the next major electoral battle is just weeks away. In June, the French will return to the polls to define the size of Hollande's majority in the assembly, or perhaps to deny him one. The five-week break between the presidential and parliamentary elections means that a major misstep in the president's first weeks in power -- such as an allergic public reaction to newly nominated ministers -- could spur an immediate electoral backlash or, put another way, an instant referendum on the incoming president. While the timing of France's legislative elections are aimed to guarantee that presidents are able to lead with strong parliamentary support, a major faux pas could inspire voters to split power among the branches, leaving France without a clear political compass at a time when Europe needs strong leadership.

So, in this sensitive context, what sort of government did Hollande and his freshly named Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault unveil prior to their first Council of Ministers meeting on May 17? Well, for starters, the group of 34 full-fledged and deputy ministers is half women and half men, with more than a dozen ethnic minorities. Youth is represented by seven officials who are in their thirties. The new government's ethnic, gender, and youth diversity echo the first government under President Sarkozy, only more so. Re-affirming that France has moved beyond the aging white man is welcome, but the real question is whether the newly appointed ministers can respond to France's many crises.

The answer, of course, remains to be seen, but the choices that Hollande has made in picking the first Socialist led-government in 10 years speak to his vision for France's future.

The most significant sign comes from what Hollande chose not to do. He declined to select Martine Aubry, the woman who was the most popular choice to be his prime minister. The pugnacious Socialist Party leader, who ran to the left of Hollande in last spring's party primary (placing a strong second), Aubry is something akin to royalty for many on the French left. It isn't that she is the daughter of beloved former European Commission leader Jacques Delors, but rather that she was the legislative midwife of France's popular 35-hour workweek (that Presidents Jacques Chirac and Sarkozy have since largely gutted). Aubry and Hollande never got along particularly well; she often denigrated him, once challenging his virility by saying he was a "soft ball" -- as in testicle -- of the French left. Given such forces, and the sign that Ms. 35-Hour Workweek would have sent to international markets and lenders, when Aubry made clear that she would accept nothing less than France's premiership, Hollande decided she would get nothing.

Instead, Hollande chose his right-hand campaign and political strategist, the pragmatist Ayrault, as prime minister. Ayrault, interestingly, is an expert on Germany and speaks the language of Mann fluently. At a time when relations with Europe's dominant economic force may define the near future of the European project (and perhaps even the euro), Hollande has his immediate priorities clear.

President Hollande's next most significant choice is clearly Laurent Fabius, 65, as minister of foreign affairs. Fabius is a particularly seasoned Socialist heavyweight (he was a contemporary and long-time competitor of disgraced super-economist Dominique Strauss-Kahn). And it's not his first rodeo. Under President François Mitterrand in the mid-1980s, Fabius became prime minister at age of 37. In that position, Fabius battled an explosion of French debt and steep inflation, with some success. While his personality was often mocked -- he can come across as a snooty elitist -- he earned respect for his smarts. In an op-ed published in the newspaper Le Monde at the time, Fabius wrote that while the right was almost certainly unable to defeat the left electorally, "taxes and fees" could. Not surprisingly, many on the French left then blasted Fabius as a fiscal right-winger, or what might be translated these days as a Socialist In Name Only. (Prior to his entry into government at the start of Mitterrand's first presidential term in 1981, a 30-something Fabius offered a clear indication of his ideological views when he declared: "Between the plan and the market, there is socialism.")

Since first being elected to parliament in 1978, Fabius has been a fixture, filling the role of National Assembly president on two different occasions when the Socialists held a majority, doing stints as the minister of budget and the minister of industry and research under Mitterrand, and finally as minister of the economy, finance, and industry starting in 2000.

Hollande's choice of Fabius is interesting on multiple levels. For one, Fabius, who is famous for his snide asides about other politicians, once sneered: "François Hollande, president? That's crazy." Fabius now acknowledges underestimating his new boss and benefactor. Hollande, to his credit, has shown a marked propensity for shaking off personal insults, whether from enemies or ostensible political allies. Still it remains unclear if they have really made up or whether Hollande has simply learned from his political mentor, President François Mitterrand, who believed in keeping enemies even closer than friends.

But the most awkward part of Fabius as the head of French diplomacy has little to do with Hollande. It has to do with Fabius's quixotic -- many say, cynical -- stance against the European Constitution in the French referendum of 2005. Fabius's high-profile advocacy against the treaty earned him the enmity of governments across the European Union (including every single Socialist party). Fabius, who was a ranking parliamentarian who hoped to nab the Socialist nomination for the presidency soon after, seemed to many people to be pandering to anti-EU Socialists, anti-globalization forces, and radical leftist groups in the hopes of creating an outsider springboard to the left's presidential candidacy.

The French strongly rejected the EU referendum, but the following year, Socialists also rejected Fabius; the rich man who grew up in Paris' bourgeois 16th arrondissement just wasn't convincing as the embodiment of anti-Europeanization, humanizing international economics and globalization. To this day, bitterness toward Fabius endures among swaths of Europe's political establishment. Hollande was, at the time, the (furious) leader of the Socialist party, and there was a discussion about how to sanction people like Fabius -- at least until the party realized how popular his stance was on election day. (France later passed a slightly altered version of the EU Constitution without a popular vote.)

Ironically, the sense that Fabius was cynical in his anti-referendum stance now plays in his favor, as few believe that he will pursue an anti-EU agenda that drifts from Hollande's priorities. Beyond that, Hollande has worked hard to portray himself as a healer of France's many rifts, including divisions around the European project -- and what better way to do that than to bring together a government made up of people who have stood on different sides of the issue?

Hollande has chosen a more loyal and straightforward figure to helm the ministry of Economy, Finance, and External Commerce. The seasoned English-speaking Pierre Moscovici, 54, is a former deputy minister of European affairs and negotiated the European Union treaty. Once a linchpin of the candidacy of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, "Mosco" ultimately became Hollande's campaign manager.

Moscovici will be charged with eliminating France's annual deficit by 2017, helping to change the trend on unemployment, and targeting limited resources to stimulate economic growth.

France's new top cop at the Ministry of the Interior is Manuel Valls, who was Hollande's most visible campaign advocate. In parliament, he represents a turbulent ghetto area, which gives him credibility when he offers tough talk on crime and security, but that has also gotten him pegged as being from the right wing of the Socialist party. (Yes, that exists, even if it is a small wing.) Given the stark promises that Sarkozy made in the failed hopes of winning over enough far-right voters to win re-election -- including halving legal immigration and potentially suspending Europe's Schengen Accords, which allow EU citizens to freely cross internal borders -- the policies that "law and order" Valls oversees at the Interior seem likely to hew closer to Sarkozy's first-term policies than five more years of conservative rule would have.

Perhaps the most intriguing choice in the government is new Minister of Justice, Christiane Taubira. The 60-year-old black woman grew up poor in French Guyana and ran as a "Radical Left" party candidate for the French presidency in 2002, winning 2 percent of the vote. Taubira is also the author of the 2001 French law dealing with the nation's slave history that acknowledged, among other things, that France committed crimes against humanity and  that it broke the law by being involved in the slave trade. Her law also mandated that French children be taught about this in school. She has suggested that she will emphasize the rehabilitation of prisoners and that she will work to alleviate the overcrowding of French prisons, which are 17 percent over capacity after 10 straight years of conservative governments, and she may re-channel money from prison construction toward other priorities.

While French Socialists have long leaned toward a more diversified response in its criminal justice system, including alternative sentencing in community service, rehabilitation efforts, and electronic tagging, such issues are clearly secondary to the greater immediate challenges facing France.

The dramatic economic questions, which were rarely addressed in substantive terms on the campaign trail by either candidate, continue to loom over Hollande's nascent presidency. How will the president face up to long-term budget, unemployment, and economic growth challenges? Hollande will be dramatically raising levies on France's small number of very rich citizens, as well as taxing stock market income at a rate similar to normal income, but does he plan to make dramatic cuts in pensions or other benefits or to slash France's sizable military budget? All are plausible, especially defense cuts, but Hollande's plans remain hazy at best.

Politically, while most of the key figures in Hollande's government lean toward the center, the new president was, after all, the candidate of the Socialist party, a political group that he led for 11 years (1997-2008). But for now, he is sending out notable signs to foreign leaders that he plans to be a social justice-driven center-left president, which is to say, a social Democrat. Indeed, he won the presidential run-off thanks to the support of a broad far-left coalition. (He gave two positions to Green Party candidates, but none to Communists or members of the far-left coalition that backed him in the second round, and he put people inclined toward fiscal restraint in the purse-string ministries.)

This "coming out" should soothe French lenders in the short term, but it still carries some surprisingly immediate risks. For one, the parliamentary elections in June could force changes in the just-appointed government. While the Socialist Party appears to be firmly behind him at the moment, a strong showing for the far-left in parliament could force Hollande to swing that direction. And no government in Paris is ever final: To secure the support of far-left allies, Prime Minister Ayrault could ask newly minted ministers to step aside so that he can horse-trade their positions to other parties in exchange for electoral support in the June run-offs or to guarantee a functional or absolute parliamentary majority in the assembly.

While the breakfast with Obama came with jokes about cheeseburgers and French fries, Hollande may have his hands full avoiding indigestion when he gets back home.