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The alleged alliance between ISIS and al-Qaeda is terrifying. But is it real?

An al-Qaeda fighter in Syria.
An al-Qaeda fighter in Syria.
(Rami al-Sayed/AFP/Getty Images)

  1. Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda's branch in Syria, has agreed to join forces with ISIS, according to a new report.
  2. The two Islamist extremist groups have been enemies in Syria, so a degree of antagonism is likely to remain, and the deal could always collapse. This is not reported to be a full merger.
  3. Joining together in Syria would make both ISIS and al-Qaeda more powerful and would be terrible news for their enemies: US-backed moderate rebels, Kurdish groups, the Syrian government, an, of course, Syrians themselves.

Al-Qaeda and ISIS: from enemies to possible partners

It's been one of the basic truths of the Syrian civil war: ISIS and al-Qaeda hate each other. The two groups see each other as rivals, each claiming to be the leader of the global jihadist movement, in Syria and internationally. For at least a year, the two radical groups have been in open — and, at times, bloody — combat.

Now, a report from the Associated Press' Deb Riechmann, sourced to two Syrian rebel leaders, claims that al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate (Jabhat al-Nusra) and ISIS have agreed to join forces to crush American-supported moderate rebels and Kurdish fighters throughout Syria.

If the reports are true, this would be disastrous. United, the two jihadi groups could slaughter Syria's moderate rebels. But the alleged deal isn't a permanent merger, and there's deep antagonism between the two groups' leadership. It's hard to say how long this deal will last — if it exists in the first place.

ISIS and al-Qaeda's alliance of convenience is terrible news for Syria

The Syrian war is complicated, but there are at least five separable sides in the conflict: the Assad regime and its allies, ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, Syrian rebels coordinated by the Free Syrian Army, and Kurdish militias. For a long time, Nusra partnered with other rebels to fight ISIS and the Assad regime (nominal enemies who often ignore each other in practice). The al-Qaeda branch and the rebels were so close, in fact, that moderate rebels were furious when American bombs began hitting Nusra targets in September.

These alliances created a tenuous balance of power. Neither ISIS nor the Assad regime had the juice to crush the moderate rebels as long as they were fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with al-Qaeda. The Kurds, meanwhile, are gamely holding onto their territory in the face of an ISIS-led onslaught with heavy American air support.

If the AP's Syrian rebel sources are correct, then the balance power just changed dramatically — for the worse. The first part of the deal is non-aggression: Nusra and ISIS have agreed not to attack each other. Second, they agree to cooperate against their enemies: one source says they'll focus on Kurds, and another says they'll target the American-backed Syrian Revolutionary Front (SRF) "until all of the force, estimated to be 10,000 to 12,000 fighters, was eliminated."

Together, al-Qaeda and ISIS have the power to make this stick. They've got the strongest, most-battle tested fighting forces in Syria. Earlier this month, Nusra on its own forced the SRF and Harakat Hazm, another American-backed group, out of key positions in northern Syria. There are already reports that Nusra forces are moving towards Afrin, a Kurdish-held area that shelters a million people from the war.

So even a temporary alliance between al-Qaeda and ISIS has the power to slaughter American-backed groups. The US strategy depends on having ground proxies to push ISIS out of territory and then hold it, but that seemed to implicitly assume that al-Qaeda wouldn't turn on their longtime allies. If these reports are real, the American strategy could very well fall apart entirely. And many people will die.

But there's no guarantee that ISIS and al-Qaeda actually become friends

In the darkest timeline, al-Qaeda and ISIS ganging up on moderate Syrians and Kurds, while Bashar al-Assad benefits from the infighting among his enemies. But the AP report doesn't prove that to be true.

First, check the sourcing. Comments from two Syrian rebel leaders aren't the same as an official ISIS announcement. It's possible they've got bad information or are simply making things up. There's a very strong chance that this rumored alliance is simply that: a rumor.

But even if it's real, the accord may be less meaningful than it seems. This could end up being the Syrian equivalent of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact: a temporary accord between two enemies who, for deep ideological and personal reasons, will eventually turn on each other again.

The disputes between ISIS and al-Qaeda run deep, at both ideological and personal levels. Ideologically, ISIS believes they control the only Islamically legitimate caliphate and thus are the only rightful leaders of the global jihad. Al-Qaeda believes that ISIS's caliphate declaration is premature — that they're upstart illegitimate pretenders doomed to fail. Only one group can ultimately lead.

On a personal level, the leaderships despise each other. Until February 2014, ISIS was nominally part of al-Qaeda. But that relationship was fraught: ISIS refused to follow al-Qaeda Central's orders, including instructions to tamp down on its brutality. By one estimate, 3,000 people died in the fighting between ISIS and Nusra after ISIS quit al-Qaeda. That's not easy to get over.

So there are many ways this pact could fall apart. And for all we know, it's merely a local agreement between fighters in a particular area, not a leadership-level about face. A pact between ISIS and al-Qaeda would be very bad, but it's far from clear that it exists yet.