During the Vietnam War the Vietcong coined the term 'hanging onto the belts' of the enemy as a way of blunting the United States' overwhelming superiority in fire support. In essence the tactic required the Vietcong to fight American and allied forces in such close quarters that indirect fire support couldn't be effectively employed for fear of killing one's own soldiers.
Vietcong fighters, 1962 Enter caption (Photo courtesy of Flickr user manhai
Fast forward 40 years and the Syrian al-Qa'ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (now re-branded as Jabhat Fatah ash-Sham – JFS) seek to apply the same lesson in the confusing politico-military environment that is Syria. The group's name change has little to do with positioning itself relative to the West, at least in the short term. Simply saying you have no direct links with al-Qa'ida while still praising them and Usama bin Laden, fighting to establish Islamic rule, and including foreign jihadis in senior positions within your ranks does little to convince people that anything but the name has changed.
In the short term the move was more about appealing to the other armed Syrian groups. While they have successfully formed alliances with other groups and fought together with them, the fact that JAN was a proscribed group meant that allying with JAN on the ground made groups vulnerable to attack by coalition and Russian aircraft. The Russians have not shown much inclination to differentiate between JAN and those fighting with them but the intertwining of groups, or 'hanging onto the belt' of non-proscribed Islamist and other rebel groups, has presented at times a targeting dilemma for US-led coalition airforces.
JFS also has a longer-term strategy that involves 'hanging onto the belts' of the Syrian opposition – but this time politically. By distancing itself (publicly at least) from AQ, it hopes not only to be an acceptable political player in post-conflict Syria, but one of the leading players because only then can it implement its strategic aim of Islamic governance. The essential first step toward accomplishing this is survival, and its tactical alliances on the battlefield have enabled this. There are reports that it has taken the lead role in the pivotal battle for Aleppo that is currently raging.
But the 'hanging onto the belts' strategy also involves become more closely involved in the information space. A more 'humanised' JFS becomes a more acceptable element of post-conflict Syria. The Qatar-owned al-Jazeera has been given several interviews with the JAN emir Abu Muhammad al-Jowlani and there have long been reports that Qatar saw JAN as one of 'its' groups in Syria. There are no doubt efforts afoot to 'rehabilitate' the group now that it has split from al-Qa'ida, although there is no indication at present that Washington is buying it.
But few in the jihadist milieu are expecting a radical change; rather they are geared more towards making JFS prime among, but indistinguishable from, other rebel groups. By doing so, they hope to protect themselves from a more coordinated air campaign and perhaps, in the future, once administrations change in Washington, to benefit from Hillary Clinton's as-yet undefined no fly or safe zones. And while dealing with the Russians on Syria has been anything but easy for Washington given the relative disparity in leverage and military commitment to the country, there are some indications that the JFS strategy is showing the first signs of working. Last month the Washington Post was critical of reported discussions between Washington and Moscow to share targeting intelligence to allow for more effective targeting of JAN (the editorial was written before the name change).
'Hanging onto the belts' was only ever a tactical approach used by the Vietcong to achieve a broader strategic aim. Forty years later and a continent away one Islamist group appears to be using the Vietcong approach both tactically and strategically. No one, however, should be under any false illusion as to what the JFS strategic aim is.