The “lesser evil”
: the evolution of Jabhat al-Nusra’s governance strategy in Syria

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


While many groups attempted to replace the functions of the Syrian state, Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN), the former al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, was the group that actually managed to be relatively successful. JAN not only survived substantial challenges, but also managed to outpower all other rebel groups and dominate the last remaining rebel-held region outside the regime’s control. The main research question this thesis therefore aims to interrogate is how JAN has been successful in surviving, and dominating, governing structures in its territories. In order to answer this question, this thesis examines JAN’s governance model and the evolution of its strategies between January 2014 and March 2020.

To do so, it tailors the ACL framework (which uses the concepts of authority, capacity and legitimacy) to examine the characteristics of the various approaches JAN used to establish its authority, increase its capacity, and strengthen its legitimacy; ultimately providing for success compared to its rivals. The thesis argues that the secret equation for JAN’s success lies in its pragmatism, which is based on a gradual approach and mixed strategy of patience, coercion and persuasion. This gradual approach allows the group to slowly implement its objectives while adapting its plans to people’s reactions.

This explains why JAN does not enjoy the same level of dominance in all its territories. Its mixed strategy of patience, coercion and persuasion allows the group to mitigate negative consequences of its actions, or lack thereof, to avoid alienating local communities, of which the latter are essential for its survival. The group’s pragmatism also allows it to use flexible and evolutionary tactics to increase its influence while alleviating the risks involved. While doing so, JAN has operated under the assumption that so long as people are limited to a binary choice between two actors (JAN or the Syrian regime), people will be less resentful towards JAN, despite their dissatisfaction with its performance, because it is considered less brutal, and more predictable, than the regime.

The thesis offers three original contributions to ongoing debates within two different bodies of academic literature: conflict studies and rebel governance. Its primary claims to originality are that it:

1. Redevelops the ACL model to make it applicable for the consideration of non-state actor governance structures;

2. Reveals how JAN establishes territorial control and the factors which influence its governance behaviour; and

3. Challenges the conventional wisdom about links between service provision and local support, arguing that the pragmatic provision of security is the most important factor working in JAN’s favour.
Date of Award1 Apr 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorShiraz Maher (Supervisor) & Peter Neumann (Supervisor)

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