Al-Nusra is playing realpolitik

Solution to countering al-Nusra is to build up Syria’s nationalist rebels, empower civil society groups.


2016/08/07 Issue: 67 Page: 5


The Arab Weekly
Abdulrahman al-Masri



Al-Nusra Front leader Abu Muhammad al-Jolani has declared the mainly Syrian group is no longer affiliated with al-Qaeda and has renamed it Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.

The rebranding of al-Nusra is not a total split from al-Qaeda, however, but an attempt to gain support from the Syrian public and build legitimacy within the country with the aim of gaining dominance over the Syrian opposition. The move is a part of al-Nusra’s strategy to ensure its survival in Syria.

In a video statement, which has been viewed as al-Nusra’s official split from al-Qaeda, Jolani stated the new organisa­tion has no affiliation with any external party but he did not deny that he and his forces continue to follow al-Qaeda’s ideology and position on world affairs. Jolani praised al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and quoted former leader Osama bin Laden.

Jolani said Jabhat Fateh al-Sham was created to “preserve the jihad of the Levant” and to integrate the group with rebel factions in Syria. In an audio recording released shortly before Jolani’s video, al-Qaeda deputy leader Ahmad Hasan Abu al- Khayr gave his authorisation to al-Nusra “to proceed with that which safeguards the interests of Islam and Muslims and protects the jihad of the people of the Levant”.

Despite Jolani’s ambiguity on al-Nusra’s or Fateh al-Sham’s affiliation with al-Qaeda, the group operates with an extremist ideology and aims to establish a strict Islamic rule over post-war Syria. The group’s practices will continue to be alien to the majority of Syrian society as well as to the people’s understanding of Islam.

Jolani suggested that distanc­ing al-Nusra from al-Qaeda would give no justification to the United States and Russia to attack his group. Al-Nusra’s real aim, however, is not to mitigate threats from world powers but to integrate itself among the Syrian rebels and strengthen its stand­ing.

Al-Nusra has been one of the most powerful actors in Syria and the majority of rebel forces — including those of secular, nationalist and Islamist orienta­tion — rely heavily on al-Nusra for fighting the regime of President Bashar Assad.

Unlike the Islamic State (ISIS), al-Nusra has embedded itself within the Syrian opposition. Since it was established in 2012, al-Nusra has made great efforts to build public support and promote its ideology in its areas of control. While Western-backed rebels have been poorly funded and unable to defend opposition areas, al-Nusra has proved that it has the funds and weapons to maintain control of territory.

Despite its efforts at gaining public support, al-Nusra has faced nationalist voices from within the Syrian rebellion that oppose its extremist ideologies. Al-Nusra has tried to silence those voices by targeting Western-backed forces. Since the beginning of the year, there has been an upsurge in al-Nusra attacks on forces funded by the West, including the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

Residents in Maaret al-Numan, the home to FSA’s 13th Division, and other towns challenged al-Nusra by protesting its rule of the Idlib governorate. Under increasing pressure from civil society organisations, al-Nusra was forced to reposition itself or risk losing further public support. Al-Nusra’s rebranding is an attempt to gain back public support and build bridges with Syrian rebels who do not sub­scribe to al-Qaeda’s ideology, with the aim of gaining dominance in Syria.

As foreign powers try to counter the role of al-Qaeda, however, it is important to recognise that reliance on US and Russian air strikes would not be an effective strategy against al-Nusra. It is thoroughly embedded in local communities; air strikes would harm civilians and other rebels, which would encourage anti- Western propaganda and increase public support for al-Nusra.

It is critical that foreign powers acknowledge the solution to countering al-Nusra is to build up Syria’s nationalist rebels and empower civil society groups.

Al-Nusra has not revealed weakness by leaving al-Qaeda; it has demonstrated strength in its ability to consolidate power and dominate opposition ranks. The nationalist opposition must develop a political strategy of its own, promoting human rights, democracy and inclusivity, yet this cannot be achieved without unified Western support for the rebels and strict measures against the Assad regime and Russia to ground their offensives.


Abdulrahman al-Masri covers politics and news in the Middle East and Syria in particular. He can be followed on Twitter: @AbdulrhmanMasri


As Printed
MENA Now
Editors' Picks

The Arab Weekly Newspaper reaches Western & Arabic audience that are influential as well as being affluent.

From Europe to the Middle East,and North America, The Arab Weekly talks to opinion formers and influential figures, providing insight and comment on national, international and regional news through the focus of Arabic countries and community.

Published by Al Arab Publishing House

Publisher and Group Executive Editor: Haitham El-Zobaidi, PhD

Editor-in-Chief: Oussama Romdhani

Managing Editor: Iman Zayat

Deputy Managing Editor and Online Editor: Mamoon Alabbasi

Senior Editor: John Hendel

Chief Copy Editor: Richard Pretorius

Copy Editor: Stephen Quillen

Analysis Section Editor: Ed Blanche

East/West Section Editor: Mark Habeeb

Gulf Section Editor: Mohammed Alkhereiji

Society and Travel Sections Editor: Samar Kadi

Syria and Lebanon Sections Editor: Simon Speakman Cordall

Contributing Editor: Rashmee Roshan Lall

Senior Correspondents: Mahmud el-Shafey (London) & Lamine Ghanmi (Tunis)

Regular Columnists

Claude Salhani

Yavuz Baydar

Correspondents

Saad Guerraoui (Casablanca)

Dunia El-Zobaidi (London)

Roua Khlifi (Tunis)

Thomas Seibert (Washington)

Chief Designer: Marwen Hmedi

Designers

Ibrahim Ben Bechir

Hanen Jebali

Published by Al Arab Publishing House

Contact editor at:editor@thearabweekly.com

Subscription & Advertising: Ads@alarab.co.uk

Tel 020 3667 7249

Mohamed Al Mufti

Marketing & Advertising Manager

Tel (Main) +44 20 6702 3999

Direct: +44 20 8742 9262

www.alarab.co.uk

Al Arab Publishing House

Kensington Centre

177-179 Hammersmith Road

London W6 8BS , UK

Tel: (+44) 20 7602 3999

Fax: (+44) 20 7602 8778

Follow Us
© The Arab Weekly, All rights reserved