The Syrian Islamist militant group Jabhat al-Nusra’s denial of a merger with al-Qaeda in Iraq is no consolation, in light of the former’s pledge of allegiance to al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri.
This is a serious development that harms not only Jabhat al-Nusra, but the revolution in general. As such, the pledge of allegiance has rightly generated swift and unprecedented condemnation from other Syrian opposition groups (political and military), including Islamist elements.
“We reject the thoughts of al-Qaeda. Syria is a country where moderate Islam prevails,” said Moaz al-Khatib, head of the main opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition. “The bottom line is that al-Qaeda’s ideology doesn’t suit us, and rebels in Syria have to take a clear stance about this.” His call has been heeded. “We don’t support the ideology of al-Nusra,” said Louay Meqdad, spokesman for the rebel Free Syrian Army.
“When we in Syria launched our jihad (holy war) against the sectarian regime... we did not do so for the sake of any allegiance to a man here or another there,” said the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front, an umbrella group of some 20 rebel brigades, including some of the most prominent. “Pledging allegiance to someone who does not understand our reality does not serve our people or nation.”
In response to its announcement of a merger with Jabhat al-Nusra, SILF accused al-Qaeda in Iraq of seeking to “impose a state on us without consulting us, led by an emir we did not choose or even hear of except through media outlets.” SILF also rejected “imposing anything on (Syria’s) fighters and the people that they were not willing” to accept.
Cause for concern
Jabhat al-Nusra’s pledge of allegiance puts it, and other Syrian rebel groups, in a difficult position. Since the announcement of its existence in January last year, the Islamist movement has become one of the most formidable fighting forces against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Its military prowess has, to varying degrees, earned it the respect and cooperation, if not the support, of some in Syria’s opposition and population.
We could see a Syrian version of Iraq’s al-Sahwa (Awakening) movement, formed by Sunnis who successfully turned on al-Qaeda.Sharif Nashashibi
However, this could now be undone, and no military force - no matter how effective - can maintain power without local backing. This would be particularly ironic for a movement whose name includes the word “nusra,” which means support in Arabic.
Syrians are acutely aware of the destruction and brutality wrought by al-Qaeda in neighboring Iraq in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion. As such, the vast majority of Syrians will not want to see a secular dictatorship replaced by an equally authoritarian Islamist theocracy, particularly in a country with such a patchwork of religious, ethnic and sectarian communities. That would be a betrayal of the revolution.
Jabhat a-Nusra’s use of suicide bombings and car bombs, which are indiscriminate by nature, fly in the face of its claims of avoiding civilian casualties while attacking military and regime targets.
It is also strictly implementing Islamic shariah law in areas it has taken over, and has reportedly attacked the beliefs of other religious groups in Syria. All this has caused grave concern, within and outside the country, that will be greatly heightened by this pledge of allegiance to the foremost global terrorist organization.
Such extremism threatens to hijack the revolution and cost the opposition crucial support against a regime propped up by its foreign allies. Mindful of this, SNC Vice President George Sabra has said a new constitution will not discriminate against anyone: “There will be no difference between a Muslim and a Christian, and between an Arab and a Kurd.”
Similarly, the Muslim Brotherhood has denied that it plans to impose strict Islamist rule on Syria or dominate the opposition, saying it wants to cooperate in building a modern, secular state in which all citizens are equal.
Opposition groups have thus far been largely reluctant to openly criticize Jabhat al-Nusra’s ideology or military tactics, for fear of splitting their ranks and alienating one of the most successful anti-Assad forces in what has become a stalemate on the ground. Indeed, important elements in the SNC, such as its leader and the Brotherhood, opposed the U.S. blacklisting of Jabhat al-Nusra as a terrorist organization in December.
The decision “must be re-examined,” Khatib said at the time. “We can have ideological and political differences with certain parties, but the revolutionaries all share the same goal: to overthrow the criminal regime.” However, opposition groups may be realizing that they cannot be silent or acquiescent indefinitely, and that Jabhat al-Nusra is doing the revolution, and by extension the country, more harm than good.
It has certainly cost the mainstream opposition the vital military support that it has long been pleading for. Foreign backers, including most European countries and the United States - which Jabhat al-Nusra has reportedly described as an enemy of Islam - are fearful that if they supply weapons, they would end up in the hands of extremists. This sentiment was most recently expressed by German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle.
“We are sceptical as the German government when it comes to delivering weapons, because we are concerned that weapons could fall into the wrong, namely extremist, hands,” he said on Saturday at the latest meeting of the Friends of Syria group.
“We expect from the opposition that they clearly distance themselves in Syria from terrorist and extremist forces.”
The SNC - widely recognized internationally as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people - duly obliged, stating that it rejects “all forms of terrorism and any extremist ideology,” and promising that “weapons will not fall in the wrong hands.”
The coalition and the FSA may be emboldened to stand up to Jabhat al-Nusra by the Arab League’s recent endorsement of arms supplies from member states, as well as calls from within the United States and Europe - particularly Britain and France - to do the same and go beyond merely increasing non-lethal support.
American Secretary of State John Kerry announced over the weekend that all aid from the 11-nation “core group” of the Friends of Syria - including the United States, as well as European and Arab countries - would now be channelled through the FSA.
A day of reckoning between moderate and extremist elements of the opposition was always likely, perhaps inevitable, given their widely divergent visions for a post-Assad Syria. Jihadist groups are intent on imposing the draconian will of a tiny minority over the vast majority - there is no sustainable place for such an ideology in Syria, nor should there be.
Many do not expect such a showdown to happen until after the downfall of their common enemy, but it may occur before then, with their differences growing as the conflict drags on. This may be viewed as the necessary price to pay for securing decisive foreign military support, as well as assuaging Syrian fears of growing sectarian and religious extremism in their country.
If the established opposition groups do not act, we could see a Syrian version of Iraq’s al-Sahwa (Awakening) movement, formed by Sunnis who successfully turned on al-Qaeda. In pledging allegiance, Jabhat al-Nusra is tempting the same fate, or perhaps even internal divisions if some of its members see the folly of its decision and the increasingly wayward path it is forging.
Those who worry about jihadists dominating Syria should bear in mind that wherever they have taken hold (Algeria, Iraq, Somalia, Mali, Yemen, to name but a few countries), they are quickly rejected by the local population because of their repressive, medieval rule. For all their talk of Western disregard for human rights, they are no better at winning hearts and minds. Jabhat al-Nusra is proving to be no different.
Sharif Nashashibi, a regular contributor to Al Arabiya English, The Middle East magazine and the Guardian, is an award-winning journalist and frequent interviewee on Arab affairs. He is co-founder of Arab Media Watch, an independent, non-profit watchdog set up in 2000 to strive for objective coverage of Arab issues in the British media. With an MA in International Journalism from London's City University, Nashashibi has worked and trained at Dow Jones Newswires, Reuters, the U.N. Development Programme in Palestine, the Middle East Broadcasting Centre, the Middle East Economic Survey in Cyprus, and the Middle East Times, among others. In 2008, he received the International Media Council's "Breakaway Award," given to promising new journalists, "for both facilitating and producing consistently balanced reporting on the highly emotive and polarized arena that is the Middle East." He can be found on Twitter: @sharifnash