Sunday,19 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1237, (12 - 18 March 2015 )
Sunday,19 August, 2018
Issue 1237, (12 - 18 March 2015 )

Ahram Weekly

Breaking with Al-Qaeda

Was the Muslim Brotherhood-led Al-Nusra Front about to turn moderate to receive Western support, asks Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

A few days ago, several top Al-Nusra Front leaders in Syria were killed in an air raid. Their deaths may hinder, or accelerate, a possible decision by the militant group to cut ties with Al-Qaeda and join the ranks of Syria’s mainstream opposition.

There are two narratives making the rounds of Syrian politics about the recent raid. Either the US coalition did it to accelerate the group’s transformation into a moderate faction, which the coalition has so far denied, or the Syrian regime, which claimed responsibility for the raid, did it to stop the group from opting for moderation.

Al-Nusra Front, led by Abu Mohamed Al-Julani, is the second-largest radical Islamist group in Syria, after the Islamic State (IS). In the recent raid on its headquarters in northeast Syria, several of its key officials were killed.

Among those who died in the raid are the military commander, Abu Hammam Al-Shami, a Nusra Front co-founder by the name of Abu Omar Al-Kordi, Abu Al-Bara Al-Ansari, and Abu Mosaab Al-Filastini.

A spokesman for the US-led international coalition said no raids were carried out in the vicinity of Al-Nusra Front’s headquarters in the 24 hours around the time of the attack.

Hours after this announcement, the Syrian regime claimed responsibility for the raid, saying it was carried out by its air force.

Days before the air raid, reports indicated that a heated debate was underway within Al-Nusra Front on a possible renouncement of terror and the severing of all links with Al-Qaeda.

It is unclear whether the recent raid will reinforce Al-Nusra Front’s determination to join the moderate opposition, or push it further into Islamic State-style policies.

Speculation over the possible shift in Al-Nusra Front policies began in September, when the group released 45 UN peacekeepers it was holding without asking for anything particular in return, aside from being removed from international terror lists.

In December, European sources indicated that some European nations offered to intercede on Al-Nusra Front’s behalf if the group agreed to renounce terror and sever its links with Al-Qaeda.

Since then, Al-Nusra Front has had an internal debate on the matter and held several talks with moderate revolutionary battalions. So far, it seems there are two wings inside Al-Nusra Front, and that those who are for moderation outweigh those who support the radical policies and connections of the group.

Abu Maria Al-Qahtani, Al-Nusra Front’s religious advisor, said that the group is leaning towards breaking with Al-Qaeda and is willing to take any action that is in the best interests of the Syrian revolution.

According to Al-Qahtani, several countries offered to finance Al-Nusra Front if it ends its alliance with Al-Qaeda.

But signals from Al-Nusra Front have been mixed. In recent weeks, units from Al-Nusra Front pulverised the Western-backed Hazm Movement, killing its leaders and forcing it to disband.

The action, analysts believe, was led by those inside Al-Nusra Front who are dedicated to the old radical line of fighting the US and all its allies.

Al-Nusra Front has always been a bit of an enigma on the Syrian scene. For one thing, many Syrians who are opposed to the regime believe that Al-Nusra Front is mainly interested in fighting the regime and doesn’t share the ambitions of the global jihadists populating the ranks of the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda.

This belief is supported by the fact that Al-Nusra Front pledged never to expand its operations beyond Syrian borders. Unlike IS, which relies on foreigners in its operations, Al-Nusra Front mostly recruits Syrian fighters, and doesn’t have any non-Arabs in its ranks.

Al-Nusra Front’s conduct has been less than consistent, however, leading some to speculate it had secret dealings with the regime. In some parts of Syria, Al-Nusra Front coordinated with local resistance groups and refrained from enforcing its hard-line agenda on locals.

In other parts, Al-Nusra Front acted in a heavy-handed way, borrowing tactics normally associated with the radicals of IS or Al-Qaeda, and alienating the local population.

Opposition members and the local public complained on more than one occasion about the radical practices of Al-Nusra Front and urged its leaders to distance themselves from Al-Qaeda, to stop picking fights with opposition groups and to stick to fighting the regime.

On the narratives that emerged in connection with the recent raid, opposition member Sayeed Muqbil believes, contrary to coalition claims, that the US carried out the raid. Muqbil’s conclusion is based on the fact that one Al-Nusra Front leader killed in the raid, Abu Hammam Al-Shami, was vehemently opposed to renouncing terror and breaking ties with Al-Qaeda.

According to Muqbil, Al-Shami “was the last man alive who met and swore allegiance to Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. He went afterwards to Iraq and took charge of recruitment. There he was arrested by the Iraqis who handed him over to the Syrian regime, but the latter released him immediately, saying that there was no case against him.

“Al-Shami than returned to Afghanistan and afterwards travelled to Lebanon where he was imprisoned, then deported to Syria where he was released again at the beginning of the revolution and helped form Al-Nusra Front,” Muqbil added. “The US killed him because he is against breaking with Al-Qaeda.”

The other narrative is supported by Syrian opposition member Mohi Al-Din Al-Laziqani, who believes that the regime carried out the raid to eliminate Al-Nusra Front leaders who planned to distance their group from Al-Qaeda.

“For over a year, there have been ongoing talks with Al-Nusra Front leaders urging them to break with Al-Qaeda and thus spare a group whose bulk of members are young Syrians the retribution that lay ahead,” Al-Laziqani said.

“Al-Nusra Front was leaning toward accepting this idea. But the air raid killed the key leaders who supported this idea,” he added.

Most of the leaders of Al-Nusra Front, which received backing from Turkey and Qatar, are drawn from Muslim Brotherhood ranks in Syria and Jordan. Al-Nusra Front doesn’t include Islamist fighters from Al-Qaeda.

Not all those fighting for Al-Nusra Front are Brotherhood members. Many are just ordinary people who joined Al-Nusra Front to obtain guns and money.

The group was accused of terror when Ayman Al-Zawahiri offered it his support to spite Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the IS leader who had just turned against him.

Still, Al-Nusra Front never disassociated itself in public from Al-Qaeda, and thus the United States placed the group on its terror list.

Of the two narratives, claims that the regime killed Al-Nusra Front leaders to keep the group from going moderate conforms to earlier actions by the regime. In the past, the regime allowed radical groups to prosper while pummelling moderates.

It released terrorists from prison while imprisoning peaceful opponents. In some incidents, its forces vacated barracks to allow radical groups to seize them. And it never did much to stem the flow of weapons into the country.

Still, Al-Nusra Front has some moderates remaining in its leadership, and thousands of moderates fighting under its command. The break with Al-Qaeda would make sense, and it would be timely.

If Al-Nusra Front firmly joins the ranks of the moderate opposition, is struck off terror lists and receives Western support, this could be a turning point for the group and the nation.

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