Saturday,21 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1242, (16-22 April 2015)
Saturday,21 October, 2017
Issue 1242, (16-22 April 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Al-Nusra or Islamic State?

The distinction between Al-Nusra Front and Islamic State is becoming less and less clear, writes Hassan Al-Qishawi in Beirut

Al-Ahram Weekly

Al-Nusra Front was supposed to be different. An affiliate of Al-Qaeda, Al-Nusra was supposed to be more accepting of others, working with Islamists as well as non-Islamists, moderates as well as extremists, and claiming not to seek control of the Arab Spring Revolution in Syria but to be just one group among many others seeking to topple the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad.

The narrative was new to Al-Qaeda and its franchises. Impressed by how the Arab Spring revolutionaries had managed to topple one government after another, the leadership of Al-Qaeda wanted to try another tack.

It worked in Syria, at least for a while and at least partially. Other sections of the Syrian Revolution also bought it, and political leaders, including key Christian figures, praised Al-Nusra Front for its sincerity. The Western-backed Free Syrian Army considered it to be a friend.

Then the Islamic State (IS) group appeared on the scene. This Al-Qaeda runaway, centralised beyond belief, brutal and proud of it, coercive and manipulative and often victorious, brought its own narrative into the scene. Why accept others if you can kill them, it asked.

Jihadists across the world are now divided over which path to take: the cooperative, inclusive, footloose approach of Al-Nusra Front, or the dismissive, sectarian, exclusionist and centrist approach of the so-called Islamic caliphate?

To make things even more complex, the two organisations act as rivals at times, enemies occasionally, and peas in a pod when the mood strikes them. During the recent storming of the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp on the outskirts of Damascus by IS fighters, experts said that the group could not have pulled this off without help from Al-Nusra Front.

When IS fighters went into the camp, the first thing they did was to brutalise Palestinian groups fighting the Syrian regime, including a Hamas affiliate known as Aknaf Beit Al-Maqdis.

Other instances of collusion, as well as collision, have been reported in the Qalamoun Mountains on the border between Syria and Lebanon.

IS prides itself on being consistent. It takes no quarter, shows no mercy and has no friends. When it conquers, it gives the vanquished one of two options: join or die. This pattern is opposed to that of Al-Nusra Front, but some members of the latter have not been able to contain their admiration for IS’s effective shows of brutality.

A major section of the front’s fighters in the Qalamoun Mountains defected to join IS. The defection, which followed IS victories in Iraq, may have been opportunistic but it could also have been doctrinal. Among the jihadists, especially the young, the idea of holding land, declaring a caliphate and not wasting too much time coordinating with secularists and the like was quite alluring.

IS has never accepted Al-Nusra Front as an equal, although in battle the front has proved itself a worthy adversary. Among the IS ideologues, the front is an “infidel group but not a group of infidels.” The distinction is crucial: as a group the front has to be disbanded or brought into submission, but as individuals its fighters should be lured to join IS.

In some areas the front fights IS, and in others it collaborates. It all depends on the decision of the local commanders, who often act with a remarkable degree of autonomy. For example, the Al-Nusra Front’s commander in Qalamoun, Abu Malek Al-Talli, is said to be trying to maintain good ties with IS while acting independently from it.

This is a thin line to walk, and one that has proved hard to follow.

During the battle of Arsal last summer, IS fighters persuaded members of Al-Nusra to join them in abducting Lebanese army and police personnel, a tactic that runs against its sense of political self-preservation. Al-Nusra fighters mimicking IS tactics also later beheaded a Lebanese soldier. This was an aberration, but one that must be kept in mind when analysing the ideological seesaw of jihadism in the region.

Despite this incident, Al-Nusra keeps coming up with initiatives to resolve the matter of the abducted soldiers. Military sources believe that almost all attacks against the Lebanese army have been mounted by IS combatants.

In northwestern Syria, the relations between Al-Nusra Front and IS have been more confrontational. The front is clearly cooperating with mainstream groups, whether Islamist or secular.

This is more in line with its basic doctrines and with remarks made by its leader Abu Mohamed Al-Julani to the effect that Al-Nusra does not want to rule Syria alone. Over the past few years, it has forged close ties with Turkey and Qatar and made genuine attempts to stay in the good books of Western supporters of the Syrian Revolution.

Syrian liberal figures in the opposition have praised the front’s role in the revolution. Even Michel Kilo, a well-known Christian opposition member and human rights activist, often speaks about how different Al-Nusra is from IS.

But it may now be changing its mind. With the Arab Spring in tatters, the Sunni-Shiite confrontation escalating and the gap widening between Islamists and liberals in the region, the front may be slowly drifting away from the centre it has claimed to inhabit and into the lunatic fringe that has brought its rivals in IS so much land and visibility.

Al-Nusra used to call IS “khawarej” or a fringe group. But as time goes by, many in the front itself may be finding the fringe an attractive place.

Al-Nusra Front has not only suffered military loses at the hands of IS, but also lost ideological ground to the ultra-radical, all-or-nothing form of jihadism that IS stands for. The IS threat to the front is thus not an external one, but one that emanates from within.

At least some sections of Al-Nusra Front may now be motivated to adopt IS tactics. This is a prospect that many fear may turn into reality in Idlib, which fighters from the group recently helped capture in Syria.

Militarily, Al-Nusra Front is the strongest organisation facing IS in the field. But ideologically it is becoming more vulnerable to its rival’s way of thinking.

Among jihadists of the Al-Qaeda brand, IS has a bad reputation as a force of brutality that is giving Islam a bad name. But success has brought IS more than material rewards, and what started as grudging admiration could now turn into an open allegiance among many jihadists, including those from the Al-Nusra Front.

Although many IS members were forced to join the group, there have been no defections to mention from its ranks. The reason, some believe, is that IS has copied some of the control mechanisms of the ultra-centralised Arab Baath parties. Some Iraqi Baathist military commanders are said to be fighting in IS ranks.

This may explain the internal cohesion of IS, which recalls that of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s army, which resisted collapse in the 2003 US-led invasion until the fall of Baghdad. The Baath Party in both its Iraqi and Syrian iterations is known to be obsessed with security, a trait that helped it rule Iraq and Syria for decades.

IS today is following the same methods. It has teams of legal and security officials who are sent even to distant units in Qalamoun to keep the group’s members on a tight leash.

But the group is not invincible. If it has been allowed to exist in the first place, it is because certain powers in the region and outside hope to use it to boost their influence, or undermine that of their opponents.

If IS remains strong, Al-Nusra Front will be under greater pressure to imitate it. But if it suffers losses, the front may go back to trying its hand at moderation, or at least reasoning with others.

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