Friday,20 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1136, 21 - 27 February 2013
Friday,20 July, 2018
Issue 1136, 21 - 27 February 2013

Ahram Weekly

The front with two faces

Some Syrians have praised the opposition Al-Nasra Front, while others believe it is now jeopardising the country’s revolution

Al-Ahram Weekly

Some Syrians regard Jabhat Al-Nasra, or Al-Nasra Front, fighters as men of legend, exaggerating their courage and willingness to die rather than retreat from their fight against forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. However, others see them as extremists and militant Islamists who are jeopardising the future of the Syrian revolution, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus.

The Al-Nasra Front is not a clearly defined organisation with a definite structure and hierarchy, causing different people to see it in radically different ways. For some, it is a group of armed extremists who want to establish an Islamist emirate in Syria, while for others it is a moderate group, as was demonstrated, such people say, by the front’s decision to form a local council in Ras Al-Ain in northern Syria two months ago that included a Christian priest.

The group seems to enjoy unlimited funds, and it has access to advanced weaponry. Its fighters are able to move quickly from one area to another, mostly wearing black masks and carrying black flags to distinguish them from fighters belonging to the armed opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) who fly the banner of the revolution.

In fact, the mystery of the Al-Nasra Front may be born of need or desire, with the regime wanting to confirm the existence of extremist terrorists, exactly the people it says are responsible for the uprising against Al-Assad’s rule, and the wider population’s wanting success in the battle against the regime.

Al-Nasra is growing fast, and it seems to be receiving generous donations from abroad, even if the identity of its financiers is not known. It is fast becoming one of the largest and most cohesive armed groups in Syria, and its fighters demonstrate superior fighting skills.

The front has an estimated 15,000 fighters, with large numbers of others joining its ranks on a daily basis, especially given its reputation as having both funds and weapons. Al-Nasra is also the only combat group that allows both Arab and foreign fighters to join its ranks.

Members of the group refuse to give media interviews, but combatants working with it tell of strict coordination, toughness, and the presence of many foreign fighters acting as hardened military experts.

Stories about the front have painted it as a group of extremists, its fighters smashing female mannequins in shops in areas under its control and preventing women from wearing trousers.

Group fighters allegedly remove alcohol from shops, fund schools that teach children a Salafist curriculum, and force shops to close during prayer times, all painting a grim picture of what life in the country could be like if extremist Islamists took power in Syria after the fall of the Al-Assad regime.

However, a second group of stories emphasises the group’s commitment to the populations of the towns that it controls and of its straightforwardness in dealing with local people. The Al-Nasra Front delivers fuel and flour free to bakeries, people say, such that they can continue operating, and it protects homes and shops against theft.

It guards hospitals and provides free medicine, while also distributing food to those in need without regard for religious affiliation. Some claim that group members grow their beards because they are pressed for time and not because they are religious extremists.

A more realistic account of the Al-Nasra Front might be to say that it has two faces, one emphasised by supporters of the regime, who say that the front is made up of dangerous terrorists, and the other put out by sympathisers of the revolution, who say that the front accepts non-Islamist parties and sees them as coworkers in the future.

The international community has also not been sure how to see the Al-Nasra Front, with some observers reducing the FSA to the Front alone, while according to FSA figures the Front makes up just five per cent of opposition combatants.

“The rise of the Al-Nasra Front is not surprising,” Michel Kilo, a prominent opposition figure, told Al-Ahram Weekly. “When the regime began its campaign of violence, it generated extremism and created a situation of polar opposites, with the regime and the extremists facing each other across a great divide.”

“The regime is trying to take advantage of this in order to force the world to choose between it and the jihadists, something which betters its chances of receiving international support.”

Russia fears the Al-Nasra Front and other similar groups, for example, on the grounds that their variety of Islamism could spill over into the Russian Federation and threaten Moscow’s rule. For this reason, Russia has used the fact that Arab and foreign combatants are joining the Al-Nasra Front as an additional excuse to support the Al-Assad regime.

The US added the Al-Nasra Front to its list of terrorist groups in December, voicing concerns about Al-Qaeda’s infiltration of Syria. Such measures pleased the Syrian regime, since it has long been trying to make the West believe that the conflict in Syria is one between the regime and Al-Qaeda-supported terrorists.

Fears about the Al-Nasra Front have triggered a drop in weapons supplies to the revolutionaries fighting the regime, including the FSA. Many donors have chosen to redirect funds to humanitarian aid instead of military assistance, in order to avoid attracting the penalties that would come to them under US laws.

According to the Syrian opposition, the US move has also made it impossible for Al-Nasra members to join the opposition in the future and it has extended the life of the regime.

Meanwhile, it has indirectly contributed to the popularity of Al-Nasra, since a large number of Syrian young men immediately joined its ranks, the majority of whom were not religious zealots.

The Syrian National Coalition of Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (SNC) criticised Washington’s move because it does not want to exclude any group fighting the regime.

France has also played down the influence of the Islamists, asserting that political and military loyalty shifts and that the Islamists will compete with others for influence when the regime falls.

However, some FSA fighters have asserted that Al-Nasra is connected to Al-Qaeda and that senior figures in the latter organisation are in charge of Al-Nasra and plan its operations.

The regime has long wanted to be seen to be fighting jihadists rather than democratic movements, which is why in the first weeks of the uprising some two years ago it released Islamist extremists from detention, some of whom then went on to found the Al-Nasra Front.

The origins of the group remain ambiguous because there are suspicions that Syrian intelligence could have been involved, and when it first appeared the group was rejected by other opposition groups on the grounds that it could have been a ploy by the regime to fragment the opposition.

Such concerns were heightened when the group claimed responsibility for bombings targeting military and security targets in residential areas without consideration for the civilians who would be hurt in such attacks and when some Al-Nasra leaders adopted a disturbing sectarian rhetoric.

However, Al-Nasra has since partnered with the FSA in complicated and risky military operations, as well as in laying siege to key military airports in cooperation with non-Islamist combat brigades.

Al-Nasra and the FSA now share control of many regions in Syria, and its combatants are on the frontlines demonstrating courage that amazes their brothers-in-arms. They are also popular among local people because of their discipline and the fact that they do not commit robberies or kidnappings.

These things have made the group a legitimate representative of the revolution in the eyes of many who are not religious zealots.

Nonetheless, the international community remains concerned that the front could contribute to spreading extremism, carrying a risk that it may re-evaluate its position on the Syrian revolution and see it not as a conflict between a despotic regime and a people wanting freedom, but as a struggle between the regime and jihadist fundamentalism.

There have also been concerns that the front could try to take over the revolution, undermining the role of the democratic secular forces. This could cause the moderate armed factions to retreat and increase the chances of a show-down between them and a fundamentalist minority that could threaten minority groups in the country.

Some Syrians are worried that should the Al-Nasra Front be victorious in its fight against the regime, it will become even more despotic and open up the country to trans-border terrorism.

“The jihadist groups are not real revolutionaries,” explained Rateb Shaabo, an opposition figure. “They are carrying out the negative part of the revolution by overthrowing the regime, putting the keys to rebuilding the country in our hands. But they also seek to establish an even more virulent regime, both morally and financially.”

Since it is now a reality on the ground, discussion is no longer about whether to reject or accept the Al-Nasra Front, but rather about how to reach an understanding with it and make it merge with the goals of the revolution and with those demanding freedom and democracy.

No one can lay the concerns about the group to rest aside from Al-Nasra itself. It needs to prove the legitimacy of its contribution to the Syrian revolution, and it needs to meet the expectations of those who are waiting for it to reject religious and sectarian violence.

It needs to declare its commitment to democracy, support the peaceful rotation of power, and not seek to impose a political agenda whether on the revolution or after the regime has been toppled.

In the absence of such commitments, the Al-Nasra Front will remain an alarming and mysterious two-faced creature that many people fear.

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