Nusra's march towards the mainstream

Nusra's march towards the mainstream
4 min read
29 May, 2015
Analysis: The Nusra Front's "moderate" wing appear to have shifted the militants to a more conciliatory role in the Syrian conflict, reports Enest Khoury.
Nusra are among the most formidable of rebel forces in Syria [AFP]
With Syrian rebel forces on the offensive, disagreements are emerging between their major international backers about how to overthrow Bashar al-Assad without extremist groups such as the Islamic State group taking command.

Efforts are being made by outside powers to form, arm and train armed groups that are not ideologically-aligned to groups such as IS and al-Qaeda.

Factions unite

The few hundred fighters being trained by the US in Turkey should be viewed as little more than special forces. They would not be able to topple the regime or defeat IS alone.

Relying on Kurdish fighters will not do the job as they number a small percentage of the population and do not constitute a majority in any part of Syria.

Given the utter failure of the US-backed al-Hazm group, and the collapse of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) - save for a few areas in the south - foreign powers with a stake in the conflict can only adapt to the situation on the ground. 

The West and Gulf states involved in the conflict, and Turkey, are aware that most of the armed opposition groups fighting in Syria adhere to a Salafi-jihadi ideology.

On the other hand, they know that the pro-Syrian regime media's potrayal of all Islamist opposition groups being akin to al-Qaeda and IS is also inaccurate.

These international powers believe that these Islamist factions, which are dominated by Syrians, can be negotiated with unlike the multi-national jihadi forces with an expansionist agenda. 

Groups that fit the latter categorary, such as IS and al-Nusra, have no interest in building a new pluralistic and coexistant Syria with a guarantee on minimum freedoms and rights for the country's multi-ethnic and multi-religious communities. 

When the revolution turned to a full-blown armed struggle in 2012, it became obvious to the outside powers that the recently emerged Nusra Front was the most formidable armed opposition group.

Nusra was by no means a monolithic entity, but  made up of different wings with its Syrian and foreign fighters holding conflicting views and priorities.

Gulf powers have encouraged, or pushed, many of the rebel groups to forming a unified armed opposition bloc that excludes IS.

The new model, Jaish al-Fath ["the army of conquest"], includes members of Nusra. However the number of fighters overall in the group outnumber the al-Qaeda affiliated militants. Jaish al-Fath operates in Idlib, Qalamoun, and it is saif that they will soon move into Aleppo. 
     Alloush once stated that 'democracy belongs under our shoes' but promised that a post-Assad Syria would be pluralistic and democratic.

Islamist insurgency

Army of Islam commander, Zahran Alloush, the largest armed group in the Ghouta region of Damascus province, has changed his tone in recent interviews with the US media.

Alloush who had previously stated that "democracy belongs under our shoes" promised that a post-Assad Syria would be pluralistic and democratic. He denied harbouring any ill will towards Syria's minorities.

All this should not be viewed in isolation from external forces' push for a rebel force that was to some degree "moderate" and strong enough to overthrow the regime but ensure the power vacuum wasn't filled by extremist forces.

An approach to dealing with Nusra that the West might take would be similar to the "Taliban experience" and engage with the militants through intermediaries. 

Many say this would be successful given that Nusra shares some common interests - of overthrown the Syrian regime and destroying the IS machine - with certain powers that back the rebels.

Since the group formed there have been various internal disagreements regarding the group's links to al-Qaeda and Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Nusra's leader, Abu Mohammad al-Joulani, appears to be caught between the pro-al-Qaeda camp and their opponents who advovate for a purely Syrian force. 

The moral radical, global jihadi group is being led by the Iraqi militant Abu Maria al-Qahtani and the Syrian opponents are guided by Abu Qatada, a Palestinian.

The option now is whether Nusra will follow the path of assimiliation into a more mainstream agenda.

It would retain its radical Islamist credentials but its foreign backers are probably banking on its extremist outlook changing once the Syrian regime falls. An argument being made is that as long as Assad can continue to ravish Syria then extremist rebel groups to proliferate.

Nusra's decision to join Jaish al-Fath and battle IS is one sign that this approach could be paying off.

According to the Twitter account of "Muzamjir al-Sham", who is known for providing inside informaiton on Syrian jihadist groups, Joulani has all but decided to follow the advice of Qahtani and separate from al-Qaeda.

Nusra also recently forged closer links with other Syrian Islamist and rebel groups. However, in a recent al-Jazeera interview Joulani appeared to reaffirm his allegiance to Zawahiri. It shows that despite the shift to the mainstream, Nusra are still far from disowning their ideological tutors. 

article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.