When Jabhat al-Nusra  announced its formation on January 23rd 2012, little was thought of it. Indeed, I recall Syrians commenting on the Guardian’s Live Blog (which covered the anti-regime uprising in detail) stating that they thought the organisation was a regime operation designed to discredit the revolution.

Al-Nusra fighters in Idlib, 2015.

The truth is that although there is long-standing cooperation between Da’esh and the Assad regime, and Al-Nusra was dispatched to Syria as an offshoot of Da’esh (then the “Islamic State of Iraq”) in August 2011 by the then-obscure emir “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi”, the two organisations have since become intense foes.

In effect, the Assad regime’s efforts to work with AQI/Da’esh to undermine the Syrian revolution backfired and helped to form Al-Nusra and other groups that would become key to its undoing across much of the country.

In 2011 Assad deliberately released thousands of “Islamist” (the author balks at using a buzzword used to brand political Muslims negatively as a whole) prisoners from his jails, so they would taint the revolution with a jihadist trend frowned upon by the west, in order to be seen as the lesser of the two evils.

Jolani’s mugshot in the early years of the Iraq war, during his detention there.

Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, the Syrian who had risen through the ranks of the insurgency in Iraq prior to capture and several years of detention, linked up with several of these released men to form his new group. From October 2011 up until their founding in January of 2012, they met to establish the objectives of al-Nusra.

Once the group was formally established it grew rapidly; not only did al-Nusra have the cash and arms that most armed groups craved, but it had impeccable organisation and a strong command structure, resulting in a highly disciplined force.

Added to the mixture was a lethal cocktail of mujahideen; horrified by Syrian military atrocities, Muslims from around the globe flocked to join Islamic groups; some came from as far afield as Britain, others from around the Middle East. The charismatic Sheikh Abdullah al-Moheisany from Saudi Arabia is currently a field commander, and a popular internet personality..

Throughout the second half of 2013, the seemingly unstoppable ascendency of the Nusra Front was challenged. ‘Islamic State of Iraq’ emir Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi released a recording on April 8th in which he proclaimed that the front was their creation and had been funded and supported by his group. He announced that al-Nusra would be merge with ISI to form the Islamic State of Iraq and Ash-Shaam (ISIS).

Jolani responded the next day by affirming that al-Nusra considered themselves to be a part of al-Qaeda, but flatly rebuffed Baghdadi: “Neither the al-Nusra command nor its consultative council, nor its general manager were aware of this announcement. It reached them via the media and if the speech is authentic, we were not consulted.”

The situation in Syria as of September 16th. Grey indicates areas that Da’esh violently took from al-Nusra and the FSA… Leaving the regime-controlled areas almost untouched.

At this point, ISI (now ISIS) was expanding steadily into Syria over the porous Iraqi borders through Deir Ezzor, using a combination of subterfuge, assassination and cooperation with the regime. Their ultimate plan, devised by de-facto leader Samir al-Khlifawi, was to take control of Syria and use it as a beach-head to conquer Iraq.

Many more extreme foreign fighters in al-Nusra deserted for them, obeying Baghdadi’s command. Baghdadi personally travelled to Syria to try and take control of al-Nusra. In May, al-Qaeda emir Ayman al-Zawahiri ordered Da’esh to leave Syria and appointed an emissary to reconcile the two. Bagdadi, although still ostensibly part of al-Qaeda rebuffed the order, causing much confusion.

By late-2013, although ostensibly united in the fight against the regime, Da’esh and the revolutionary factions, including al-Nusra, were increasingly hostile to each other.

Indoctrinating western teenagers
Jake Bilardi, a vulnerable Australian teenager later indoctrinated into joining Da’esh. He later died in a suicide attack.

Da’esh fanned out from Deir Ezzor until they controlled territory in Idlib and Aleppo, using crossings to bring in young, zealous idiots (to be frank) from around the world, knowing their lack of ties to the population would make them more willing to kill. Their harsh treatment of Syrians and deeply foreign character created immense resentment, as did their deliberate focus on other factions and unwillingness to attack the regime, as part of the unofficial cooperation agreement.

In September 2013 Da’esh attacked the FSA-controlled border town of Azaz and took control of it, expelling the Northern Storm Brigade (to the approval of the regime) and the crucial Bab al-Salameh border crossing. In November they captured Atme. In December 2013 Doctor Hussein Suleiman’s tortured body was recovered from the group.

On January 2nd 2014 Da’esh finally went too far, attacking Atarib. Civilians in Idlib protested against them and Da’esh responded exactly like Assad; they fired at them. Immediately, revolutionary factions across Syria (Islamic and secular) descended upon the group in fury.

The Nusra Front also took part in the assault, taking over Da’esh positions in Idlib as they fled, and helping to push them back from other areas, including attempting to retake Raqqa. In February 2014 the Nusra Front fully joined the fight; by April 2014 Da’esh was expelled from Idlib, Latakia, Aleppo and Deir Ezzor.

Jabhat al-Nusra fighters hold their flag atop a captured tank (date unknown).
Jabhat al-Nusra fighters hold their flag atop a captured tank (date unknown).

By July 2014 the group, bolstered by weapons abandoned by the collapsing Iraqi army and brought into Syria, had slaughtered its way through Deir Ezzor and into much of Aleppo, killing (according to Jolani’s own count) 700 Nusra members in Deir Ezzor alone.

Al-Nusra’s Staying Power

Al-Nusra is often lumped in by various analysts and governments as being identical to groups like Da’esh; that is, cult-like extremist groups. Some ardently secular FSA groups claimed a desire to fight al-Nusra once Assad has been ousted.

Generally speaking, while al-Nusra may indeed use the name Tandheem Qaedat al-Jihad Fi Bilad ash-Sham (“Al-Qaeda Organisation in the Countries of the Levant”) there are fundamental differences between al-Nusra and al-Qaeda proper, which will probably ensure that it maintains a presence in Syria; at the very least in the north of the country.

First of all, al-Nusra is some 80% Syrian. When the group was initially formed, it had a core of Syrian leaders but many foreign fighters and took influence from them (some of whom were extremists).

When Baghdadi announced the formation of ISIS, his group’s hard-line stance appealed to the extreme elements of al-Nusra from abroad (e.g. Saudi Arabia and Tunisia). Most withdrew from the Nusra Front, leaving it overwhelmingly composed of Syrians and in need of men. Al-Nusra (thanks to its reputation and resources) began to actively recruit.

Al-Nusra
Revolutionary fighters deface portraits of Bashar al-Assad and his father Hafez.

The attitude of the group towards the rest of the world is indicative of the association with al-Qaeda being largely in name; Jolani himself said that unlike al-Qaeda proper, their intention is only to go after the regime, not to stage attacks around the world. Speaking to al-Jazeera, he said:

“Maybe Al-Qaeda does that but not here in Syria. Assad forces are fighting us on one end, Hezbollah on another and ISIL on a third front. It is all about their mutual interests.”

In addition, some of the majority-Syrian contingent are apparently strong proponents of splitting with al-Qaeda’s name completely. However, true to form, it was the very influential foreign contingent of the group which opposed the move. Aimen Dean, a former al-Qaeda member stated that:

“The Nusra military leadership, mostly Syrians, favoured severing links with al-Qaeda, as they know that such links complicate al-Nusra’s military alliances inside Syria. The Sharia committee of al-Nusra, mostly Saudis, were against severing such links and Sheikh Abu Qatada (Palestinian Jordanian al-Qaeda cleric deported from UK to Jordan in 2013) supported the option to remain loyal to al-Qaeda.”

Al-Nusra and the FSA have always conducted joint operations; this has only been made possible by the composure of al-Nusra as an overwhelmingly Syrian force, with members focused on protecting their families and defeating the regime.  Justifying the cooperation, one FSA leader described them as “the revolution’s elite commando troops.”

Their attitude towards the minority populations has not been without tension, but is more tolerant than the attitude of Da’esh. Al-Nusra were accused of kidnapping Christian nuns from Yabroud, however opposition forces had evacuated them due to the regime deliberately shelling churches. When the were released the nuns denied al-Nusra treated them badly on Syrian state TV, they were allegedly cut from contact with the outside world.

When the author of this article visited northern Syria, close to the Wastani mountains, Christians were freely moving around the area without trouble. In comparison, when Da’esh took the town of Qaryatayn, they abused the Christian population and abducted hundreds.

Jolani’s interview with Ahmed Mansour.

A huge factor in al-Nusra’s success is down to problems plaguing the FSA. In the early stages of the revolution the FSA (a disunited array of groups fighting under a common banner) was highly idealistic and large. However corruption and warlordism flourished as the war dragged on, made much worse by poverty (induced by regime bombardment) and the lack of support from outside.

Al-Nusra was thus a natural choice for many of them; thousands of Syrians flocked to fill the group’s ranks within months, unable to fight in the FSA when basic arms like kalashnikovs were unavailable and (in the case of Jamal Maarouf’s men) when some groups were more focused on obtaining cash than conducting operations.

Al-Nusra’s monthly salaries are hugely important for thousands of men who have mouths to feed, and can’t feed them on false western promises of support. By November 2012 Al-Nusra had over 10,000 men, 9% of the total strength of the FSA. By now, the number is probably over 15,000. Some say 25% of the FSA’s fighters went over to the group.

By now al-Nusra is largely indigenous to Syria. It is hard to see how any domestic or eternal force (especially aerial bombardment) will be able to displace a popular local group with thousands of normal Syrians in its ranks. Attempts to displace popular insurgent groups often go very badly. On a pragmatic level, locals with families who depend on them have no interest in their dissolution.

When the US designated al-Nusra in 2012, thousands of Syrians protested under the slogan: “There is no terrorism in Syria except that of Assad.”

In terms of other groups, it’s an irony that the brutality of Da’esh has simply made al-Nusra look better in the eyes of the population. Had Da’esh not treated other groups with such brutal coercion, this might not have been the case. As seen below, even foreign fighters in Nusra’s ranks have been viciously condemning the group both online and offline in recent months.

Al-Nusra made multiple offers of ending the killing. In December 2013 Jolani confirmed that some of his units had clashed with Da’esh, but stated that he wanted to end the “infighting”. Da’esh answered by car bombing civilians and threatened to let the regime slaughter Aleppo unless it was left alone.

In February 2014, Da’esh killed Abu Khaled al-Souri, a key leader in Ahrar al-Sham. Jolani gave Da’esh several days to submit proof that they weren’t involved to several jihadist scholars (al-Maqdisi, Abu Qatada, and Suleiman al-Alwan). Da’esh responded by murdering al-Nusra commander al-Ansari and his family, continually ignoring Moheisany’s peace initiative.

In May 2014, al-Nusra offered Da’esh a ceasefire. They responded by massacring al-Nusra fighters in Deir Ezzor and describing them as “apostates”. For many Syrians (especially on the Aleppo front) al-Nusra are seen as protecting them against the “ghulat” (extremists) in Da’esh by holding the front lines there, where opposition fighters are attacked by both Da’esh and the regime in unison.

After these events, al-Nusra seems to have learned its lesson and avoided even trying to reach out to Da’esh. Jolani in his most recent interview stated that until they changed their ways (which is highly unlikely “there is nothing but fighting between us” – a position popular among Syrians for whom the memory of Da’esh occupation of many of their towns is still painfully fresh.

Former Syria Revolutionaries’ Front leader Jamal Maarouf, currently in exile in Turkey.

Another reason Nusra will likely stick around is due to the complete lack of feasible non-“Islamist” alternatives in the north. In October 2014, Jamal Maarouf’s increasingly unpopular SRF clashed with al-Nusra around Jabal al-Zawiya, and lost some 100 men. Many unhappy members defected to al-Nusra or fled, and the organisation ceased to exist.

The group had been one of the biggest secular groups in the north, and its end signified the end of the ability of the secular groups to challenge the Islamist groups in terms of numbers and organisation.

In February 2015, the then-western-backed Harakat Hazzm movement kidnapped and murdered al-Nusra Aleppo commander Abu ‘Issa Al-Tabaqa. Al-Nusra declared war on the group on February 25th, taking over their bases. The group subsequently dissolved to avoid further bloodshed.

Northern Syria, specifically Idlib, parts of Latakia and much of Aleppo and Hama, is now controlled by Islamic groups like Ajnad ash-Sham, al-Nusra and Ahrar ash-Sham. Even given their clashes with secular groups, none have the power required to oust al-Nusra even if they desired to.

US government attempts to turn the FSA into a proxy force by inserting tens of badly-protected Division 30 members into those territories backfired badly; Division 30 dissolved within days due to attacks, and only served to cement the mistrust of some Syrians towards the secular-minded groups.

The actions of western governments are hardly helping. Syrians regularly express outrage at the the anti-Da’esh coalition; US warplanes regularly fly over Syrian regime forces without hindering them, and instead choose to bomb Ahrar ash-Sham, Jabhat al-Nusra and civilian settlements.

Al-Nusra had been rallying against western “salibiyye” (crusaders) for years, stating that they didn’t want the regime to fall. At first few believed them, but thanks to attacks on their forces, the perception across Syria is that the west wants Assad to stay. A perception which is hardly inaccurate. As a result, many perceive them as fighting against both regime and foreign interests.

A Jabhat al-Nusra convoy in Idlib.

Al-Nusra’s support doesn’t just lie in its tangible power, but in its infrastructure and civilian aid projects too. Al-Nusra forces have regularly repaired roads, distributed food aid and assisted refugees. Some have no love for the group whatsoever, but have preferred the sometimes strict governance it exhibits over no governance at all.

Analysts have claimed this is simply al-Nusra’s attempt to win “hearts and minds”. It is true that the group actively seeks to garner support, however this perspective fails to take into account the fact that al-Nusra is largely native Syrians, many of whom formerly fought in the FSA and will gladly assist the population out of idealism.

I immediately recall an incident on a bus in the north, in which an elderly lady had no bus money. A nearby al-Nusra leader immediately leaned over and gave her bus money. Their pro-active attitude to civilian aid has earned respect from the war-weary and the disenfranchised.

‘Al-Qaeda’ as a liability

Al-Nusra has kept up the al-Qaeda label since 2013, even if the reality tends to be the opposite for members. But this decision has arguably brought too much baggage; the association has given foreign powers the excuse to brand them as wholesale terrorists and conduct air strikes against them, and played into the Assad regime’s propaganda.

But there have been promising signs that the organisation could be willing to shed it, albeit not any time soon. Leaders such as Abu Marya al-Qahtani have opposed more extreme currents in the group. However after 2014’s setbacks he was demoted from the leadership and the more hard-line Jordanian Sami al-Oraydi took his place.

Worryingly, there has been an increased trend of kidnappings and clashes with FSA groups since the debacle of 2014; it was initially feared by many secularists that this was al-Nusra showing its true intolerant self to the world. However there has been no large-scale aggression against the majority of groups, and it seems as if these clashes have been localised attempts by al-Nusra to project hard power in the aftermath of setbacks, as opposed to a reflection of the mentality of most members.

Perhaps indicating that Oraydi and others have gained the upper hand in this debate (at least for now), rumours that Jolani would announce a break from al-Qaeda following requests from Qatar and the Guld States that he do so (meaning they could legally arm the group without being accused of “supporting terrorism”) proved to be inaccurate.

However it may not be just a matter of hard-line leaders keeping this decision back. One anonymous “Islamist official” reportedly stated that: “Nusra’s disengagement from al Qaeda would be good for the revolution, but Jabhat al-Nusra will always be in dire need of al Qaeda’s name to keep its foreign fighters away from IS.”

In other words, the experienced foreign fighters are attracted to al-Nusra by the al-Qaeda label, however superficial it may be. Former Deir Ezzor commander Muhamed Osman recently told The Daily Beast: “I think it will happen soon. You have to understand that al-Nusra consists of two very different parts and that one part, mostly local fighters, are not interested in global jihad.”

But in the long run this label could turn out to be a curse. It is difficult to envisage a post-Assad Syria in which a group calling itself Al-Qaeda in the Levant could have a role in governing the country as claims it will; the foul extremism of al-Qaeda carries little weight in traditionally tolerant Syrian society, and minorities would find it untenable to kowtow to a free Syrian government hosting a group bearing those banners.

Al-Nusra is at a unique crossroads; it has a choice of either embracing the al-Qaeda label indefinitely, or abandoning it once the regime falls. The reputation it has built up would more than ensure a place in future Syrian society if it abandoned its ostensibly global jihadist image. If it decides to retain it, it risks losing the power and prestige it has so painstakingly gained.

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