Al Qaeda in Syria becoming an ever more prominent part of the rebellion
The so-called Islamic State may be getting most of the headlines. But there's another rebel group on the move in Syria, one that works with the US-backed Free Syrian Army, that is also cause for concern.
In the press coverage of the civil wars in Iraq and Syria lately the so-called Islamic State has been getting most of the attention. For good reason.
Last month IS defeated the Iraqi government in the city of Ramadi. The group is about to celebrate its one-year anniversary of conquering Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, and it also remains potent in Syria. Last month the group seized the ancient city of Palmyra in the east of Syria, executed around 200 captives, and has since been pushing west towards Damascus.
But the successes and excesses of IS - the groups extreme reveling in savagery like enslaving teenage girls and beheading and burning captives alive - has also provided an enormous rebranding opportunity for another major rebel group in Syria: Al Qaeda's local affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. The jihadi group, which has engaged in combat with IS as well as Syrian government forces, has been coordinating with an array of so-called "moderate" Islamist rebel groups in an organization called Jaish al-Fateh and has been in the vanguard of some of the rebellion's against biggest successes against Bashar al-Assad in recent weeks, particularly in Idlib province.
For governments who see the defeat of the Assad government as the most important thing in Syria - countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar and Turkey, who fear Assad's ally Iran more than they due Sunni jihadis - the Al Qaeda affiliate's successes have been something to be celebrated, and a wedge to suggest that the group really isn't so so bad, after all. They don't have the head-chopping zeal of IS, goes the argument, and their willingness to align with more Syrian nationalist rebel groups means that their ultimate, transnational jihadi ideology will be cast aside for the greater good the rebellion.
That's the case that Jabhat al-Nusra's leader Abu Mohammed al-Jolani has made in two recent interviews with Al Jazeera, the Qatar-government controlled television channel that of late has gone all-in with the Islamist opposition to Assad and carried a series of broadcasts with inflammatory sectarian themes (one prominent Al Jazeera program recently hosted a debate in which the question of whether all of Syria's Alawites, including the children, deserve death; the host Faisal Qasim and one of his guests concluded 'yes').
Jolani said his group continues to acknowledge Pakistan-based Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri's authority, and that the former close confidant of Osama bin Laden has ordered the group not plan any attacks on Western targets. He said religious minorities like the Alawites - the sect Assad and much of his inner circle belong to - have nothing to fear in a Syria in which Al Qaeda rules. "If any of you abandons the regime and repents... he will be forgiven and have the right to live as a Syrian citizen," Jolani said. As for turning its sites on the US someday: "Our battle is with the Assad regime, and we have nothing to do with the US - although it bombed us so many times."
Al Jazeera followed up with an opinion piece by its Islamabad bureau chief Ahmad Zaidan, which was positively glowing about Nusra.
The US and the West can react to Nusra as they deem suitable. Washington used to depict the PLO as a terrorist outfit - but then took a U-turn.
The Taliban in Afghanistan were once the main target of the US military, but is not currently designated a "terrorist organisation" by either the UN, UK or US. The White House does not even brand Hezbollah or Iranian Quds Force's Qassem Soleimani "terrorists"...
The Obama administration may be at ease with the idea of armed groups alien to the Iraqi population fighting on behalf of Baghdad - but continues to have a problem with Syrian fighters - such as those who make up Nusra's ranks - fighting in Syria. This dichotomy will not serve the West's interests.
Charles Lister, a fellow at Brookings Doha Center, writes that there's some evidence that Nusra's new "pragmatism" as its often called represents real division within the Al Qaeda supporters in Syria - some of which really do seem interested in an Islamist project for the country without sharing Al Qaeda's ultimate goal of the destruction of the US and other "far enemies." But he also argues that expecting a pragmatic stance to evolve into a new belief system for the group would be foolish.
For now, moderation or not, Jabhat al-Nusra must still be viewed as an avowed member of al Qaeda — an organization whose express objective remains to attack and destroy the Western world. Jolani's interview may have appeared to some as having revealed more moderate positions on issues like minorities, strict Sharia law, and hostilities with the West, but all such positions were limited to the conditions prevalent today — war. Should the Assad regime one day fall or be pushed aside in a negotiated political transition, al Qaeda's true colors will surely be revealed.
If for that reason only, the international community must view Jabhat al-Nusra's cunning positioning as part of a long-term plan. Syria is on Europe's doorstep and our 20-year enemy, al Qaeda, is outbidding us and appropriating the support of many of those who could otherwise have been our friends.
The history of Al Qaeda's affiliates in the region aren't reassuring on this score. The old Al Qaeda in Iraq (which evolved into the Islamic State), expressly sought a sectarian war with Iraq's Shiite Arabs and famously got one - with tens of thousands of civilians killed in reprisal killings by both sides.
Human Rights Watch alleges that Nusra was responsible for "systematic and widespread violations including targeting civilians, kidnappings, and executions" in 2014 and that it had "imposed strict and discriminatory rules on women and girls and... actively recruited child soldiers." Meanwhile, the US-backed Free Syrian Army has been coordinating heavily with Nusra and other Islamist factions in Jaish al-Fateh.
If victory comes for the rebels, war after the war will be inevitable. And even if the Islamic State is somehow routed from Syria, it's hard to expect Jabhat al-Nusra won't try to be the victor in deciding what comes next for Syria.