Jabhat al-Nusra, Al Qaeda's formal affiliate fighting in Syria against the forces of President Bashar al-Assad, has in recent weeks been trying to put a kinder, gentler face on its movement.
The group has lately been fighting and winning battles alongside Syrian rebel groups that are getting support from Saudi Arabia and Turkey, dealing setbacks to the Iranian-allied regime in Damascus. And an effort is underway to groom Nusra's image as a reasonable organization for the West to back when compared both to the Islamic State and the Syrian regime.
Last month Nusra's leader Abu Mohammed al-Jolani told Al Jazeera that if it eventually prevails in Syria, religious minorities – Christians, Alawites, and others – have nothing to fear from a group whose ideology calls for the forceful conversion of all humankind to its brand of Islam.
"If any of you abandons the regime and repents ... he will be forgiven and have the right to live as a Syrian citizen," Jolani told Al Jazeera during an interview conducted in Syria (Jolani wore a mask.) He also claimed that the movement would never turn its guns on the US or other Western powers.
Today, comes a reminder of what Al Qaeda is all about. Syrian opposition groups say Nusra gunned down over 20 Druze in the Syrian village of Qalb Lawzeh, in the northwestern Idlib province, on Wednesday. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring organization run by a Syrian expatriate in London, said sources in the area alleged a fight broke out after a Tunisian Nusra fighter sought to commandeer a local home. Nusra then called in reinforcements and they opened fire on civilians. A child is reportedly among the dead.
The Druze practice a secretive offshoot of Shia Islam that broke from the main faith about 1,000 years ago. They exist to this day in small pockets in Syria, Lebanon, and Israel. They fear that if Syrian Islamist rebels win the war, their fate would be the same as the Christians and Yazidis of Iraq, whose ranks have been decimated by targeted killings – first by Al Qaeda in Iraq, then by its offshoot Islamic State.
The New York Times reports today that Druze have been either neutral or pro-regime in the Syrian conflict, but are increasingly reluctant to supply men for the Syrian Army. Druze leaders in northern Syria had complained that regime forces weren't protecting them from an advance by Islamic State or rival opposition forces, such as Nusra and its allies.
Jabhat al-Nusra remains formally loyal to the main Al Qaeda branch in Pakistan, run by Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's former right-hand man. But it also appears to be receiving support from countries that are often described as US allies in the Middle East, such as Saudi Arabia.
Analyzing the notion of Nusra coming in from the cold, The Wall Street Journal today asked: "In the three-way war ravaging Syria, should the local al Qaeda branch be seen as the lesser evil to be wooed rather than bombed?" and goes on to suggest the answer is increasingly yes.
Outnumbered and outgunned, the more secular, Western-backed rebels have found themselves fighting shoulder to shoulder with Nusra in key battlefields. As the Assad regime wobbles and Islamic State, or ISIS, gains ground in both Syria and Iraq, reaching out to the more pragmatic Nusra is the only rational choice left for the international community, supporters of this approach argue....
“It does say something when suddenly Nusra become a lot more tempting. It speaks volumes as to the severity of the situation,” said Saudi Prince Faisal bin Saud bin Abdulmohsen, a scholar at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh. “At this point we must really differentiate between fanaticism and outright monstrosity.”
At first, it was mostly Turkey and Qatar that aided Syrian Islamist rebels cooperating with Nusra. Regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia was more reluctant, wary of abetting al Qaeda, an avowed enemy of the House of Saud. In recent months, however, Saudi Arabia’s new King Salman has moved to work much more closely with Doha and Ankara in supporting the Islamist-dominated rebel alliance that includes Nusra, diplomats and officials in the region say.
To be sure, the reports of the Druze massacre out today could be propaganda from people who are, understandably, opposed to the effort to clean up Nusra's image. And some argue that things couldn't be much worse for Syrians caught up in the conflict. Since 2011, the war has claimed over 200,000 lives and displaced millions from their homes.
But it's worth remembering what it means to be an affiliate of Al Qaeda. The group's 1998 founding statement, calling for a global "Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders," has never been repudiated.
We issue the following fatwa to all Muslims: The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies – civilians and military – is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it, in order to liberate the Al Aqsa Mosque (in Jerusalem) and the holy mosque (in Mecca) from their grip, and in order for their armies to move out of all the lands of Islam, defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim. This is in accordance with the words of Almighty God, "and fight the pagans all together as they fight you all together," and "fight them until there is no more tumult or oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in God ..."
We – with God's help – call on every Muslim who believes in God and wishes to be rewarded to comply with God's order to kill the Americans and plunder their money wherever and whenever they find it. We also call on Muslim religious scholars, leaders, youths, and soldiers to launch the raid on Satan's US troops and the devil's supporters allying with them, and to displace those who are behind them so that they may learn a lesson.