Syria: A gathering force
(Source: Financial Times)
By Borzou Daragahi
Jabhat al-Nusra has become one of the most effective, dangerous and popular groups battling the Assad regime
To the west, al-Qaeda’s avowed arm in Syria is a terrorist group and a dangerous threat to Europe and North America. To many Syrian rebels fighting Bashar al-Assad, and even for some of the liberal, secular activists opposed to the regime, the fighters of Jabhat al-Nusra are invaluable allies. They are among the most powerful armed groups taking on forces loyal to Damascus.
Over the past month the Syrian rebels seeking to bring down the Assad regime have battled another al-Qaeda inspired group: the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or Isis, while tolerating al-Nusra. Although listed as a terrorist organisation and welcoming foreign jihadis to its ranks, al-Nusra’s agenda has been more focused on Syria and its actions less alienating to other rebels.
This week there were signs that al-Nusra was taking sides by joining non-jihadi fighters against Isis and chasing it out of an oil-rich region.
As shaky talks meant to hammer out Syria’s future resume in Geneva, the greatest puzzle of the civil war may be al-Nusra. It is perhaps the most effective of the armed groups opposed to Mr Assad, but one described by western officials as among the most dangerous.
Over its two years in existence, the group has pulled off increasingly complex operations, employing explosives-laden vehicles and suicide bombers with often devastating results. It has also found sources of international and local funding, and tapped into global networks to draw fresh fighters into its ranks. Despite joining the battle late, it has become a spearhead of the revolution.
“Almost all the major battles won by [the rebels] were led by Jabhat al-Nusra fighters,” says Pieter Van Ostaeyen, a Belgian historian and Arabist who closely tracks the conflict. “They were always or almost always on the front line, whether by suicide attack, car bombings or frontal attacks. The other guys just come in to clean up the mess afterwards.”
Most important, it has managed to do what few other jihadi groups have achieved: win over a large number of civilians, even some of those who vehemently disagree with its extremist ideology.
It is popular despite evidence of human rights abuses, including summary executions of alleged regime supporters and the imposition of harsh Islamic mores on women.
“Of all the groups on the hardline end of the rebellion, Jabhat al-Nusra has played the most pragmatic political game,” says Charles Lister, a Syria specialist at the Brookings Doha Centre. “That’s contributed to the situation where they’re an al-Qaeda group but also among rebel groups and among some sections of the political opposition. Most rebel groups on the ground either support or accept Jabhat al-Nusra’s role in the fight.”
A video posted on the internet on January 11 highlights their approach. A hooded figure points to a map. The narrator explains that, after the people of the eastern Damascus district of Ghouta “sought our help against the torture and detention” in a security services office, “your brothers in Jabhat al-Nusra answered the call”.
The images show several explosives-laden vehicles being prepared, two for a building and one for a nearby checkpoint. The commentator describes how two squads are recruited for the operation, as masked men crawl along the ground holding their guns in a training exercise. The combatants facing certain death read out their wills. The operation takes place at night, the hooded figure explains.
A man named Abu Addoha detonates the first vehicle, filled with a ton of explosives at the checkpoint. Abu Omar drives a truck loaded with 2.5 tons into a compound. An explosion and a bright light appear in the distance. Footage purportedly taken the next morning shows a building reduced to rubble.
It is just one of many operations that has strengthened the group’s reputation for ruthlessness and efficiency.
Jabhat al-Nusra, which means the Victory Front, was launched at the beginning of 2012 by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Iraqi who later became the leader of the cult-like Isis, the Syrian rebel group now at odds with most other armed fighters in Syria. Isis is considered to be so extreme that even al-Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri disavowed it.
Abu Mohammad al Golani, a charismatic and mysterious Syrian, now leads al-Nusra. Even in meetings with trusted commanders of other rebel units, Mr Golani is said to hide his face. Syrian by birth, he is thought to be in his late thirties and to have fought against US troops in Iraq.
Under his leadership, the group has grown into a broad, relatively well funded network with a presence in almost every corner of the country. It is estimated to have as many as 12,000 men, about a quarter of them foreign fighters.
Despite ties to global jihad and its relations with Mr Zawahiri, al-Nusra has pursued a vehemently nationalist Syrian agenda – although a Lebanese branch of the group has launched deadly attacks against the Lebanese Shia group Hizbollah, which has been aiding Mr Assad’s forces.
“We started with eight fighters and now can talk about entire liberated regions, destroyed airports and high-security headquarters,” a man described as Mr Golani said in an hour-long December 18 interview with Al Jazeera.
“We actually have legislative bodies that take care of a lot of things like the judiciary system and public services. They [the legislative bodies] also manage electrical power and oil facilities, and recently we started managing oilfields that we took back from the regime,” he said.
Like Mr Baghdadi, Mr Golani has built an organisation with strong name recognition and the ability to draw funds and resources from sympathetic patrons abroad, mostly in the Arabian Peninsula. His group’s expanding control of lucrative oilfields, including some at Deir Azzour in the east, gives it a funding mechanism unavailable to most rebel groups.
But unlike Mr Baghdadi, Mr Golani has built strong relations with other rebel groups. Al-Nusra frequently takes part in operations with other factions, especially the Islamic Front, a coalition that includes the powerful Ahrar al-Sham and the moderate Liwa al-Tawhid.
“We used to consider Isis and Jubhat al-Nusra the same but once they split there were big changes,” says Ahmed Abu Obeidah, a Turkish-based former rebel fighter still affiliated with Liwa al-Tawhid. “They got very strong, with better weapons, and they started to work with everyone else.”
Mr Golani has emerged as a much more astute political player than Mr Baghdadi, mostly refraining from injecting sectarian venom into official statements. He has largely kept a vow not to overtly target civilians, including members of Syria’s Allawite and Christian minorities – in part at the behest of Mr Zawahiri.
“Ever since the break with Isis, Jabhat al-Nusra has become more sensitive to environmental circumstances than Baghdadi is,” says Kirk Sowell, founder of Uticensis, a risk management firm based in Jordan. “Jabhat al-Nusra has tried to work with the Islamist wing of the opposition, especially the Islamic Front, and sort of left the secularists alone.”
Mr Golani has maintained good relations with many groups that present a big problem for western countries wanting to aid the opposition.
Al-Nusra’s affiliation with al-Qaeda alarms western governments who fear that once the war in Syria is over the jihadis, particularly those who have flocked into Syria from Europe and the US, will return home to wage jihad. James Clapper, the US director of national intelligence, said in Congressional testimony last month that the group “does have aspirations for attacks on the [American] homeland”.
Analysts, however, say that Mr Golani, although critical of the US as well as the Assad regime’s patrons Iran and Russia, has never threatened to launch attacks outside the Levant.
More worrying is what al-Nusra means for Syria should the war end with the jihadi fighters able to claim some credit for its conclusion and expecting to be rewarded. The group’s radical vision is at odds with what most Syrians are likely to want in a future state.
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Al-Nusra has been accused of convening Islamic courts and imposing regulations on women’s dress and movement on unwilling populations.
The group has managed to soften its image, however. When a secular Syrian family living abroad sought to deliver humanitarian aid to the country last year, it collaborated with al-Nusra despite large ideological differences. Although undoubtedly in the most radical Islamist camp, close observers say al-Nusra includes fewer radical fighters than other extreme groups.
“Al-Nusra will always be al-Qaeda but we can’t forget that most of the Nusra men in the rank and file aren’t Qaeda-spirited fighters,” says Cedric Labrousse, a French researcher monitoring the Syrian conflict. “Many are forgetting today the huge waves of Free Syrian Army men coming to Nusra for guns and money for their families.”
Unlike Mr Baghdadi, his one-time mentor but now arch-rival, Mr Golani keeps a low profile. In the December broadcast with Al Jazeera journalist Tayseen Allouni, he attempted to present a moderate image of himself.
“The west describes us as a majority of Sunnis who want to eradicate the other minorities,” he said in the interview, which was filmed from behind his shoulder, with Mr Allouni the only person in the shot. “I am not worried about the post-regime fall because Islamic law maintains well minorities’ rights. We strongly condemn those who go to extremes in declaring individuals or groups of people apostates.”
Despite al-Nusra’s extreme ideology and frequently ruthless violence, Mr Lister from the Brookings Doha Centre says Mr Golani demonstrates an evolution in the tactics and rhetoric of jihadi groups that have failed because of their inability to win sustained levels of popular support.
Even as more moderate rebels take on Isis, few believe an attack on al-Nusra could follow.
“Jabhat al-Nusra is spread more across the country, while Isis is not in many areas of Syria,” says Ahmed Khalil, a Syrian Kurdish human rights activist based in Istanbul.
“It would be really risky to declare war on Jabhat al-Nusra. I have spoken to many people inside Syria and they all support Jabhat al-Nusra and see it as a very powerful faction in the opposition, not as an enemy.”
Mr Lister says that the possibility of foreign fighters going back home and fighting cannot be counted out.
But he adds: “Ever since they emerged in Syria, they [al-Nusra] have shown zero sign of carrying out attacks beyond Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. The real fear is the fact that an al-Qaeda group has managed to attain such strong and mass popular support on the ground.”
Casualties: Rebel groups turn on each other in bloodiest month
Jabhat al-Nusra turned on its founder and former leader this week when it joined other rebel groups in an attack on Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham.
Al-Nusra all but declared war on Isis, an al-Qaeda splinter group, in the eastern city of Deir Azzour, chasing it out of the oil-rich region. In so doing, it brought its immediate goals even more closely in line with the west and moderate rebel groups hoping to bring down the regime without offering up Syria as a haven for transnational terrorism.
“They’re the good guys,” says a western security official in southeastern Turkey who has had dealings with al-Nusra. The official had used the group as a mediator in efforts to release western hostages held by other jihadi groups.
After heavy fighting, Isis withdrew its forces from Deir Azzour. Isis activists on Twitter said the group had pulled out of the city to prevent further bloodshed among rebel factions who are fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
Isis’s supporters said the estimated 200 fighters leaving Deir Azzour would probably turn to assassinations and car bombings against the remaining rebel groups in the province – a tactic Isis has used in other opposition-held areas.
The group’s territorial influence traces a line along the Euphrates river from Fallujah in Iraq – barely 60km from Baghdad – across to Raqqa in Northern Syria.
Isis has alienated many civilians and opposition activists by imposing harsh rulings against dissent, even beheading its opponents, in areas it controls.
More than 2,300 rebels have been killed in the past month of infighting, making it the bloodiest such episode since the Syrian conflict began nearly three years ago.
Unlike other Islamist groups such as al-Nusra, which share similar austere interpretations of Islam, Isis has tried to set up an Islamic caliphate in territory it has seized in Iraq and Syria.
Other Syrian rebels want to topple the Assad regime first before deciding on a ruling system, although many also seek an Islamic government.
(Note: This article is originally from the mainstream western media house and not everything mentioned here reflects our views)