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Comment: Jabhat Al-Nusra Complicates Syrian Revolt

Published on Monday, 22 Apr 07:00 am

Al-Qa’ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra’s ascent in Syria is partly behind US and western reluctance to provide more assistance to forces fighting the Asad regime. It muddies an already difficult situation, presenting rebel groups which advocate a civil and democratic state with a dilemma.
The al-Nusra Front or Jabhat al-Nusra li ahl al-Sham (the Front for the Support of the People of Greater Syria) is an al-Qa’ida affiliate which has been operating in Syria since January 2012 and has emerged as one of the most successful rebel groups during the three-year civil war. It controls, either alone or with other rebel groups, several neighborhoods in Aleppo and the surrounding countryside. It also controls cities in the Raqa governorate, as well as rural areas in Idlib, Dair Al-Zour and Damascus, as well as the governorate of Dir’a in the southern part of the country. But because of its al-Qa’ida affiliation, it is also one of the main reasons behind US and western reluctance to provide more assistance to the rebels.

Jabhat al-Nusra (Jabhat) has publicly declared its allegiance to the al-Qa’ida leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and its leader, Muhammad al-Jawalani, issued a press release last week officially linking his group with al-Qa’ida, prompting the Syrian government to ask the United Nations to list it as a terrorist organization. The US labeled the group a terrorist organization last December.

The rise of the Jabhat has added a new dimension to the already complicated Syrian civil war. It presents the rebels collectively with a dilemma, since most of the groups advocate the establishment of a civil and democratic state following the overthrow of President Bashar al-Asad, whereas the Jabhat backs the establishment of an Islamic state. The growing strength of the Jabhat has also created a dilemma for the western countries supporting the revolt, who are reluctant to supply sophisticated weapons to the rebel movement for fear that they will eventually end up  in the hands of the Jabhat and be used against western interests in the region or Israel. The rebels for their part view this disinclination to supply them with weapons as a lack of seriousness on the part of western countries, and particularly the US.

It is not entirely clear why, in view of the complexity of the situation inside Syria, the rebels have allowed the Jabhat to join their ranks. Radical Islamic groups have become a major force in Arab politics whose ranks are a mixture of Salafis (Sunni Muslims dedicated to the works and practices of early Islam) and Jihadis (radical Sunni Muslims whose focus is on armed Jihad ). Both the Salafis and the Jihadis played a major role in the Libyan revolt against Colonel Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi, but that did not prevent NATO from providing military and political support to the rebels. Al-Qa’ida, a major Jihadi group, has been active in Iraq since 2003, but has failed to win the support of Iraq’s Sunni community, unlike the Shi’a group Hizbollah in Lebanon, which has the support of Lebanon’s Shi’as.  Nor has al-Qa’ida been able to emerge as an influential political force in Iraq, as Hizbollah – a proxy for Iran – has managed to do in Lebanon.

Help and Hindrance
MEES soundings indicate that the Jabhat has impressed the locals in Syria with its members’ discipline and organization and the provision of medical and social services as soon as they take over towns and city neighborhoods. But they have also frightened them off with their puritanical behavior and harsh treatment of women, which have alienated even devout Muslims who might otherwise have supported them. Moreover, many al-Jabhat fighters are volunteers from a number of Muslim countries, a fact which does not resonate positively with Syrian refugees who are destitute in neighboring countries and angry at the destruction of their homeland.

Throughout the three years of the conflict, the US has sought the removal of President Asad without succeeding in forming an interim alternative government – and meanwhile the country is collapsing and the end of the war is nowhere in sight. The Americans’ reluctance to supply weapons to the opposition – who believe that they have been betrayed by the west – has weakened and divided the rebels, who have been unable to score the major victory they desperately need or to take control of either Damascus or Aleppo.

Current US policy has become unsustainable. It is politically difficult for the rebels to abandon one of their main groups, as Washington is demanding, particularly since the Jabhat is linked by religion with the majority of the rebels and has scored the most telling military successes.

None of the available options are easy or assured of success. Currently the establishment of an interim opposition government composed of moderate Islamists and liberals is being considered with the aim of marginalizing the Jihadis and laying the groundwork for moderate policies and tolerance towards minorities. It is with these goals in mind that Ghassan Hitto (a Syrian Kurd who is also a naturalized American) was elected interim prime minister in the rebel-held territory.

Mr Hitto is known to be close to the moderate wing, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, and the west is clearly hoping that his Islamic credentials will help to marginalize the Jabhat and provide moderate Islamists with the opportunity to take power.

But the election of Mr Hitto has also led to divisions within in the opposition – eleven members of the National Coalition of the Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces froze their membership because of Mr Hitto’s Brotherhood connection. A week later, the popular leader of the opposition and president of the National Coalition of the Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, Ahmad Mu’az al-Khatib, submitted his resignation in protest at “little international support apart from some aid relief.”

But he subsequently withdrew his resignation and was appointed head of the Syrian delegation at the Arab Summit in Doha that gave Syria’s seat in the League to the opposition rather than the Asad regime’s representative. Meanwhile, in the week since the Jabhat al-Nusra leader publicly declared his allegiance to al-Qa’ida head Mr Zawahiri, Mr Hitto, Mr Khatib and the Syrian Free Army have all publicly demanded that the Jabhat disassociate itself “from foreign organizations, ideas and fighters.” The formation of the interim government, however, is still awaiting the arrival of Mr Hitto from his home in Dallas.

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