Tareq Aziza

Jabhat al-Nusra will also “remain and expand”

The group is expanding, with its areas of operation in Lebanon becoming larger, from Arsal to Beirut, Tripoli and elsewhere.

Fighters of the jihadist group Al-Nusra Front stand on the top of a pick-up mounted with a machine gun during fightings against the regime forces on April 4, 2013 in the Syrian village of Aziza (AFP/Guilluame Briquet)

When writing the history of Syria’s tragedy, historians would do well to stop and reflect on the events of 24 January 2012. On that day a new factor was introduced into the lives of the Syrian people and has continued to affect the course of the tragedies they endure. Like Bashar al-Assad’s catastrophic regime, the continued existence of this factor will only further blacken Syria’s already dark future.


Three years ago on a day like any other, “the conquering sheikh” Abu Mohammed al-Jolani announced the formation of “Jabhat al-Nusra for the people of Sham [Syria] from the people of Sham,” and called on Syrians to take up arms and join the “jihad.” At the time, public demonstrations were at their peak; city squares across the country teemed with peaceful protesters demanding freedom. Despite the regime’s savage repression, and the subsequent emergence of some self-armament and sectarian voices, most activists on the ground and opposition politicians preferred to maintain the peaceful, civil side of the movement. Their support for the then nascent Free Syrian Army (FSA) was based on the idea of protecting demonstrations and rebelling areas.


Perhaps that explains why Jolani’s announcement wasn’t taken very seriously at first. Moreover, his discourse was saturated with jihadist phraseology and he looked at the Syrian conflict from a religious, sectarian perspective. Demonstrators continued to raise banners that called for freedom and dignity, rejected sectarianism, and emphasized the unity of the Syrian people. This meant they were against provocative sectarian discourse. Prominent opposition figures had doubts about the newly formed militant group and were against giving it a role in Syria. A few of them even asserted that Jabhat al-Nusra was “the regime’s puppet,” but only for a while.


As it launched more and more attacks against vital targets, like security and military headquarters, Jabhat al-Nusra began to look like the main armed force confronting the regime. This led a great many of those “few” to renege on their initial stances and become defenders of the group — it was “part of the Syrian people’s revolution,” they said. As it gradually entered local communities preceded by news of its “victories,” Jabhat al-Nusra worked to win people over by providing food supplies. As a result, the group began to enjoy popular support in some areas, and became a key partner in “sharia councils.” However, attempts to enforce its extremist religious model sometimes led to demonstrations in the governorates of Damascus and Idleb, as well as in several neighborhoods in Aleppo.


Jabhat al-Nusra was clearly using the same tactics as Al-Qaeda’s Iraqi branch, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) at the time. The ISI made its name targeting military vehicles and positions with IEDs, using cars laden with explosives driven by suicide bombers, and launching these attacks in civilian areas. The same applies to Jabhat al-Nusra’s media arm Al-Manara al-Bayda (the white minaret). In December 2012, these signs and others suggesting a connection between Jabhat al-Nusra and Al-Qaeda prompted the United States to include the group in its list of terrorist organizations. That was a few months before Jolani made a sincere pledge of allegiance to Al-Qaeda and its leader Ayman Zawahiri.


Remarkably, the US decision was condemned by several Syrian opposition bodies that Jabhat al-Nusra usually denounces or refuses to recognize. To express their solidarity with the group and reject its designation as a terrorist organization they tried to make the slogan for Friday demonstrations one week after the decision “no terrorism except Assad’s terrorism.” There was no let up in their defense of the extremist group until it became Al-Qaeda’s official branch in Syria. That was on 10 April 2013, when “Emir of the Islamic State of Iraq” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi decided to incorporate Jabhat al-Nusra into his group. When Jolani refused, choosing instead to pledge allegiance to Zawahiri, the Al-Qaeda leader issued a decree making Jabat al-Nusra “an independent branch of Al-Qaeda that follows [Al-Qaeda’s] general command.” Then, as has become common knowledge, Baghdadi rebelled against Zawahiri, eventually declaring himself “Caliph.”


The war of words and tit-for-tat assassinations between Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS is ongoing, and may well escalate as the areas under the influence of the two groups expand, each of them trying to be the sole standard bearer of jihad. This is just one struggle in their war against the regime, the Kurds, the FSA, and Islamist groups that call themselves moderate. Jabhat al-Nusra does have some limited exceptions though: on some fronts the group coordinates with certain other groups for tactical reasons.


There are various opinions on the circumstances that spoiled Jabhat al-Nusra’s relationship with ISIS. Some search for differences between the two, and others favor Jabhat al-Nusra because it uses violence sparingly in comparison with the “caliphate state.” However, that doesn’t change the fact that they are both Al-Qaeda progeny. The difference is one of degree, not type; their priorities, some of their practices and perhaps the level to which they have been penetrated by intelligence services are all that sets them apart. They are rivals, but they both follow Al-Qaeda’s ideology and seek to achieve the same goals.


Despite the schism this has caused within Al-Qaeda — thousands of fighters leaving Jabhat al-Nusra, first to fight under Baghdadi’s flag, then later to support his supposed state — jihadists continue to swell the ranks of Jolani’s group because it is the official Al-Qaeda branch.


On the first day of Jabhat al-Nusra’s existence, Jolani announced that its sole purpose was to “bring the rule of God back to His land.” Now the group is expanding, with its areas of operation in Lebanon becoming larger, from Arsal to Beirut, Tripoli and elsewhere. There have been confrontations with the Lebanese Army, the kidnapping and execution of soldiers, and suicide bombings. The group is also taking swift steps to tighten its grip on parts of Syria not controlled by the regime: the “liberated areas,” as some like to call them, that have not yet come under the control of Baghdadi’s state; remaining pockets controlled by groups said to follow the FSA.


Much blood has been spilled, many stances have been reversed and conditions have changed. Due to the multitude of phenomenal transformations Syria has gone through and because Jabhat al-Nusra will “remain and expand” as a key component in the Syrian formula on the ground, it wouldn’t be strange to find a bloc representing Jolani in the Syrian Opposition Coalition. After all, only hours after he was elected, Coalition President Khaled Khoja called on Jolani to break his allegiance with Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri.


This article was originally published by Al-Hayat, and has been translated from the Arabic by Ullin Hope.

Jihadists continue to swell the ranks of Jolani’s group because it is the official Al-Qaeda branch. (AFP/Guilluame Briquet)

On the first day of Jabhat al-Nusra’s existence, Jolani announced that its sole purpose was to ‘bring the rule of God back to His land.’”