By Elijah J. Magnier: @EjmAlrai
There is much talk about the US – Russia deal over in Syria and the decision to hit the “Islamic State” group (ISIS/ISIL/IS/Daesh) and Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Qaida in the Levant). In return the deal commits Washington will provide the Kremlin with coordinates for the Syrian opposition groups’ location on the ground, to avoid bombarding them, as they are considered “moderate”. On the other hand, the Russians operating in Syria will commit to implementing the cease-fire on the whole Syrian territory (excepting land controlled by ISIS and Nusra). They will maintain constant demarcation lines on all Syrian territory, freezing fronts and creating red lines. If implemented, this agreement would be considered a positive and significant achievement for both super power countries in the Middle East.
However, the completion of such an agreement requires consensus and commitment from both the sides involved (both the opposition and the regime forces) and from countries in the region offering logistic and financial support to the opposition groups. Therefore, voices have been raised calling for a stronger united opposition front, including Jabhat al-Nusra. For that, a disengagement from Qaidat al-Jihad (AQ Central) is needed to lift the legitimacy of bombing by both Russia and the US against its Mujahedeen. If Nusra becomes a target and therefore is weakened, the opposition groups will certainly become fragile and won’t be able to hold out against the regime forces and its allies. The situation could indeed become unstable during President Obama’s transition of power over the next few months, and with the arrival of a new President whose intentions toward the Middle east may be different and this could once again bring war to Syria.
The Syrian opposition groups have called upon Jabhat al-Nusra to disengage ties with Qaidat al-Jihad (AQ) so as to avoid repercussions, and so that the “unity among the various other groups could be reached”. That unity is impossible for the moment, so the various rebels believe as long as Nusra is on US and the UN list of terrorist groups. And the countries of the Middle East involved in Syria have informed their proxies about the adamant intention of both Russia and USA to start bombing all non-moderate groups starting from next month (August).
But what are the implications and possibilities of this move?
A long time ago Nusra demanded integration with Ahrar al-Sham, the largest Syrian (with a small number of foreigners) rebel group in the north of the country. The request was rejected. Had the project seen the light of day, the merger would have created the largest and strongest opposition group in the country, able to impose its will on all the other groups. Nusra’s courage and ideology would have slowly but surely swallowed Ahrar al-Sham. Instead, the various groups asked Nusra to disengage from Qaidat al-Jihad. The argument was as follows: is the fact that Nusra breaks ties with AQ is enough to unify all Syrian opposition groups? Changing the name -would it also change the ideology and creed? Would the opposition groups break ties with donors and financers? Questions which have remained unanswered to date.
Nusra is not only the strongest in Syria among the opposition but the most powerful jihadi organisation among all Qaidat al-Jihad franchises. It has an army that combines classical and guerrilla warfare, using of infantry, artillery and tanks, drones and various military arms never seen since Al-Qaida was born. Nusra has managed to earn “hearts and minds” of the Syrian population and the respect of all various opposition groups and enemies. It has offered suicidal bombers in every battle and inghimasi (the first wave of suicidal combatants in every frontal attack). Nusra was the only group who managed to defeat Hezbollah and Iranian forces in years of war, in two battles, Al-Eiss and al-Khalsa, north of Syria. In relation to recruitment, Saudi scholar Abdallah al-Moheisni supported a campaign called “Infir”, which drew hundreds of recruits but distributed these among various groups, not exclusively to Nusra.
A question arises: if the disengagement with Qaidat al-Jihad doesn’t happen, will Nusra become a target showered by bombs and lava from the sky? The answer is yes. The US showed its air capability by targeting the “Khorasan group” last year, painfully hitting Nusra. The beginning of a US-Russia air campaign against Nusra might split the group and reduce its power and capability. Locals who are part of Nusra are expected to leave the group in this case for fear of becoming targets even though Nusra doesn’t attract recruits with money (unlike ISIS). Other rebels wouldn’t be able to support or stand by Nusra, who would be left to be bombed.
And even if disengaged, its creed and doctrine is not expected to be altered.
Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi, a Takferee scholar known in the jihadi circle, said “disengagement does not change the faith”. A true comment even if al-Maqdisi is not a decision maker and, indeed, has retracted his view relating to Nusra’s disengagement. If Nusra is bombed, the reaction could go beyond the borders of the Levant and hit the US at home. AQ has greater influence and is more organised that ISIS in the US, that only if Nusra keeps its link to Qaidat al-Jihad.
On the other hand, it is clear to Nusra that the opposition is not trustworthy and may very well disengage from any future unity even if the disengagement is announced. Opposition groups support Nusra heartily but their swords are ready to be pulled against it if Nusra is weakened in Syria.
Nusra mujahedeen commented, “The clutch we have on religion is as painful as holding hot coals in one hands. We knew that the entire world would fight us. We keep our faith in God because disengagement from AQ is equal to the disengagement of Islam.”
It is not unlikely that the breaking of ties with Qaidat al-Jihad could shake Nusra and break it apart. A large number of foreign fighters came to the Sham and declared loyalty to Nusra Emir Abu Muhamad al-Joulani. These hold an ideology that doesn’t move with the US decisions, like Nusra is doing by breaking its ties with AQ. Nusra will be accused of being the “Jew of the Ummah (Islamic nation)”, its leadership members are “under-grown adolescents” (ahdath al-sinan) , only willing “to survive for the love of Duniya (Earth not paradise)”.
The Emir of Qaidat al-Jihad Ayman al-Zawaheri knowing the pressure Nusra is facing, called for all Mujahedeen to join the land of Sham to protect it and give it strength. Indeed, the decision is not up to one person, joulani, but to the Shura council and tens of scholars and commanders all together. These are affected neither by social media pressure nor by al-Maqdisi opinion. Nusra, therefore, will be facing a fateful decision: either hold on to its dogma, creed and face the future with patience or to be fragmented allowing groups to join ISIS and watching other groups go looking for another land of a more solid Jihad. But it seems Nusra has decided already to disengage with Qaidat al-Jihad. This is not the first time for Joulani to revoke his Bay’a (loyalty) to his Emir.
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