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The Future of Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria

Jabhat al-Nusra, or JAN, is many things at the same time. It includes nationalists, nationalist-Islamists, Islamists, Syrians, non-Syrians, elements who reject global terrorism, global terrorists, hardliners, relative moderates, and many other ideological strains. The cement holding this organization together is composed of two parts: Opposing Assad, and an organizational structure that is able to provide an ideological frame, a political platform, a plan of action and operational structure, a disciplinary system, and the means to survive and continue the fight.

Attempts to reduce JAN to ISIL part deux are mistaken insofar as they neglect structural and ideological differences between the two groups. This is not to say that JAN is more or less dangerous than ISIL. It is to say that the two groups are completely different along both ideological and organizational lines. Overlooking those differences is natural in public opinion, but it is not suitable for experts or policy makers, as in the field of fighting terrorism, every detail matters.

The threat perceptions in the minds of global powers regarding the two organizations are also different. We will give just one example – that of the cases of the US and Russia.

In the case of the US, Washington had correctly raised its concern of the ties between Nusra and al-Qaeda with many Arab capitals from the start. At one point, Arab governments did exert pressure on Nusra to cut its ties to the mother organization. But for various reasons the pressure was unsuccessful. Cutting Nusra’s ties with al-Qaeda was then seen as a boost to ISIL. But how?

The main ideological differences do not actually manifest themselves in any operational terms or on any battle field. They are to be found in the rings of fierce debate between the sheikhs or the ulama (Islamic scholars) who lay down the theological ideology and religious interpretations and justifications for the two organizations. By severing ties with al-Qaeda under pressure of “practical necessities”, Nusra would have lost the debate in a humiliating way along with ties to other jihadist circles in many regional and far countries.

Even those who exerted their pressure on the organization a couple of years ago to cut ties with al-Qaeda understood that if Nusra were to agree, this would be a final declaration of the victory of ISIL in the ideological arena. Furthermore, a powerful wing of Nusra, the non-Syrian fighters, would have split off, as the loyalty of this wing is mainly to al-Qaeda, not to toppling Assad. In any case, the efforts failed and the attempts were stopped.

The failure of those efforts led to another demand: Nusra has to commit publicly and in Arabic that it will not target any Western country. Nusra accepted that demand, and the group’s leader Abu Mohammad al-Qahtani gave an interview to al-Jazeera in December 2013 in which he announced that his organization does not intend to do so, nor does it believe that attacks on the West are right.

Then the Arab governments were asked to provide a commitment that they will convey to the group a message that they will consider it an enemy if it attacks the West. The Arabs made that clear and gave their guarantee, as much as they are able, that Nusra will not attack the West.

There was only one problem left in this path of events: What about the North Caucasus wing of the organization? In other words, no one can convince these guys not to attack Russia which not only destroyed Grozny but has also followed them into Syria.

At this point, it was both more difficult and less urgent for the US to focus on threats to Russia. Times are a changin’. Now, the US has moved to coordinate with Russia specifically to target Nusra, following Moscow’s assertive intervention in Syria.

Reports that Nusra was planning to attack the West are firstly unfounded, and second, illogical. They go against everything any Syria observer knows. The organization was surprised by the claims and denied them vehemently. Of course no one should really consider the denial truthful, for terrorists will never admit they are planning something while they are really planning it. But even Arabs who mediated the 2013 arrangement were taken aback by the allegations. No intelligence whatsoever supports the claim.

Waving alleged information that Nusra is planning to attack Western countries should be done very cautiously. On the one hand it may be used, within the organization, as an argument to conclude that it is same either way, whether the group attacks the West or refrains from doing so. Such an argument could go as follows: We committed not to attack the West. We gave pledges not to do so and we did not do so. But we are still being accused of plotting to attack the West, and being targeted by both the US and Russia. So, as it does not make any difference either way, we may as well plot to attack the West.

On the other hand, a little additional pressure may be helpful. For example, Nusra has now reopened the dossier of severing its ties with al-Qaeda. According to several reports, the discussion among the ulama to find a proper religious justification to take such a step has already started. The competition with ISIL is less urgent now as ISIL is retreating rapidly and may collapse in the near future.

So far, what we know is that the religious leaders of Nusra are resisting the idea of a divorce from al-Qaeda while the military (Syrian) wing favors a separation. The foreign fighters, particularly those coming from the Caucasus region, side with the ulama.

One prominent figure among the ulama, Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi, tweeted the other day expressing his acceptance of the idea. “If changing the name will spare the organization an expected and intense attack, so be it. It is not unacceptable or a decoupling from the Quran.”

Furthermore, measured pressure could be intensified by other groups more open to Arab capitals, like Ahrar al-Sham. This step is effectively underway. There was intense dispute within Nusra as to how far the group can go in coordinating with other organizations that have different theological foundations. Finally, the debate resulted in agreeing to participate a “Jurisprudence Council” called the “Assembly of Sham Ulama”.

The Assembly includes several figures from Ahrar, like Abu Muhammad al-Sadeq and Ayman Haroush. It also includes known names in Nusra like Abu Maria al-Qahtani and representatives of Jaish al-Fatah like Abdullah al-Muhaissani. However, representatives of Nusra in the Assembly are known to be involved with the prominent leader of the organization’s Central Command, the Jordanian Sami al-Uraidi.

To make sense of this important development, suffice it to say that Jabhat al-Nusra refused to participate in a committee that has the power of issuing binding rulings in disputes between the various groups represented in it. Even after the participation of some important figures in Nusra in the Assembly, some traditional figures refuse to recognize the move.

Two of the members of the Assembly, al-Sadeq and Islam al-Hamawi, narrowly escaped an assassination a few weeks ago – that is just after the formation of the Assembly was announced. Just during the three months leading up to June, 25 members of Ahrar were assassinated in mysterious circumstances.

The three major groups in northern Syria, Nusra, Ahrar, and al-Qaeda, have their share of differences. These differences are not always about theological interpretations. In certain cases, the differences are about geographic control, smuggling routes, and sources of revenues.

We entertain no illusions about the nature of Nusra or any other group for that matter. However, we feel uncomfortable with the simplistic logic that paints them all with the same brush. The differences need to be understood, and incorporated into an approach that isolates the most radical elements and groups and gradually shifts the positions of the others using all potential leverages.

The most likely scenario for the future of Nusra is that the organization splits in two parts. The first will work closely with other groups, change its name, and sever its ties with al-Qaeda, while the second part will continue under the same line of al-Qaeda.

This second part may have then to blend with its social environment to avoid being targeted. All the while, the foreign elements of Nusra will most probably keep their ties to the mother organization in Afghanistan – that is to say they will join withthe second part.

It is worthwhile to note that those internal divisions in the body of the Syrian opposition, which has never been one whole anyway, are paralleled by a similar weakening in the Assad camp, but due to the split between the Syrian president and the people.

Young Syrian men have been dodging the country’s draft and deserting the army to avoid fighting in the war that has destroyed their country over the course of the last five years. Many are seeking refuge in Syria’s neighboring countries and Europe. Before the war started the army was estimated to number approximately 300,000 soldiers. Presently less than half that number makes up the Assad army.

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