The ongoing conflict that has been running in Syria for more than two years, and the brutality of the Syrian regime in suppressing the uprising has encouraged the emergence of radical Jihadist movements in the country. The most important of these movements and one which has raised significant controversy and discussion among the Syrian intelligentsia and Western think tanks is known as Jabhat an-Nusrah li-Ahl al-Sham, which translates to “The Support Front for the People of Syria”.
This movement has gained momentum among the Syrian community recently because, firstly, its fighters have proved that they are the opposition’s most effective military force by launching a series of attacks all over the country which have been very damaging to the Syrian regime; and secondly, by providing food and warm clothing, where possible, to civilians amongst the refugees in different parts of the country. However, the recent statements of some of its leaders, the behavior of some of its members, and their strategic plans, as illustrated in some of their publications, give the impression that the future of Syria does not look bright. In this article I will summarize the dangers and the risks that are associated with the rise of Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) and the implications of its emergence as a powerful opposition group for the future of Syria.
Firstly, given the group’s ideological rejection of borders within ‘Muslim lands’, JN’s main goal after the fall of the Syrian regime is to create an Islamic state in the land of the Levant. The concept of democratic, secular, and otherwise Westphalian nation states goes against their interpretation of Islam. After liberating Raqqa city in Syria, JN started distributing flyers stating “beware of democracy, believers considered apostates”. The call of al-Nusra Front to establish an Islamic Caliphate is ironic. People are dying on a daily basis in order to overpower injustice and establish a just and moderate civic state; most have no wish to bring to power a tyranny which is worse than what they already have. This call of JN goes against the dreams of the many Syrians who are hoping for a secular civic state.
Secondly, the prophecy element of JN that focuses on both the Quranic notion of jihad and the virtue of the people of Bilad al-Sham (the Levant) mentioned in the Sunnah (tradition of the Prophet) indicates that although Jabhat al-Nusra has an immediate objective of fighting the regime and targeting Syrian security forces and pro-government militia, it seems unlikely that following the anticipated fall of Assad, its members will stop their campaign. Members of the group have referred to the United States and Israel as enemies of Islam and have asked their followers to be prepared to wage jihad against Israel. This strategy would bring more suffering to a nation that has already been wounded and torn apart by a long term civil war, dragging it into a more regional conflict that could only bring more catastrophe and tragedy to its people.
Third, JN has spoken of the sectarian nature of its mission; revenge against al-Nusayrin (Alawites) for their mistreatment of ahl al-Sunna (Sunnis). It has labelled the Alawites, Shiites and Sufis as non-Muslims. This means that the conflict will be of a more sectarian nature and a new war might erupt involving these other Muslim groups. A few sporadic skirmishes have already started to appear throughout the region between the jihadists and Hezbollah on one hand, and between the Jihadists and the Iraqi army on the other hand. This indicates that the Syrian crisis is likely to spill over into Iraq and Lebanon
Fourth, although JN made the decision to use a different name to avoid associations with Al Qaeda, there are already many pointers to its affiliation with that group. These include its publications and videos that glorify Usama Bin Laden, the use of the black banner (al-raya) that al-Qaeda has used in its battles, the documentary style of its video statements, its use of specific weapons and its statement that America is an enemy of Islam. Al-Manara al-Bayda (“the White Minaret”), which is the JN’s official media outlet, maintains ties with al Qaeda’s web forums Shamukh al-Islam and al-Fida’ al-Islam. According to Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, there is “circumstantial evidence” that the group operates as part of the Islamic State of Iraq. This was established by al-Qaeda members in Iraqwho departed to Syria later, where the militants previously received support and weapons, in order to join the al-Nusra Front . These facts pose a considerable threat that Syria may risk turning into another situation like Afghanistan when it was taken over by the Taliban and al-Qaeda and was used as a starting point to launch their attacks against America worldwide. The Syrian populace faces a dangerous situation if the country houses al-Qaeda affiliates.
Fifth, funding for the JN movement comes mainly from sympathizers with Jihadism and the Syrian cause in Saudi Arabia and Gulf Cooperation Council. This may lead to JN becoming a puppet controlled by those who are funding it for their own ends and thus risk the future of Syria, as JN’s members may be manipulated according to the agendas of other states instead of working to achieve national cohesion within the already fragmented Syrian society.
Although the priority of the Syrian uprising is to topple the brutal regime that has pushed the country into this state of chaos and extreme violence, the Syrian people need to be aware of the hard-line Salafi-Jihadist ideology which JN shares with al-Qaeda and which makes this organisation ultra-radical and inflexible. This Jihadist ideology against all “infidels” will alienate them from the Syrian community and cause long-term problems for the group, and society, in post-Assad Syria.
Image courtesy of a.anis