The Nusra Front, from soft power to terror

Free Syrian Army fighters swear to the Qur'an, to fight against government troops until the last soldier is alive in Idlib, north Syria
Teaser Image Caption
Free Syrian Army fighters swear to the Qur'an, to fight against government troops until the last soldier is alive in Idlib, north Syria

While Jabhat al-Nusra was gaining back the community support it lost in many areas in Syria—mainly in Idlib, Daraa, Aleppo and Damascus—reports were released on 10 June that around 20 Druze civilians had been killed by the group in a village north of Idlib. The incident followed an argument between a villager and Nusra members who were trying to confiscate a house that belongs to a pro-Assad supporter. Though there have been contradictory stories about what happened there, the one thing that became clear is the excessive use of power by the group against civilians, which is what Nusra admitted in a statement three days later, describing it as an isolated incident by some members who will be brought to justice.

Against corrupters

Nusra increased its attacks on moderate groups backed by the US—under the pretext of fighting ‘the corrupters’—right after it was targeted in September 2014 by the US-led international coalition. A fight broke out first against the Syrian Revolutionaries Front (SRF) led by Jamal Maarouf. Nusra was determined to eliminate Maarouf’s group, despite a few truce attempts led by other groups to find a settlement and prioritize the fight against Assad. It wasn’t long after that that Nusra launched another fight against the Hazm Movement, which wasn’t easy to justify as Hazm had more community support. And it didn’t take long before Nusra was able to eliminate Hazm, even though it was a member of the Shamiah Front, which was supposed to protect Hazm.

What is interesting here is that the Shamiah Front distanced itself from Hazm, which gave Nusra the green light to terminate it. The other important observation is that the Americans didn’t even try to support either of the two groups against Nusra neither directly, by providing them with more support and air defense, nor indirectly by pressuring its allies in the region to intervene.

Shifts in strategy

Nusra’s attacks on rebels indicated a big shift in the group’s strategy. The group that had been trying to keep a low profile, integrate, and get as much community support as possible suddenly decided that it was time to pursue its personal interests. The two popular explanations for this shift were that Nusra was trying to establish its own emirate in Idlib to compete with the self-proclaimed caliphate announced by ISIS, or that the group was trying to eliminate other moderate groups that might threaten its existence. Despite whatever the real reasons behind this shift were, it was obvious that people stated criticizing the Nusra Front publicly as more and more people were punished by the group according to extreme religious rules, including stoning men and women to death. This disappointment with al-Nusra’s actions reached its peak in the town of al-Atarib during Nusra’s fight against Hazm, when the people there took up arms and established checkpoints around the town to keep Nusra from entering it. Nusra surrounded the town for a few days and then decided not to enter the city. People in other areas also demonstrated against Nusra’s strict implementation of Sharia, while others demanded the release of family members.

It seems that Nusra’s leadership sent clear instructions after they became aware of the consequences of the new strategy, which gave way to suspicions and fears among locals and rebels with regard to Nusra’s long-term agenda in Syria. These instructions were revealed in Nusra leader Abu Muhammad al-Jolani’s 27 May interview with Al-Jazeera TV. The new strategy is once again built on the use of soft power to integrate the group with local communities, stress the group’s Syrian roots and common national objectives, and coordinate more closely with other Syrian Islamic groups on the ground. This could be one of the reasons the group joined Jaish al-Fatah. This shift in strategy succeeded in regaining the support of locals, especially after the victories achieved by Jaish al-Fatah in Idlib.  

Partnering with Nusra

Before Nusra started attacking other rebel groups, many opposition figures were promoting it as a partner despite their concerns about its affiliation with Al-Qaeda. This trend was not limited to Syrians—it reached many regional powers and even international think tanks. Lina Khatib, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, wrote in a policy paper recently that “the West currently sees the al-Nusra Front as a threat. But al-Nusra’s pragmatism and ongoing evolution mean that it could become an ally in the fight against the Islamic State.”

But there are a number of observations that could answer the question of whether it’s wise to partner with Nusra or not:

1) Despite the general impression that Nusra is fighting ISIS, it’s important to highlight that most of these fights were initiated by ISIS. Nusra was handed ISIS premises peacefully during the fight that was launched by rebels in December 2013, it gave many of ISIS’s members safe passage to rejoin ISIS in Raqqa, and it helped ISIS enter the Yarmouk Palestinian and blocked Jaish al-Islam and other groups from crossing its checkpoints to fight ISIS there.

2) Jolani offered non-Christian minorities a conditional peace offer if they distanced themselves from the Assad regime and abandoned religious beliefs that contradict Islam, though the alternative is death.

3) The group will never distance itself from Al-Qaeda, which Jolani confirmed.

4) Nusra will continue to be a threat to moderate Syrians and to any inclusive political settlement.

What’s next?

Internally, despite the impression that people have about Nusra as a powerful, united group, the recent shift in its policy has widened divisions within it over the following issues: whether to go soft on people or to apply harsh religious rules; whether or not to distance itself from Al-Qaeda; whether to establish its own emirate or not; whether to fight ISIS or not, or to fight closely with other moderate groups, etc. These discreet internal divisions might go public, especially if the success of the new strategy starts to fade and the number of threats against it gets bigger.

Externally, despite the sectarian sensitivity and the big number of casualties that may single out this incident, it has not been the first and it will most likely not be the last. Tensions mounted between Southern Front affiliate Aasifat al-Haqq and Nusra on 8 June when Nusra opened fire on one of Al-Haqq’s units while they were planting mines on the frontlines with the regime in Qalamoun, even though Nusra had been notified of the operation in advance. Nusra was called upon to refer the perpetrators to a fair court and was threatened with retaliation if the aggression was repeated. This is just the latest example of the tense relations between Nusra and the Southern Front—a number of clashes occurred between them in the city of Daraa and in Nasib. More clashes are expected in the future as the Southern Front—which maintains strong ties with the US—is a potential threat to Nusra, and rather suddenly cut ties with the group in a public statement on 13 April.  

Will people still believe that Nusra could be a long-term partner when Jolani stated in his latest interview that even the Syrian Muslim brotherhood had deviated from Islamic teachings when they accepted modern, democratic norms; that non-Christian minorities will be killed if they don’t become Sunnis; that Christians have to pay jizya tax and be treated as second-class citizens to be allowed to live in peace?