May 28, 2015
TSG IntelBrief: Al-Qaeda’s Long Game in Syria
For only the second time, Abu Muhammad al-Julani, the head of Jabhat al-Nusra, the official al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, appeared on camera during a 47-minute interview on Al Jazeera. In both style and setting, the interview ironically resembled televised interviews with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, with the ornate Syrian chairs and the exceedingly—if understandably—gentle questions. The interview was clearly an attempt to portray the group as perhaps not an acceptable but an inevitable partner in a post-Assad Syria. Al-Julani maintained that the Syrian civil war was drawing closer to the Alawite coastal enclaves but would end in Damascus with the toppling of the regime. He expressed similar optimism that the war would end soon during his first televised interview in December 2013, though this time his group is in a much stronger position.
With an al-Qaeda flag displayed on the table in front of him, al-Julani put to rest any thoughts of his group relinquishing its affiliation with al-Qaeda in order to present itself as a more acceptable partner in the rebel coalition. He stated clearly that his group answers to the leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri. He mentioned that al-Zawahiri had ordered al-Nusra not to attack the West from Syria, and that his group had obeyed the order for now, but threatened that it might reconsider if Western forces kept attacking the group.
Al-Julani spent much of the interview attempting to convince his Syrian opponents and the international community of two ‘facts’: that his group was appropriately tolerant and not interested in any conflict other than fighting the Assad regime and its supporters; and that al-Nusra was a major player in the rebellion and would play a central role in Syria’s future. The group was a major faction in the Jaysh al-Fatah coalition that has scored victories against Assad, and will remain a major player in a war won by the coalition instead of negotiations in Geneva. Al-Julani repeatedly made mention of his group’s willingness to not kill Alawites, who make up the core of the Assad regime’s support—as long as they stop fighting for Assad, abandon their religious beliefs, and submit to Shari’a law. Such ‘reassurances’ will likely not sway many Alawites to switch sides or sit on the sidelines, nor the Syrian Christians to whom al-Julani said the jizya tax would apply.
During the interview, of which a second part will be broadcast next week, al-Julani continued his group’s rather successful effort to cast the Islamic State as the outsider in the Syrian fight, and one that hinders the anti-Assad effort by fighting against all other rebel groups. Here al-Julani has the facts on his side, as the Islamic State simply can’t help but wage a fight against all. The rebels would be more able to fight the Assad regime and its main armed supporter, Hizballah, if they weren’t constantly fighting off the Islamic State, which has timed its attacks to come when the rebels are focused on Assad. Further alienating the Islamic State, al-Julani said his group wasn’t interested in attacking other Muslims rebel groups as being insufficiently devout, explaining that mistakes in the application of Shari’a were understandable and forgivable in a war.
The idea that Jabhat al-Nusra, when compared to the Islamic State, can be considered ‘moderate’ is a long-running fallacy. It is indicative of how long the Syrian civil war has bled on, and how much the Syrian people have suffered, that al-Nusra can successfully manipulate its public image while proudly refusing to change its practices or disassociate from al-Qaeda. It is also a mark of the group’s focus on building and co-opting support in Syria, with its eyes firmly on the long game. Much as Assad badly wants the war to devolve into a choice between himself and al-Qaeda or the Islamic State, al-Julani wants the exact thing, minus the Islamic State.
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