June 12, 2015
TSG IntelBrief: Massacres & ‘Moderates’
Following recent rebel gains, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, has been promoting itself as an acceptable or inevitable partner in the post-Assad future of Syria. However, the group cannot escape its violent ideological underpinnings nor can it escape the actions of its members who joined precisely because of that violent ideology. On June 9, a group of al-Nusra fighters, led by a Tunisian commander, machine gunned to death at least 20 Druze civilians in the Syrian village of Qalb Lawzah, north of Idlib. The shootings reportedly arose from an argument after the al-Nusra commander tried to confiscate the house of a Druze thought to be supporting the Assad regime. Among the dead were elderly and at least one child. The backlash has been quick and noticeable among the 1.5 million Druze in Syria, Lebanon, and Israel, with calls to support and arm the Syrian Druze communities against extremist violence.
While up until now the Druze have tried to avoid entanglement in the civil war, the war has now found them. The recent advances by the rebel coalition, in which al-Nusra plays a leading if unacknowledged role, have pushed nearer to both Druze and Alawite strongholds, such as Sweida and Latikia, respectively. These communities have no illusion as to what fate awaits them should al-Nusra have any part in what happens next.
The head of al-Nusra, whose real name is now known as Osama al-Absi al-Wahdi aka Abu Muhammad Al-Julani, said during a recent interview on Al Jazeera that his group would treat religious minorities such as Alawites and Druze fairly, as long as they effectively abandoned their religious beliefs. This latest massacre will only deepen the worry that minorities feel over their fate in any future Syria in which groups such as al-Nusra play a significant role.
There are two aspects of this latest massacre that bear examination. First, that the atrocity was committed by an al-Nusra unit led by a foreign fighter—Tunisian, in this case—further highlights the hyper-violence of foreign fighters who have no ties or history in the local Syrian community. Less concerned over maintaining local calm or stability, foreign fighters tend to lean towards the violent excess like that perpetrated against the Druze this week. Al-Nusra is less a foreign fighter group than its rival the Islamic State—it is only 30% foreign fighters according to Julani—but it still has large numbers of fighters from across the globe who have joined not to build a state but rather to tear one down. Some foreign fighters have split from both al-Nusra and the Islamic State to form their own group, Jaysh al-Muhajirun, but many more still fill the ranks of the erstwhile rival extremist groups, and they want to fight.
The second aspect of the massacre is how other members of the rebel coalition, who have until now somewhat depended on the fighting ability of al-Nusra, have denounced the group for the killings. This is a delicate time for the rebel coalition, which has strung together a series of meaningful victories against the Assad regime and is encouraging greater regional support from countries such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, as well as the United States and other countries. The last thing the relatively moderate members of the coalition need is a high-profile reminder that one of their members is a murderous terrorist group that is the official al-Qaeda affiliate in both spirit and deed. Killing children and old men is anathema to the vast majority of the rebel groups that make up the coalition fighting against the Assad regime but it is in line with al-Nusra’s embrace of bin Ladinism. Most rebels started fighting to oppose Assad and al-Qaeda for exactly these type of killings. The schism between the extremists and the rest of the rebels will need to widen to an unbridgeable gulf if the future of Syria, including its vulnerable religious and ethnic minorities, is to be one devoid of spiraling sectarian violence.
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