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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 20 November 2018

Syrian opposition groups divided over Jabhat Al Nusra

Excluding ISIL from the future of Syria is easy, but removing Jabhat Al Nusra, Syria's Al Qaeda branch, from a possible political settlement is a lot more complex and difficult, writes Josh Wood.
Members of al Qaeda's Nusra Front gesture after seizing territory in the southern countryside of Idlib December 2014.  REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi
Members of al Qaeda's Nusra Front gesture after seizing territory in the southern countryside of Idlib December 2014. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

BEIRUT // If there is ever to be a negotiated political settlement to end the years of bloodshed in Syria, there are many uncertainties over how such a peace would look.

The future of Bashar Al Assad and other regime officials, the formation of a transitional government, the role of Syria’s powerful Kurdish minority all remain up in the air.

But one thing is certain: any settlement between the Syrian government and opposition will leave no role in the country’s future for ISIL and Jabhat Al Nusra.

Excluding ISIL is easy. The group is universally despised, declaring rebel factions — including ones where Salafi-Jihadi ideology is prominent — as apostates and attacking those who do not surrender.

Jabhat Al Nusra is more difficult. With a Syrian leadership and a much higher percentage of local fighters in its ranks, Al Qaeda’s organisation in Syria has been heralded as a vital, organic part of the uprising by many rebel groups over the years. And unlike ISIL, Al Nusra is open to making friends and working alongside other factions. Al Nusra has also cultivated close relationships with rebel groups and led many key offensives against regime forces.

But these friendships, Al Nusra’s strong military power and the continued dependency of a number of rebel groups on Al Nusra would likely spell major problems if a negotiated peace ever moves closer to being achieved.

Beyond facing likely violent opposition to any deal from Al Nusra, rebels could also be forced to confront their own differences over the group, potentially leading to splits.

In a series of interviews with both friends and ideological foes of Al Nusra last month, representatives of rebel factions laid out their starkly different opinions on the group.

Among the group’s foes, while the danger of Al Nusra and associated groups is clear to them, there is a feeling that they are dependent on Al Nusra’s military prowess and a hope that Al Nusra will be forced out after the war.

“We absolutely do not agree with Jabhat Al Nusra. We do not want Jabhat Al Nusra’s ideology to be in Syria now or in the future. But we need fighters who will fight with us against the regime,” said Zakaria Malahefji, a political officer with Fastaqim Kama Umrit, a coalition of rebel groups in the city of Aleppo. “The international community did not support us, so we need any groups that will fight with us against the regime.”

“After the regime collapses, there is no pretext for any group to be armed,” he added, optimistically believing that a unified national army would be able to disband groups like Al Nusra.

Colonel Abdul Jabbar Akaidi, the former head of the Aleppo military revolutionary council, said there will be no place for Al Nusra or like-minded groups after the war is over.

“After Bashar Al Assad is gone, those who still have Salafi-Jihadist thoughts, they must go to Kandahar. They cannot stay in Syria,” he said. “We want to topple Bashar Al Assad, rebuild our country and bring social justice, not stay in a continual fight.”

But Mr Malahefji and Col Akaidi’s feelings are far from universal among rebels.

“Jabhat Al Nusra are our brothers,” said Hajj Bakri, a rebel leader in Hama. “We have no problem with them.”

He added that if Al Nusra and associated factions “continue on the revolutionary path, they are OK. But if they did anything against the revolutionary path, that is a problem”.

“Our relationship with Jabhat Al Nusra is good and there is a collaboration with Jabhat Al Nusra in military operations and security responsibilities,” said Abu Zeid, a commander with the hardline Salafi militia Ahrar Al Sham in north-western Syria’s Akrad Mountains. As one of the most powerful rebel factions in the war, Ahrar Al Sham is Al Nusra’s most important single ally.

Al Nusra’s continued influence over rebel factions and its ability to act as a spoiler in any negotiations was shown in recent days when the group spearheaded a rebel assault on government positions south of Aleppo, severely threatening a ceasefire that has mostly been observed for more than a month.

On Friday, Al Nusra launched three suicide bomb attacks on government positions around the hill of Talat Al ‘Iss before joining rebels in an offensive that seized the area, according to Reuters which cited the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The ceasefire has also presented an opportunity for opposition to Al Nusra to come out into the open in areas where the group is dominant. With the fear of the fighting lifted by the ceasefire, activists have taken to the streets in Idlib province in recent weeks to protest the regime and eventually Al Nusra.

Al Nusra’s “agenda for Syria and beyond is not served by a meaningful political transition”, said Noah Bonsey, a Syria analyst at the International Crisis Group. “They have every reason to seek to thwart it. They are better served by unending war.”

“In the long run, the goals of these two currents — the Salafi-Jihadi current and the self-identified revolutionary current — their ultimate goals are contradictory,” said Mr Bonsey. “The Salafi-Jihadis do not want a success of the Syrian revolution as it is defined by the mainstream as their agenda — Nusra’s agenda — is much more far-reaching and transborder in the long run.”

But a rebel reckoning over Al Nusra may still be a way off for now: Riad Hijab, the head of the body representing the opposition in negotiations with the regime, said over the weekend that the group had “no optimism” regarding the Geneva peace talks.

jwood@thenational.ae​