The civil war in Syria shows no signs of abating after 22 months and in fact seems likely to continue with equal intensity between the rebel groups after the anticipated fall of Bashar Al-Assad’s dictatorial regime.
With the prospects of a democratic transition for Syria at risk from escalating violence, a closer look is needed at Jabhat al-Nusra one of the most radical Islamist groups within rebel ranks, says a new report.
Some opposition figures rejected the US blacklisting of the group. Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood said Washington had made a “very wrong” decision by declaring the jihadist rebel faction a terrorist organization.
“The designation is very wrong and too hasty. I think it is too early to categorize people inside Syria this way, considering the chaos and the grey atmosphere in the country,” said Farouk Tayfour, the Brotherhood’s deputy leader.
But al-Nusra’s links to al-Qaeda highlight its serious, long-term threat to Syrian and regional stability, according to a new analysis from the London-based Quilliam Foundation, the anti-extremist think-tank.
‘Jabhat al-Nusra: A Strategic Briefing’ outlines and analyzes the group’s background, strategy and organization, while mapping out the future challenges it is likely to face.
“Jabhat al-Nusra is one of the most publicised rebel groups in the current Syrian crisis, despite having a relatively small membership – a result of their hard-line ideology and guerrilla tactics, and because of the mystery surrounding their activities,” says Noman Benotman, Quilliam’s president. “This report goes some way towards uncovering this secrecy and exposing elements of their structure, recruitment process and operations.”
Once the Ba’athist regime falls, Jabhat al-Nusra’s opponents will become many and varied. Moderates who support the group’s strong stance against Assad may grow to be repulsed at the continuing violence and increasingly extreme rhetoric which could follow the fall of the regime.
Jabhat al-Nusra’s ideological reasoning precludes any engagement with foreign governments and with any peace conferences outside of Syria, as they believe that international involvement would only result in the revolution being hijacked.
The creation of the national coalition has changed the position of JN in both the national and international consciousness. Qatar’s change of direction particularly, starting to see itself as the protector of the internationally-supported coalition instead of the jihadists, has affected JN, as they have lost a tacit supporter. Many jihadists believe the new coalition is made up of puppets controlled by the West for their own ends, and international disapproval of JN is only likely to aid this belief.
America’s attempt to de-legitimise JN when no attacks have been made against American or Western targets looks like an attempt to dampen support from Turkey and the Gulf states, pressurising governments to support the coalition instead of the more unpredictable rebel groups. However, America’s designation of JN as a terrorist organisation has increased their popularity inside Syria as rebels see American interference as part of an ‘international conspiracy’ to keep Islamists out of power. This has reinforced the group’s position as the only alternative for pure struggle against Assad.
Inevitably, any support for the Syrian opposition will empower JN, as de-legitimising the regime creates a space for the group to contest control, and in a situation of such chaos, the tightly-knit and well-run JN could enjoy considerable success.
The goals which JN share with all jihadist groups, those of creating an Islamist state, a ‘caliphate’ and waging jihad against Israel, are not practical for the group, as they do not have the capacity to implement these things in the wake of the Syrian conflict. Put simply, the goal to defeat Assad is practical but their further aims are not.
The hard-line Salafi-Jihadist ideology which JN shares with al-Qaeda makes them ultra-radical and inflexible. This belief in ‘Pure Islam’ will only serve to alienate the population, and cause long-term problems for the group in post-Assad Syria. JN’s decision not to use al-Qaeda in Iraq-style indiscriminate attacks thus far in the conflict is not due to ideological disagreement, but rather pragmatic considerations of maintaining support amongst the Sunni community.
There is a possibility, therefore, that JN may employ these AQI methods in the future. This would have huge implications for their popularity.
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