Supporters of Al-Nusra march in the Bustan al-Qasr district of Aleppo on February 8, 2013
© Aamir Qureshi, AFP
Supporters of Al-Nusra march in the Bustan al-Qasr district of Aleppo on February 8, 2013
Last updated: January 3, 2014
Radically rethinking the radical Syrian rebels

"Al-Nusra is not only a re-packaging of al-Qaeda; it is actually a reformation, a rationalization and a rethinking of al-Qaeda."

Banner Icon Misconceptions of the Syrian conflict scene has led to imprudent analysis and understanding of the most radical rebel groups, writes Syrian national Ibrahim Fayyad.

Having closely followed the evolution of the Syrian rebels since their emergence as a major player in the Syrian Revolution, I find that most of the coverage of the conflict is disturbing. There are repeated mistakes in reading the conflict scene and the rebel map, which result in misguided analysis and evaluation of the rapidly unfolding events.

A while back we saw thousands of rebel groups come to life and it would have been difficult to examine the entire web of groups and affiliations. Today the task is somewhat easier as those small groups gather under unifying umbrellas. Four groups stand out and bring under their command roughly all the rebel fighters in Syria: the Revolutionary Front of Syria, the Islamic Front, al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS). 

The most controversial is ISIS.

The most controversial is ISIS. It attracted the attention of the international media and intelligence services alike, though it is the smallest of the radical rebel groups. The interest in the ISIS is mainly because it is thought to be the most extreme and as often the case, wrongly reported to be an al-Qaeda affiliate. Unlike al-Nusra, ISIS didn’t declare itself as part of al-Qaeda. On the contrary, it defied Ayman al-Zawahiri and refused to disband itself showing that it’s not answerable to al-Qaeda. 

Al-Nusra Front, the only faction that is designated by the US as a terrorist organization, is the second champion of radicalism, from the international community perspective. al-Nusra constitutes a good case study for the difficulty in tracing the evolution of the fighting factions in Syria. It was established at the beginning of 2012. A year after its formation al-Nusra was split in two, giving birth to ISIS. The split sent al-Nusra into a transformation process. Two major outcomes resulted from this transformation: first, al-Nusra focused more on the battlefield and secondly it became more flexible when dealing with the local communities, flexible in the sense that it doesn’t use coercive methods to impose certain practices on those communities. 

Al-Nusra is not only a re-packaging of al-Qaeda; it is actually a reformation, a rationalization and a rethinking of al-Qaeda. Its leader al-Joulani in his first media appearance on Al-Jazeera stressed that al-Nusra is the outcome of the lessons learned in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. The application of those lessons and their consequences is what distinguishes al-Nusra from ISIS. 

ISIS and al-Nusra remain the closest groups to the ideology of al-Qaeda and while ISIS is stricter than the classical al-Qaeda, al-Nusra chooses a different path to social Islamic reformation and is more open to cooperation with other groups. However, both ISIS and al-Nusra have gone far in penetrating the Syrian society and the Middle Eastern society at large. They are present in hundreds of cities and towns and carry out many welfare and social activities. 

The most misleading of all misconceptions engulfing the ISIS and al-Nusra concerns funding and suggests that they are receiving friendly funds from some of the Gulf States. Such claims require a clear lack of information about the ideology governing those groups, about the nature of their members and leadership and most importantly poor knowledge of the Gulf States’ agendas and fears. Both ISIS and al-Nusra do in fact receive funds from individuals across the Gulf. However, the enmity governing the relationship between the Gulf States and these groups needs to be stressed. 

Despite the radical transformation and expansion of al-Qaeda and its sister organization(s) (i.e. ISIS) we still see the same rigid approach towards those organizations from the West and the US particularly. The eradication attempt of al-Qaeda and its host, the Taliban, in Afghanistan has failed badly and instead of bringing al-Qaeda to an end, it helped it to expand across the Muslim world and beyond while its host the Taliban is still holding on with undeniable political and social influence and presence. 

Drones are no solution

The days of confrontation, eradication adventures and boots on the ground are gone. Drones on the other hand are no solution. They simply make things worse. In the face of reformed al-Qaeda a reformed approach is needed.

But the real question is: are we really stuck between the chemical Assad and al-Qaeda as some media outlets suggest? Well, I strongly don’t think so. While ISIS and al-Nusra don’t seem to be going away any time soon, the good news is that their size and impact is generally exaggerated. In my next article I will propose a third way for Syria that goes neither through al-Qaeda nor through the chemical Assad. 

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