Syrians mourn the body of an opposition fighter killed during clashes with Syrian army soldiers in Maarat al-Numan, in the northwestern province of Idlib, March 20, 2013. (photo by AFP/GETTY IMAGES/Bulent Kilic)
Even before the “conqueror” Abu Mohammad al-Joulani, commander of Jabhat al-Nusra
, held up his hand to pledge allegiance and obedience to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri, the Nusra Front had already completed its integration into the Aleppo and Idlib countrysides, where it began making changes to the political process and people’s perception of Syrian jihadist Islamists.
The timing of this pledge seemed neither random nor hurried, and in giving it, the “conqueror” did not take into consideration the opinions of any other factions of the opposition. The political and military facts on the ground giving credence to Jabhat al-Nusra’s role in the revolution long preceded Joulani’s pledge to obey … Zawahri.
It all began with the dispute that erupted during the Marrakech Friends of Syria conference
a few months ago, when the Americans decided to put Jabhat al-Nusra on the list of terrorist organizations. Joulani saw then how the Syrian National Council (SNC) and the Syrian National Coalition rushed to unequivocally defend Jabhat al-Nusra, with the SNC’s president, Georges Sabra, saying, “The rifles of all revolutionaries are sacred.” For his part, the head of the Syrian National Coalition, Moaz al-Khatib, attacked the Americans and demanded that they go back on their decision, while the Free Syrian Army’s chief of staff, Salim Idriss, characterized Jabhat al-Nusra’s fighters as being some of the bravest ever. All this came to confirm and reflect the popular opinion that “Jabhat al-Nusra has proved to be the most effective in fighting the Syrian army.”
In any case, Joulani’s planned [Islamist] state seems closer to becoming a reality than Ghassan Hitto’s interim government. Toward that end, Jabhat al-Nusra has adopted a different Levantine approach to al-Qaeda’s doctrine, whereby it has departed from the nihilistic jihadist approach whose sole aim is to establish a new caliphate, shun and oppose all forms of politics, forsake all who don’t pledge allegiance and obedience to the emir, and blindly polarize and mobilize the downtrodden populace.
Its re-evaluation of al-Qaeda’s traditional ideology and mechanisms led to the successes that made Jabhat al-Nusra a popular organization. Its moves include the establishment of institutions and departments tasked with managing Idlib and Aleppo’s affairs, offering aid to thousands of Syrian families, and supporting an army estimated to be 12,000 strong. In the Levantine experiment, Joulani found in Syria the conditions necessary to transform al-Qaeda from a global organization with no land or base out of which to fight the United States, into one possessing land, permanent bases, with supply lines, names and institutions.
A Western sociologist who just returned from the countryside around Aleppo and Idlib said that Jabhat al-Nusra, along with other Salafist and Muslim Brotherhood
-affiliated fighting brigades, has succeeded in building a need-based relationship with the peasant inhabitants of Idlib and Aleppo as a result of the penurious conditions, the unrelenting war and the destruction of the inhabitants’ main sources of livelihoods. Jabhat al-Nusra thus went into competition with other fighting groups, taking advantage of its abundant and constant funding by Gulf Arab states, as well as its fighting power, which is greater than that of other groups.
Although the loyalties of fighters in the Idlib countryside change and vacillate, Jabhat al-Nusra has succeeded in maintaining an important reserve of full-time combatants. Other fighting groups do not possess exclusive rights to particular areas, towns or cities in the Idlib countryside, and their members are able to leave and join other groups as they wish, which is an indication of the lack of ideological conviction among those fighters and the predominance of mercenary and locally driven motivations. As a result, enlistment in Jabhat al-Nusra’s ranks has risen, which opponents have attributed to the conservative nature of Idlib and the religiosity of the people as opposed to their desire to join a global movement for jihad. Syria’s al-Qaeda understands this well and has accepted this shunning of its elitist isolation as a precondition for the group remaining on the battlefield. Whole brigades have thus undergone reallocation to other factions. Such is the case for the Ahrar al-Sham faction (the Free Men of Greater Syria), which has recently seen complete fighting brigades choosing to leave it and join Jabhat al-Nusra’s ranks.
Military control of land areas is nonexistent, and combatants lacking fixed encampments or barracks are mostly compelled to take refuge in their own villages in the countryside around Idlib and Aleppo, where they are welcomed and helped by a largely sympathetic populace. Clashes between different fighting brigades have subsided, as has the level of competition and fighting over captured loot, particularly when compared to the quarrels that erupted between some brigades of the Free Syrian Army
and local fighting forces in other regions of the country.
It would seem that Jabhat al-Nusra and various other Salafist factions have achieved much in the area of coexisting and accepting the influence of local elders, chieftains and forces that rose to prominence when the area was abandoned by the state’s security forces and Baath party. Radicalism, in its present incarnation, is thus forced to live with these people and groups, while it awaits a new change in the balance of power. Furthermore, the temptation that compels Jabhat al-Nusra’s leaders, or some of them, to try to impose a comprehensive Salafist agenda on the Aleppo and Idlib countryside is thwarted by an inherent inability to instill radical Islam in an already conservative society endowed with an effective local religious body that strongly resists such changes.
Jabhat al-Nusra does not want to enter into a confrontation with the local communities and try to impose Shariah law, following the lessons that were learned in Iraq, where the Americans exploited al-Qaeda’s excessive zealotry and organized a clan-led coup spearheaded by the Sahwa (Awakening) army against the organization. The fighting brigades thus managed to create mechanisms by which disagreements would be kept in check in the areas under their control, when their military gave civilians complete control over the Shariah councils.
Through these Shariah councils, Jabhat al-Nusra has infiltrated Idlib and Aleppo’s societies in order to normalize its relationship with Syrian society at large. As a result, any future authority will find it difficult to wrest power from these Shariah councils that the fighting brigades established, for they have become the nucleus of a real government. The nine councils overseeing Idlib’s countryside have expanded the scope of their authority beyond the judiciary, to include the police force, supervision of security-related issues and the administration of prisons.
Idlib’s councils are also leaning toward uniting into a supreme Shariah council that would supervise the work of all other branches. These courts, however, are predominantly composed of clerics and not civilians; each of them is presided over by two imams, in addition to a judge specializing in civil affairs. These Shariah councils are governed by the Arab Unified Penal Code, which the Arab League penned, and which includes articles that were inspired by Shariah law, though Shariah punishment is not imposed.
Jabhat al-Nusra’s ascension is limited by the continued control exercised by a conservative religious body, divided between members of the pro-regime Association of Islamic Scholars of Syria, most of whom apprenticed with the late Sheikh Mohamed Said Ramadan Al-Bouti, and followers of Saria and Osama al-Rifai, as well as the Association of Syrian Scholars, which includes clerics with close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Aleppo constitutes a huge arena for competition between the Muslim Brotherhood and Jabhat al-Nusra, whereby the Brotherhood administers the western neighborhoods of the opposition-controlled areas under the supervision of a Shariah council led by a group aligned with the Syrian National Coalition, while Jabhat al-Nusra and its own Shariah council administers the eastern part, in alliance with the Tawhid Brigade, Ahrar al-Sham and the Ahfad al-Rasul (Descendants of the Prophet) Brigade.
These brigades have also entered the relief arena, for Jabhat al-Nusra has succeeded in organizing aid-distribution operations in the areas under its control. In this context, the aforementioned sociologist said that Jabhat al-Nusra now has among its ranks dozens of relief workers who have daily contact with hundreds of thousands of inhabitants who primarily live on the aid given to them by Jabhat al-Nusra and other such groups.
Jabhat al-Nusra’s pledge of allegiance only garnered one single line of objection, when Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib wrote on his Facebook page: “Al-Qaeda’s ideology does not suit us, and the revolutionaries must now take a stand.” The Coalition, on the other hand, had nothing to say about al-Qaeda’s official entrance into the Levant, busying itself with preparations for the formation of an interim government that would rule the whole of Syria. However, Hitto should prepare himself to share that land with the Islamic state that Joulani strives to establish. [It was reported this week that the Islamic State in Iraq and Jabhat al-Nusra had joined together to form the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.] For its part, Syrian opposition abroad is afraid of being marginalized if it were to fully espouse the West’s views and proclaim its animosity toward Joulani. For the overwhelmed head of the interim Syrian government cannot afford to antagonize Jabhat al-Nusra and be caught between a rock and a hard place afforded him by the Free Syrian Army, which refused to even nominate him, and still refuses to accept the post of defense minister, which it was offered. Hitto needs both of these factions to gain the legitimacy he requires to return to Syria and spread his administration’s authority.
In all probability, the problem of coexisting with al-Qaeda is only raised inside small circles of people belonging to internal opposition factions such as the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, the Building the Syrian State Movement and some other secular movements. It is also raised, on another level, by Western powers that do not fear the transformation of Syria into an Islamic state as much as they fear chaos reigning over the country and its conversion into a rear base for global jihad that would threaten Syria’s neighborhood, as well as Israel, European interests, and nearby dependent economies.
The National Coalition and National Council, which are controlled by a liberal Islamic alliance, have managed, on the other hand, to avoid until now any discussion about the true nature of Jabhat al-Nusra and other Jihadist brigades, equally as Salafist and jihadist as Jabhat al-Nusra. The time now is not for the discussion of any trespasses, but for toppling the regime. Only afterward is the opposition expected to discuss the conduct of Jabhat al-Nusra and other Jihadist factions, their monopoly over the administration of cities, especially in al-Raqqah, and the countryside of Aleppo and Idlib which, in some parts, has been transformed into Islamic emirates.
Behind the scenes, conflict is currently underway between the Unified Military Council and Jabhat al-Nusra. This threatens to escalate into full blown assassinations and killings, such as those that involved the Farouq Brigades in Homs and Tal Abyad; it is nonetheless hard to imagine that units of the Free Syrian Army would become involved in an open confrontation with Jabhat al-Nusra and al-Qaeda any time soon, as the West planned months ago when the Unified Military Council was formed to isolate and curtail the growth of Jabhat al-Nusra and other jihadist factions.
It is also unlikely that Jabhat al-Nusra’s relationship with the Syrian opposition will be affected by France calling for Jabhat al-Nusra to be classified as a terrorist organization by the United Nations Security Council, regardless of the opposition’s stance vis-à-vis Jabhat al-Nusra and al-Qaeda, because the French priority now remains the toppling of the Syrian regime at any cost. Only then will other matters be tackled.