Jabhat al-Nusra, Ghassan Hitto Divide Syrian Opposition

          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)
By:  Mohammad Ballout Translated  from          As-Safir (Lebanon).  
    اقرا  المقال الأصلي باللغة العربية
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.

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