July 13, 2013
On Wednesday, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad published a story from a town in eastern Syria where Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamist insurgent faction, has tried to establish itself through politics and social programmes as well as force of arms. With a single snapshot, he offers four valuable lessons for those trying to understand the Syrian conflict:
1. THE FIGHT ON THE GROUND…WITH SERVICES FOR LOCAL RESIDENTS
"Go and ask the people in the streets whether there a liberated town or city anywhere in Syria that is ruled as efficiently as this one," [the JAN commander] boasted. "There is electricity, water and bread and security."
Insurgents, both to triumph in war and to establish their authority afterwards, pursue programmes in "liberated" areas to win the support of the population.
That fundamental tenet is often forgotten in the Syrian conflict. Or, rather, it is an easier assumption to associate it with "moderate" insurgent groups than with the regime or with "extremists"/"terrorists" like Jabhat al-Nusra. After all, how can a force pre-identified as malevolent ever pursue a "good" act?
The Jabhat al-Nusra videos — and, indeed, the statement of Abdul-Ahad’s commander — are propaganda. But they are not propaganda divorced from events on the ground. JAN is trying to establish itself as the provider of services, food, justice, and security in the areas where it seeks control. Ignoring that dimension of its activities is a flight from understanding.
But, soon after Abdul-Ahad’s article was posted, that is what the Guardian editors did. Probably out of concern that they would be perceived as too "soft" on Jabhat al-Nusra, they replaced the original headline, INSERT.
The new one? "Syria’s al-Nusra Front –– Ruthless, Organised, and Taking Control".
Doing so, they watered down the impact of Abdul-Ahad’s piece. For even as he is portraying Jabhat al-Nusra’s attempt to get legitimacy by meeting basic needs of residents, he offers extracts on the tension between the attempt to control an area and to win hearts and minds:
A few weeks before our visit, after a feud with a local tribe over oil, al-Nusra fighters had surrounded the village of Albu Saray and taken the whole male population of the village prisoner. A few of them were accused of killing an al-Nusra commander, and were executed, and many of the houses in the village were flattened.
Back at the oil company headquarters in Shadadi, the workers were discussing their new leaders in the shade of a corrugated metal sheet.
"We got rid of one despot [Bashar] and replaced him with another," one man told a young technician who had given his oath to al-Nusra, and thereby been allowed to keep his job.
"As in every place, there are good people and bad people," responded the technician.
"Why is it all right for you to take all the wheat silos and leave none for others?" the first man asked, bitterly.
"Because al-Nusra are the best to rule, and we can take care of the wheat," said the technician.
"Wallah [truly]," responded the man, "al-Nusra takes a cut of everything here – even the air that we breathe."
2. THE AL-QA’EDA DISTRACTION
"Yes, in the beginning they [the Islamic State of Iraq] did give us weapons and send us their leadership," said the [Jabhat al-Nusra] commander. "May Allah bless them. But now, we have become a state. We control massive areas, and they are but a faction. They don’t control land in Iraq: they were defeated. We have been sending them weapons and cars to strengthen their spear against the Iraqi rejectionist government, but now they want us to be part of them. That, I don’t understand."
"We can’t topple Bashar [President Assad] and hand it to the FSA [Free Syrian Army] to establish the same apostate secularist state."
That quote from a young commander, as well as the first commander’s "Inshallah, this will be the nucleus of a new Syrian Islamic caliphate!", can bring the snap reaction of Jabhat al-Nusra as a vanguard for an Al Qa’eda which also speaks of "Islamic caliphate" and "apostate secularist states".
And, indeed, Abdul-Ahad — or his editors — put down that marker immediately, opening the article with "the al-Qaida-affiliated commander in charge of the oil company", rather than a direct reference to Jabhat al-Nusra.
Doing so, the article undermines itself, for two paragraphs later it is rejecting that easy label: "The al-Nusra Front, the principle [sic] jihadi rebel group in Syria, defies the cliche of Islamist fighters around the Middle East plotting to establish Islamic caliphates from impoverished mountain hideaways."
Nowhere in Abdul-Ahad’s interviews or his description of the situation on the ground is there a reference to Al Qa’eda Central and Ayman Zawahiri, the successor to Osama bin Laden to whom Jabhat al-Nusra supposedly pledges allegiance.
Instead, the article’s substance is about the specific situation and objectives for JAN inside Syria. The closest the piece gets to "Al Qa’eda" is a description of the battle between Jabhat al-Nusra and another faction, the Islamic State of Iraq, for influence in northern and eastern Syria.
But even that approach highlights the folly of the easy "Al Qa’eda" label: far from providing clarity, it hinders and almost blocks understanding of what has happened among Islamist insurgents since the start of 2013.
3. JABHAT AL-NUSRA V. ISLAMIC STATE OF IRAQ
This spring, there was a significant development in the state of the insurgency. The "Islamic State of Iraq" faction made a power play to assume control of Jabhat al-Nusra, through a statement by its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
JAN bluntly rejected that attempt, with leading figure Abu Muhammad al-Joulani declaring its autonomy and control over operations inside Syria.
Because of the "Al Qa’eda" spectre, many analysts and mainstream outlets got the story badly wrong, declaring that there had been a merger between the two groups.
Even those analysts who did not go that far missed the point. They turned a single paragraph of al-Joulani’s statement, a bayt to Al Qae’da’s al-Zawahiri, as the primary aim of the statement: he was declaring JAN’s allegiance to that higher authority.
In fact, al-Joulani was using that "pledge of allegiance" as a means to his real aim. By setting Jabhat al-Nusra as the virtuous, loyal group, he could claim supremacy over the Islamic State of Iraq in their battle. And indeed, in June, al-Zawahiri sent a letter to both Jabhat al-Nusri and ISI declaring that the former had authority inside Syria.
However, the Islamic State of Iraq had already passed the point of waiting for a letter:
The foreign fighters – Iraqis, Tunisians, Egyptians and others – were angry with al-Nusra for not accepting the orders of the bigger emir of Iraq, he said. Eighty per cent of them had joined Baghdadi.
"This has broken our spine. Many of our fighters became lax. They ask: 'Why are we fighting if there is a dispute among the emirs?’"
That contest between the Islamic State of Iraq and Jabhat al-Nusra — and among the ISI, JAN, and numerous other insurgent factions — rather than a superimposed "Al Qa’eda" label, which is the driving force of developments in much of Syria.
4. THE FRAGMENTATION OF THE INSURGENCY
"After Bashar falls, I see the FSA [Free Syrian Army] battalions dividing into three parts. Some will go home to their previous lives, some will join us in establishing the rule of sharia, and a third part will…turn and fight us," said the young Jabhat al-Nusra commander.
The easy division of the insurgency into "moderate" and "extremist" — even as it is supposed to show the movement beyond a single opposition to the Assad regime — obscures more than it illuminates.
Even the "Free Syrian Army" is an umbrella term for a range of different groups, with different aims and approaches, brought together primarily by shared opposition to the Assad regime. Nor are those factions beyond the FSA a single bloc: a short-handed "Islamist" front set up against "secular" groups within the insurgency.
The Islamic State of Iraq contest with Jabhat al-Nusra is testament to this. So is the Free Syrian Army’s current fight with Kurdish groups in the north. So is the ISI’s gaining of a foothold in al-Dana, near the Turkish border. So are the myriad of brigades who have been quarrelling for control in insurgent-held areas of Aleppo.
The "Al Qa’eda", "Islamist", "extremist", "secular" tags try to control this fragmentation with easy explanation.
As Abdul Ahad demonstrates in one telling article, they cannot.