The Syrian opposition is more inclined towards the postponement of addressing the issue of al-Nusra Front, basically owing to the bloody developments that take place on daily basis. They are, in fact, quite justified because you might plan to discuss the matter in the evening then wake up in the morning to news of another massacre, thus decide to put the whole discussion off, at least until the dead are buried.
This is what exactly has been happening with me for two consecutive weeks. Last week, Lebanese Minister Jibran Bassil decided that another statement needed to be issued about Syrian refugees in Lebanon and this week the Syrian regime, through the Homs massacre, drove us to want to postpone the discussion till after the funeral.
Blood is the fuel of time in Syria. This make thinking about the fate of the revolution in the light of the expansion of al-Nusra Front quite difficult. At the same time, the front seems to be the best way to respond to blood with blood, which is exactly what the regime desires.
Any attempt at identifying al-Nusra Front with the revolution is supported by the way facts on the grounds are pushed to that direction. The regime has always been doing that so that it could establish al-Nusra as the only available alternative in case the Syrians decide to demand change.
Today the facts that are being revealed prove that the Syrian regime has to be toppled as soon as possible. Among those facts is the way the regime used al-Nusra and similar groups in its conflict with the Syrian people in the 1970s and 1980s as well as in its regional wars, especially with militant networks in Iraq, throughout the past decade. Now it is back to the same strategy through creating of al-Nusra the only opposition faction. Add to this the return of the militants previously sent to Iraq to fight the Syrian regime together with other fighters from Iraq and other countries.
The model of al-Nusra has always served the Syrian regime’s ends and which always revolve around stripping the conflict of its political dimension. In fact, the regime managed to eliminate the Muslim Brotherhood through its military wing al-Talea al-Mokatela and the group fell in the trap in Hama in 1982 even though it was able to evade it in Aleppo in 1979 when al-Talea committed the Artillery School massacre and late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad said the perpetrators were Brotherhood defectors.
Both al-Talea and al-Nusra are jihadist and regional defecting groups; the first defected from the Muslim Brotherhood and the second from the Syrian revolution. In the first case the Brotherhood was able to absolve itself from the actions of its military wing, thinking it is being as cunning as the regime, then the calamity took place in Hama. That is why it is now important to determine the relationship between the Syrian revolution and al-Nusra Front to avoid the occurrence of a similar calamity that is bound to double the already existing one.
The Front is not Syria
The Syrian revolution needs to make the grievances of al-Nusra part of its own as long as it is not capable of fighting on two fronts. After almost two years, it is necessary to transform the slogans of Syria’s fighter groups to the realm of reality. For example, the protection of minorities cannot be achieved when al-Nusra abstains from burning down factories owned by Christians in Aleppo, but rather through abating the legitimate fears of those groups and which are mainly triggered by the expansion of al-Nusra’s influence. The front is acting as if it is separate from the revolution, for they are taking part in toppling the regime, but not in building Syria. For those groups, countries are viewed as land rather than national entities and the bond that ties them with this land is either fighting an enemy (jihad) or protecting it from an enemy (rabat).
Anybody who follows the discourse of al-Nusra would not find any comforting signs, would not find Syria even though the group is keen on presenting itself as Syrian, would not find recognition of other revolutionary entities like the National Coalition or the Free Syrian Army or a clear mention of minorities.
Some say the Syrian society would not digest the ideologies and life style of groups like al-Nusra, but who said this is what al-Nusra is after? Estrangement is part of what makes these groups operate. The fact that they concentrated their work in the countryside of Aleppo and Idlib and stayed away from urban centers demonstrates the image they want to project as “estranged,” which is more than just a tactical or military strategy. They are actually strangers emulating the model of the first migration and establishing the idea of “rabat” as a state of waiting rather than one of settlement.
True, Syria has never been able to digest the presence of al-Nusra and its like, but this is not final, especially that Syria has witnessed the second coming the Muslim Brotherhood after Egypt. The first jihadist defection from this group was in Syria through Sheikh Marawan Hadid, which demonstrated that the social form of Islam could possibly be transformed to a jihadist one. This could happen again because of the regime’s insistence on presenting death as the only option for the Syrian. This means that resisting al-Nusra becomes another form of resisting the regime.
Al-Nusra’s discourse is undoubtedly alarming. The interview conducted by Time magazine with one of the front’s leaders demonstrates the growing influence of the front. In addition, giving the “group” precedence over “jihad” is not final, especially in the light of an ever imminent threat. Most importantly, al-Nusra is fighting the Syrian regime from outside the Syrian revolution.
This article first appeared in al-Hayat on Jan. 13, 2013.
Hazem al-Amin is a Lebanese writer and journalist at al-Hayat. He was a field reporter for the newspaper, and covered wars in Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iraq and Gaza. He specialized in reporting on Islamists in Yemen, Jordan, Iraq, Kurdistan and Pakistan, and on Muslim affairs in Europe. He has been described by regional media outlets as one of Lebanon's most intelligent observers of Arab and Lebanese politics.