Noose tightens around Jabhat al-Nusra

Jabhat al-Nusra has been facing increasing rejection, criticism and arrests of its members.

al-monitor Members of the Islamist Syrian rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra ride on a vehicle mounted with an anti-aircraft weapon, along a damaged street in Deir ez-Zor, eastern Syria, Feb. 5, 2014. Photo by REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi.


war, syrian opposition, syria, jabhat al-nusra, armed opposition

mars 18, 2015

The increasing rejection of Jabhat al-Nusra and mounting criticism against its behavior and performance — be it on the part of the leaders of some factions or opposition politicians — indicate that the latter have received the decision communicated to them by their intelligence sources to start fighting Jabhat al-Nusra. Therefore, work is underway to put that decision into effect.

The atmosphere of isolation surrounding Jabhat al-Nusra and the regularly mounting criticism against it show that this group may be destined for a fate similar to that of the Islamic State (IS), its prime enemy, knowing that IS was fought by most of the Islamic and non-Islamic factions early last year, with Jabhat al-Nusra spearheading that war. Jabhat al-Nusra seems to have forgotten to consider that, one day, it might be fiercely fought as well.

There are growing indicators that most of the countries that supported and funded Jabhat al-Nusra have completely washed their hands of it in northern Syria. Meanwhile, the issue in the south is subject to different considerations, especially after Jabhat al-Nusra refused to yield to the pressure of these countries with regard to its disengagement with al-Qaeda.

Nevertheless, some countries — led by Qatar — still maintain a strong connection with Jabhat al-Nusra. This connection has been made clear through two main factors. The first is Qatar’s continued presence at the forefront of the negotiations related to the Lebanese kidnapped soldiers in Qalamoun; the second is Al Jazeera’s rhetoric, which overtly praises Jabhat al-Nusra and its leaders.

This rhetoric has recently angered factional leaders and activists, as it amplifies Jabhat al-Nusra’s role and tries to depict it as the only faction fighting on the ground. This prompted activists to launch a major campaign against Al Jazeera demanding more objective coverage.

The channel hosts several senior Jabhat al-Nusra leaders. Chief among these is Abu Maria al-Qahtani, Jabhat al-Nusra’s former general legal official, and Abu Khadija al-Urdini, who led the attack on the towns of Nebel and Zahra, among others, knowing that these two are identified as terrorists under international resolutions.

Interestingly, Khaled Khoja, head of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, said that Jabhat al-Nusra “poses a threat to us [the opposition] and to the future of Syria, and is now expanding in areas under its control.” This is a radical shift at the level of the outside opposition’s stance toward Jabhat al-Nusra, knowing that this opposition had deemed Jabhat al-Nusra as “part of the revolutionary movement,” as per the president of the Syrian National Council, George Sabra, in a famous statement that came in response to the US listing of Jabhat al-Nusra as a terrorist organization. However, several opposition bodies and parties, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, asked the US administration to reconsider this listing.

Khoja made these comments in a press conference held yesterday [March 16] in the Turkish city of Gaziantep, where he also talked about the efforts made by the Syrian National Coalition to form the nucleus of a central force that he called the “national army.”

Khoja said that the leadership of the coalition is communicating with “the leaders of the Sham front and other factions in order to form the nucleus of this army,” amid an indirect confirmation of recent reports about the role that can be entrusted to the Sham front, and that the latter may be designated as the spearhead in the fight against Jabhat al-Nusra. Also, the Sham front signed an agreement last month with the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) concerning the administration of “liberated areas,” which was deemed as a challenge to Jabhat al-Nusra, given its enmity toward Kurdish fighters.

Although Khoja put the establishment of a national army in the context of the creation of buffer zones, as per a Turkish-French project, that does not negate the possibility of a conflict with Jabhat al-Nusra for the simple reason that the latter is the actual dominant faction in most of the land where such zones can be established, assuming that the scheme sees the light of day.

Meanwhile, Ahrar al-Sham has drawn clear boundaries with Jabhat al-Nusra, in a move seemingly aimed at “self-distancing” or skirting responsibility for its actions. Ahrar al-Sham fears being affected by reactions that might not distinguish between the two [Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham] in light of their military alliance.

Thus, Ahrar al-Sham declared that it “has taken a neutral stance in the events that took place in south Damascus,” in reference to the fighting between Jabhat al-Nusra and the Sham al-Rasoul Brigade.

In the statement issued March 15, Ahrar al-Sham said that “it cares about the blood of Muslims from both parties.” This statement is a continuation of Ahrar al-Sham’s policy that is pursued in various armed conflicts recently waged by Jabhat al-Nusra, against both the Syria Revolutionaries Front and the Hazm Movement. This confirms that the alliance between the two parties is more fragile than some think, and that it is only ongoing because of the constant field imperatives that can be changed any time.

In the context of a regional message addressed to Jabhat al-Nusra, whereby the noose will be tightened around its neck, news leaked about the arrest of Sheikh Saqr al-Jihad and his being handed over to the Saudi authorities, in light of data confirming that several regional states known for providing facilities to Jabhat al-Nusra fighters’ movements have had a hand in this arrest.

Saqr al-Jihad is the Saudi counterpart of Ibrahim al-Bawardi. He fought with the late Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, and then alongside Khattab (Thamer Sweilem) in Chechnya, and was one of the first "Arab-Afghans" to reach Syrian territory in 2011, when he secretly formed an armed battalion by the name of Soqour al-Ezz. This battalion played a major role in the reception and transfer of foreign fighters to the various Syrian governorates.

Bawardi, who swore allegiance to Jabhat al-Nusra last year, was arrested after he had to leave Syrian territory in January to receive treatment in a Turkish hospital, where he spent several weeks before being transferred to “a safe state,” which he did not specify under the pretext of completing the treatment. He was, however, arrested there and handed over to his country’s authorities and was plunged in the Saudi Arabian maximum-security al-Ha’ir prison.

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