• Ola Rifai

From Jabhat al-Nusra to Fatah al-Sham; Time for a de-radicalisation?

Abo Mohammed al-Joulani, the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) declared in an unprecedented video statement last week the detachment of his group from al-Qaeda, and revealed that JN would now be known as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (the front for the Conquest of the Levant). Appearing in an Osama bin laden style costume while praising the "Muslim brothers" in al-Qaeda were enough reasons to convince viewers that such detachment has nothing to do with the JN Salafi Jihadism doctrine, and that the new brand of JN is far from being a legitimate player in the eyes of Western powers.

According to Joulani, the reasons behind cutting ties with al Qaeda is to remove the pretext used to bomb Syrians. In his words the decision was made to "expose the deception of the international community, namely the US and Russia, in their relentless bombardment and displacement of the Muslim masses of Syria under the pretext of bombing JN". However, the radical and violent rhetoric of Joulani’s group proves that such a humanitarian cause cannot be the actual purpose for this move. Accordingly, what are the motivations that triggered Joulani for this split? And what implications it might draws for the Syrian war?

In truth, JN was deeply weakened during the last couple of months. Military speaking, the movement lost ground to ISIS and the regime in the north while struggling to maintain control of some southern parts of the country. Moreover, arms supply to JN fighters is facing a serious cut now as Syria’s northern neighbour, Turkey, which once allowed the flow of arms and militants into Syria is now recalculating its policies. Additionally, this Salafi Jihadi movement which consists mainly of Syrians and which used to enjoy a comprehensive popularity in the northern and western enclaves of Syria is now starting to lose its public support due to military failure and to the intra fighting between JN and other local militias, and also due to the restrictions in resources that the latter used to finance its charitable networks. On the other hand, developments on the political arena are accelerating and seem to have provoked JN to split; among which the revival of the Turkish - Russian relations and the engagement of other Salafi movements in Geneva are the most alarming for Joulani. From the outset of the conflict in Syria, Turkey turned a blind eye to the influx of arms and weapons across its southern borders in an attempt to challenge its longstanding foe: the Kurds. And, logically, if the northern borders are now closed, JN would run out of guns since the eastern borders with Iraq are controlled by ISIS. Besides, the participation of Salafi leaders in the peace talks in Geneva (regardless how productive it was) gave legitimacy to such militias on the ground while categorising JN on the same level with ISIS.

In this light, JN is witnessing the worst phase since its establishment in 2012. The time when JN was the most solid militia operating in Syria is gone by now. Hence, based on realpolitik strategies, Joulani opted to cut ties with al-Qaeda and to brand his movement as a pure Syrian one, vowing that the new face of JN (will have no links with whatsoever foreign parties). Indeed, Joulani aimed to direct his video message towards the West and also towards Syrians. He intended to distinguish his group from ISIS and to promote it as a less radical version of a Salafi militia that is ready to lean more towards other paramilitaries on the ground. And here, one can see a good opportunity to de-radicalise many Syrian fighters and to limit JN extremism.

In essence, JN carries a Salafi Jihadism doctrine which is a fundamentalist trend of Salafism that seeks to enforce Islamic order by using arms, and which vehemently rejects any secular ideology like democracy and nationalism. Hitherto, not all Syrians who fight with JN approve its logic, nor do they seek global Jihad and the creation of an Islamic Caliphate. Rather, they joined JN to fight the regime as it supplied them with guns and bread. And also because it instrumentalised their conservative background and the violence they suffered to mobilise them. Thus, great powers that are engaged in the Syrian drama should utilise JN weakness and forge strategies to empower other militias so JN fighters can find less radical alternatives. Otherwise they might be attract to ISIS.

Great powers should always bear in mind that military campaigns alone cannot eliminate an ideology carried by political Islamist movements. One can abolish an organisation but it is nearly impossible to destroy the ideology it carries. Although both are incomparable with JN when it comes to goals and doctrines, but Hamas and Hezbollah are very good examples of two political Islamist movements that survived myriad military attacks and that maintain their strength through indoctrinating the mind and hearts of youths with their ideological beliefs.

Hence, any military action against JN should be combined with comprehensive strategies. It is not about a particular extremist movement, it is about its logic, and preventing radicalism to spread throughout Syria, and of course, beyond its borders.

After Joulani’s message last Thursday, now seems to be a good timing. Western players on the Syrian scene should act rapidly before it becomes too late, and different versions of ISIS and JN see light.


© 2018 Centre for Syrian Studies