When US secretary of State James Baker invited Palestinian politicians to attend a peace conference in Madrid in 1991, he had clear instructions to bypass members of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), punishing its chairman for his warm embrace of Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
Baker knew that peace would never materialise in the Middle East without the PLO. He decided to meet them as Palestinian nationalists rather than members of a militant organisation.
One of them remarked: “Mr Baker, as you know every Palestinian by birth is a member of the PLO.” Baker cannily replied: “Please don’t say anything else. As far as I’m concerned, I’m not sitting with the PLO.”
Ultimately, the PLO went to Madrid but everybody at the talks, Baker included, treated its members as part of the Jordanian delegation rather than members of the PLO.
The same analogy applies, 25 years later, to Jabhat al-Nusra, the alQaeda branch in Syria, which on July 28th announced its separation from the terrorist organisation and rebranded itself Jabhat Fateh al-Sham — the Front for the Conquest of Syria.
The move was more organisational than ideological, signed off by al-Qaeda’s Egyptian commander, Ayman al-Zawahiri, six hours before it was announced by al-Nusra.
Al-Nusra’s leaders hope that the West will now talk to them or even fund and work with them, pretending that they are no longer affiliated with al-Qaeda — just as Baker pretended that the Palestinian representatives in Madrid were not members of the PLO.
The leaders of al-Nusra never hid their deep admiration for Osama bin Laden, although most of its members were too young to remember his active years in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
They were influenced by bin Laden’s right-hand-man, Abu Musaab al-Suri, who instructed his followers to organise along semi-conventional military lines, with units divided into brigades, regiments and battalions with full autonomy on the battlefield.
Al-Nusra commanders were authorised to take hands-on decisions in battle without awaiting instructions from higher command. They could invade, plunder and shoot at whomever they perceived as an obstacle to the group’s ultimate victory.
All targets were valid, civilians included. Lone-wolf attacks were legitimate. All Syrian soil was jihadist land. No need to wait for orders. It was the military strategy of Suri coming to life: nizam la tanzim — order not organisation. It was the religious duty of every individual to strike on his own without waiting for orders. In other words: Centralisation of thought and decentralisation of execution.
This would be the only path that would lead to the creation of an Islamic state.
Mirroring his commitment to bin Laden, al-Nusra commander Abu Mohammad al-Jolani appeared with a new outfit on July 28th — green fatigues and a long white turban, just like the one worn by the deceased al-Qaeda leader, unlike the black turban used by Jolani’s former friend turned nemesis, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-styled caliph of the Islamic State (ISIS).
This was supposedly designed to replicate bin Laden’s 2001 video from a secret hideout in Afghanistan in which he took responsibility for the 9/11 attacks.
Just to make the point, seated next to Jolani were two al-Qaeda members; including Ahmad Salameh Mabrouk, founder of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, al-Qaeda’s branch in the Sinai peninsula.
It is clear that Jolani was pulling off a major public relations stunt, regardless of how credible it was. Nothing has changed for al-Nusra in terms of ideology; it remains as dangerous, lethal and radical as ever.
Jolani’s strategy is twofold — seeking to fool the West on one hand and, on the other, attract young Syrian recruits, especially secret admirers who dared voice support for a group aligned with al-Qaeda, fearing US sanctions and Russian bombs. His hope seems to be that the move will give him greater room to manoeuvre and, perhaps, entitle him to Gulf arms, Turkish support and even the approval of the Americans.
Ever since Jolani pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda in April 2013, Syrian supporters have been worried. Many saw promise in Jolani, a Syrian like them, unlike Baghdadi, an Iraqi. The leader of ISIS was more committed to creating an Islamic state in Iraq while Jolani wanted one in Syria. He has no ambitions in faraway territories such as Egypt, Gaza or Europe.
Many are probably relieved by the announcement, giving them reason and courage to join the new front. They need al-Nusra. In military terms, it is the only fighting force that has inflicted heavy losses on both ISIS and the Syrian Army.
Many hope the new front will merge with other less powerful players on the Syrian battlefield, such as the Turkish-backed Ahrar al-Sham and the Salafi Jaysh al-Fateh, which are based in rural parts of north-western Syria.
Fighting alone, these groups may well be exterminated by Russian air power, but if they team up with al-Nusra — regardless of its name or affiliation — then their fortunes could turn. They can either follow Jolani or face isolation and extermination on the battlefield.
Arab Weekly, Issue 68, 14 August 2016.