As the Assad tyranny continues to burn down the country in its genocidal campaign of mass destruction, it utterly failed to crush the revolution. Beating, arresting, torturing and chasing out anyone who raised their voice did not stop the people from speaking out. Neither did shooting down protesters in the streets, massive round ups and random executions, raiding hospitals, massacring dissidents’ families, rape, mutilation and other sickening crimes. Not even the insane “cleansing” of entire towns and villages and the savage flattening of cities’ residential neighbourhoods, bombarding schools and bakery lines and barrel bombing hospitals, caused the people to submit. For the past 20 months, the Assad regime has killed tens of thousands, among them thousands of women, children and elderly, wounding, arresting and torturing hundreds of thousands, causing hundreds of thousands more to flee the country and leaving millions displaced and homeless inside Syria.
This enormous suffering naturally lead to friction within Syrian society, but it also completely alienated most of the country and its population from the regime, leaving between them only the bombardments from the sky. All this suffering gave the armed resistance its reason to exist and its determination to fight until the end to protect the people and to overthrow the Assad tyranny. The ever growing Free Syrian Army made up of military defectors and civilian volunteers may by now outnumber Assad’s remaining forces, and has liberated most of the country despite of Assad’s air force, tanks, large amounts of heavy weaponry and cultist loyalists armed to the teeth.
Unable to physically crush the revolution and causing a massive popular armed resistance to rise in its defence, the Assad tyranny sought to weaken them in such a way that their character transformed into something more crushable. To do so the regime tried to sow hatred and division amongst and between the people and the revolutionaries, and cause tensions between different faiths, cultures and backgrounds. Destroying Syria’s social and religious fabric through arresting and murdering clerics and religious scholars and bombarding and desecrating mosques and churches has been essential to this strategy. Alawite sectarianism, Christian neutralism, Kurdish separatism, Islamic extremism, all of these phenomena and many more have not been free of Assad’s meddling.
The objective was to transform the revolutionary threat from a peaceful protester demanding his rights, a defected soldier refusing to murder the innocent, a villager who defends his family and home, into a bloodthirsty terrorist driven by an extremist ideology that the overwhelming majority of Syrian society could never accept. What was first propaganda, had to become reality to the extent of giving such propaganda some credibility. None of it could ever win the war for Assad, but it could eventually sufficiently weaken the revolution for him to stay in power in part(s) of Syria for a long time to come. For the Syrian people, this would not only mean the prolonging the suffering caused by his tyranny, but threatening the future of a Free Syria.
Far from being there yet, a point has been reached of an engine that emerged, driving the transformation and weakening the revolution from within: Jabhat al-Nusra. This Qaedist group is having its first anniversary and in a year they have gone from being an obscure group carrying out some isolated terrorist attacks in which Assad was perceived to have a hand, to a strong force on the ground that increasingly has the ability and will to influence [local] events, policies, attitudes and more.
A half year into their appearance, Jabhat al-Nusra had carried out several terrorist attacks and were growing out of the vague image of “Salafi Terrorism” the regime sought to portray the revolution as. Its Iraqi origins along with information such as what came from the defected Nawaf Fares raised the suspicions to the extent that pretty much everyone in the revolution was convinced of the regime having a hand in this group.
By that time, Jabhat al-Nusra was becoming a fighting force on the ground. At first, they were fighting on their own and continued to keep to themselves. It wasn’t long before hey were joined by some locals who had formed their own groups and came to share some of their ideology. Their skills and strength impressed many in the FSA as well, and some of its brigades began collaborating with them. Then came the terrorist attack on the Saadallah al-Jabri square in Aleppo. For the first time, instead of blaming the regime, Jabhat al-Nusra’s terrorist attack was condoned by parts of the FSA, while condemned by others, along with activists and the population of Aleppo in general. Suddenly, the FSA found itself at a crossroad in Aleppo.
This was up to last month, and things have become worse since then. The usual suicidal car bomb terrorism continued, as did the summary executions. Their numbers have been growing and so have their alliances with like-minded groups. They have become an even stronger fighting force on the ground, leading massive [local] battles and winning them, seizing scores of ammunition and weaponry. Moreover, they have gotten an increasingly local character and have been receiving some local support. Take for example some of their [foreign] fighters’ vocal appearance at one of their demonstrations in Binish, Idlib .
There are several other examples like that, showing that their popularity has been growing. This one [from Eid al-Adha] is particularly relevant because it does not hide their ideology whatsoever, as they are singing about taking honour in being called a terrorist, praising their terrorism, praising Osama Bin Laden, boasting the 9-11 attack on the Twin Towers, threatening to slaughter the Alawites, and sending greetings from Al-Qaeda. Not everyone in the crowd is cheering this on and in most demonstrations [which have been very limited in size and frequency] where support has been shown, there was little to no ideological component. Their popularity should therefore not be overestimated and their ideology is completely opposite to Syrian culture and traditions, but it has nevertheless gone from none whatsoever to being significant on the margins. In that sense it’s continuing to increase, partly due to the incredibly insane kinds and amounts of suffering the Assad regime has subjected the Syrian people to, partly because of ignorance of their ideology, partly because of attractive Islamic slogans and partly because of the qualities they possess as a fighting force.
Their strength, however, should not be overestimated either. Their numbers are still very limited and small compared to that of the FSA and independent groups with a different ideology. However, their strength has increased, and as a consequence more and more of their ideology has been put to practice. A week ago, the grave desecration phenomena committed by Qaedist and other extremists in Somalia, Mali and Libya, reached Syria for the first time. Activists from Salaheddin, Aleppo, reported that Jabhat al-Nusra had bombed the shrine of the saint Shaykh Muhammad Jerabeh. Shaykh Muhammad al-Yaqoubi condemned this wicked crime [English] against the saints, explained what lies behind it and calls upon everyone to speak out. There are hundreds of shrines in Syria, many of them in Aleppo and Damascus. The Assad regime has shelled the tomb shown of Shaykh Adib Hassoun and continues to shell the mosque of the Companion Khalid Ibn al-Walid wherein his tomb and that of the Companion Abdullah Ibn Umar lie. It has shelled the shrine of the Prophet Joshua inside his mosque, and has set fire to the Umayyad mosque where the shrine of the Prophet Zachary is.
Assad has bombarded many mosques with the excuse that they are being used by the Free Syrian Army. Jabhat al-Nusra has already shown to be willing to bombard everything used by Assad’s forces, and it has come to surface that this now includes mosques as well. Assad propagandists have hopelessly claimed before that it is their opponents who blow up mosques, the following however is an event in which such propaganda proves to be true:
What can be seen is a mosque surrounded by tanks, with “revolutionaries” awaiting a blast taking down the entire minaret. After the blast, fighting erupts. The person shooting the video says that Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham have blown up this mosque because it was used as a base by Assad forces. This does not contradict the images, and it does not contradict the Qaedist ideology either.
As Jabhat al-Nusra has become a leading force in some of the major battles in the north, their policy is no longer limited to isolated operations by them and their allies. Recently there was a major FSA offensive in Aleppo which included al-Ashrafiyeh, a major Kurdish neighbourhood. The Kurds did not resist at first, but they were not happy about this either and took massively to the streets, not to support Assad but to oppose the incursion. Among them were women and children, as well as armed men to protect them, and this is what happened next:
The video was released by Kurdish channels, and considering that the FSA announced the offensive and their brigades were reportedly going into Ashrafiyeh, they were blamed for this criminal violence. The video shows a car from the Ahrar Suriya brigade of the FSA having been overtaken by Kurdish fighters. But how could the FSA, whose entire reason of existence has been refusing orders to fire on demonstrators and protecting them instead, commit crimes like these? Reports then came that Jabhat al-Nusra [together with Ahrar al-Sham] was leading the battle in the neighbourhood, and that it was in fact them who shot at the demonstrators.
This was somewhat confirmed by what followed: a massive confrontation between Kurdish fighters and Jabhat al-Nusra in Ashrafiyeh, killing dozens. That is why an area that has seen many demonstrations against the regime, where Kurds and Arabs stood hand in hand, turned into a battleground between local Kurdish fighters and “revolutionaries”. The FSA stepped in and eventually things calmed down, and demonstrations resumed.
But Jabhat al-Nusra was not done with the Kurds, and opened a front against them in Ras al-Ayn, on the Turkish border. The city was already liberated, yet suddenly hundreds of fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra and others clashed with Kurdish [PKK] fighters. As Jabhat al-Nusra called upon other like minded groups to join them, various Kurdish groups united and joined the fight against Jabhat al-Nusra. This even included the Kurdish Meshaal Timo Brigade of the FSA:
A cease fire has now been reached between [brigades of] the FSA and the PKK, though it is unclear what Jabhat al-Nusra’s next step will be. With the formation of the National Coalition it has also come to light what political significance Jabhat al-Nusra has. Under their leadership, 14 groups in Aleppo rejected the National Coalition as an outside conspiracy and vowed to fight for their ideology. This was not unexpected, surprising however was the claim that Liwa al-Tawhid which is part of the FSA was one of the groups represented by the statement. The leader of the FSA’s Military Council, Col. Abdul Jabbar al-Akidi, as well as President of the National Coalition, Shaykh Moaz al-Khatib, responded to the statement. Then, the leader of Liwa al-Tawhid, Abdul Qader Saleh, released a clarifying statement together with Col. al-Akidi. The National Coalition was recognized by all, except for Jabhat al-Nusra and their remaining allies in Aleppo who did not confirm or respond. One of those present at the meeting that released Jabhat al-Nusra’s statement reportedly said:
“We need to know we are going to get help and support from the coalition because Jabhat al-Nusra don’t want us to have anything to do with them. And right now, al-Nusra is our main support. So they need to show us they can do something for us.” Some fighters told Reuters that Jabhat al-Nusra organized the video in response to attempts by the new coalition to drive a wedge between al-Nusra and less radical Islamist groups.
Jabhat al-Nusra is not stupid. Through struggle they have created facts on the ground and are seeking to translate that into popular support, strategic influence, religious imposing and a political say. Of course they are well aware that nobody wants any of this, but they are faced with realities to deal with. The response by both the political and military opposition to the latest uproar have so far been passive, trivializing, apologetic, inclusive, even sympathetic at times. For example, the following points were made:
- every fighter is fighting for freedom
- some are driven to extremes by the savagery of the regime
- some have a different opinion which they are entitled to
- everyone is welcome
- people will decide for themselves in the end
- Islam cannot be implemented by force
- minority rights have to be respected
These are all good and important points, generally speaking. But at hand is not a general group, it is a specific group which is named Jabhat al-Nusra and which has a particular ideology and a certain track record of its practices. Moreover, it is part of a movement that is active to one extent or the other in many countries: Al Qaeda.
It is not fighting for freedom, other than the freedom to rule by its own rules. Unlike some poor suffering people who may have been mislead into joining it, it is driven to extremes by its ideology. Being entitled to an opinion is not the problem, enforcing such an opinion by law or in other ways is. How can they be welcomed into something they vehemently reject, religiously and ideologically? There is no place on earth where Qaedist groups have tolerated people deciding for themselves, lest they decided to submit to their standards. Implementing Islam as their ideology sees it by force is how it works, and the rights of others [including Sunnis, which they are not] is not something they are concerned with. This is what both their ideology and their track record shows.
What plan lies behind all of this isn’t clear, other than that the current unification process will lead to the funding and organisation the revolution needs run the country and overthrow the regime. By doing so, the idea seems to be that the problem will be solved in one way or the other after the fall of Assad. Apparently, the current threat it poses to the revolution does not outweigh the threat it could pose by confronting it head on. Perhaps there are other reasons.
The response from activists on the ground and elsewhere has been naturally different. Many have spoken openly against Jabhat al-Nusra and its actions. There was for example the demonstration in Bustan al-Qasr, Aleppo, in response to the bombing of the Saadallah al-Jabri square. There was also the following response from Kafr Nabl, the famous revolutionary cartoons and slogans town:
Others, however, continue to have a different opinion about them. Equally concerning perhaps is the ignorance about them among many who remain relatively silent and would never support such groups. Some are still under the impression that none of it is real and all of it has been fabricated by the regime. This has lead for example to the following images being spread by activists:
This is the Saadallah al-Jabri square after it was bombed, not by Assad as the impression the above picture might give, but by Jabhat al-Nusra.
Or take one of the famous pictures which made it in the media of the destroyed Mosque in Azaaz, Aleppo:
Although the tanks at the sighting were a bit strange, the impression given is that they or Assad’s bombardments destroyed the Mosque, when the earlier shown footage in fact shows that the Mosque had become a base for the regime which the tanks outside guarded, and that the destruction was not caused by them but by Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham.
When revolutionary activism becomes propaganda and Assad’s propaganda becomes the truth, there is a problem. Going by people’s best and sincere intentions, ignorance is to blame. The media hype around this group and the international hypocrisy when it comes to these issues will not replace such ignorance with knowledge of the realities of this group, what its ideology is, what its track record is, what its current role is in the revolution and how it is threatening it. Such knowledge can only come from within, through documentation and analysis. And if widespread enough, this knowledge can be used make a case with the political and military opposition if their approach is perceived as being insufficient in this regard. No matter how difficult the circumstances, it remains a matter of choice to stand up against injustice. That is what all those who chose to protest, to disobey orders to shoot, to defect, to defend themselves, have done.
Finally, Jabhat al-Nusra’s own actions and the efforts of their ideological supporters, as well as that of Assad propagandists and their apologists who claim that this is the revolution they are fighting, have mislead and cast doubts on the revolution in the view of too many people inside and outside Syria. These are decent, normal people who often irrationally and emotionally go by whatever they are confronted with. Not to mention that there are people who have suffered from all of this. In order to clarify to them what the revolution is truly about, who represents it on all levels and who it is representing, it does not help to ignore the core realities – no matter how insignificant they may appear in the bigger picture – that lie behind their fears. Assad’s tyranny has been worse than all the Al Qaeda’s in the world put together, but injustice cannot remove injustice.