Syria's al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra seems to be attempting to convey a more moderate and conciliatory image. Their change of rhetoric should not be read as an ideological shift, writes Milo Comerford.
After a year in which ISIS captured cities and headlines through its operations and atrocities, Syria's al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra has reemerged as a major force in the conflict against Bashar al-Assad, arguably one that poses a greater existential threat to the regime than ISIS.
Part of the reason for this reinvigoration of Jabhat al-Nusra has been the military successes of the Jaish al-Fatah (Army of Conquest) Islamist coalition, in which it plays a leading role. The coalition has swept through Idlib province in northwest Syria since March 2015, capturing Idlib City and Jisr al-Shughur in lightening offensives, as well as opening up new fronts against Hizbullah (as well as ISIS) in the Qalamoun mountains on Syria's border with Lebanon.
After its recent gains Jaish al-Fatah is now in a strong position to either move south to Hama, west to the Mediterranean regime stronghold of Latakia, or east to Syria's largest city Aleppo. All seem within its grasp, particularly given emerging reports of ISIS consolidating its hold on the town of Hassia on the north-south M5 Highway, potentially cutting the entire north of Syria off from Damascus.
The dynamics of this coalition, comprised of all shades of Islamist factions, are interesting to witness, both militarily and politically. A recent video from VICE News shows the military coordination in action, with Jabhat al-Nusra fighters acting as shock troops in the battle for Jisr al-Shughur, while US-equipped Free Syria Army militias provided fire support from nearby hills. Within this setup Jabhat al-Nusra has gained particular notoriety for their use of suicide bombings to initiate coalition assaults, showing a ruthless overlap of apocalyptic ideology with tactical pragmatism. Coalition fighters pin their success on Jaish al-Fatah's unity, with one Jabhat al-Nusra fighter quoted as saying that "the brothers from all groups started working together and coordinating" and "Praise be to Allah, unity is one of the reasons behind victory."
"We do not strive to rule Idlib or to monopolise it without others."
Meanwhile, a window into coalition politics can be seen in Jabhat al-Nusra's claims, after the capture of Idlib in April 2015 from government forces, that the city would be ruled according to the Sharia but that the group would not seek to monopolise power there, saying "We as Jabhat al-Nusra confirm that we do not strive to rule the city or to monopolise it without others."
Jabhat al-Nusra has consistently been more willing to work alongside other rebels in the Syrian conflict than ISIS has, and indeed its founding mission when dispatched from Iraq in 2011 was to mobilise a broad base of Islamist groups in its project of building an Islamic state. The group's leader Abu Mohammad al-Jolani pointedly claimed in the middle of 2014, after ISIS' declaration of a caliphate, that it would not declare the formation of an Islamic emirate without the backing of other Islamist groups in the region as well as consensus from "the sincere Mujahideen and the pious scholars".
However, Jabhat al-Nusra's recent moves indicate a significant tactical shift in its wider war for hearts and minds, with perhaps the most significant aspect of the group's recent evolution being its attempts to present themselves as a moderate force in a conflict where the trend has been increasingly polarised towards extreme rhetoric.
This shifting rhetoric is not a phenomenon unique to Jabhat al-Nusra, but also its fellow coalition members Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam. Analyst Hassan Hassan notes that towards the beginning of Syrian rebellion, many rebel groups used Islamist rhetoric and slogans to obtain funding from abroad, without necessarily endorsing this agenda. More recently, however, many of these groups seem to be doing the reverse, signalling that they have national rather than exclusionary agendas in order to appease potential funders.
Jabhat al-Nusra's is by no means the first attempt at a rebrand in the Syrian war.Jabhat al-Nusra's is by no means the first attempt at a rebrand in the Syrian war. Assad's interviews earlier in 2015 with the BBC and Foreign Affairs represented an active attempt to present himself to the West as the lesser of two evils, by acting as a bulwark against extremism. Even Hizbullah have entered this PR war, providing press tours of their 'counter-terror' campaigns against Sunni jihadis in Syria.However, it is important Jabhat al-Nusra's apparent flexibility should be seen as an attempt to garner broader popular support from more moderate Islamists and other rebel groups in Syria, rather than a cry for support to the international community, or abandonment of its founding narrative, to establish an Islamic state in Syria.This fact was made particularly clear in a recent Al Jazeera interview with the group's elusive leader Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, subject to much press attention, and read by many as an attempt to improve Jabhat al-Nusra's image as a more moderate, less exclusive alternative to ISIS.Jolani drew a strange dichotomy in the interview, appearing to soften many aspects of his rhetoric, but remaining unequivocal about the group's allegiance to al-Qaeda, with an al-Qaeda flag on the table in front of him further emphasising Jabhat al-Nusra's affiliation. This defensiveness may well be a response to rumours of a rift between the two organisations that circulated earlier in 2015.
In particular, the interview sees Jolani attempt to strike a softer line on the issue of sectarianism, saying that a Shia Alawite can surrender to Jabhat al-Nusra and won't be killed as long as he repents "even if he killed a thousand of us." However, Jolani adds the condition that minority communities would also need to abandon their faith when they submit, alluding to this fact when talking about the capture of Druze villages in Idlib, saying "we have sent them duat [proselytisers], people to correct their dogma or their Islam."
Apparent sectarian moderation is more rhetorical than ideological.
Although this difference is more rhetorical than ideological (a week after Jolani's interview reports emerged that Jabhat al-Nusra fighters had shot to death at least 20 Druze civilians in a village north of Idlib), this attempt at sectarian moderation has been attacked previously by ISIS, which has criticised al-Qaeda's feeble stance towards the 'crusader' Christians of the Middle East. Indeed, this disagreement on the appropriateness of sectarian rhetoric was a major part of the original division between the groups. Jabhat al-Nusra has similarly been criticised by 'globalist' jihadis for their 'nationalist' aspirations, an accusation which Jolani seems to accept through his choice of Syrian traditional dress for his Al Jazeera interview. ISIS, meanwhile, presents such 'national' Islamism as shirk (idolatry).
In an increasingly polarised conflict, Jabhat al-Nusra meanwhile seems determined to re-blur the lines between jihadism and Syrian nationalism. ISIS in its propaganda, meanwhile, is determined to divide the world into two camps, the Dar al-Harb (Abode of War) and Dar al-Islam (Abode of Peace), consistently referring to the imminent extinction of "the grayzone" between these extremities.
It remains to be seen how dangerous this new rhetorical tack could prove for ISIS' appeal in Syria, as Jabhat al-Nusra tries to pedal a jihadi third way that is still vehemently anti-Assad but tones down much of the sectarian rhetoric propagated by ISIS. However, with Jolani notably quiet about the 'West' in recent rhetoric, in the increasingly likely event of the fall of the Syrian regime, there will still need to be a 'great enemy' to galvanise support for Jabhat al-Nusra's jihadi cause. This may well require another paradigm shift.