BEIRUT: A rare television appearance by the leader of the hard-line jihadist Nusra Front has enraged supporters of the mainstream opposition and highlighted how the two Al-Qaeda affiliates active in Syria are locked in a struggle for influence in the war-torn country.
Late last week, Al-Jazeera television aired teaser excerpts and then a full, 30-minute interview with Abu Mohammad Golani, the leader of the Nusra Front, conducted by Taysir Allouni.
Supporters of the opposition took to social media to berate the station and the reporter for giving Golani a forum to espouse his views, without challenging him on the objectionable acts that Nusra has either claimed or been accused of.
Syrian national Allouni himself is controversial – he conducted an interview with Osama bin Laden after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and served prison time in a Spanish jail for being a financial courier for Al-Qaeda.
Azmi Bishara, the Qatar-based Palestinian figure who has vocally supported the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad, hinted at the disappointment in a post on Facebook.
“Armed groups demonstrated what the regime wanted to prove all along: that the alternative to its own rule would be the chaos of armed groups and Al-Qaeda,” Bishara wrote. “Today, however, one sees how in pro-revolutionary media the armed groups are uncritically accepted as an alternative to the regime. To depict these armed groups as such is a crime against the revolution and its martyrs.”
The Nusra Front issued its first public statement in January 2012, pledging to topple the Assad regime, and has claimed responsibility for a series of spectacular bombings targeting government troops and security forces.
It is also accused of committing atrocities or other rights violations against Syria’s religious minorities.
Golani appears with his back to the camera throughout the interview and repeatedly describes the war raging in Syria as being part of a broader sectarian struggle pitting Sunnis against Shiites, rather than a popular struggle against a repressive regime.
Throughout the interview, Golani offers sweeping descriptions of the forces battling over Syria. He argues that the United States and Iran have been in league for years to weaken the region’s Sunnis, backed by examples such as Washington’s intervention in Iraq led to pro-Tehran government of Nouri al-Maliki, and the recent talks between American and Iranian officials that produced an interim agreement on Tehran’s nuclear program.
Golani also mentions a struggle that is “3,000 years old,” and has seen everyone from the Byzantines to Iran’s Safavids struggle to dominate the Arab, and later, Islamic region.
He uses the derogatory term “Nusayris” for the Alawites, the community of Assad and many senior regime figures, and is generally dismissive of non-Sunni groups, commenting that they should be dealt with on a “case by case” basis.
Golani says his Nusra Front, however, has never executed anyone for religious offenses such as blasphemy. The even more hard-line Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), another Al-Qaeda affiliate, has usually claimed responsibility for such acts or been roundly accused of carrying them out.
Earlier this year, the leader of Al-Qaeda’s central organization, Ayman Zawahiri, ordered ISIS to leave Syria and focus on the country where it first appeared – Iraq – while the Nusra Front was given sole responsibility for activities in Syria.
The fact that both groups remain active in Syria indicates that the orders were largely ignored, and when asked about the dispute, Golani briefly notes that Zawahri “settled” the matter, without going into detail.
Asked about Nusra’s political objectives for a post-Assad order, Golani is vague. He reiterates the Nusra Front line that it does not want to rule alone, but rather in consultation with other Islamist groups. “We will cooperate with those who agree with us on our political program,” he says.
However, Golani is adamant that a future Syria must be based on Shariah, which is at odds with the demands of many in the opposition.
For Hazem al-Amin, the author of a book on Salafist movements, Golani’s appearance served various objectives, particularly after seven leading Islamist rebel militias – but not Nusra or ISIS – announced last month their alliance as the Islamic Front, making them the single biggest rebel group.
The Islamic Front also espouses establishing an Islamic state but it is generally seen as less violent than the two jihadist groups.
The opposition’s anger with Allouni’s interview represented a bit of an overreaction, Amin said.
“Taysir isn’t a journalist in the first place,” Amin said. “He’s a figure within the jihadist [political] environment, and serves as a type of a forum himself.”
“It’s difficult to hold someone like that accountable for not being professional, and for Al-Jazeera, it’s difficult to resist the temptation to interview someone like Golani.”
There was little that was new in terms of the content of Nusra’s rhetoric, but the appearance itself was significant in terms of ISIS, Nusra’s chief rival, Amin said. “Funding from the Arab world, and volunteers as well – they’re going mainly to ISIS,” he added. “This was a chance for Nusra to present itself to Arab funders” of jihadists.
It was also a chance for Golani to promote his group’s more “Syrian face” in comparison to ISIS, which counts Arabs and Muslims from a range of countries among its members, Amin said.
According to Hasan Abu Hanieh, a Jordanian expert on Islamist movements, the appearance managed to “settle the debate” as to whether the shadowy figure even existed at all. Syrian state TV claimed Golani was killed in fighting in Latakia province in October.
Abu Hanieh said Golani used the appearance to position his group as a relatively moderate jihadist option, when compared to the more objectionable acts of ISIS. “It’s a ‘local’ approach, without the regional and international connections that are associated with ISIS,” he added. “In addition, he is trying to position his group as being close to the Islamic Front.”
Abu Hanieh said the appearance highlighted that Nusra Front was “more anxious” about rivals ISIS than its purported enemy, the Assad regime.
While the Islamist groups share the ultimate objective of establishing a Shariah-based political system, the Islamic Front alliance and Nusra, unlike ISIS, claim they don’t want to impose such a system through force and liquidating opponents – instead, they talk about consensus-building and consultation to arrive at such a goal.
“It’s one of the ironies of the revolution that someone like Golani can appear to be a ‘moderate,’” Abu Hanieh said.