Over the past few years, various Syrian rebel groups claiming to adhere to an Islamic agenda have found themselves forced to engage in double talk. It has long been recognised among Syria watchers that many of these groups adopted Islamic slogans to obtain funding, without necessarily having such an agenda. But more recently, some of these groups seem to have done the reverse.
Groups such as Ahrar Al Sham, Jaish Al Islam and Jabhat Al Nusra have tried to signal that they have national agendas that would not exclude other sections of Syrian society. But because they also have to consider their constituencies, their rhetoric has become contradictory or distorted.
Last week’s Al Jazeera TV interview with Jabhat Al Nusra’s leader, Abu Mohammed Al Jolani, is a case in point. Al Jolani tried to portray his group as part of the fabric of Syrian society. He even appeared to dress deliberately like a famous character in the popular Syrian soap opera Bab Al Hara, which has been shown on Arab satellite channels for the past few years. The character, Ageed Abu Shihab, is a heroic and brave leader of a neighbourhood in old Damascus during the French occupation of Syria.
Al Jolani clearly wanted to portray himself as a national hero. But his attempt may have backfired. He lost the plot as he went into detail with regards to these key subjects: religious minorities, the group’s affiliation with Al Qaeda and about the Muslim Brotherhood.
He reassured religious minorities that the group would treat them as “brothers” if they distanced themselves from the Assad regime, prevented their children from joining the Syrian military and abandoned their “deviant” religious beliefs.
The two-hour interview was filled with sectarian talk even though he clearly tried to send positive signals. Although this should not be surprising since his group is an extremist organisation linked to Al Qaeda, many Syrians in fact saw the group as a “corrective” movement whose links to Al Qaeda were merely temporary.
He was also unequivocal about his commitment to Al Qaeda. This issue has been subject to much speculation, mostly based on rumours and claims emanating from rebel factions in Syria, rather than from the group itself.
But now there is a debate about the merits of disengagement from Al Qaeda in favour of also receiving funding from less extreme regional donors.
The debate is almost entirely based in pragmatic thinking, and there is no evidence that Jabhat Al Nusra want out. The debate, which has been going on since late 2013, has been pushed by Qatar and Turkey in particular.
Elements within Jabhat Al Nusra see merits in the move. Others believe it would undercut its effectiveness and could ultimately undermine or dismantle it from within, as foreign donors have access to members of the group. There are also no guarantees that they would be accepted into the mainstream.
Efforts to push Jabhat Al Nusra from Al Qaeda have been going on since late 2013. Rebels have since repeatedly said they were about to persuade it to abandon Al Qaeda. Nonetheless, there were several meetings of the group’s leaders to discuss the issue, according to al Jazeera’s veteran journalist Ahmed Muwaffaq Zaidan, most of the Jabhat Al Nusra leadership argued in favour of announcing their disengagement from the organisation. It’s important to highlight that regional countries want Jabhat Al Nusra to abandon Al Qaeda only because they want to be able to legally support it, rather than because they believe the group would abandon its beliefs.
Perhaps Al Jolani’s most significant remarks are his statements about the Muslim Brotherhood. He said that the Muslim Brotherhood has “deviated” from Islamic teachings when they accepted modern democratic norms. His contempt for the organisation is a surprising move by the group that is intended to build influence within various conservative segments of Syrian society.
This was a significant gaffe considering how the group is perceived within the Brotherhood base. Ahmed Mansour, the Jazeera anchor, even asked Al Jolaini why his group would not join the Muslim Brotherhood given their ideological similarities and the fact that Jabhat Al Nusra features the Brotherhood in its sharia training.
In the interview, Al Jolani alienated several demographics that would otherwise view his group as different from other jihadist groups. Al Jolani did what many of his opponents wanted to do themselves and, perhaps unintentionally, showed his true colours.
Hassan Hassan is associate fellow at Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa Programme, and co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror