Militants of Nusra Front in Syria. Photo: AFP.
The head of the Syria-based al-Qaeda offshoot Jabhat al-Nusra, Abu Mohamad al-Golani, recently dismissed on Orient TV any negotiations between the opposition and the Syrian regime (in light of Saudi Arabia’s recent hosting of opposition groups to discuss the future of Syria). Golani alleged that the only reason the no-fly zone Turkey has long wanted to establish in northwestern Syria hasn’t been established is due to Washington’s ad-hoc coordination with the Syrian Kurds in the war against ISIS.
One certainly hopes he is right in his assessment.
It’s no secret that the Turkey, in cahoots with the Qataris and the Saudis, has given intelligence and logistical support to an umbrella Islamist fighting-force in Syria called the Jaish al-Fatah (Army of Conquest) which includes the Nusra and Ahrar ash-Sham Islamists in its ranks. With support from these three nations Jaish al-Fatah managed to overrun large swaths of the Syrian province of Idlib last May, including the provincial capital. In the stretch of border-territory that sits between the Syrian Kurdish cantons of Kobani and Afrin Nusra and ISIS still has a presence. This happens to be the same area where Turkey has long wanted to establish a ‘safe-zone’ protected primarily by coalition aircraft. However the U.S has little interest in establishing such a zone. Turkey’s refusal to join America’s anti-ISIS coalition primarily stemmed from the fact that that coalition wasn’t also seeking to attack Assad. Similarly in the northwest any buffer-zone would likely be against both Assad and ISIS which is something Washington isn’t quite willing to sign on to.
Washington would like the Turks to send in ground forces to seal off its side of the border. This would put further pressure on ISIS. But Turkey has not been willing to do so. Possibly because sealing off the border completely could entail relinquishing its support for Jaish al-Fatah. However establishing a no-fly zone in the northwest would benefit many of these Islamist groups who, among other things, fire upon Afrin and Kobani whenever they can and, those like the Nusra, subjugate or even kill minorities like the Alawites, Druze and Kurds. These are not elements which should be supported.
Back in mid-2013 Turkey allowed the Nusra to take control of the border-crossing in the northern Syrian town of Gire Spi. During its time there the Nusra issued a fatwa against the Kurds which stated that, “Kurds are Kufar [unbelievers] and killing Kurds, taking their women, plundering their property and destroying their homes is just and fair” and subsequently incited hatred against them and killed and forced many from that city.
Similarly, when this umbrella of extremist groups overran Idlib last May there was a disturbing incident when 20 members of the Druze minority were gunned down by the Nusra. If such forces were able to overrun the Latakia Province they would likely brutally subjugate the Alawite minority, from which the Assad family originates and who are generally seen as heretics by fanatical groups like the Nusra and ISIS, and/or massacre them. That coupled with the fact this group shares the same ideology as al-Qaeda should be enough to discourage any policy which would serve to empower them either direct or indirectly, even if it was at the direct expense of the Assad regime.
Earlier this year Golani, in an interview with al-Jazeera, claimed that his al-Qaeda offshoot would not seek to kill Americans or westerners provided they directed their fire on Assad or at least left them alone to do whatever they want in Syria. It would be foolish to simply take his word, the word of a man long loyal to al-Qaeda, on that. Even giving his group a free hand to operate in Syria while knowing where its members are would betray the sworn attempts by western leaders to be serious about combating Islamist terrorists.
“We took the path of jihad and we have to complete the process, and we are talking about liberating more than 80 percent of Syrian territory,” the jihadi leader declared to Orient News. By “liberating” Golani means seizing Syrian territory and subjugating those who live in it under their fledgling ‘emirate’ (think of the Nusra emirate as a lite version of the ISIS ‘caliphate’). He also pledged that whether or not they remain linked to the al-Qaeda network Nusra “will not give up our principles.”
The western powers should not give up either on their professed principles, especially their pledge to confront such dangerous terrorist groups wherever and whenever they can.
Paul Iddon is a Rudaw reporter based in Erbil, Kurdistan Region.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.