Nusra Front Militia Chief Kept Obama and Putin Waiting
Turkey and Qatar have set in motion a move for Shaykh Abu Muhammad Al-Joulani, the leader of the Syrian rebel-Nusra Front, to repudiate his affiliation with the al-Qaeda organization and allegiance to its leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. This step would open the door for the Islamist Front’s attachment to the list drawn up by Presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin of Syrian rebel organizations granted immunity from US and Russian air strikes as candidates for a future peace deal on the country’s future.
A decision by Joulani to stick with al-Qaeda would lay his group open to Russian air attacks to target the Chechen and Caucasian Islamists Putin has found in its ranks.
And so Thursday night he decided to leave al Qaeda as expected and announced the formation of the Front for the Liberation of Syria.
But Joulani leads the largest, strongest and best equipped militia of all the groups fighting the Assad regime. He will therefore take care to calculate his own interests before rushing into any deals with the US or Moscow that may suit Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan or Qatar’s ruler Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani , although both give him arms and money.
It is important to remember that the Nusra chief started out in ISIS and that he was assigned by Abu Bakr al–Baghdadi at the end of 2011 the task of establishing its Syrian arm. Al-Baghdadi named the new anti-Assad arm Jamaat al-Nusra.
Two years later, Al-Joulani decided he was powerful enough to anoint himself Emir and break off his ties of loyalty to al-Baghdadi. It was then that Nusra pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda and its leader.
By severing that connection, Joulani knew he faced three hazards:
1. He stands to lose the trust of some of his fighters, who would not settle for a less than world class leader with supreme Islamic authority such as Zawahiri or al-Baghdadi.
2. Some might even secede from the Nusra and go over to ISIS; others to al-Qaeda.
3. By turning his back on al-Qaeda Joulani would have to give up his dream of becoming a great Emir stronger and more famous than Baghdadi.
Even so, he is important enough for the US-Russian agreement on military cooperation in Syria to hang fire as they awaited his decision. He also took into account that Turkey and Qatar can’t afford to pull the rug of their support from under his feet without forfeiting all their leverage and influence in Syria.
This situation recalls an episode in the Libya of 2011 which politicians with short historical memories may have forgotten.
The Qatari and Turkish intelligence and special forces, which fought in the US-led war for Qaddafi’s overthrow secretly threw their support, with the knowledge of the US, behind the Ansar al-Sharia in Libya (ASL), a Salafist Islamist militia group which advocated strict Sharia law for Libya.
On September 11, 2012, after joining Egyptian Islamic Jihad cells (from which Zawahiri originated), ASL killers attacked the US consulate in Benghazi, and murdered the US Ambassador and four CIA agents.
On March 2015, the same Libyan terror organization’s leaders swore allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and were absorbed by ISIS.
Thursday, July 28, Zawahiri stepped in suddenly with permission for the Nusra to quit al-Qaeda if Joulani considers this will promote the cause of the Islamic jihad.
Our sources on terror are confident that the al-Qaeda leader, unclear which way the Nusra chief was planning to jump, took this precaution against his possible decision to throw in his lot with the big powers, with a step to avert the impression that al-Qaeda was a dead duck after losing its strongest component.