In the wake of the reported death of the Nusra Front commander Abu Hamam al-Shami last month, the organization’s new “emir”, Mohammed al-Jawlani, received an offer he may find it hard to refuse.
Saudi intelligence agents turned up at his headquarters with a check for several hundred million dollars, payable against the consent to convert his organization into a paramilitary militia fully funded by Riyadh as its proxy fighting force in Syria.
The United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Kuwait are reported by DEBKA Weekly’s Gulf sources to be partners in the Saudi bid.
The offer would require Nusra to break off ties with Al Qaeda, on the one hand, and take the lead of the Sunni Muslim battle against Bashar Assad, on the other – up to and including his overthrow.
The Saudi feeler had the immediate effect of splitting the Nusra Front into fiercely competitive camps between advocates and opponents of the split from al Qaeda, of which the Syrian militia was proclaimed Syrian branch last year.
Saudis don’t believe IS is breaking up or losing traction
The infighting was kicked off by an attempt to purge Iraqi Abu Maria al-Qahtani and Sultan al-Atwi, the leaders of Nusra’s anti-Islamic State faction, so as to block acceptance of the Saudi proposition. Another faction rose in it place, led by the ultra-strict Jordanian Sami Al-Aridi, who took over Al-Qahtani’s role as Nusra’s senior cleric, after ISIS defeated Nusra at Deir ez-Zor in northeastern Syria.
Al Qahtani, who favors the breakaway from al Qaeda, was strengthened by the Saudi bid. He is also popular with the Syrian fighters who joined Nusra to oust Assad and with the tribes and factions of the Deir ez-Zur region.
The deal with the Saudis, if it goes through, would be tantamount to Nusra’s declaration of war on the Islamic State. Clashes between the two Islamist forces would loosen the ISIS’s grip on northeastern Syria, for which Qahtani would be able to enlist help from the local tribes.
But as yet, Nusra’s leaders are too bogged down in inner turmoil to give Riyadh an answer.
The Saudis have another problem.
DEBKA Weekly’s counter-terror sources report that political and military policy-makers in Riyadh take exception to the Obama administration’s latest evaluations of cracks in the Islamic State’s ruling bodies which, the Americans believe, portend its impending collapse.
Local Iraqi Sunnis will oppose not welcome Shiite militias “liberators”
Drawing on long local experience, the Saudis note that a violent organization ruling a large swathe of territory may appear to Western outsiders to be on the point of breaking up. But, they say, this is not happening and neither are the local populations under the jihadist jackboots on the point of revolt, as the Americans appear to believe.
To the contrary, Riyadh has discovered alarmingly that these subject populations in Iraq and Syria would rather live in the ISIS caliphate than submit to alien Shiite “liberators” like Iran’s surrogate Hizballah, from whom as Sunni Muslims they have more to fear than from ISIS.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the US Chiefs of Staff, sounded upbeat when he arrived in Baghdad Sunday, March 8, but he was in fact heavily weighed down by the Sunni Arab front’s strong aversion, led from Riyadh, to Iran’s leading role in the war on ISIS. The US-led coalition for fighting the Islamic State is hamstrung in its efforts by this division in its ranks.
The general noted when he landed in Iraq that 23,000 Iranian-based Shiite militiamen, Sunni tribal fighters and Iraqi soldiers were fighting to liberate Tikrit against only hundreds of ISIS fighters.
Dempsey concerned by Iraq divisions undercutting coalition
But this optimistic calculation was quickly overshadowed, DEBKA Weekly’s sources report, by Riyadh’s warning to Washington that, even if Iraqi troops and Shiite militias succeeded by dint of superior numbers to drive ISIS out of Tikrit, it would be a Pyrrhic victory. The local Sunni inhabitants would stand up and fight the Shiite militia conquest, shoulder to shoulder with the jihadis.
Dempsey omitted to mention the key role of the Kurdish peshmerga in this war – although they are the only ground force in the field holding back Islamist encroachments in northern Iraq, and while poorly armed, are fighting valiantly with heavy losses.
The Kurds have every reason to fear Tikrit’s fall to the Iranian-Iraqi Shiite force. They are certain that Tehran wouldn’t miss using the momentum for a further offensive to capture the big northern Iraqi oil town of Kirkuk on the doorstep of the Kurdish republic.
Picking up for the first time on Kurdish concerns, Gen. Dempsey told reporters in Bahrain Monday, at the end of his trip to Iraq that “the overriding goal for Washington and other coalition members” was to ensure that Iraq’s Shiite-led authorities also upheld the rights of its Sunni Arab and Kurdish communities as the key to the coalition’s cohesion. He noted that when he flew over Baghdad, he saw that many buildings had Shiite militia banners and only one flew the Iraq flag.