Al-Nusra, Or, Al-Qaeda?

The last post on Sparrow Chat dealt with the present unhappy situation in Syria. Western news media – particularly in the United States, and to a lesser extent the UK – seems hellbent on presenting a black-white image of the conflict: yet another uprising of the people against a brutal dictator.

“Bashar al-Assad must go,” were the recent words of Hilary Clinton, the US secretary of state.

The question we should be asking is, why is she so keen for regime change, when the result would undoubtedly be another failed Islamic state?

To answer that question, first, we must ask, “Who are al-Nusra?”

Al-Nusra has risen to prominence in Syria since the beginning of this year. They admit responsibility for many of the bombings since the start of the uprising in March 2011. They are a Muslim jihadist group almost certainly with links to al Qaeda.

According to a BBC report:

The bombings and al-Nusra’s statements have also caused many to believe the group is linked to al-Qaeda.

Evidence to support this include the fact that al-Nusra claimed in its first video that its members included Syrian jihadists who had returned from fighting on other battlefronts.

This might have been a reference to Iraq, given suspicions by Western officials during the height of the insurgency there that militants were being armed by Syria and allowed to pass through its territory.

The Iraqi interior minister said in February that he believed militants were now travelling from Iraq to Syria.

That same month, the leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, encouraged Syrians and militants based in neighbouring countries to take up arms for the Syrian cause.

Additionally, al-Nusra’s media output has been distributed via online media outlets used by al-Qaeda.

However, neither al-Qaeda nor al-Nusra have mentioned one another in their propaganda, suggesting that if there are any links they are deliberately being played down.

Regardless of whether or not there is an al-Qaeda connection, al-Nusra’s ideology is clearly jihadist.

Although its primary target remains Syrian security forces and pro-government militia, it has referred to the US and Israel as enemies of Islam, and has attacked the beliefs of other religious groups in Syria, including the Alawites.

In a recent video that was filmed in a mosque, a cleric brandished an assault rifle and told his audience that jihad was a “house built upon blood, body parts and skulls”.”[1]

Apart from a brief mention in the Huffington Post in May, to date there has been no mention of al-Nusra from any of the major US news media outlets. Is this because the US government prefers the American public remain unaware of jihadist groups operating in Syria? It might be embarrassing for the US Administration were it to become general knowledge that, at least with regard to Syria, the American government had the same aim as al-Qaeda – the overthrow of the regime.

Jon Williams is World News Editor for the BBC. Today, he posted a report from Damascus on the situation in Syria (the bold is mine):

…In the aftermath of the massacre at Houla last month, initial reports said some of the 49 children and 34 women killed had their throats cut. In Damascus, Western officials told me the subsequent investigation revealed none of those found dead had been killed in such a brutal manner. Moreover, while Syrian forces had shelled the area shortly before the massacre, the details of exactly who carried out the attacks, how and why were still unclear. Whatever the cause, officials fear the attack marks the beginning of the sectarian aspect of the conflict.

In such circumstances, it’s more important than ever that we report what we don’t know, not merely what we do. In Houla, and now in Qubair, the finger has been pointed at the shabiha, pro-government militia. But tragic death toll aside, the facts are few: it’s not clear who ordered the killings – or why.

Given the difficulties of reporting inside Syria, video filed by the opposition on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube may provide some insight into the story on the ground. But stories are never black and white – often shades of grey. Those opposed to President Assad have an agenda. One senior Western official went as far as to describe their YouTube communications strategy as “brilliant”.

But he also likened it to so-called “psy-ops”, brainwashing techniques used by the US and other military to convince people of things that may not necessarily be true…”[2]

The massacres and assassinations being bandied about by Western news media as the acts of ‘a brutal dictator’, bear all the hallmarks of al-Qaeda operations. Indeed, if Assad were responsible, he must be a complete fool, rather than the intelligent, well-educated, individual he is known to be.

If al-Qaeda has moved its center of operations to Syria, then it means the US drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen have been far less successful than the US Administration has suggested. It would also provide an answer to the question asked earlier: why is Hilary Clinton so stridently demanding that Assad must go?

If al-Nusra/al-Qaeda succeed in toppling the regime, the resultant chaos in the country would provide an ideal excuse for intervention by the West. The US has pledged to strike al Qaeda wherever it operates. To do so now, with Assad still in office, would be politically unacceptable, given the stance of Russia and China. With him and his regime overthrown, Arab states like Saudi Arabia would probably beg for Western assistance.

Meanwhile, the Western media paints a vivid, though somewhat less than accurate, scenario of the ‘brutal dictatorship’, to soothe the American public into acceptance of military intervention at a later date.

As Jon Williams states in his conclusion:

A healthy scepticism is one of the essential qualities of any journalist – never more so than in reporting conflict. The stakes are high – all may not always be as it seems.”

And, let’s not forget, the present regime in Syria is one of the few true allies left in the Middle East of America’s number one enemy, Iran.

[1] “Syria’s al-Nusra Front” BBC, May 15th 2012

“Reporting conflict in Syria” BBC, June 7th 2012