Nusra’s Julani: “I get so scared in case I fall off my chair”

"Well I don't know why I came here tonight, I got the feeling that something ain't right"
“Well I don’t know why I came here tonight,
I got the feeling that something ain’t right”

Jabhat al-Nusra’s emir, Abu Muhammad al-Julani, gave an interview to Al Jazeera yesterday that seems to have been intended to put the best possible face on his Al-Qaeda franchise for a secular/Western audience. Most of it was transparently bullshit though, and by digging through the bullshit you can see the clear reasons why nobody — not the US or the West, not the Islamic world, not the rest of the Arab nations, and certainly not most Syrians — wants Nusra anywhere near the levers of power in a post-Assad Syria.

Julani was keen to stress above all that he’s got no plans to attack the West:

“We are only here to accomplish one mission, to fight the regime and its agents on the ground, including Hezbollah and others,” Abu Mohammed al-Golani said in an exclusive interview aired on Al Jazeera on Wednesday.

“Nusra Front doesn’t have any plans or directives to target the West. We received clear orders not to use Syria as a launching pad to attack the US or Europe in order to not sabotage the true mission against the regime. Maybe al-Qaeda does that but not here in Syria,” he said.

I mean, maybe Al-Qaeda is into that kind of thing, but not Syria’s Al-Qaeda, you know? They’ve been ordered not to attack the West by, well, guys who keep trying to attack the West, but, ah, wheels within wheels or whatever.

Now, obviously Nusra reserves the right to attack the West in self-defense (NOTE: definition of “self-defense” to be determined):

“Our options are open when it comes to targeting the Americans if they will continue their attacks against us in Syria. Everyone has the right to defend themselves,” he said in an interview with the Doha-based network.

But doesn’t everybody have the right to defend themselves? Also, maybe you noticed that Julani was using present tense above (“Nusra Front doesn’t have any plans or directives to target the West”) and you’re thinking that once Nusra accomplishes its “one mission,” getting rid of Assad and Hezbollah, that maybe they’ll move on to another mission, which could very well be staging attacks on targets in the West? Well, to that we can only, ah, respond, um, that…

Say, what about the Alawites? Many Westerners seem to be a little concerned that if a group like Nusra took over Syria, it could go very badly for the Alawites, partly because they’ve constituted Assad’s main base of support for so long and partly because takfiri lunatics like Nusra believe that Alawites are either unbelievers (bad) or apostates (much worse). But look, Nusra isn’t about that stuff, OK? They’re all about peaceful coexistence with the heretic scum uh, the differently religious well, no, the heretics. Alawites are heretics, but it’s still cool, sort of?

The leader of al-Qaeda’s Syria branch has said the group will not target the country’s Alawite minority despite their support for Bashar al-Assad’s government.

Abu Mohammad al-Golani, leader of the Nusra Front, made the remark in an exclusive interview to Al Jazeera.

“The battle does not end in Qardaha, the Alawite village and the birthplace of the Assad clan,” he said in the interview which aired on Wednesday.

“Our war is not a matter of revenge against the Alawites despite the fact that in Islam, they are considered to be heretics.

“Our fight is strictly with those who attacked us and murdered our people.

“Our faith is based on mercy and our noble traditions. We are not murderers. We will not hurt them or target them, the Druzes or anyone else.”

Yeah, it’s a funny thing about the Druze, because the ones in Idlib Province, where Nusra is newly in control, seem to be converting to a very puritanical brand of Sunni Islam all of a sudden. Obviously it couldn’t be that Nusra is forcibly converting them or coercing conversion through threats of violence, because here we have Emir Julani specifically saying that they don’t do that kind of thing. Must be a total coinkydink. Although, maybe the rest of what Julani said about the Alawites might be cause for a little concern?

Addressing the Alawite community, he said: “If they drop weapons, disavow Assad, do not send their men to fight for him and return to Islam, then they are our brothers,” he said.

Golani said the Alawites were part of a sect that had “moved outside the religion of God and of Islam.”

HA, see? The Alawites have nothing to worry about! They just have to stop being Alawites! Easy peasy!

Still not convinced? Whatever, man. You just don’t know what it’s like to be Abu Muhammad al-Julani. Clowns to the left of him, jokers to the right…say, any chance he could be stuck in the middle…with you? By which he means you, America, and your allies and air support and weapons and money?

He also noted that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group (ISIL), which has been accused of rampant atrocities and controls large parts of the country, was a main threat to the Nusra Front.

“Assad forces are fighting us on one end, Hezbollah on another and ISIL on a third front. It is all about their mutual interests.”

Look, it’s not that Nusra is looking for aid from the US or its allies or anything, but if America wanted to, like, start arming the groups that are fighting alongside Nusra in the Jaysh al-Fatah, they could totally do that without worrying about it, because Nusra promises that it won’t blow back on the US, yet uh, ever, I mean ever.

Julani’s campaign to convince the US (and, as Aron Lund suggests here, more moderate Sunnis within Syria) that Nusra represents some kind of middle ground between Assad and ISIS has been evolving for a while now. Back in March there were rumors that he was considering severing formal ties with Al-Qaeda because, like any sophisticated entrepreneur of the early 21st century, he recognizes that something as simple as how you brand yourself can mean the difference between success and failure. He’s obviously very keen to have the coalition working for him, if not directly aiding Nusra then at least aiding Nusra’s allies (who can then helpfully pass any weaponry along to Nusra itself) and either directly or tacitly providing air support as Nusra confronts Assad and ISIS. But he’s choosing his conciliatory language very carefully here, and nothing he says actually appears to counter the idea that a Nusra-run Syria is something that everybody should be working to avoid.

4 thoughts on “Nusra’s Julani: “I get so scared in case I fall off my chair”

    1. The least bad option would be a moderate democracy, but that’s unlikely to say the least. So is Assad remaining in power at this point, though, and he’s done plenty to show that he’s pretty freaking bad too. There needs to be a managed transition from Assad to something else, but the window to do that has probably already closed.

      1. A big criticism of Obama’s Foreign Policy is that he missed a critical window in Syria, where he could’ve directed anti-Assad US intervention early in the War (i.e. before ISIS and other Jihadists became so prominent in the anti-regime Opposition).

        Do you reckon such a move could have stabilised Syria, or would it have slid into the chaos today anyway with the added blow of American deaths?

        Personally, IDK if such a move by Obama would even be feasible. (I’ve noticed that proponents of this action never quite agree on what it would’ve looked like. Airstrikes? Ground troops? Occupation?). It would certainly have been unpopular, since polling back then showed that American public didn’t want a US intervention in Syria

      2. I’m skeptical about the window theory, largely for the reason you describe: none of its proponents ever explain exactly when this window was open or what it looked like, or what America could have done to exploit it. Nusra declared its formation in January 2012 and established itself as maybe the most effective rebel faction within a matter of months. This means the so-called window lasted maybe 8 or 9 months, and it seems to me that asking the US government to act more quickly than that to immerse itself in a civil war in a country where it has no interests and not very much intel is asking the impossible, or asking for disaster, or both.

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